Interview originally published by Abraxas Review as A Union of Both Spirit and Idea: A Conversation with Kevin Clark
October 20, 2023
Kevin ClarkKevin Clark is published and recognized widely: his poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Ploughshares, The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The Journal, The Cincinnati Review, The American Literary Review, and recently in Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, Hotel Amerika, Epoch, Poetry Northwest, Catamaran, and The Southern Review. His book, The Consecrations, was published in 2021 by Stephen F. Austin University Press. His second full-length volume, Self-Portrait with Expletives, won the Pleiades Award and appears in the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series, distributed by LSU Press. His book In the Evening of No Warning was selected for a grant from The Academy of American Poets. His six-poem persona sequence “The Wanting”—spoken in the voice of a war veteran with PTSD—won the Five Oaks Press Contest.
Kevin Clark served as the head of Creative Writing at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and is currently the Poet Laureate of San Luis Obispo County.
A trio of poems by Kevin Clark are published in Issue 1 of Abraxas Review. “Offramp Quanta” takes the reader on a journey “driving a car to the edge of epiphany” through the implications of quantum reality, suggesting that our understanding of reality may be more fluid and open to free will than previously thought. “Two Scientists Debate Dominoes as I Recall the Sewanee” raises questions about whether we can truly exercise free will in matters of the heart. “Passing through Billy Beck” centers around a physicist who served in World War II. Here, the theme of free will emerges once more, this time within the context of wartime decisions. The poem explores the profound impact of a soldier’s choices on the battlefield, juxtaposed with reflections on the fragility of life.
Abraxas connected with Clark over email. Read on for a view of Clark’s path to poetry—from his family’s storytelling traditions, his love for language, his influencing poets—and his work’s exploration of mortality, marital love, and quantum physics.
Abraxas: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing background?
Clark: As a kid born in NYC and growing up in north Jersey, I was always drawn to sports and the arts. I played every kind of sport and I read and wrote and drew pictures and listened to music. My father was what they used to call “a PR man,” and he and his two brothers were great storytellers, as was my aunt, Mary Higgins Clark, the ultra-successful suspense writer. The families lived within a mile of one another, and words recombined in wildly comic, adventurous ways at the dinner table. At big family get-togethers, competitive storytelling was a kind of training ground for me. My father and his older brother died when I was fourteen, but our mothers didn’t let us get bogged down in stultifying grief. Not only were there athletic games to be played, there were stories to be told and told of the beloved fathers as well as those of our own widening lives.
When it became clear, I was too slight for professional baseball and, subsequently, when my college track career atomized in the prevailing countercultural winds of the sixties, I focused on writing. I loved not only the myriad ever-new configuration of words but also the fluidity of language that gathers and gathers as it goes. Like our parents, my brother Glenn and I were active readers, and the expansive family was great schooling in the art of word-making.
Abraxas: Who, if anyone, helped you on your writing journey?
Clark: At college, it became immediately clear that my fiction wanted to be poetry—and so, with the help of very fine teachers at Florida and UC Davis, I entered the world of poetry. At Davis, I studied with many fine poets, including Louise Glück, Thom Gunn, Sandra McPherson, Karl Shapiro, Ruth Stone, and Alan Williamson, but none were as critical to my development as Sandra Gilbert.
A famously gifted, important poet in her own right, Sandra was like a motivational coach. She could see what a poem needed so quickly, and she encouraged us with a kind of genius tonality. Her pedagogical talent was to make it sound like the revisions she suggested were right there at the tip of our imagination. She spoke to us about our poems as if they were nearly ready to send out, despite the work they needed. Many of my workshop peers have published decades of work, notably Allan Johnston, Hannah Stein, and Wendy Barker.
As I pursued my Davis master’s degree in creative writing and later a Ph.D. in literature, the workshops were critical to my development. I joined the poetry staff of the Cal Quarterly literary magazine, where hundreds of poems came in each month. Sandra and her husband, the mystery writer and Victorian scholar Elliot Gilbert, led us through the incalculable shades of verse aesthetics. I was immersed in an extraordinary world. It was as if apertures in my mind kept opening onto wide swaths of creative possibility. To this day, with the help of my ongoing reading, these apertures offer an expanding universe into which the act of writing quickens me.
Abraxas: Do you recognize any particular writers who’ve served as influences upon your work?
Clark: I suppose no writer can cite those who’ve helped without honoring authors whose work has served as models. When a kid, I read Frost, and in college Eliot, Plath, and Ginsberg were formative. To a degree, that deep reading and rereading of their work surely left an understory of affect. In graduate school, I found myself enamored with Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Phil Levine, Norman Dubie, Yusef Komunyakka, and Brenda Hillman, to name a few. I’ve written essays about all of them. Over these last few decades, no two poets have moved me more than Larry Levis and Susan Mitchell, about whom I’ve also written. (I consider Mitchell’s book Rapture one of the great unsung masterpieces of the last fifty years.) I remain similarly attracted to the poetry of John Koethe and Terrance Hayes, though I don’t write much like they do at all. Today I find often myself especially fascinated by Hanif Abdurraqib, Ada Limón, Ben Lerner, and Tracy K. Smith. I won’t go as deeply into the many fiction writers who surely percolate in the lines of my work, but they would include Woolf, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Morrison—as well as more recent authors such as Elena Ferrante, Kevin Barry, and Cormac McCarthy.
Abraxas: Do you have any specific writing rituals or habits that help you write or edit?
Clark: This question reminds me of one of Sandra Gilbert’s favorite urgings: “Seat of the pants in the seat of the chair.” Over the years, I’ve had many different ways of making poems and essays. To be a university professor at a teaching institution such as Cal Poly, where I taught from 1988 to 2016, means that time for the seat in the chair must be scheduled and guarded. I’d arrange classes so that the first four weeks of the quarter, I could get to my desk in the morning as often as possible. But after that, as papers and poems and committee work piled up, I decided that each day—even for fifteen minutes—I would do something, anything to “advance my career as writer,” as I told myself. I’d list potential magazines that may like my work, or I’d order a key poetry book, or I’d spend a few minutes on a revision of the many poems in various stages of incompletion. And a few times a year, I’d take what I called a “factory week,” in which I sent poems out.
I must add that in Davis and San Luis Obispo, I’ve had the uncommon fortune to meet other committed writers who were willing to be in a writing group—and these other writers have given me wise, critical, objective responses to my work. I don’t always immediately take their suggestions and revise. But when more than one of my peers indicates a problem in a poem, I eventually attend to it. Perhaps not always in the way they’d wish or predict, but their recognition of a diction problem, a diverting word, or a thematic discontinuity would alert me to just how much the poem was incomplete.
Since retiring, I still tend to write in the morning. At the moment, I have a treatable form of cancer, so I’m taken up with medical procedures. But I work almost every day on a poem or two—and I’m working on a new book manuscript, and I still have two exceptional writing groups plus folks with whom I share my work via email.
Abraxas: Are there recurring themes or motifs in your writing? What draws you to these themes?
Clark: Well, as much as we may like to be unpredictable, writers do seem to return to key obsessions. I know I do. In the beginning, my work was often characterized by what I might call “the father elegy.” My father, whom I still love with intensity, died when I was fourteen of a brain aneurysm. My first chapbook, Granting the Wolf, consisted of six long, threnodic poems about his going. As I’ve grown in style and years, I think my work has always retained that sense of mortality. Whether I write about baseball or parenting or food or politics, that strain of mortal haunt is somehow infused in the work. More specifically, I’ve become far more interested in the subjects of marital love as well as the implications of the new sciences loosely umbrellaed under the term “quantum physics.”
Abraxas: Can you tell us about the poems in Abraxas Review?
Clark: I’m so happy to have these three poems in Abraxas. “Offramp Quanta” is a dreamlike poem about the way quantum reality may defeat the mechanics of Newtonian determinism. In other words, we may have some free will after all. “Two Scientists Debate Dominoes as I Recall the Sewanee” is similarly engaged by the same subject, but rather than focusing on driving a car to the edge of epiphany, the speaker here takes up the question of fate vs free will in the context of romantic love. In “Passing through Billy Beck,” I imagine a physicist who went to WWII and, within the context of the same question of metaphorically falling dominoes vs a quantum-enabled freedom to make decisions, confronts the act of killing a German soldier just as he himself is wounded by that soldier’s bullet. In each of these poems, the death of body and spirit lurk as background concerns while the poems play out the questions I’ve found myself asking about reality every day.
By the way, these three poems are based in part on actual events. When I was in college, I used to drive my mother’s hot Dodge up that offramp, as I describe. I also used to slow-float down the Sewanee, which was long before I met the woman who would become my adventurous wife and who took me down the white water of the King’s River on wholly inadequate canvas rafts. And a friend’s father, who was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in his twenties, actually did have the shard of bullet removed from his skull where it had migrated from his shoulder for over sixty years.
In sum, while I’m deeply doubtful about the existence of an afterlife, it seems that I have an obsession with trying to understand a universe that allows for shards of insight but not much more. But, Oh those shards…
Abraxas: Is there a specific message or impact you hope to achieve through your writing?
Clark: The word “message” makes me very nervous.
No matter what genre or style, all writers want to be taken seriously. Obviously, writers hope for readers who will enjoy their work. But I think writing requires an oppositional convergence of qualities. That is, while knowing the tradition from which they emerge, writers must both long to write as mind-blowingly astronomically radically well and different from what’s come before while also retaining a ground-hugging humility about the task before them. We can’t wish to be T.S. Eliot or Sylvia Plath or Hanif Abdurraqib. One has to be most one’s self. But here’s the deal: If we’re going to be most ourselves, we can’t write with a message at the forefront of our imagination. I say this is a poet who has written plenty of socio-political poems as well as poems about death and science and athletics.
I’ve recently run across a quotation by the Indian novelist Madhuri Vijay, who lives in Hawaii, writes in English, and whose novel The Far Field won the JCB Prize in India, the equivalent of the U.S. National Book Award:
Like all forms of art, writing is an act that, in its purest state, serves no discernible agenda—neither social justice, nor the battle against climate change, nor self-improvement, nor representing one’s community. (It can be strong-armed into serving any or all of these, but the art that results is necessarily mutilated.) On the very best days, writing is, simply, itself: self-contained, guileless, full of play. And for that reason, it is sublime.
Please don’t mistake me. Sublimity is not my natural state. Like most writers, I’m riddled with envy, self-reproach, and an outsize quota of bitterness. All I’m saying is that if I declare, here and now, that my writing is for something, some identifiable social purpose, bounded and finite, then I will lose the possibility—fleeting and faint and elusive as it already is—of knowing that sublimity from time to time. And I’m simply not willing to take that risk. My work would be the poorer for it, and in the end so would I.
—The Atlantic, 2022
I don’t agree with her entirely, but I’m deeply sympathetic to her point of view. I can think of rare pieces of sublime writing that stand for something outright and directly, say The Declaration of Independence or The Gettysburg Address. I don’t think they are mutilated. But let’s be clear: They succeed primarily due to their writerly skill, not because of their famous exhortations. And even in these examples, I find myself wondering if Jefferson and Lincoln didn’t briefly abandon their political purpose in order to enter the transportive ascent of language fulfilling its potential and becoming sublime. Perhaps they, too, placed aesthetics before intention.
I certainly doubt that I could find a great piece of fictive literature in which the writing followed an author’s premeditated intention. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is surely one of the great anti-war poems of the last hundred years, but Randall Jarrell’s epiphanic imagery is what carries the poem, not its polemic. Beloved is among the greatest novels ever written, but Toni Morrison’s inimitably ascendant imagination precedes and propels the book’s “message,” not the reverse. In the act of writing, I firmly believe in the primacy of aesthetics over the insistence of message.
Like Madhuri Vijay, I too can have nothing before me as I write but exploration into a realm of words I haven’t yet found, no matter the so-called subject. The alternative you offer—“impact”—may be another thing entirely. But I don’t necessarily see a work’s impact upon a reader as, say, a motivation to act, even though I recognize that in certain contexts, good writing can instill ideals and motivate individuals.
Rather, if by impact you may mean the way the reader might engage something of my world-sense in the writing, yes, I hope for that. I know this may seem contradictory or oxymoronic, but I hope that my reader senses a union of both spirit and idea in my words. Again, a sensation in which some sort of complex pleasure is derived. An emotional response spiked with recognition.