Code, Awarded Best Book of the Year by Alabama Poetry Society and a Finalist for Foreword Reviews Best Indie Poetry Book of 2020


At its center, Code features a narrative sequence with three characters: a new father, a mother dying young from an inherited disease, and that mother’s own DNA. In light of exciting new developments such as CRISPR that would allow us to alter genetics and eradicate certain diseases, this book approaches ethical questions from an angle that science cannot.

Ultimately, Code is a book about grief—specifically, how to accept it. These poems attest to how we preserve what is lost, not only through story and poetry, but also through nonverbal means like cave art and DNA.

Where to buy:

Black Lawrence Press


Or would you like a signed copy from the author? Email Charlotte at

Praise for Code:

“Reading Charlotte Pence’s breakthrough book, Code, I remember T. S. Eliot reminding us that humankind cannot bear very much reality.  Perhaps the best way to bear the reality of our genetic structure, the code of her title, the thing that determines who we are, is to make poetry of it. After all, we want to believe that we have the free will to exist, to live and to love, and to celebrate our lives with our art.  Charlotte Pence with her moving story of birth and loss has enhanced the language of poetry with the discourse of science, with the language of data.  Her poetry reminds us that even as we know more and more about who we really are, life itself remains beautifully mysterious.”

– Mark Jarman, author of The Heronry

“Charlotte Pence’s Code is deeply grounded in domestic settings that open onto broader vistas and “time longer than any dream.” For Pence, motherhood holds the mysteries of the natural and human-made worlds—one where “we all began in dark and stars” but where we also wish “for sleep,/for peace, for the coming day to be better.” For this poet, the maternal body and the body politic are closely connected, and Code is rich with urgent lines that pay close attention to the complicities of privilege and the need to shape the next generation’s social conscience. Through a voice both tender and bracingly honest, Pence reinvents domestic tableaux in poems that are provocative, humane, and deeply necessary.”

– Jane Satterfield, author of Apocalypse Mix

“With CODE, Charlotte Pence attunes both eye and ear, moving from a body in the contemporary urban to drawings on the walls of a cave in Spain. CODE traces the death of so many–from strangers to the familiar and intimate: Evelyn McHale of the iconic Empire State Building suicide photograph, a grandfather, the poet Shira Shaiman. As Pence sequences the aftermath of loss in a chord of poems and personal essays, she also embeds Shaiman’s own poems, honoring her late friend. This willful collaboration with the words of one no longer in the realm of the living results in a braiding of grief: each piece mourns for someone lost while also documenting what goes on in and around the mortal body. At its nexus, CODE contains a narrative featuring the voices of a father, a mother who is dying from an inherited disease, and the mother’s own DNA (in a prescient turn of poetic adroitness). Never have I encountered such tenderness and scrutiny in the scientific turned elegiac. Each of us originate from unique strands of genetic code, a code “beginning what is and has always been the same story, / but with different names for different animals.” Pence is capacious in her attention to life, calling on us to witness what tinkers above and below surfaces, to carry on the legacies of those lost to us.”

– Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Ghost of, a National Book Award finalist


In Publisher’s Weekly: “Pence offers readers a thoughtful look at questions of ethics, hope, and science, and a memorable journey through pain and survival.”

In The Rumpus: “Code is a cave of catharsis in this time of grieving, as we reckon with both COVID-19 and with police brutality across America.”

In The Millions, selected as a July must-read book of poems: “A book suffused with genuine optimism—without sentimentality.”

In Sundress Reads: “In a time wrecked by illness and grief, this book is a touching and hopeful look at the ways we can work to heal our bodies and minds through love and relationships.”

In Washington Independent Review of Books:”…Complex and deeply intelligent book….”

In 32 Poems: “Charlotte Pence’s second poetry collection, Code, is an astonishing accomplishment.”

Interview in On the Seawall: “Genes, Grief, Poetic Form, and Love: A Conversation with Charlotte Pence”

Many Small Fires, Silver Medal Winner of Foreword Review’s Indie Fab Book of the Year Award


Want a peek at the first few pages of Many Small Fires? Click here.

“In this marvelous debut collection, Charlotte Pence provides us with all the pleasures of poetic tension.  We have the pull of narrative and the flares of the lyric, the graceful rhythm of blank verse and the thrill of innovative forms, the contest for survival both between a father and a daughter and between Homo sapiens and other species within our genus.  The poems explore the idea of survival, not only the survival of a speaker who transcends a precarious childhood but, for example, a “juvenile male bear with his head stuck in a plastic Walmart candy jar” who “learned to drink by laying down in shallow streams.” Pence’s Many Small Fires is a beautiful, necessary book.  Come, warm your hands.”

– Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Unmentionables

“Fueled by fascination and fear, Pence explores ‘our history and our longer history.’ From the discovery of a new species to the origin of the species, many small fires connect Pence’s poems to the people we come from and the people we want to become, all our yesterdays and all our tomorrows. Fierce and tender, the poems in this book are both mysterious and wise, intensely lyric and full of story, but most importantly they are rich with wonder and fearlessness. They seek the unlikeliest places to solicit the darkest reaches of memory of the personal past and human past, knowing ‘The darkness quiets if we watch it together.”

– Traci Brimhall, author of Our Lady of the Ruins

In her first full-length poetry collection, Charlotte Pence addresses her father’s schizophrenia and chronic homelessness through the larger evolutionary story of the human species. Questions about how we came to create communities and homes play out against more intimate questions of the speaker’s strange community and roving home. As the book moves from the speaker’s childhood in Georgia to her travels in Flores, Indonesia, we begin to understand a complex relationship between two people locked together by family, who sometimes understand, sometimes ignore, sometimes commit cruelty upon one another in competition, not just for resources, but survival.

Where to buy:

Black Lawrence Press



Erica Wright in Chapter 16: “This astonishing book takes a hard look at how mental illness affects those who love—or are expected to love—the patient.”

Jessie Carty in Rumpus: “If you’ll allow me a last, somewhat clichéd image, I want to sit around a fire with Pence (and anyone else who wants to join us) to talk about metaphors, and poetry, and science, and everything that binds us.”

Spencer Dew in decomP: “For cosmos—think Whitman for the sense of this word, more than any metaphysician—is what Pence is after, each poem a world entire, an ecology, that delicate balance of exhalation and inhalation, air and flesh.”

Tawnysha Greene in Stirring: A Literary Connection: “…Pence demonstrates beauty that can still arise from it all—the beauty of endurance and survival in the face of such hardships—making Many Small Fires a compelling read and Pence’s most brilliant work yet.”

Amanda McConnon in Late Night Library: “Here, oneness is born not out of ephemeral ideas like peace and love, but out of hard fact: we are all of a singular species, one that evolution allowed to come together as our ape-like ancestors never had before.”

The Poetics of American Song Lyricspoetics_cover

“This collection of smart, incisive essays positions song lyrics—the choruses we holler in our cars with all the windows down, the verses that leave us misty-eyed while browsing shampoo aisles—as a legitimate and deeply compelling poetic form.”

– Amanda Petrusich, author of It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music

“Charlotte Pence, the energetic and intelligent editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, has succeeded in rounding up twenty-four extraordinary essays on her subject…. This is a book for any household in America where people enjoy our country’s musical wealth, be it folk, country, western, blues, rock, rap, or whatever.”

– H.T. Kirby Smith, author of The Celestial Twins: Poetry and Music through the Ages

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics is the first collection of academic essays that regards songs as literature and that identifies intersections between the literary histories of poems and songs. The essayists share a desire to write on lyrics in a way that moves beyond sociological, historical, and autobiographical approaches and explicates songs in relation to poetics. Unique to this volume, the essays focus not on a single genre but on folk, rap, hip hop, country, rock, indie, soul, and blues.

Contributions are from Lamar Alexander, Gordon Ball, Adam Bradley, David Caplan, Wyn Cooper, David Daniel, Stephen M. Deusner, Claudia Emerson, Beth Ann Fennelly, Keith Flynn, Jesse Graves, Peter Guralnick, John Paul Hampstead, Brian Howe, Jill Jones, David Kirby, Robert McParland, Pat Pattison, Charlotte Pence, Eric Reimer, Jeffrey Roessner, Tony Tost, Ben Yagoda, and Kevin Young.

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The Branches, the Axe, the Missingbranches_cover

Recipient of the Black River chapbook award
In The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, Charlotte Pence goes beyond situating the personal within the contexts of science and history; she instead finely mortises the evolution of the human form with that of her own poetic form. This carefully shaped sequence reminds us that the “sizzle-spit of fat striking flame” remains part cause, part sustenance–and is indivisible, finally, from “that first word, that first word / that spiked a whole new species.”

– Claudia Emerson, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning collection Late Wife and Figure Studies.

This poetry is dangerous in the way that we’ve always suspected poetry might be: poetry as truth-teller, poetry as seductress.  Once you’ve entered the silken tent of Charlotte Pence’s poetry, you will want to stay inside the intelligence and beauty for a long time, to resist the ordinary.”

– Marilyn Kallet, author, Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, Black Widow Press.

“Branches is a delightful and disturbing read.  A flurry of allusions, of histories, of personal disasters, all of it lightened with insight and a sly, sexy humor.”

– Art Smith, author, The Late World (Carnegie Mellon Press)

This inventive and sultry series of poems combine personal and scientific inquiries regarding evolution, specifically the physical changes that enabled communal living within our species, and one family’s story with paranoid schizophrenia and subsequent homelessness.

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Weaves a Clear Nightweavescoverbig

Recipient of Flying Trout’s chapbook award
“Charlotte Pence’s chapbook takes as its warp the Penelope myth of fidelity to Odysseus and takes as its weft a modern-day Appalachian speaker vulnerable to ‘longing . . . the unraveling of every blanket I’ve ever touched.’ This graceful seventeen-part poem is never predictable but is unified by the author’s fidelity to devastating images, sumptuous sounds, and a true and quiet voice that undoes our myths about love. I was captivated by the skill, the passion, and the ideas here.”

– Nancy Pagh, author of No Sweeter Fat and After

Set in modern-day Appalachia, this chapbook in seventeen sections imaginatively recasts the myths surrounding Penelope’s fidelity to Odysseus. Lyrical, meditative, and deeply sensual, the poems follow the emotional isolation of a woman poised between two men, neither of whom can be a part of her daily life. The “you” in this collection is a secret love, the “he” is Odysseus, and the “son” is Telemachus. Despite the absence of the lover and the husband, their presence surrounds her. The result is a poetic narrative where memory and future fears disrupt the very existence of a physical present. Highly imagistic, Pence’s writing displays precision, structure, and grace along with depth and narrative ambition.

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The Writer’s Path: Creative Exercises for Meaningful Essayswriterspathcover-nowhite

This college textbook applies creative writing style exercises to teach students how academic essays can be written with the same level of personal investment they might use in a poem or a song. Chapters include how to address past writing failures, determine if a thesis is simply okay or excellent, and use metaphors for all audiences.

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