Eclectic Poet Charles Coe
Speaks from the Soul
By Susie Davidson
This past Wednesday, poet and Cambridge resident Charles Coe read, along with author Nora Eisenberg, at the Wellfleet Public Library. Coe, the winner of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists’ Fellowship in Poetry, is known and respected for his dignified voice and unassuming diction as well as his profound and moving subject matter. His book, Picnic on the Moon, was published in 1999 by poet Marge Piercy, who with her husband, writer Ira Wood, operates Wellfleet-based Leapfrog Press.
Coe, a West Cambridge resident for the past six years, coordinates the Council’s grant programs for music and literature organizations. He has served on the National Writers’ Union National Executive Board, is a member of its steering committee and co-founded its national Diversity Committee.
He is the rare poet known not only for style and substance, but for delivery as well. "Charles Coe's poems move and touch people,” said Piercy. “His voice is direct, honest, never forced or false in its note of intelligent humane awareness. His subjects are ones that involve the audience and attract the reader, things we want to read about and to which he brings his unique conversational but powerful voice. We hear and believe.”
Coe’s work appears in Urban Nature: Poems about Wildlife in the Cities (Milkweed Editions, June 2000).He has also contributed to two spoken word CDs: Get Ready for Boston, songs and stories about Boston neighborhoods, and the anthology One Side of the River, which also features Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, Liam Rector and Gail Mazur. He has written book reviews for The Boston Phoenix, Ararat and Northeastern University Magazine, and is a a jazz and popular vocalist as well. Obviously, the man is both complex and accomplished, but his powers of self-description are even more fanciful.
“Charles Coe was raised in the Russian forest,” he said, “by a family of albino wolves. He graduated the Sorbonne at 12 with a double major in Byzantine pottery and mobile home management. He is the former Minister of Finance for a small island republic in the Caribbean and currently serves as third-shift supervisor at a shrimp-deveining plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. Charles is the first man to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a Winnegabo. He won a bronze medal in Speed Macramé at the 1996 Fabric Art Olympics in Manchester, England, bats left, throws right, and his favorite Spice Girl was Scary….
“Heh-heh,” he added, “Just kidding. Here's the real 411.”
He is (really) working on the manuscript for a second book, while continuing to write reviews, speeches, and various types of business writing. His poetic influences include Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost, Rita Dove, and William Carlos Williams, though that changes.
“The thing I find most interesting about poetry,” he confided, “is the way a poem can evoke a strong intellectual or emotional response to a subject without ever addressing it directly. For example, I could say, ‘I really miss my friend,’ or I could say, ‘The clock you always wound by hand sits silent on the windowsill.’
“I think that one of the most powerful things that a poet, or any artist, can do is to simply make you curious. I don't think you can really deal with other people in a civilized and humane way if you never wonder about what it's like to BE someone else, if you never think about what makes them happy or sad or frightened, or what they're thinking about when they can't sleep and are lying in bed staring at the ceiling.”
He seems fairly rooted in hallowed Cantabridgia. “One of the things that's always made Cambridge so interesting,” he commented, “is the cultural diversity, which is unfortunately at risk because of the incredibly high cost of living here. But I have to say that this is a fantastic environment for a writer. There are so many writers and poets here, so many great bookstores, venues for readings and an amazing number of people who are interested in the printed and spoken word.”