In Conversation with Charles Fishman, Poetry Winner in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award

In Conversation with Charles Fishman, Poetry Winner in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award

The winner of the Poetry category for the 2014 Aesthetica Creative Writing Award is Charles Fishman, an award-winning writer whose accolades include the 2012 New Millennium Award for Poetry, the Paterson Award for Excellence in Literature (four times), the 1989 American Library Association Outstanding Book of the Year recognition for The Death Mazurka, which was also nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, and the 1987 Gertrude B. Claytor Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Fishman’s poem Snow Is the Poem Without Flags was selected out of thousands of entries, and published in the current Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. We talk to Fishman about his inspiration behind his winning poem and what future projects he has lined up.

A: When did you first start to write?
CF: I started to write in Mr. Hamm’s Social Studies Class when I was 15. I had almost no awareness of poetry as a form of art and, for years after, didn’t realise that there were other living poets. In Mr. Hamm’s class, I became so bored that I began to read paperbacks behind the huge old half-broken and stained history text we were forced to read. Then one day, my attention shifted to the maps and slogans and patriotic lyrics that were displayed on the dingy, stale, buttermilk-yellow walls of the classroom.

I read the memorised words of the Star Spangled Banner and began to hear other words superimposing themselves in my head: “O say can you see / by the blind beggar’s fire / what so proudly we hailed / at the H-bomb’s last booming?” Not great poetry and, of course, not really poetry, just the impetus to express something counter to what I was being force-fed in Mr. Hamm’s intolerable dead-history class. After that moment-out-of-time in 10th-grade History, I started writing nearly every day to, and about, everyone and everything in my heavily circumscribed 50s teenage world.

A: What does winning prizes such as the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award mean to you?
CF: Winning the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award for Poetry, and similar awards, means that the decades of work I’ve put in as a poet, editor, and teacher — and as creator and director of writing contests, visiting writers programmes, and poetry organisations — have been an appropriate use of my time, energy and talent.

It also means that I should continue to reach out to other poets, at all stages of their creative journeys, to guide and sustain them, as possible, and to learn from them, as well. And more: it means that poetry is not just a private enterprise but that it must move and encourage others to be both creative and more fully human. Winning an award like this one places me more intimately within the company of writers, readers, and artists from every continent.

A: Your winning poem Snow Is the Poem Without Flags nods to medieval riddles and folk rhymes but thematically is in the present day of contemporary conflict. What was the inspiration behind this piece?
CF: I wanted to comment on the chaos and terror that assails us, if not immediately and directly, then via newspapers, radio programs, TV serials, video games, films and other media. I didn’t want to open myself again to the pain, anger and sorrow I felt when trying to make words respond to the Holocaust or Hiroshima, as I did in Chopin’s Piano (Time Being Books, 2006). Yet I knew I had to find a way to speak to the darkness. It was then I remembered reading Orhan Pamut’s wonderful novel, Snow.

I began to think about snow, its beauty, coldness, and silence; its insistence that we pay attention to its fall and its accumulation; its presence and grace that covers all. I let my meditation about snow guide my fingers, so that the poem showed me where it needed to go, when it needed to shift direction, at which moment it needed to stop.

A: You also edit and help promote the work of other writers. What are your top tips for those wishing to get their writing published and read by a wider audience?
CF: Aspiring writers should attend readings where authors of work they admire are featured, and they should take part in “open mic” readings and welcome feedback from the audience. We learn by witnessing as well as by listening, participating, coordinating, assisting. Writers who wish to publish what they write should read contemporary magazines, journals, and books, so they can gauge what editors and publishers are seeking—and they should enter their work in local and regional competitions.

Publishing work in magazines and anthologies is a great way to break through the barriers that enforce anonymity. When writers believe their work has reached a level of excellence that has a good chance of being recognized and appreciated in the literary marketplace, it’s time for them to gather the best of their poems, essays, or stories into collections and to submit finished manuscripts to editors, publishers, and agents.

A: Are there any current or upcoming pieces you are working on?
CF: Yes. For the past two years, I’ve been editing Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Abuse and Oppression of Women with Smita Sahay, a poet and book reviewer who lives in Mumbai, India. The anthology is currently under consideration by an American publisher, but, until a contract is signed, Smita and I will be quite happy to hear from other interested publishers. I’ve also begun to work on an expanded edition of my 2011 collection, In the Language of Women (Casa de Snapdragon LLC) and have been slowly writing new poems and gathering older, previously uncollected, poems for a new book that bears the very tentative title Master of Breath: New Selected Poems.

For more information about Charles Fishman’s writing visit

The Aesthetica Creative Writing Award opens in January 2015. For more information visit

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1. Ryota Kajita, Frozen Bubbles #2, Ice Formation Series. Aesthetica Art Prize longlist. Courtesy of the artist and Aesthetica.