When Durham poet, teacher, and small press executive director Ross White looked Michelangelo’s David in the eyes—virtually, at least—a poem broke open for him.
Most photographs of David show his face turned to the side, looking off into the middle distance. Is his face bashful? Unconcerned? Exhibitionist? Who can say.
But White was intrigued by how different David felt if you walked toward the statue face to face. In Charm Offensive, White’s new poetry collection, he combined those differing experiences with a beloved Emily Dickinson line in a poem called, appropriately, “Michelangelo’s David.”
“Dickinson’s idea was ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant,’ with the idea being that if we come at the truth from a strange angle, it reveals something new to us,” White said over a recent Zoom call from his Durham back porch. “Viewed straight on, it’s a really different vantage point, and it’s a little bit threatening,” he says.
Many of the poems in White’s new collection, which he says are half based on his own experiences and half on those of imagined characters, deal with the sometimes lovely, sometimes jarring sensation of recontextualizing oneself through a shaken memory or belief.
In “Junk Drawer,” the narrator delights in junk-drawer photos of they and their partner’s adventurous younger selves (juxtaposed with the detritus of the drawer), while considering their mortality (and the way their remains will be juxtaposed with the “soil & wormbelly & root system” one day). In “Dead Finch,” a dead finch lies on a sidewalk as a live finch circles it, considering the body until it’s finally frightened away for good.
These poems push on the way we use time and memory, asking how and why we look back at ourselves, and revealing the obligatory borders of the unknown when we look ahead.
“I think that the nostalgic aspects of the book are, on some level, a certain refusal to grow up,” he says. “I’m almost 50, and I still catch myself saying, ‘When I grow up, I want to be more like that person or this person.’”
It’s not that White, who was born in Charlotte, misses having the emotional landscape of a child.
“I haven’t fully wanted to grow up, and not in the way of being emotionally stunted,” he says. “Rather, I think over the past few years, as a culture, we’ve lost the ability to play, especially during the pandemic. If you were having fun, you couldn’t tell anybody because nobody else was.”
To White, finding room for joy doesn’t diminish the pain of a given situation.
“We didn’t, as a culture, endure the whole thing in an absolutely joyless state,” he says. “My wife and I had these wonderful, long walks because we couldn’t do anything else, and we would laugh and talk. And I felt deeply close and deeply connected … Of course, there was a lot of misery. And I had plenty of it myself, too, during that period. But I think as a culture, we can’t hold two ideas that are conflicting in the same thought anymore.”
That tension between delight and dread fuels Charm Offensive.
“There’s a lot of hurt. There’s a lot of confusion,” White says. “But I do think there is enough beauty to go around. And I think that that seeps through in the book. I hope it does, at least. I really tried to resolve in a place where we could look at both contemporary and historic beauties and say, ‘These are present, and they’re with us. And we don’t have to look away.’”
Many poems also interrogate God—though not a specific one. Jesus and Zeus make appearances, as do believers. The poems seem most curious about the way we use God or the idea of suffering for faith as a concept. At a recent Hillsborough reading—White’s first of the collection—he found COVID had completely changed the impact of one of the God-driven poems in the collection. “I Know What Love Is” considers a vicious, vindictive god, and closes with the lines “I think He’s created the virus in his own image/and He loves the virus enough/to create an endlessly adaptable food source for it/that also serves as means of conveyance.”
“As I was speaking it aloud for the first time in years, I was like, ‘Oh, no. It reads really differently now,’” White says. This was not, as you might imagine, an angle from which he was particularly excited to view the poem.
“That’s a whole other thing to see it slant,” he says. “I did not want that perspective on this poem.”
Charm Offensive was written and fully formed before the pandemic, and even won the 2019 The Sexton Poetry Prize, but the book’s release was delayed by the virus. With a 14-stop reading tour ahead of him, though, White wasn’t too upset that things were pushed back.
“I had terrible COVID anxiety, even after everybody else had reentered the world,” he says. “I’m really glad to be able to go on tour for this book, to share it as widely as I’m going to get to.”
White wrote much of Charm Offensive as part of a challenge he regularly sets for himself: 30 poems in 30 days. Writing poetry as a grind helps him demystify the process. He practices getting out of his head and getting something onto the page, even if he doesn’t know where the piece is going.
“A lot of times, I don’t know that the poem is worth keeping until I come back to it six months later,” he says. “I’m far enough away from it that I can say, ‘Oh, there’s something interesting there.”
On average, White estimates, three to four poems from each round of 30 are worth editing into shape.
This exercise also helps White surprise himself.
“A lot of these poems were written at that point in the poem-a-day exercise where not only had I exhausted every idea that I started with, but I would wake up in the morning and kind of bargain with God, like, ‘Please give me anything to put on this blank page today. I just need something,’” he says. “And I think it’s that place of not knowing, but also that place of sort of hopeful despair, that allows me to discover what it is that I really want to say.”
Writing this way also helps White balance the demands of teaching poetry with writing it (previously, he has published three chapbooks). And to balance both of those with teaching the subject well.
“I’m a teacher who writes because I’m interested in writing, but part of the reason that I subject myself to the 30 in 30 is that if I’m not a practicing writer, I got no business teaching kids to become practicing writers,” White says. “That’s the key motivation. Because, man, they routinely just blew me away with what they’re capable of.”
White has taught writing-related classes at high schools, managed the distance learning program at NC School of Science and Math, and now teaches creative writing and grammar at UNC-Chapel Hill. He appreciates the way his university students often show up ready to fall in love with the work they’re reading.
But sometimes, he says, he misses the lightbulb moments he’d see while teaching high school. His UNC students already know they love poetry. Often, his high school students didn’t yet.
“Nobody was dying to be there on a daily basis, but [there were] days when you could light that fire about something, whether it was Hamlet, a poem by Dickinson or Ross Gay,” he says. “And they’re like, ‘Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ Sometimes you felt like this is the thing that could stick forever. Because sometimes kids don’t feel like they’re treated as beings capable of wonder.”
Growing up in Charlotte, White says he knew that “only the weirdos” wrote poetry. But today, his students of any age can look at young poets like Amanda Gorman and know that it’s possible to be taken seriously.
“Poetry feels alive to young people right now, so the chance to be giving them more of that and helping them imagine a life with art, and a life with beauty, and a life with empathy in it? What could be more fun, right?”
Plenty of writers wear multiple hats, but White has piled every possible iteration of a literary community hat on top of each other. He’s a working poet with an MFA from Warren Wilson, has been running a small press since 2006, hosts a literary podcast (currently on hiatus, but not dead), and organizes live poetry readings at Mettlesome on the fourth Saturday of every month, which he hopes to one day turn into a second podcast.
White started Bull City Press in 2006, which he runs alongside a team of volunteer readers and editors spread across the country. Over the years, it has become self-sustaining.
“Seventeen years later, I’m still pretty delighted to be running with it,” White says. “We’ve done about 60 titles, and it’s still run out of the house here.”
Bull City Press mostly publishes chapbooks, which has allowed them to work with emerging writers and to accept projects that for-profit presses couldn’t.
“I think the chap is often a great waypoint on learning how to write a longer collection,” White says. “We’ve also been able to get surprising products from mid-career authors who created this little thing that wasn’t going to fit at the larger press that they’ve been with for years, and they’ve resonated with readers really deeply.”
While Bull City Press has national distribution and often has their chapbooks at Letters Bookstore in Durham, White says the internet has been their main source of buyers turned community members.
“The average Bull City customer who buys through our website—I don’t just see their name once,” White says. “It comes back and back. There are readers out there I’ve never met, but I know their names because I’ve filled their orders time and time again. If I’m ever in your city, I’d love to buy you a beer.”
Most Bull City Press chapbooks are bound like full books, but White also wanted to publish smaller works in the traditional saddle staple style most readers associate with chapbooks. Enter Inch, a series that White describes as in the sweet spot between a lit mag and chapbook. Each edition is a tiny collection of fiction, poetry, or essays by a single author. White has published editions of Inch by much-lauded authors like K-Ming Chan, to Elane Kim, a teenager.
“There are collections that are complete at a smaller size, that are doing something meaningful, and cohesive and whole,” White says. “I look at Bone House by K-Ming Chang, which is a queer, Asian retelling of Wuthering Heights, and it’s this tiny little thing. You couldn’t add a word to it. You couldn’t take a word away from it.”
White says so many people helped him on his own journey as a poet—he names Michael McFee, Matthew Olzmann, Dilruba Ahmed, and Ellen C. Bush, among others—that he’s excited to return the favor as often as he can, as a teacher, editor, and community builder.
“I love writing poems,” he says. “But I think I want a different relationship with art in the world than just, ‘Look at a thing I did.’”
Hyping up the work of others also gives White a new perspective.
“I feel like my own creative writing, my own creative life, is richer if I can point people to somebody else’s work and say, ‘This is a thing I’m in love with. Don’t you want to share that with me?’”
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