Interview originally published by Beacon Street Review as Interview with Kevin Clark
by Caitlin SteeleKevin Clark is the author of In the Evening of No Warning (New Issues Poetry and Prose), which was selected by the Academy of American Poets for a publisher’s grant from the Greenwall Fund. Clark’s poems have appeared in three earlier chapbooks and numerous magazines and collections, including The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review (and Keener Sounds: Selected Poems from The Georgia Review), College English, and The Black Warrior Review. He won the Angoff Award from The Literary Review for best contribution in a volume year. Clark has also written essays about numerous contemporary American poets, including John Ashbery, Sandra Gilbert, Sandra McPherson, Ruth Stone, and Charles Wright. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in several journals and collections, among them The Iowa Review, Papers on Language and Literature, Contemporary Literary Criticism, etc. Though raised in New York City and New Jersey, Clark received both his MA in creative writing and his PhD in literature from the University of California at Davis. He teaches creative writing and modern literature at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo on the central coast of California, where he lives with his wife and two children. His aunt is the suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark.
The interviewer is poet Caitlin Steele.
BSR: If you were anything other than a poet and a teacher, what would you have wanted to have as an occupation?
KC: When I was young, I would have said “first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.” After having spent the last year re-acquainting myself with the music of Bill Evans, today I’ll say “jazz pianist.” And, no, I don’t play a lick.
BSR: What in your life led you to become involved with poetry?
KC: I come from a family of fanatical storytellers. Cousins, siblings, parents, aunts, all of us were raised to see the dinner table as a field of competition. Everyone was encouraged to be outrageous. And my Aunt Mary, she was the best. Still is. She can flat-out hold the floor. My father and his brothers weren’t slouches either. They could nurse a Ballantine in a pilsner for hours as they lit each other up with yarns of bogus derring-do. My Uncle Ken is a genius of the quick wise-ass story. The thing is, at the Clark table, dullness is death. We tell stories about each other, and when the facts interfere with the drama, we rely on the advice offered by Frost: “Lie to get at the truth.”
So, that’s the way I grew up, in the middle of great tales. I loved the language and the timing and the inflections and the laughs and the visceral smack of it all. I also read a lot of poetry when I was young. At eight, I thought “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was high art. By the time I was a teenager, I was enthralled with “After Apple-Picking” and “Poem in October.” I began taping up lines of poems around the house, and my mother just shook her head. That was after my father died. I was fourteen. And so there you have it: the potency of language, compulsory tales, a cathartic sadness. How could I be anything but a poet …
BSR: What poets did you start out reading?
KC: A priest I knew named Joe Ryan had been a starting quarterback for his high school football team. He’d play with us in the schoolyard, and sometimes literally in the streets, and he could throw passes like laser beams. I swear there was a time or two when one of his receivers dropped a pass and I heard him curse under his breath. We’re talking a priest here. For most of us, he had this Golden Boy aura. He was legit. Anything he said was utterly credible. So, after my father died, he said to me in this understated way, “You might like this,” and handed me my first poetry book. A paperback: Robert Frost’s Poems, edited by Louis Untermeyer. The one with the goofy illustrations. Still have it. Then I guess he saw I liked poetry enough to try it again he gave me the Selected Poems of Dylan Thomas. Then Auden’s Epistle to a Godson. Later, when I went to college, I heard a professor read “Prufrock” out loud. I was stunned. When I discovered Ariel, I was agog.
BSR: Who are the contemporary poets you enjoy?
KC: There are too many to cite! Let me name a few books I’ve returned to recently: Rapture by Susan Mitchell, Elegy by Larry Levis, Radio Sky by Norman Dubie, Human Wishes by Robert Hass, Star Ledger by Lynda Hull, Great America by James McManus, Black Zodiac by Charles Wright, Campo Santo by Susan Wood. But that list is so partial as to represent one of those infinitely small mathematical notations, like Planck’s constant, the kind you read about in books about the new science. Phil Levine, Thylias Moss, Sandy McPherson, Chuck Hanzlicek, Angie Estes, David Kirby, Ruth Stone, Terry Hummer, Sandra Gilbert, Bill Olson, Li-Young Lee … or how about Eavan Boland, Wendy Barker, John Ashbery, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brenda Hillman, Alan Williamson, Rodney Jones, Kim Addonizio, Hannah Stein, Bob Hicok … the list goes on and on.
BSR: If forced to choose one, what single author or poet has influenced your work the most?
BSR: Some people feel poetry is an innate skill that cannot be taught but only brought to light. What do you feel is important to keep in mind when a teacher introduces young writers to poetry?
KC: There’s a great pedagogical question. To comment on your comment: I think a good writing teacher can guide most willing novices to make a decent poem. As for teaching, our rule should be the physician’s: First do no harm. To teach creative writing, well, yes, you have to be a competent writer, just so you’ll know the craft; but just as importantly you have to be a patient human being. You have to like your students, and you have to like the act of teaching. You cannot afford to be mean-spirited. All new writers, no matter their age, need room to take risks and to fail without being wounded. If writing teachers can’t maintain the patience required in teaching that they maintain while they’re endlessly revising their own work, then I bet they’ll fail to see small indications of future excellence in their students’ work. Good teachers typically delight in the incremental progress; poor teachers typically are frustrated with the slow development of talent.
Futures, inner lives … they’re literally at stake here. Frankly, I think it’s best to remember the pure, transportive instances of writing a fine line or sentence and then to communicate the good grace of that experience to the student. I’m grateful that so many of my own writing professors did just that.
BSR: In your essay “A Philosophy of Teaching,” you say, “The act of teaching teaches me just as every literary work I teach teaches me.” Can you comment further on how teaching affects your connection to your own writing?
KC: I’m a writer first, but I almost never find the act of teaching tiring. Grading essays, working on committees, prepping … those parts of my job can get old. But teaching creative writing and contemporary literature is intellectually fun. I like the vast majority of my students. When they begin to write well, I’m gratified and energized. That energy infuses much of the rest of my life, including my writing. Likewise, my writing, especially when it’s going well, provides a high voltage surge that really amps me up in the classroom. And there are other bonuses. Teaching keeps me fresh. I like a diversity of poetic styles, and I assign books that I like.
BSR: Being involved in as many projects as you are, when do you find time to write?
KC: My department allows me to schedule all my classes in the afternoon. I write in the morning. Sometimes, later in the quarter, when the mounds of student essays build up, I urge myself to do one thing daily, even a small thing, just to advance my work. That might mean making a single revisionary mark on a new draft. Being a writer at a “teaching institution” requires some serious diligence. Summers, I luxuriate in the writing life.
BSR: How would you categorize your poetry stylistically?
KC: Right now two kinds of poems seem to fill up my files: the slower, reflective lyric and the high-velocity, edgier narrative.
BSR: Your book, In the Evening of No Warning, published by New Issues Poetry and Prose, is a culmination of years of chapbooks and published poems. Retrospectively, what themes are woven through your work as a whole?
KC: I suppose it was inevitable that when I was a younger poet my father’s death would drive me toward the subject of death. The last section of the book is a sequence of five mid-length poems about the effect of his death on my conceptions of mortality. Once I was married and then, a few years later, a parent, I found myself writing much more often about eros. “The Gift,” for instance, is quite erotic. Mixed in with poems about romantic love are those about the kind of love and paranoia that attends being a parent. The middle section of the book owns the faster, harsher poems I mentioned earlier, sometimes political in nature, often about the psyche under pressure. “One of Us” is a rapid-fire ten-page poem/story about a guy who traces his current anxieties back to a demonic bus ride he took through the South at night.
BSR: Do you choose your subjects or do they tend to choose you? Do your poems start as ideas which you pursue or as single lines that grow into poems?
KC: When starting a new poem, I often have no idea what I’m about to write. I guess my mood usually determines the subject of my work. Or a friend mentions that for weeks she’s been feeling purposeless. Or I remember a long-dormant event from my own life. Or the thread of a dream plays itself back. Sometimes, though, it really feels like chance. Whim. A swoon convertible to language. Sometimes I see the blank monitor and start typing words. This sounds good. And this leads to that and that sounds pretty good, too. Two days later, I see that most of it’s not worth much, but if I’m lucky something will survive and I’ll take off with that again. Of course, since I seem to write alternately about sexual love, social issues, and mortality, maybe I subconsciously cycle through three obsessions.
BSR: Can you give me an idea of the process you go through to get a poem from the seed of an idea to the final draft?
KC: If I’m home, I write on the computer; if I’m away, I use a notebook. I almost always finish a single draft in one sitting, and I usually feel good about it, though I know I shouldn’t. First drafts are usually loaded with dreck. I print it up. Then I come back the next day and, if I’m not too depressed about the draft, I spend some time on it. Then I print a revision and put the poem in one of the folders I keep on my desk. I let time go by maybe a month or maybe much more, while I work on other poems that are going through the same process. Eventually I come back to it. I write all over the hard copy, then enter the revisions and print that draft up. This goes on for maybe ten months, a year. At any one time, I probably have twenty-five or thirty poems in the cooker.
When I think the poem is bearably competent, I take it to my writing group. We meet once every three weeks or so. Three fiction writers and a poet. All brilliant readers and exceptionally frank and direct. Remember everything I said earlier about how to teach beginning writers? As Pacino says in Donnie Brasco, fuhgettaboutit. The assumption is, we’re here to make this the best possible work of art we can. There’s no time for niceties. Here’s our opinion. Take it or leave it. Over time I’ve become reasonably good at being coldbloodedly detached about my own work, especially at this stage of the poem’s development.
Anyway, maybe three-quarters of the time the folks in my writing group are unanimous about their opinions. Sometimes, though, they’re split. Either way, I listen very closely to what they say. The writer doesn’t get to speak until the group is finished. I want to hear if they have access to the “plot.” I want to know what they think about tone and voice and the underpinnings of the poem. Do they believe the poem executes its “project” (whatever that may be)? I take copious notes, and they usually give me their copies with more notes. I may ask a few questions. Then I staple the copies together, and in the next day or so I re-read everything. At that point, I make more revisions. The poem is nearing completion. I send it (often by email) to other writing friends, especially the poet Hannah Stein. I may show it to a couple of other local poets.
Now I make final revisions and I put it away once more. When I come back to it, I either send it out to a journal, or I give it last rites.
BSR: I have heard you quote Eavan Boland as saying, “Poetry begins where certitude ends.” To me that quote was a way of defining poetry as being a verbal manifestation of uncertainty and a way to deal with that uncertainty. What is your personal definition of poetry?
KC: Think about Pound’s In a Station of the Metro and Frank Bidart’s Ellen West. Both are poems, but they’re radically different experiences. Poetry is the unpredictable inquiry into the unknown. And that double uncertainty is what links it to Boland’s idea. With a nod to “Tintern Abbey,” I’ll try to answer your question this way: Poetry is the lens by which we see into the world, into the heart. It’s like a voice telling a story from another realm. It’s as if a good poem is a deep secret gone public.
BSR: You often write poetry book reviews and literary criticism. How important should literary criticism be to a writer? What value of it should he or she take into account?
KC: Well, writers certainly don’t need to write literary criticism. I do think a writer ought to know “the tradition,” however you define it. As for writing critical prose, well, I know there are writers who feel that criticism comes from a part of the brain that isn’t at all creative, that devoting time to that kind of thinking will mute one’s imagination. When I was young, I thought just this. But I studied with Sandra Gilbert, and I saw that she wrote stunning poetry and criticism. Then there’s Bob Hass, who wrote Praise, which I loved, and his book of essays Twentieth Century Pleasures … well, it’s brilliant. His piece on Rilke is one of the best explications I’ve ever read. Jarrell came long before Hass and Gilbert. A great poet, and has any other critic written about Frost as well as he did? David Baker, Lorrie Goldensohn, Stanley Plumly, Alan Williamson … they’re all terrific poets and excellent critics. So my ideas on the matter have changed considerably.
Writing reviews and other forms of criticism helps me better understand all the subtle aspects of my genre. I like the give and take of ideas. Essays are part of a big, ongoing, sometimes heated discussion. And I don’t think that critical writing comes from some sterile, hermetically-sealed, potentially autocratic room of the mind. When I write prose, I do feel the emergence of a voice akin to the lyric voice. Critical writing isn’t as exciting, of course, but I have to say it certainly provides its own thrill. Ultimately, I’m not conscious of specific critical works when I’m writing poetry, but I’m willing to bet that any writer who writes critically gains something subconsciously from the practice. If nothing else, the writer earns a heightened awareness of what’s possible, of standards, of what hasn’t been done, about what does and doesn’t work.
BSR: What critical works do you have underway currently?
KC: I’m in the process of writing three separate poetry book reviews. I also have a project for which I’m trying to find a publisher: a collection of essays by various, truly superb critics on the work of the most underappreciated poet of our time, Norman Dubie. I’ve also outlined a short critical book about the new high-velocity poetry that seems to be emerging.
BSR: This is not specifically related to poetry, but if you were stuck on a desert island and could only have three books and three music recordings, which would they be?
KC: Books: King Lear. Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Music: Bill Evans Live at The Village Vanguard. Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way. Now let me cheat a bit: the A side of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, and the A side of The Stones’ Let It Bleed.
BSR: What do you see in the future of poetry, at least through the twenty-first century?
KC: Thankfully, poets are a pretty subversive group. So they’ll write about the way pop culture, governments, and the market seem to blunt democratic inquiry, the way they overwhelm our thought processes. Yes, it’s a big project. Meanwhile, poets will also do what they’ve always done. Make poems new all over again. Tell us great secrets.