Conversation One: Charles Jensen, Director of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland [link].

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Former POET LORE Assistant Editor Alexis Katchuk chats with Charles Jensen—new Director of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland—upon his assuming leadership of one of the longer-standing literary institutions in the D.C. area.

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ALEXIS KATCHUK: I know moving and starting a new job can take a lot of energy. Have you been writing at all in this process?

CHARLES JENSEN: The moving process sucked all my creativity out of me. But I’ve recently started working on some new poems, and I’m very excited about that. When I start working on new projects, I tend to talk about them nonstop. So, I make a conscious effort not to do that.

KATCHUK: You’ve been with The Writer’s Center over a month now. How are you feeling about everything?

JENSEN: It’s obviously been overwhelming entering an organization with a thirty-one-year history. I’m trying to internalize as much as possible as quickly as possible. Although, it only took about five minutes for me to figure out what needed to be changed or improved.

KATCHUK: Five minutes?

JENSEN: Everyone—staff, board members, members—were very good at telling me what needed to be changed.

KATCHUK: Now that you’ve had time to be a part of The Writer’s Center, do you find yourself agreeing with them?

JENSEN: Yes, because even if they weren’t able to articulate exactly what needed to be changed, they were able to identify areas that generally weren’t working smoothly.

KATCHUK: What do you see as the most pressing thing that needs to be changed?

JENSEN: I’m coming from a university environment full of infrastructure. If you want to get one thing done, you have to, say, get eight stamps of approval before doing it. This infrastructure is missing here. Maybe it wasn’t needed before, but there’s new staff and the center is growing, and we need some degree of infrastructure.

KATCHUK: “Infrastructure” has bureaucratic connotations to it.

JENSEN: People want and need structure, policy, and consistency. I think we’re small enough that we can avoid the hassle and red tape of a large organization. But people don’t want to reinvent the wheel each time they need to get work done. If the policy is already there, the questions are already answered.

KATCHUK: What would you like to do with programming?

JENSEN: Externally, things are much more difficult. It’s a touchier subject. I have the idea that people have come to see the center as an amazing organization with wonderful programming and few problems. So, tinkering could be seen as threatening. What I envision are some very mild cosmetic changes.

KATCHUK: Such as?

JENSEN: I’d like to diversify and youthen our audience. And to do that, we need to present people who are like the audience we want to bring in. We have a very multicultural and young population in the D.C. metro area. We need to take advantage of that.

KATCHUK: I know that the center currently offers creative writing workshops for children and teens. Do you see The Writer’s Center reaching out to secondary schools in the area?

JENSEN: My general philosophy right now is “No new programming.” I don’t want to create new work for anyone until we are sure of what we are doing as an organization. If we increase marketing, I believe there will be an increase in workload across the board as more people take workshops. I don’t want staff members to get frustrated or burned out because people coming in to the center will immediately notice.
But if we increase revenue, I would definitely like to see us reach out to schools and increase our philanthropic programming.

KATCHUK: In an effort to increase awareness of the center, I know it’s recently started a blog [link] and created a Facebook profile. How do you see this helping?

JENSEN: We’re still experimenting with what they can and can’t do. Only using blogs and Facebook isn’t enough to get a young audience in our doors. There is a great deal of “blog and Facebook pollution,” and to succeed in either area, you have to give people a reason to visit your site every day. To do that, you have to be very entertaining or very essential. I doubt we can provide the latter, but we can probably achieve the former.

KATCHUK: Your “blog and Facebook pollution” comment reminds me of your recent guest entry on The Writer’s Center blog regarding “life pollution.” How can the center help people escape this?

JENSEN: By getting them out of their houses. Most life pollution—laundry, pets, mail, television, Internet—tends to congregate inside the home. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think people need a way out. I don’t like it when people get snobby about writing and literature. I find it limiting. Personally, I draw a lot of inspiration from reality and serial television and cooking.

The Writer’s Center can help people gain perspective and step outside of the life pollution. It can be a clean place, like when you go camping to refocus and come back with a fresh perspective

KATCHUK: Obviously, you are already part of the center’s community, but do you see yourself taking or teaching a workshop?

JENSEN: I think I’m going to teach an online poetry workshop. And maybe I’ll take a fiction workshop. I’ve been working on a fiction manuscript and it’s been very challenging. I still have a lot of questions when it comes to fiction.

KATCHUK: We’ve been talking about the immediate future. What about five years from now?

JENSEN: I don’t know if it is realistic or not, but I’d like to make a facility change and find us a permanent home. Whether that means owning this facility or moving, I don’t know. I’d like to elevate the aesthetic quality of the building and lose the institutional feeling. But the organization itself, and what we offer, those things won’t change significantly.

KATCHUK: But there will be changes?

JENSEN: Again, I’d like to see a broader, wider audience. I would like to see us be a regional leader in the field of literature, or even have a national presence. This may be a ten-year goal.

KATCHUK: Do you see the Association of Writing Programs, AWP, helping with these goals?

JENSEN: Absolutely. They have a lot of services for writing centers and conferences. And there is a growing community among center directors with the intention of helping one another succeed.

Joining AWP’s Writing Conferences & Centers group would provide us a lot of exposure, and I already have a toe in there for networking from my past life in Arizona. Joining would primarily be a benefit to the center’s operations. We need to put more of a financial and personnel investment into marketing, into drawing new audiences. Many of the foundations have been laid for this, but I think more work needs to happen in the next year to position the center nationally.

KATCHUK: You mentioned that there is a community of writing center directors. How much collaboration do you foresee for The Writer’s Center and other regional centers?

JENSEN: We all know that there are very few things a regional center can do on a national level. I would love to see more interaction and professional support among centers. We are all doing similar things for discrete audiences, but the internet is making us all seem competitive with each other to some degree. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case. I think there are still many things we can share with each other, learn from each other, and encourage in our own communities. I’d like The Writer’s Center to be a peer to those national organizations.

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Charles Jensen is the author of three chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara chapbook award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon. He was a recipient of a 2007 Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in Bloom, The Journal, New England Review, spork, and West Branch. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis.

Alexis Katchuk earned her MFA in Creative Writing at American University and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, studying English-Creative Writing. Her literary focus is Creative Nonfiction, particularly the personal essay and memoir, and is currently finishing her memoir. She has presented papers at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/Amirican Culture Associations annual conferences and was awarded an artist’s residency at Casa Libre in Tucson in 2007.