Note: this interview was posted December 10, 2017 on Poetry International Online.(poetryinternationalonline.com) The following has been taken down from their website, but we’re reposting it here on the blog. The interviewer is Dee Alston who was gracious enough to speak with Charles about his poetic & written works.
1.) In one word how would you describe your work?
Fulfillment. (I love what I do.)
- What persons and what books influenced you both as a writer and human?
As a writer = Shakespeare, Langston Hughes. I’ve read most of Shakespeare’s plays from taking courses on him in college and on Hughes from my Afro-African Literature class. As a human? I would say my father, Charles L. Chatmon Sr. There were times I wish I were him as I grew up extremely shy and quiet. He would always laugh and joke at family outings, being the life of the party. He also is fighting a disease that is the reason why I decided to come back home and be a caretaker for him. He has intelligence, strength and people always say a good word about him that I’ve learned so much from watching him over the years. I’m glad I share his name as his son.
- Could you tell me about the experience writing your first book?
Sixteen years yesterday Dee, I never felt so happy (at that time). I finally became a published author with my first book, ‘The Depths of My Soul: poems from the heart of a man’ and held a book signing at my publisher’s bookstore. The process was worth it. I’ve always read poetry to an audience until I decided in June 2000 that I would tell anyone that I’m looking for a publisher for my poetry. I was invited to go to a poetry reading held by a book club in Los Angeles and I announced my desire to be published in front of that audience. A gentleman named Lewis Sanders introduced me to Dr. Rosie Milligan who is a well known publisher of Black authors (Milligan Books). I went to her writers workshop inside her store later that month, handed my maniscript to her and the rest is history as they say. The entire process from checking with her editors, rewriting my work, sending it back to Dr. Milligan was a back and forth that I needed to learn since I’ve never written a book before. Her team formatted the book, worked on the front and back cover, etc. I felt good being involved in the decision making as far as what cover to use and to edit the information on the back cover. It was an eye opener for me as a first time author, but now that I know what it takes for a book to become published, I’m more patient about my work now.
Before that time, I would write my poems in a notepad, edit them from time to time and read them in front of audiences in coffeehouses, college poetry readings, Leimert Park and other places. I was bascially an unknown until the printing of my first book, The Depths. The experience I had of finally reaching that goal felt good! It meant I could show friends, family, etc. my copies of The Depths then The Voices of South Central, even showing them at work which felt awkward to me, lol. It still feels good to be known as a published author because it’s a status that’s not quite a celebrity, but people know you’ve done something right by writing a book.
- How is your third book different from your first two books?
Storm Over South Central is an anthology where The Depths of My Soul and The Voices of South Central were mainly poetry except on the last pages of The Voices, an article I wrote back in college in the late 1980’s called ‘Life Goes On in South Central’ is found. It’s basically my opinions of what the community used to be and could be again. In Storm, I have poems that express the way I feel about life based on what I’ve seen and heard in my life and the community around me. For example, ‘The Story of Shantell’ is a poem about the choices a young girl has made and now has to live with those choices. ‘Role Reversal’ is the voice of a young brother telling anyone who will listen if they don’t want to be stereotyped, why should he be? There’s more ‘conscious’ poetry that I’m afraid I can’t remember right now but as far as the short stories, I’d like to share those with you.
‘Father’s Day’ is from the point of view of a young man, maybe around five or six that is excited to see his daddy except it’s not what he never expected. ‘Don’t Judge a Bum By’. This is a funny, lighthearted tale that is about a young Black man who is so hurt by Black women that he has a plan to ‘get them back’, but when he meets an old man on the way home, his plan is in jeopardy. The title story of the book, ‘Storm Over South Central’ is about a strange rainfall that begins to impact the lives of so many in the community. (Spoiler alert (to you only) it’s an anthology) As the story unfolds, many are curious where the rain comes from and if it will ever stop. ‘The Albatross’ is a favorite of mine about a widower dealing with the loss of his lovely wife. Why does a certain painting hurt him so?
So that is what I’ve been working with most of this time. I had to update the short stories with subjects relevant to the community like gentrification, male-female relationships, the threat of gang violence and the absence of a father in the home. A lot has changed from when I wrote these short stories back in the mid to late 1980’s, but I hope the messages still resonate for the future readers of Storm.
- As a writer at work in a racist society, how would you describe yourself?
I would describe myself as a writer who points out what’s wrong with our society (including racism) and tries to find solutions on how we can all improve. I think it’s the duty of a writer regardless of his or her ethnicity to express their joy, anger, frustration and disappointment with the direction our world is taking and to let people know how displeased you are. You can also as a writer describe the beauty of life itself, even the positive side of love which I use in my poetry. One of my best friends in high school (I was bused from South Los Angeles to a school in the San Fernando Valley) tell me as the sports reporter and editor of my high school paper, that administration tried to ‘handcuff’ me. He believed because as a young Black man who would talk about subjects such as strikes in professional sports, the way I speak, write, and the subjects I touch on, that they (the administration) felt it best to limit my availability to write or manage my sports page. Even today, I find that as a Black writer, I’m constantly on the lookout for other writers, ‘experts’, so forth to ‘handcuff’ me or to shoot down anything I write about because it doesn’t jive with a particular philosophical mindset or ideology. The way I see it, I’m a writer who focuses on the moral aspect of our lives than the political, which a lot of writers, artists have directed their energies toward these days instead of it being about the work, the more important things in life such as what’s happening in my community.
I write in a perpetual state of what DuBois mentioned as ‘double consciousness’ with the understanding I will be looked on either as Black or an American while feeling I have to prove myself as both in my written works and in life.
- What are some of the misconceptions in black communities, especially in S. Central that you want to get across to readers?
Dee, glad you asked this question. What my purpose in writing about South (Central) Los Angeles is to let everyone outside of this community understand not all of us are gang bangers, cold-hearted pimps, directioness peeps who don’t know any better. The Voices of South Central was written in response to national news such as ABC, NBC, and CBS with so-called ‘experts’ telling their audiences what goes on here in South L.A. I felt as a lifelong resident (except for five years in Northern California) of this area with this ability to write, I believed it is my right to describe what does go on here and perhaps why. I also write about South Central for your classmates who may have seen ‘Boyz N The Hood’, ‘Menace 2 Society’ and feel that’s all there is down here. It helps that I spent fifteen years as a teacher’s aide and teacher in the same areas where I write and have met, spoken with, and helped to guide young people who see this insanity constantly. I never try to sugarcoat what takes place here as ‘The Party’ in Storm Over South Central will show. As a writer, I try my best to balance out the good from the bad, to be objective in how I present the community but at the same time, extol the positive things in South Central L.A. rather than what people have been brainwashed to believe or have heard through negative hip-hop lyrics.
- I know what your favorite sport is football, how do you equate that into your writings?
LOL 🙂 I played football in high school so I use my experience in my written works. The Party in the upcoming Storm Over South Central is the tragic tale of a all-city high school football player, his girlfriend and three other people gunned down by a drive-by. I felt it is important to look into the mind of a young man who like me, wants to see his neighborhood improve and as he had hoped, the scholarship he received to play out of state would help him meet that goal, that is until his tragic end 🙁 The ‘experts’ always say “write what you know”. I take their advice and write from the eyes of a football player, a clerk, etc. As a writer, I envision myself into any role I desire so I want to write a tale of a teacher, I can do that because of my experience but what if I was a secret agent who happens to be a teacher? Imagination is fun to use when writing poems or short stories, but as I may have mentioned before, I do use a bit of reality in my projects no matter what the subject matter is.
- What advice do you have for new writers?
In my writers workshops, I tell them to have a notebook and pen with them at all times. You never know where the inspiration of that next masterpiece will come from. Most of the time at work, I carry one with me or a notebook so I can write what’s on my mind. Most of the poems in both The Depths and The Voices were written in a notebook. This would be the first piece of advice I would tell them. I will also tell them to not expect success too fast. When you publish a book, there is a thought that as a new writer, you’ll get invited to Oprah, Steve Harvey, any celebrity with a platform for you to share your work with. It’s important to build your audience first before any of this becomes true, if ever. My appearances prior to 2006 were mostly on small cable channels like Cablevision, internet websites, and podcasts. It wasn’t until my future wife started podcasts on her website that I began to interview authors and publishers. When I took over as executive director of the L.A. Black Book Expo, those appearances in media started to spread. It wasn’t because of my books, but the expo. Long story short, new authors should build their audience with mailing lists, online newsletters, and social media. All of these platforms are very important if you want to grow your audience. The last piece of advice I would like to share is for new authors to write what’s in their hearts, not because everyone’s doing it. For example, when Sistah Soldja wrote ‘The Coldest Winter’, writing Urban Literature was the trend. When Zane first broke out (on the AOL message boards before that) with her first novel, everyone wanted to write Erotic Lit. If you plan to be a writer in the long term, think of what hasn’t been written and work from there or write your version of something already out there but have a spin on it. There is a bookstore owner in Northern California who told me one day who features a lot of Urban Lit authors in his shop as ‘one hit wonders’. I was floored by that remark but he was right: just about every Black writer either focused on Urban or Erotic Lit and in turn, flooded the market. When you have too many books in those genres to choose from and you’re a new author, it’s best to write a new idea from your heart.
I must share this with you: at the age of seventeen, I was a CIT, a Counselor In Training for my local YMCA. We were up in the San Bernardino mountains for summer camp when I was writing poems on my break. One of the directors saw me writing and invited me to read a poem during campfire. When I read my first poem, the kids loved it, including the counseling staff. That led to more poems for the next week with the same response. They loved what I had to say about life, the world we live in, my own thoughts and more on the subjects I mentioned. That was my first taste of reading to an audience and seeing they liked my works, it made me feel good to know how much I was ‘accepted’. I even went as far as announcing before camp ended if anyone has a favorite poem, they should send me a note to let me know. Did you know I had more than enough notes before I left? There was no way I could send copies of the campers’ favorite poems so I took that as a learning experience knowing the power of poetry is very deep, but also the power of words. That year (1983) I knew a young man like myself could make it as a poet and writer if I just spent time practicing my art.
Note: Storm Over South Central is delayed indefinitely. Please continue to check back with us for updates on its release.