Charles Harper Webb
November 2001

 

Charles Harper Webb was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in Houston. Inspired by Don Juan and Mad magazine, he began writing rhymed satirical verse in high school. He also wrote romantic dithyrambs to any girl who caught his fancy. (He wrote a lot of them.)

At 15, he started singing and playing guitar professionally. He worked in locally popular rock bands while earning a B.A. in Honors English from Rice University, and an M.A. in English from the University of Washington. After grad school, he toured the Northwest with various bands, while editing the literary magazine Madrona, and publishing poems in magazines such as Paris Review, Poetry Now, Purr, and Wormwood Review. His first collection, Zinjanthropus Disease (Querencia Press), won the Wormwood Review Award for 1978.

That same year, he moved to Los Angeles to study novel-writing at the University of Southern California. During the next eight years, he played very little music, and wrote very little poetry. However, his novel The Wilderness Effect was published by Chatto & Windus in England, he was paid to turn the novel into a screenplay (never filmed), and he discovered a talent for doing psychotherapy. He left the University of Southern California in spring of 1984 with an MFA in Professional Writing, and a PhD in Counseling Psychology.

That fall, be began teaching in the English Department at California State University, Long Beach. He was licensed as a Marriage-Family-Child Therapist in 1985, and was appointed Associate Professor of English in 1987. With a predictable yearly income for the first time in his life, he returned to his first love—writing poetry—and was promoted to Professor in 1991.

Webb’s poems have appeared in many distinguished journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry and The Pushcart Prize. His book Reading the Water won the 1997 Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His next book, Liver, won the Felix Pollak Prize and was published in 1999 by the University of Wisconsin Press. His most recent book, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, will be published in November 2001 by BOA Editions, Ltd. He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award and most recently, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.

Though he does not see himself as the trinomial type, he writes under his full name because there are so many Charles Webbs, and even another Charles H. Webb, writing in the world. He lives in Glendale, California, with his wife Karen and his three-year-old son Erik Byron.

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Statement of Poetics

As a poet, I try to follow the Golden Rule—writing for others as I would have them write for me. With that in mind:

I like poems that generate momentum, and hit hard.

I like poems that crackle with energy, even if it’s the energy of despair. I don’t like poems that droop with world-weariness.

I like to hear voices I’ve never heard before.

I like to see from fresh perspectives.

I like to encounter fascinating minds.

I like poems that renew not just the language but the world, and therefore, my life.

Imagination is an end in itself.

I like strangeness, unless it’s gratuitous, or not gratuitous enough. (Monty Python’s "Fish Dance" is gratuitous enough.)

I don’t like poems that won’t risk meaning.

I don’t like monotonous poems, even when the single note is a good one.

I don’t like poems that use their lines like well-made bricks tossed at random on a lawn; these poems never get off the ground.

I like to be swept up, carried away.

I like to laugh.

I don’t exactly like to cry, but I like poems that make me want to (unless it’s from frustration).

I like to be entertained.

I read for fun; struggling isn’t fun for me.

I’m willing to work hard reading a poem, but what I get out of it must be worth more than the effort I put in. I want a fair return on my investment.

I don’t like obscurity for its own sake—or, to tell the truth, for any other’s.

I like language masterfully used: "the best words in the best order." Great language is necessary but not sufficient for great poetry.

I like words that are fun to say.

I love good metaphors.

I don’t really believe that "progress" in poetry is possible, but I try to write as if it were. I care more about progress in understanding the human psyche than in the development of technique.

I shy away from writing called "experimental"; the term usually sticks to failed experiments.

I think all good writing is experimental.

A poem is like a shark (or like sharks are supposed to be): if it stops moving forward, it dies. Also, a strong one can eat you alive.

The cardinal sin of poetry, as of all art, is to bore.


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