Charm Offensive: A Conversation with Ross White — curated by Esteban Rodriguez

While the title of Ross White’s debut poetry collection, Charm Offensive (Black Spring Press Group 2023), might suggest a book attempting to garner readership by being extra friendly, perhaps even flirtatious, the poems throughout this remarkable work aren’t seeking to win readers over with cheap punchlines and forced flattery. In a way, all poetry books must engage in a charm offensive (after all, poets are trying to make you see something new about the world in a flowery and sometimes obscure way), but White’s honesty, humor, and direct, while still poetic, voice captivates readers because it’s authentically relatable. White easily erases the line between speaker and reader, and on one page you can seamlessly picture yourself sitting on “a ratty blanket / by the pond in the back yard,” contemplating the nature of reality and the cruelty of life (“Misdirection”), and on the next psyching yourself out so that you can “Live like a titan until living / kills you” (“If I Don’t Black Out”).  Funny when the topic is serious and serious when the topics can’t help but be funny, Charm Offensive is nothing short of dazzling, a book that will make you reach for a Kleenex box because of both the crying and the laughter.   

Esteban Rodriguez: Ross, thank you for spending some time with me. It seems like no subject is left off the table in Charm Offensive, from fortune cookies to the forgotten items in drawers and dressers to grand topics such as love and death. Everything is put under your poetic microscope and given an opportunity to become more meaningful than originally thought. Nothing is ever lost, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the following lines in “Junk Drawer”:

We’re getting older & we feel it,

even when so long ago doesn’t feel so long ago.

We’ll end up in soil & wormbelly & root system

& eventually we’ll be in the fossil record

for scientist of a much older earth —

which will, to them, seem new & renewing —

When you began the collection, did you set out to write poems that centered on loss and renewal? What did you want to include and what subjects ultimately didn’t make it into this book?

Ross White: I don’t think I set out to write poems about loss, but the interesting thing about putting together a first full-length after several years of writing poems is that you discover a great deal about your own preoccupations when you do. Most of these poems were written during The Grind, an exercise where you write a new poem each day for an entire month. In a good month, I tend to only get three or four poems worth keeping, but the breakneck pace of production means that I’m often desperate at the end of the month to find anything to write about. And that desperation is usually where my most interesting poems come from– the poems that made it into the book. Charm Offensive certainly showed me, as it came together, the well to which I had a tendency to return for a few years, and I also had a good sense that I was done with the book when those desperate, end-of-the-month poems shifted to exploring family dynamics and the savings and loan scandal of the late 80s/early 90s. Those poems became a whole other manuscript.

But you touched on renewal, and I think that’s a theme I was more purposeful about including, more conscious about trying to write my way into. I have found myself falling into the trap of melancholy, and need to actively remind myself that, despite the political fracture I feel with my country and the looming climate disaster, humankind enjoys a standard of living that’s higher than at any time in history. The world remains full of impossible beauty and unending possibility. Joy is always close if we can allow ourselves to feel it. To acknowledge renewal is to remain hopeful. I’m trying to remain hopeful.

E.R.: I love that you talk a bit about writing poems through these constraints, and it’s amazing that the ones you wrote during this time formed this incredible collection. No doubt writers often find that they produce some of their best work so quickly and under less-than-ideal conditions, but outside of this challenge, and amid the work you do as a teacher and publisher, what does your writing schedule/day/process look like?

R.W.: I am a firm believer that even when you’re not putting words on the page, you’re still writing. Every experience, every poem you read... they’re all part of the research. So I will have long periods while I am teaching where I am entirely focused on the work of my students, or periods when I’m doing a lot of editing, where I am entirely focused on the work of the authors I’m working with. But those experiences just make me a sharper writer for when I do venture into my own poems. I try to do The Grind—in which you complete a new draft of a poem every day for a month—two or three times each year. And outside of the grind, I’ll sometimes push myself to have a new poem ready for my “writing group”— Dilruba Ahmed and I try to meet each Friday to talk about a poem. So if I don’t have a draft, I’m excited about, I have a week to try to put one together... or to revise something that didn’t seem to be going anywhere when I drafted it during The Grind. I’m always tinkering with some revision or other.

Aside from those forced deadlines that push me to make something—anything!—I don’t really have a set process. Sometimes I’ll ruminate on an image, other times I’ll look at a headline and try to think about what that might suggest. Sometimes I’ll venture into the work of another poet and see if there’s something that I want to respond to or argue with. Mostly, I am just trying to get started. Discovery can’t happen if you don’t get started. Wonder can’t happen if you don’t get started.

E.R.:Throughout my reading, and shortly after I put down your book, I found myself returning to the poem  “Heavenly Bodies” and the following lines:

I cannot arrive at my destination,

and if did, could I conclude the business

I’d find there?

As writers, I think we’ve all experienced this uncertainty throughout our journeys, but now that Charm Offensive has arrived at its destination in the world, can you draw a conclusion (even if partial) to this business of poetry?

R.W.: Every book is going to take a very different journey. Charm Offensive won the Sexton Prize in 2019 but only came out in July. In the interim, I wrote and published a whole new chapbook, which came out in late 2021, so now that I am touring for Charm Offensive, it’s both my newest collection and a book that feels old to me. And truthfully, that’s kind of a gift, to have some real distance from the book, to be able to read the poems with fresh eyes. I fretted at times about COVID delaying the book, but before he passed, my dear friend Randall Kenan said, “No one ever reads a book and says, ‘Well, this is a decent book, but it would have been a great book if it had only come out six months ago.’”

It’s easy to get caught up in the publication of the book as the destination, but I think it’s more of a waypoint. The true destination is that burrow in a reader’s mind, where a poem lives well after the encounter with the book. Or it’s in the bones. Don’t have you have some poems in your bones, the ones that rattle around in you, making noise at unexpected times or when you most need them? Yeah, that’s the true destination. In the bones.

E.R.: “In the bones.” I definitely think we have the title for the interview! I think one of the things I sometimes have to explain to people who don’t read poetry regularly is that it can be funny. Charm Offensive no doubt has its share of humor, including being fascinated with too many subjects/things at once, contemplating the indifference of angels, and advice for horse racing. How did humor become a part of your poetic bones?

R.W.: The world is full of unintentional comedy! Watch any squirrel for a few minutes if you want this thesis confirmed. Or look at a picture of a platypus! So I’m consistently amazed when I read an entire book without a trace of humor. That’s a book that isn’t telling you the whole truth, that isn’t accessing the whole world available to it. I feel the same way when I read a book without joy.

I had a career in comedy before I went to grad school, which was great, because every aspect of it focused on play. Then I enrolled in the MFA, where in all of the essays I read, poets talked about poems as serious work. Play wasn’t much discussed. But so much of what I learned from comedy– about vulnerability, about working at the top of your intelligence, about bringing an audience into your experience, about what satisfies us on a level greater than the conscious, about recognizing and capitalizing on incongruity– is wholly applicable to writing. And so much of writing, even when you’re doing “serious work,” is about playing with words on the page. Experimentation is play. Revision is play. It’s not so different from seeing kids on a playground, negotiating the space that’ll become a fire engine or a rocket ship. One will say, “Let’s make the monkey bars into a dump truck,” and another will say, “Well, then I want the slide to be a backhoe,” and the first one will say, “Ooh, I want to come drive the backhoe with you,” and then they go to the slide and begin digging the hole in which they’ll discover a kingdom or pour an imaginary foundation. Play creates the framework for the reality they choose to enter, and they’re free afterwards to be fully invested in– and delighted by– that reality. When the poet says, “I’m going to rhyme these fourteen lines” or “I’ll repeat this line in a certain pattern” or “I’m going to take this rough draft and manipulate its syntax,” they’re engaged in play. They’re adjacent to silliness and frivolity and fun and imagination and wonder. Humor’s lurking nearby. And humor can make the serious stuff sticky– look at Matthew Olzmann’s “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem” which careens into ludicrous territory at times yet still manages to be the greatest love poem of the modern era.

Sorry, I think I got away from answering the question about how humor became part of my poetic bones. I spent a lot of years on stage, making up ridiculous scenes set in kitchens, ambulances, volcanoes, and churches.

E.R.: Can you speak a bit about “Two Swans” and the influence of Brigit Pegeen Kelly? What other writers have inspired your writing?

R.W.: My “read for relaxation” pile of books over the past few weeks has included a book about lobsters, a book about why the doctrine of shareholder primacy took hold and how it’s destroying our economy, a Mick Herron novel, a collection of comments from The Guardian’s web site, and a book about randomness. I’m pretty sure there’ll be something from each of those that shows up in a poem before too long. Which is the long way of saying this: everything I read is an influence. Published, unpublished, doesn’t matter. Prose, poetry, theater, doesn’t matter. The list of poets I’ve borrowed moves from is a mile wide and a mile deep. But all the writers I most admire are like the Borg, adding others’ distinctiveness to their own, creating something that spans galaxies. I love it when you can see a writer’s influences peeking through in a work; I love it just as much when a writer you admire admits to deep influence from a writer whose work you couldn’t see at all until the moment of that admission, and suddenly you’ve unlocked a new layer of their work.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly was one of those writers who created poems that span galaxies. Hell, she created the galaxies, she created whole universes in those poems. I sometimes get a little embarrassed about the nod to “Dead Doe” in “Two Swans.” Like, who am I to even utter her name, much less reframe one of her images? But who would I be without her work? I can’t imagine a version of myself as a poet or as a person without her words and her syntax thrumming through me.

E.R.: Because my significant other has slowly altered my perspective on having a “favorite” of anything (book, dessert, show, etc.),  I’ve been trying to frame my enjoyment with things in a way that doesn’t exclude others. I won’t say that I had a favorite poem in Charm Offensive, given my newfound philosophy, but I kept coming back to “The Old Gods” for a number of reasons, and I found so much to ponder and enjoy. What poem in this collection did you find the most joy writing?

R.W.: Oh, it was easily “Believer, Affix a Fish to Your SUV.” I kept thinking about how far I could push the absurdity of a Jesus who only shows up on the highway. As it turns out, pretty far.

E.R.: Speaking of “The Old Gods,” the following stanza that has stayed with me for a while now:

            I am trying to look ahead only as far

            as the torrents will allow instead of staring

            into the obscured distances ahead.

            I’m trying not to turn around

What lies ahead for you? What keeps you turning around?

R.W.: I suppose the long pause I took before answering this question tells you all you need to know? I’ve been struggling with goals the past few years, struggling with knowing what to want or whether I should want anything at all. I’m sure I’ll eventually publish another book or go on some fabulous adventure or take on a new professional challenge or do something at Bull City Press that thrills and scares me. I’m sure of it. But what that’ll be, I don’t know if I want to know right now. I don’t know if I want to visualize some alternate version of my life. I feel so unbelievably lucky to get to exist in the here and now, to be in a world full of poetry and poets, to get to write books and to have those books lead to deep and lasting connections with readers. I think those lines from “The Old Gods” still apply—I really am trying to be present in my own life, to resist the caress of melancholy or the seduction of nostalgia or the shiver of uncertainty and just be alive to wonder and joy.

E.R. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, but the cover. I can help but smile and yet feel slightly unsettled by the shark in the tuxedo. How did this image come about?

R.W.: As if by magic!

When Eyewear took the book, I asked if I could design the cover, and they said, “Sure, send some designs over.” So I designed some possible covers—which, in retrospect, were all sadboy images of people covered in fabric or epoxy or slime. And they wisely said, “You know what? We’ll use our own cover designer.”

Back before I got serious about poems, I tried my hand at painting. I wasn’t very good at it; I’m just not visual enough to create an image in my head that doesn’t already exist in the world. The one thing I found myself painting over and over was a variation of an image I’d seen an Alan Moore’s Top Ten: a shark in a suit. Apparently, that was all I had room for in my visual store of representations. And I didn’t even paint it that well.

A few months after my failed designs, Eyewear sent me an email with the completed cover. This wasn’t a deal where they sent a few designs for me to discuss. They sent me the cover that I was going to have. And when I opened the attachment to see this cover, my heart nearly went supernova with joy. It was as if Edwin Smet, the incredible designer, had rifled through my secret stash of favorite images. Or rather, rifled through a part of my psyche that was long dormant. I can’t tell you how much I love this cover.

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Lotería (Texas Review Press, 2023), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press, 2021). He is the interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and associate poetry editor for AGNI. He lives with his family in south Texas.

Ross White is the director of Bull City Press, an independent publisher of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He is the author of Charm Offensive, winner of the Sexton Prize for Poetry, and three chapbooks: How We Came Upon the ColonyThe Polite Society, and Valley of Want. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, PloughsharesPoetry DailyTin House, and The Southern Review, among others. He is Director of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-hosts The Chapbook, a podcast devoted to tiny, delightful things. Follow him on Mastodon: