I’ve known Charles Jensen ever since we worked together at a nonprofit literary arts center in the DC metro area. In our daily interactions, I was struck by his poise and self-confidence. He was an excellent arts administrator, but he was also an established poet with one collection and three chapbooks to his name, and he seemed to be rocketing up the professional ladder very quickly. I had no doubt that he would eventually land a position with some national organization. Little did I know that, beneath the surface, Charles was dealing with personal issues that had long pre-dated his time with us, or that he was butting up against the established, deleterious culture of the organization itself—a battle he would eventually choose to step away from, much to the entire staff’s dismay.

Since then, Charles has gone on to publish two more highly-praised collections of poetry and four more chapbooks. With the publication of Splice of Life: A Memoir in 13 Film Genres in May, Charles opens up on his life using pop culture artifacts (movies) to illuminate and explore his own lived experience, while simultaneously using that lived experience to delve into the larger questions the pop culture artifacts ask of viewers. The result is a wholly unique and refreshing book, one that shows how cross-disciplinary film and memoir can be. Splice of Life maneuvers between the two art forms, deftly interlacing personal and cultural memory.

Growing up queer in rural Wisconsin, Charles faced a different set of obstacles than most of his straight white peers, and this set him apart. You might also say it split him apart, a Jekyll and Hyde-ing that he explores in his memoir. The following conversation took place over email where we discussed Splice of Life, his process, and the public versus private personas that drive him and his new book.

K.E. Semmel: In Splice of Life, you weave thirteen films into and around significant experiences in your own life. Where did the idea of telling your story through film emerge?

Charles Jensen: This book was an accident. I saw a call for submissions for an anthology of essays by queer writers on horror films, and I sat down and drafted an early version of the “Postmodern Pastiche” chapter of Splice of Life. I wanted to discuss the way Billy and Stu are coded as queer in Scream, and it made sense to me to write about how during this period I came out and started trying to understand my own queerness while living in a culture that never ran out of ways to villainize the LGBTQ community. In the end, the piece wasn’t right for the anthology (and you should definitely check it out—It Came From the Closet was an immediately iconic collection!), but it did plant a seed in my mind. Could I write another one?

I started with an essay I’d already written, about how I took beginner ballet classes after a devastating relationship and break up. The essay on its own was strong, I thought, but it wasn’t landing with journals. I started dropping in bits about Black Swan here and there, and then I really saw the way my story and an exploration of a film could intersect and enrich each other. This process invites readers to apply the same interpretation and deconstruction processes to my own story. I think it also builds a bridge between “private” memory and “public” (cultural) memory.

How did you decide which of your private memories you would explore with film? 

All the essays started with a story I wanted to tell about my lived experience. You know, I never thought I had anything to write in a memoir—until I really sat down and considered some of my more unique experiences. Some experiences have always been top of mind for me. Torry’s suicide shaped so much about my adult life and how I relate to the men I’ve dated. On the flip side, smuggling cremains into Canada with my uncle was too kooky not to share. The experience of finding out Torry’s uncle was arrested for murder by seeing it on TV was weird enough, but the second twist in that story—that was when I realized I had stories to tell. Matching each story up with the movie was a bit of a process. The “Western” essay was one of the last ones I pulled in. I’d written it without the movie, like I had with the “Psychological Thriller,” and initially thought using Wyatt Earp made the most sense. But the essay isn’t really about Tombstone itself, it’s about gun culture and masculinity, so Westworld made the better choice there. I should add that I included stories I thought were unusual, and things people in my life may not have heard about.

Can you elaborate on the process of matching story and film?

For the most part, the process was straightforward. I almost always picked one movie and ran with it—there were just one or two essays where I considered multiple options before deciding. First, the movies I picked are, with two notable exceptions, movies I loved and had seen multiple times (I had never seen Westworld but I loved the series and discovered the original feature had similar themes). Once I decided on a story I wanted to tell about my life, I reflected on which film would resonate with it and somehow complicate the story I wanted to tell. Sometimes this was plot. Sometimes theme. Sometimes I started just with setting, as with Westworld, but as I wrote about the film and unpacked it, I focused on things like the main characters’ obsession with sex and gun violence, and thinking of this as an extension of privilege. It resonated with the information shared with me by the mine tour operator, about how Tombstone was the Las Vegas of its day, going 24/7 with opportunities to separate workers from their money. I picked Get Him to the Greek initially because Aldous Snow’s narcissism reminded me of my uncle, and it was only in writing about the film that I realized how much the theme of family runs through it. I chalk that up to the wisdom of the subconscious.

The act of writing a memoir is an interpretation of lived experience. I’ve selected these episodes to tell you about. I have trimmed away all the uninteresting or unimportant bits and left behind just the spine of the story, the dramatic arc that leads to some moment of understanding for the reader. But before it was for the reader, that epiphany was for me. I think that’s why it felt so natural to braid in these discussions of the films. I was trained in the methods of textual analysis and deconstruction—to look for themes and symbols and connect them into bigger cultural values. When I wrote the memoir, I applied those same techniques. I was analyzing my stories. I pulled out the themes. The compelling images. I plotted my life onto the same dramatic arc the films used. If all stories share this common organizational principle, then all stories are, in some way, related. And I think by using movies, I intersected my private sense of self, often at odds with the public presentation of self, and related somehow to a third thing—the public or cultural memory represented by filmmaking. In the course of living, are we acting? In the act of remembering, are we editing life? And when we first began to watch movies, did the act of watching films become the way we experienced our memories? As something visual/aural. As something narrative. As something meaningful.

In “Coming-of-Age,” you describe a scene when a doctor inappropriately touched you in high school. The “diagnostic” sections of the chapter, complete with heavily redacted lines, read as pure poetry—a form of literature you’re obviously very comfortable with. At the same time, without the prose narrative they’re wrapped in, I don’t think they’d have the same power if they were published as standalone poems. In what ways did your work as a poet impact this book, your first creative nonfiction?

What’s odd about poetry is that, unlike fiction, we don’t parse it into smaller and smaller genres, but it does have genres. There are documentary poetics, poets writing in persona (essentially fictionalized speakers), poets writing works of memoir. My first book reached more toward the first two genres of poetry, while my second blended the second two more. My third book was more firmly in a memoir impulse, and I think it’s clear I’m the speaker of many of the poems there. So in that regard, creative nonfiction is not a stretch for some poets. I think that’s also why I’m drawn to the lyric essay, which employs poetic techniques of how time elapses and what I call “lyric gaps,” or moments when the reader makes an intuitive leap from one section to the next. Readers have to do some additional work in those moments.

That’s also significant to me because it’s exactly what the Kuleshov Effect does in film editing. The Kuleshov Effect occurs when a viewer sees images in succession. Kuleshov’s example was to show an image of a man’s face, expression undefined, then the image of a bowl of soup, and then the man’s face again. The viewer would conclude the man “looked hungry.” Kuleshov took the same image of a man, replaced the soup with a laughing baby, and then showed the same image of the man again. Viewers then thought he “looked happy.” Juxtaposition of two unrelated elements forces readers to build the narrative as they go, and it’s a deeply intuitive process. As a writer, I have to design those leaps so that they do stretch the reader’s imagination, but not so far that the reader can’t make the leap unassisted.

Though it’s not an example of the Kuleshov Effect, Torry’s suicide is a powerful moment in the book. As a kid growing up in rural Wisconsin, you battled internal struggles—from your body image to your queerness—and even contemplated suicide. You touchingly dedicate this book to a teacher who believed in you, without whom you wouldn’t be who you are today. Do you think your strong emotional reaction to Torry’s suicide was driven, at least in part, by the possibility that under different circumstances his fate could have been yours?

I didn’t include this in the book, but I had one experience where I came very close to killing myself in college. I should say, that experience was the closest I ever came to killing myself. In my mind, though, my own thoughts of suicide and Torry’s suicide are completely unrelated—as different perhaps as theory and practice. The allure of suicide for me was always never worrying what happened after I died, but the experience of losing Torry to suicide put that into stark relief for me. It was an unbearable grief, not only for the way he died, but also because I was still angry with him. That anger reversed course and aimed back at me for holding the grudge for so long. I also felt guilty not knowing he had been struggling. It was a very complicated maze of thinking, and that’s why The Descent was such a powerful fit for me in understanding even how my own grief unraveled during that time.

I think it’s important that Torry’s death didn’t stop my thoughts of suicide—but the weird thing is as I got older and further from adolescence, those thoughts became abstract and banal in a way. It’s hard to describe to people who haven’t experienced it, but a thought like “Maybe I should kill myself” would just pop into my brain out of nowhere—and it wasn’t a threat or sprouting from depression. It felt as normal as remembering to turn off the oven. For that reason, it was easier to disregard them. It wasn’t until I started taking a mood stabilizer during the pandemic that the thoughts left for good.

We met during a time of your life you describe in the chapter on Westworld as a “nightmare” period. You were one of the most capable, astute executive directors I’ve ever worked with, and you seemed wholly comfortable in your own skin. But Splice of Life reveals darker substrata. This delicate balancing act between private and public personas gives this memoir a rich narrative heft. Did the act of writing the book provide you with any emotional release from these darker moments?

Thank you for these kind words about working with me! I loved our team there so much, and it was the only thing that made showing up to work bearable most days. I think the act of narrativizing any lived experience gives the writer more control over it—that’s the theoretical foundation of talk therapy, that taking control of the storytelling gives you more control over the feelings the experience sparked in you, and that’s definitely true for me in this book of the darker moments in the “Coming-of-Age,” “Psychological Thriller,” and “Western” chapters.

When you look back through the book, there is a constant disconnect between how I present and how I feel inside, and they are both accurate reflections of who I am—one of them isn’t a performance. I think years of being bullied helped me develop the outer “facade” for lack of a better word. An unshakeable poker face. I learned in the years after how susceptible I am to undermining and abuse, so experiencing both of those from the leadership of the organization while I felt strong support from staff and the community was hard on me. I felt more and more isolated, and that isolation facilitated just constant chipping away at my self-esteem. I’d been in leadership and supervisory roles since I was twenty-four, and it took really just a few months to make me question it all. I worked with an outside consultant on the environment there, and ultimately the two of us agreed that I had no recourse but to quit. I could barely get out of bed in the morning. I was angry all the time, and I started drinking heavily outside of work, which took its toll on my body. I didn’t know how to cope with any of it. Looking back, I feel a lot of empathy for that version of me, and I understand how much work I’ve done to rebuild myself with more resilience. I feel like I still have more to say about the experience of that time, but I wasn’t ready to address it more than I did in this book.

Much of your adolescent ennui derives from the knowledge of your sexuality, which you tried to hide in your small town. But by the last chapter, when you write about your experience on Jeopardy! brilliantly coupled with a discussion of Hunger Games, it very much feels like you’ve come into your own. It’s a great way to end the book—with a strong demonstration of the resilience you mentioned. What advice would you give to readers, particularly young queer readers from rural America, who are struggling to find their identity?

What an enormous question! First, I hope the world today is a better place for them than it was for me. In my teen years, the internet had barely reached my home in the months before high school ended, so I had a brief taste of what it was like to connect with other queer people, even if they were hundreds of miles away. That was exciting and terrifying and necessary. I hope young queer people are growing up surrounded by people who see them and love them. I hope they are afforded time and space to learn about themselves and what their love and desire might mean as an integrated part of their identity. In the absence of these things I hope for, I just want young queer people to hold on. I remember my teen years when it felt at times like I was white-knuckling my way through life, the only glimmer of possibility was leaving home and starting over—with the accepted risk that I’d lose family and friends in the process. I did end up losing some, but not all, of them. I now think of that phase as a necessary pruning. A painful removal of what held me back so that I could grow into my full self. So I suppose my advice would be to respect and love themselves, and to start right away. The world convinced me not to do those things for a very long time, and I listened too intently because I believed, somehow, that I was broken. But it’s the world around us that is broken, and the people who harm us have not reckoned with their own fragility. To be queer is to exist in a way that is wholly personal, unique, and specific. To love yourself is just an embracing of that reality, and to be open not only to what it means today, but to let that meaning evolve as you do.

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator. His most recent translation is Simon Fruelund’s The World and Varvara. His debut novel, The Book of Losman, will be published in October by Sante Fe Writers Project.

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