WTP Writer: Charlotte Holmes

WTP Writer: Charlotte Holmes

Into the Grass Labyrinth

Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor

Charlotte Holmes
Charlotte Holmes

Charlotte Holmes is a writer, a poet, and a teacher of creative writing. Her first book, Gifts and Other Stories, was published in 1994. Published by BkMk Press in 2016, her new collection of stories, The Grass Labyrinth, has been hailed as “a contemporary classic.” Holmes received her MFA in Poetry writing from Columbia University, and her BA in English from Louisiana State University. She has also been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. Since 1987, she has taught in the Creative Writing program at Penn State University’s main campus, where she is an associate professor of English and Women’s Studies and the director of Creative Writing.

Jaeger: In “Klavern,” a non-fiction vignette appearing in this month’s issue, you confront your father’s and grandfather’s involvement in the KKK. How did you come to investigate this topic?

Holmes: It’s part of a new book that I’m working on, very different from The Grass Labyrinth. The 500-word pieces link together to tell a story about family, race, and history. My paternal great-grandmothers were both suffragettes. One was born in an abolitionist village in Ohio. This side of the family fought for the Union during the Civil War. How my grandfather became a Klansman, given this background, is something I’m interested in exploring as I think about where we are as a country now.

The Grass Labyrinth by Charlotte Holmes, cover image
The Grass Labyrinth by Charlotte Holmes

Jaeger: You received your MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. However, in the years since, your work has spanned multiple genres, including fiction and memoir. How did you come to write prose? 

Holmes: I started writing fiction before I was in elementary school, wrote poems as early as elementary school, and continued writing both throughout college. When it came time to “specialize” in an MFA program, I chose poetry because that’s what I’d been mostly reading and writing over the last four or five years. The first semester of my second year at Columbia, I took a poetry workshop with Daniel Halpern, who’d started writing a little fiction himself. Our final assignment in that class was to write a short story. The story I wrote—“Thanksgiving”—was the one he picked to discuss in class. After I graduated I went through a bad slump. I wasn’t writing anything. My husband suggested I pick up “Thanksgiving” and revise it. I did. I sent it to The New Yorker and they bought it. I thought, “Well! That was easy!” I’d never had that kind of luck with my poems (nor with my fiction again—that’s the only story of mine they’ve published). So I started writing fiction, since the poems seemed to have dried up and the stories were generating some interest. I have a very fragmented imagination. Linear narrative is not the way my brain works. My thought process lends itself much more readily to poetry than to traditionally structured prose.

Jaeger: During your time at Columbia, you worked closely with Stanley Kunitz and Heather McHugh. How did their mentorship influenced your writing? 

Holmes: Stanley Kunitz was my thesis director. I worked with him, Daniel Halpern, Charles Wright, and Stanley Plumly on the poems. All four were important mentors. They had different things to offer, and different sensibilities. They pointed me to different writers, urged me toward different experimentations in my work. They were all generous teachers, and I benefitted greatly from their care and attention.

Heather McHugh was the second reader on my thesis. I never actually met her. She was teaching at Columbia during my final semester, while I was in Stanley Kunitz’s workshop. The thesis was assigned to her randomly, and she wrote a long, not-very-laudatory note about the final product in which she pointed out how relentlessly negative the poems were. That was illuminating. I thought about my gravitation toward the negative for a long time afterward.

Jaeger: Who are some other important artistic influences?

Holmes: Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, and Anton Chekhov have been tremendously important to me. Woolf and Welty have especially shown me how to let go—to experiment, to really feel the line on a visceral level. Welty’s short stories and Woolf’s novel The Waves have probably been more influential than anything. They’re endlessly surprising, no matter how often I read them. Chekhov’s ability to bring a story to succinct closure is something I still study. Louise Glück’s work has been important to me from since I discovered The House on Marshland in the late ’70s.

Charlotte Holmes writing desk
Charlotte Holmes’s writing desk

Jaeger: While “Klavern” is written in prose, there is also a sensitivity to form, especially seen in your use of single sentence paragraphs to offset certain lines. Could you talk about how the role of form may play in “Klavern”?

Holmes: I’ve been working in tight, 500-word sequences for a while now. They’re a hybrid form, as much prose poem as prose. I try to move the piece along through image and through leaps across images rather than by strict cause-and-effect narrative.

Jaeger: One of the most striking images in “Klavern” is your description of the KKK hats, “that look like upside down ice-cream cones made of spun sugar.” Why did you choose this particular image?

Holmes: I was after was a childish quality in the dressing up, the dancing, the weird names they call one another. Why do men do this—put on funny hats and band together and give secret handshakes? They do it in the Masonic lodge, in the Order of the Moose, in their sports clubs. They’re like little boys in clubhouses. Women don’t seem to do this (at least, not the women that I know). And yet, in the case of the KKK, the funny hats and secret handshakes are all part of a hateful, dangerous activity. It’s a way to add mystery and significance to what they’re doing, to make the behavior part of a ritual that seems tribal—in other words, that seems like something deep-seated and elemental, not just the learned behavior of racism.

Jaeger: While you describe the KKK garments and the scene in the photograph with great detail, you don’t otherwise illustrate the father’s physical characteristics or habits. Rather, he is portrayed by his beliefs. Could you talk about this stylistic choice? 

Holmes: For me, the point here is my father’s belief. His habits and his physical characteristics are well known to me, but the discovery—long after my father’s death—is that my mother saw this photograph in the newspaper. Using the photograph as a launch in some ways depersonalizes my father. He’s one face among many—it’s just that he’s “our” face, the one we can identify—the one we (my mother and I) are surprised to see. We can’t know the story of the other men in the photograph, but we know his story and his father’s story, and those stories are not happy and they don’t end well. Both my father and grandfather were very angry men who died young of “bad hearts.” The Klan is an organization that thrives on anger and feelings of individual impotence that are assuaged by a mob mentality. I tried to convey that. Though it’s my father in the photograph, he’s become one of a mob of men. He’s lost some of his individual identity by being identified as a member of that mob.

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