Pence Named Mobile Poet Laureate

Posted on January 22, 2024
Thomas Becnel

Dr. Charlotte Pence, director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, has been named the first Mobile Poet Laureate. data-lightbox='featured'
Dr. Charlotte Pence, director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, has been named the first Mobile Poet Laureate.

Dr. Charlotte Pence, director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, just got a new title and fresh direction for writing poems and celebrating poetry.

As the first Mobile Poet Laureate, announced Monday, Jan. 22, Pence will have the opportunity to share poems and lead programs that enrich life and language in the Port City.

“This position, in particular, will allow me to focus on poetry, which is my first passion,” she said. “What I’m hoping to do is be able to bring poetry and its transformative power to as many people as possible. This is the ideal platform to do that.”

Pence, an associate professor of English at South, joined the faculty in 2017. Her poetry has been published in the “Harvard Review,” “Sewanee Review,” “Poetry” magazine and other journals.  Her books of poetry include “Code,” from 2020, along with “Many Small Fires.” She’s edited books such as “The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.”

In February, Pence will read poems in Birmingham to celebrate a new Southern Poetry Anthology. In April, she will lead a poetry workshop in Utica, New York, to begin Poetry Month. In June, she will be a guest scholar at the Convivio Conference in Umbria, Italy.

On her website, she offers excerpts from some of her poems. A section of “How to Measure Distance” describes great lengths and tiny gasps:

Distance between parents. Hills? Rogue comets?

Within our solar system, distance is

measured in Astronomical Units.

Or “A.U.” an abbreviation that

sounds similar to the “ow” of a toe

stub. Or similar to the sound of a mother

teaching the beginning of all sound. “ah,

eh, ee, oo, uu.” Watch her mouth widen,

purr and close. This is the measurement

for what we call breath. 

To choose a poet laureate, the Mobile Arts Council formed a committee, selected finalists and offered recommendations to Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who made the final decision. The position is part of a state cultural effort led by the Alabama Arts Alliance.

Lucy Gafford, executive director of the Mobile Arts Council and a South alumna, is looking forward to hearing Pence’s poetry at city events and seeing her reach out to young poets and local groups.

“She’s a perfect fit for this program,” Gafford said. “Charlotte has an excellent track record of community engagement through poetry. We hope she will encourage others to be creative in the same way.”

The two-year appointment as poet laureate includes a $5,000 honorarium. Duties include local appearances and work with educational programs, along with serving as an ambassador for poetry in Mobile.

There is a modest trend of American cities and regions naming poet laureates.

“It’s not super common,” Pence said. “You have to have a certain amount of interest already. We have an excellent spoken word community in Mobile.”

Her recent poetry in Mobile includes a lighthearted cycle of work she calls “Alabama Backyard Haikus.” She strives to capture small moments and vivid scenes:

The chicken struts by

the Cadillac in the drive.

Even the dog snores.

One shrimp pot, two men, 

four folded arms. Nothing boils  

except their tempers.

Pence grew up in the South and earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Tennessee. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, before returning to Tennessee for her Ph.D. She came to South from Eastern Illinois University.

This semester, she’s on sabbatical, completing a nonfiction book about growing up through difficult times in Rome, Georgia. It’s called “Gardening in the Dark: A Memoir on Raising Resilience.” Her father was homeless, off and on, and when her mother became gravely ill, she and her brother struggled to keep that a secret and hold their family together on an acre of land.

For three years, from the age of 9 to 12, she helped grow and sell everything from corn and tomatoes to squash and zucchini.

“That’s how we made money,” Pence said, “but we didn’t really know what we were doing.”

Pence says her first task as poet laureate will be to brainstorm with friends and colleagues about different kinds of poetry programs and different paths to reach them. Her role models include Ashley M. Jones, poet laureate for the state of Alabama.

“She’s done a tremendous amount of work to amplify so many different voices across the state,” she said. “She created an ambassador program where she has different people in different regions design their own projects.”

Prominent poets in Mobile include Dr. Sue Walker, former chair of the English department at South, who was twice selected Alabama Poet Laureate. Part of the application process to become poet laureate was reading poems to Walker’s monthly poetry class at the Mobile Botanical Gardens.

Now that she has the position, Pence is already imagining her first event.

“I have something in mind, but I want to talk about it first with organizers in Mobile,” she said, laughing. “Let’s just say it will be great.”

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