Interview originally published by Flashpoint as Tension & Release: An Interview with Poet Kevin Clark
May 3, 2011Kevin Clark is a poet with music in his blood. Whether it be jazz, classical, rock and roll, or blues, he’s excited about all of it. When reading his poems, one can be sure that an old classic is playing somewhere in the background. Kevin Clark’s Self-Portrait with Expletives won the Pleiades Press contest. His first book In the Evening of No Warning earned a grant from the Academy of American Poets. His poetry has appeared widely in such journals as The Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Kestrel, Gulf Coast, and Black Warrior Review. His criticism has appeared in many venues, including The Iowa Review, Papers on Language and Literature, and Contemporary Literary Criticism. His poetry writing textbook, The Mind’s Eye: A Guide to Writing Poetry, is published by Pearson Longman. He teaches at Cal Poly and the Rainier Writing Workshop. See kevinclarkpoetry.com.
The following is an April 2011 interview via email between Ephraim Scott Sommers and Kevin Clark.
EPHRAIM: As you understand it, what is the relationship between popular music and contemporary literature?
KEVIN: You know, I’m often wrestling with Walter Pater’s idea that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” I know what he means; we like nonverbal epiphanic moments in which we “get” something. But life is not an EST session in which we deliberately sit around waiting for “it” to strike us. I don’t buy Pater’s notion. It’s like saying all language aspires to the condition of French. Yeah, well maybe for musicians, music is tops. Maybe for the French, language should be theirs alone. It depends on temperament, right?
Here’s the thing: In the big picture, all art is united by a need to create a visceral and intellectual reaction in its audience. Artists want to create two things at once: gut-level feeling and mental action. Good music and good literature do just this─as do successful examples of the other arts. To an extent, music and literature do the same thing, especially music with lyrics.
EPHRAIM: What kind of music have you been enjoying lately? Other than those musicians you’ve written about directly, what music has influenced your poetry?
KEVIN: Do you have a month or two? Perhaps a 55-gallon drum of coffee? Because I love this question, the answer could go on and on …Let me first say that for the last three decades I’ve been listening to jazz primarily, though I still love rock and I listen to classical as well. Very little hip-hop, opera, or chamber music. As an example of my recent jazz tastes, for my birthday my wife, Amy, gave me a Chet Baker and Bill Evans CD recorded over three sessions in 1959. When we first put it on, I was stunned I hadn’t heard it before. It’s lush and complex and inspiring.
But today is April 24, 2011, and to answer your question, I’ve just gone to look at the carriages in both of my CD players, and here’s what else I found: In the bedroom: Goin’ Home by Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, For Lovers by Nina Simone, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, Haunted Heart by Charlie Haden, and When the Heart Dances by Laurence Hobgood. In the living room: The Complete Legendary Sessions by Chet Baker and Bill Evans, Ballad Essentials by Scott Hamilton, Demons by Cowboy Junkies, Live in London by Leonard Cohen, and Blessed by Lucinda Williams.
As to the music that influenced me, well, the totality of all the music I’ve listened to is like the totality of all the poetry I’ve read─it makes me aware of the seemingly infinite expanse of the heart. When I was this skinny, white ten-year-old in suburban Jersey, I heard a song that I think was called “Hey Little Blonde Girl” or something like that—and it was rockin’ and I played it over and over on my parents’ 45 record player. It made me want to dance. My parents listened to very little music, but I also listened to their platters of South Pacific, the musical they saw in Manhattan before heading out on their honeymoon. “Bali Hai” still kills me. As a teenager I listened to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five album at the same time I listened to Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Shirelles, Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys, etc. To this day I think “Sally Go Round the Roses” by The Jaynetts is one of the great expressions of the post-war era. Like “Bali Hai,” it’s haunting and weird and even today I just love its mystery.
All of which is to say this: Sometimes inside me the raging drive of rock is at war with the sad romance of the ballad. If I’m lucky, the two impulses form a truce that simmers in my work as either hard-driving narrative or elegiac lyric.
EPHRAIM: As you’re well aware, ekphrastic poetry is poetry about another art form. Ekphrastic poems in your new book, Self-Portrait with Expletives, are about both sculpture and music. Can poetry about music provide something that poetry about sculpture or painting cannot? What is the major difference between the two?
KEVIN: I really appreciate the fact you’ve read the book that closely … but listen, I don’t think there’s a difference between poems on either subject. We could speculate that poems about music involve more kinetic energy and that poems about sculpture are more about stasis, but when I think of poems such as Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” I just don’t see that kind of difference. It’s the poet’s state of mind that generates the poem’s style, tone, and content.
EPHRAIM: What ekphrastic poem has influenced your writing the most? Why?
KEVIN: Hands down, Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” High school? Freshman year in college? I remember being nineteen or twenty years old and sitting outside my mother’s house and thinking about that poem and the inexplicably wondrous and dreadful inevitabilities of life. Somehow I connected that poem to my father’s death in 1965 when I was fourteen. My first book was deeply influenced by his death, and in a way Auden’s poem was a part of my training. His tone is virtually perfect. Unfortunately, the only time I was in Paris the museum was closed and I couldn’t see the painting.
EPHRAIM: Poetry is a form of art that is often compared to music. How would you describe the “musical quality” of a poem as you understand it?
KEVIN: Fifty or more years ago poets would answer this question by discussing received forms─rhyme and meter and repetition and how these devices would engender “musical” sound. But for me, all good poems have─by virtue of the musicality of language itself─some degree of sonic resonance. Such character is the instantaneous and ongoing effect of many factors: word choice and colloquialisms, rhythm, repeated sounds (including alliteration and interior rhyme), line length, punctuation, etc.
The poet Marilyn Nelson said that some poets are talkers and some are singers because they either mimic conversational patterns or stress melodic qualities. I write in both styles.
EPHRAIM: The lyric is the kind of poetry most often associated with music. How would you define the difference between narrative poetry and lyric poetry? In which direction to you see contemporary poetry heading?
KEVIN: I stick with the traditional definitions here. Both forms convey something about the human condition. The lyric renders the interior life: emotion, internal atmosphere, mental sensation, that kind of thing. The narrative focuses on external events in a way that usually heightens suspense. Both need elements of the other, however. If all you have is emotion without context, you have pabulum; so the lyric needs some semblance of a plot. On the other hand, if you have nothing but plot, your poem is antic and empty; so the narrative needs lyric interludes.
EPHRAIM: In praise of your narrative style in Self-Portrait with Expletives (distributed by LSU Press, 2010), Martha Collins writes, “These poems raise narrative poetry to a breathtaking new level of pleasure.” As a narrative poet, how might the narrative construction of your poems be similar to a musical composition? In what other ways might a narrative poem be musical?
KEVIN: Many musical pieces with or without lyrics present some kind of situation in which a conflict becomes apparent─and then the tension rises and rises to a climax. My poem “Self-Portrait with Expletives” has five sections. In the next-to-last section, the tension builds to such a climax. I tried to enhance the speaker’s growing urgency through the use of repetition, punchy figures of speech, increasingly shorter phrasing, etc.—all factors that contribute to the ongoing effect of sound.
Some musical pieces, often those longer than the typical three-minute AM radio hit, have a complex symphonic expression in which all kinds of melodies are presented before they return in a kind of coalescing closure. Surely this is the case in classical and jazz and rock: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dexter Gordon’s “I’m a Fool to Want You,” The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” In her great book Rapture, the poet Susan Mitchell provides this arc of progression over and over─but with surprise side journeys and unexpected conclusions. Narrative poems can similarly make use of threads and turns and runnels that may circle back on themselves into something new. I think this symphonic quality can be an aspect of verse musicality.
EPHRAIM: With regards to the intersection of poetry and music, poets such as Langston Hughes or Kevin Young choose to write poems in song form (that is they choose to speak as the musician), while other poets speak to or about the musician. Which do you find to be the most effective? Why?
KEVIN: I’m not a musician. I can empathize up to a point. I don’t write songs, never have. So I wouldn’t try to create a poem as a song. What’s more, I don’t trust myself to be in the musician’s originary moment of creation. So I rarely if ever attempt to write about the musician composing the piece of music. It’s a matter of the poet’s particular imagination. T.R. Hummer is a terrific horn player and I think he can write from that point of view much more readily than I.
I do like writing about the song as its being played. I like imagining what the musician is feeling. I also like imagining what the conflict is, even when there are no lyrics. The title helps, of course. So I guess you could say that I prefer writing about the life situation being rendered by the music.
EPHRAIM: In the poem “Radio Fate,” you describe your boyhood experiences with listening to Jean Shepherd stories on the radio, and how the central characters in Shepherd’s stories received a flash of success followed by an imminent downfall. It seems that the role of the radio during that time in the fifties and sixties was to provide a realistic look at ordinary Americans. How has radio changed since that time? Today, what relationship do music and literature have with the radio?
KEVIN: I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer the first part of this question. Before the counterculture, yes, radio provided a look at ordinary Americans. In 1960, that same skinny ten-year-old I mentioned earlier used to listen to DJ Cousin Brucie of WABC playing The Four Seasons and The Four Tops and all those other groups. Those songs were about the usual heartaches involving love and romance. But when the counterculture emerged and FM radio became our radio choice, the songs became much more political and philosophical. College students drove the playlist. The interests of the counterculture were wonderfully represented in music (though not as well in poetry). The songs were about personal freedom and personal choices in the context of war and race and much more.
Today there’s still great music about these subjects, but I think most downloads are purchased by teenagers, right? I may be in way over my head here, but radio and electronic delivery systems that guarantee your particular choice of style may be limiting what all people listen to. Not sure. I think it would be too facile to say that the increased obsession with celebrities has reduced our interest in what’s new artistically.
I do like the fact that you can hear poems on the radio and the internet. Garrison Keillor and Verse Daily and Poetry Daily and many other sites give us access to striking poems, sometimes even read aloud by the poets themselves. This is a good thing. But, ultimately, serious poetry, the kind that’s meant to be read on the page, is doing what it’s always been doing: striking out in search of effective, intriguing ways to render reality. Whether radio or the Internet gave it a voice or not, poets would continue on that search.
EPHRAIM: Currently, the songs we tend to hear on the radio have a very specific sound and construction, and because of this, we call them “popular.” Is there a “popular” contemporary poetry? What is it? Why might it be so prevalent?
KEVIN: Great question. Clearly you’re a poet. You know how often we ask ourselves this kind of thing. Sides get taken. Manifestoes get written. Journals covertly criticize each other. Styles rear up and fall away. All of this is to the good. Poetry evolves. For fifty years, critics (who are usually poets as well) have worried about the so-called “workshop poem.” The kind of thing that allegedly has no originality, that follows a script or formula, that seeks out common denominators rather than surprise.
There are, after all, undergraduate creative writing workshops in virtually every college in the country. And there are MFA programs in creative writing and now PhD programs in creative writing. Surely, some believe, these programs all teach the same thing! Not to mention the same style! But while there are plenty of similarities in what’s said, on the whole most programs advocate originality. I know absolutely that we do at Cal Poly as well as at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at which I teach during summers. That’s why there is so much diversity of style today. Much more than, say, in the thirties and forties and early fifties.
Free verse still dominates, of course, but there are plenty of formalist poets. Maybe free verse is a prevalent choice because it provides so much elasticity of expression. I often write in syllabics myself. In fact, in the book I’m writing now, I’m working in a syllabical tercet that’s marked by visual caesurae.
Think of poets such as David St. John, Susan Mitchell, Norman Dubie, David Kirby, Gertrude Schnackenburg, Ruth Stone, Kevin Young, C.D. Wright, Peter Gizzi, Michael Palmer, Rae Armantrout, etc., etc. These folks are stunning writers and yet they differ from each other quite a bit. Today’s poetry is loud and provocative and varied─and yet it does not “sound” like poems of earlier centuries because speech itself changes over time.
EPHRAIM: “Whipping Post” is a poem about a near-death experience you have while driving with your son and listening to an Allman Brothers tune of the same name. There, you juxtapose the song being played live in 1971 with the poet’s experience while listening to the song in 2004 all in the same moment. The poem provides an effective place for that to happen. Can you explain how you went about composing the poem regarding the collision of two separate moments in time? Where does music fit in to all of this?
KEVIN: About seven years ago, just after my son had earned his driver’s permit, we decided to drive roughly 200 miles to San Jose for an SAT practice session─and we thought some driving practice was in order as well. We spent the drive sharing CDs with one another. He’d pick out a favorite song and then I’d pick out a favorite song, and we’d talk about why we liked them. Then along Highway 101, he drifted way too far to the left, cutting off another vehicle. It was scary, but we survived without an accident.
I don’t usually do this, but I’d taken a laptop with me, and while he was in class I drafted the poem in the hotel room. I had played “Whipping Post,” which, as most Duane Allman aficionados know, has the one of the greatest guitar solos in rock history. I love the song. It builds and builds as if it’s heading for some rock satori.
I knew I wanted to write about the song and our near accident. As soon as I sat down to write, Duane’s own vehicular death in a motorcycle crash and our very dangerous experience struck me as a parallel and the poem pretty much wrote itself. I played the song over and over in that hotel room and I went back and forth between the song and the moment of my son’s driving trouble. The poem’s cadence picks up something from the song’s rhythm. Tension builds and builds. Finally, we’re safe─but Duane’s death is a kind of haunting behind both.
EPHRAIM: “Accident Alert,” is the last poem in Self-Portrait with Expletives. The epigraph reads: “Dexter Gordon’s ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ plays for 1:23 — then fades out quickly.” The poem ends with an aside: “‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ fades in from 2:53 to finish.” The poet has a really intense sensory experience with the song. As you have envisioned, in what way do you intend for the audience to experience the poem? What role does the song play for you in the composition of the poem? Why is it the final poem in the book? And why that song?
KEVIN: In “Accident Alert,” I tried imagine what it was like in the Blue Note recording studio in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1965 when Dexter Gordon got together with Barry Harris (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Billy Higgins (drums), and of course Freddie Hubbard (trumpet). I tried to get in touch with Dexter, with that sax, so I could render what he’s rendering: What it feels like to be flat-out rejected by someone we love.
I can tell you that the song title fit thematically with my idea, but that would be nonsense. I chose “I’m a Fool” because, quite simply, it’s my all-time favorite sax song.
I also have a poem in the new book called “I’m Fine,” and it’s about being in the hospital with a possible pulmonary embolism. I don’t mention “I’m a Fool to Want You” or any other song in that poem, but, all alone one night on a hospital bed, after the TV was off, I listened to that song a few times on my headphones. I’d already been listening to the poem for years after my friend Mary Kay Harrington gave it to me. She and her gift appear in “Accident Alert” as one of the fortunate accidents.
“Accident Alert” came into being when the College of Liberal Arts at Cal Poly asked me to deliver a “last lecture” talk at Cal Poly. The idea was to imagine the last lecture of my career. What would I want to say to my students? I didn’t want the students simply to listen to a dry lecture; so, after a couple of truly awful passes, I wrote it out as a poem. I’m deeply, happily married, and my wife tells me she’s sticking around, thank god. But people heart-close to me have died, especially my father and Joe Ryan, the ex-priest in the poem. I felt that linking that sense of ineradicable loss to the question of writing might uncover something visceral. My writing group gave me a good deal of help with it, and, despite its length, the journal SOLO published it, for which I’m grateful.
When you write a poem, you don’t necessarily try to direct the reader’s feelings per se. Looking back from a distance, I realize I want the reader of this poem to experience that downright funereal sensation you get after the person you need is lost or gone forever. But I want something more than that, too. Most elegies try to have some kind of comforting principal, and both the song and the poem are elegiac. I suppose I hope the reader feels all the sadness and comes out with some kind of sustaining motive to survive. In part, we survive by making art─which is, I think, an upbeat sentiment with which to close out a book.