Interview originally printed by Pleiades Press as Interview with Kevin Clark, Author of Self-Portrait with Expletives
by Pleiades PressPLEIADES: What is the significance of the book’s title?
KEVIN CLARK: In the larger sense, the poems chronicle what it’s been like to be an American male over the last four decades. You can’t always adjust to changes in your life and culture as quickly as those changes are taking place. Sometimes you just swear and laugh to get by. If David Mamet can swear nonstop in his plays, I figure we poets can swear some in our poems.
PLEIADES: You seem to be describing culture shock. Is that the subject of the title poem?
KEVIN CLARK: In a way, yes. The title poem is about a cross-country car trip I took when I was about thirty. I drove from the Bay Area to New Jersey with an old friend of mine who’s now an extremely powerful union leader in Southern California. Back then, he was a photographer, I think. We’d gone to high school together in north Jersey, and I’d pretty much learned how to curse from him. Anyway, we were damn near run off the road by a pickup in Ohio, and twenty-five years later the whole trip came back to me as a poem. The two of us laughed a lot that week, and I hope this poem and several others in the volume are funny and then some. After I started revising it, I noticed how—unbeknownst to me—it started to get at the way heterosexual men use language to extend friendship in a homophobic world. I mean, let’s face it, even today Americans are still absurdly uptight about gays. Growing up in Jersey, I can tell you the whole subject was cast in a particularly nasty light. That crazy fear was manifest in a kind of compulsory swearing. The poem wants to imagine getting past all that. But it’s set thirty years ago, so we don’t quite get there.
PLEIADES: Some readers have suggested that the poems in Self-Portrait with Expletives form a kind of poetic bildungsroman, as if it were a novel about growing up. A kind of countercultural Everyman is propelled out of the sixties and seventies, and he eventually finds a more settled way of being today. Did you write the book with this intention?
KEVIN CLARK: I’d like to say I did, but I don’t usually write with such a big picture in mind. When I start arranging poems for a volume, I pay close attention to tone first, then theme. Most of the opening poems feel edgy, headlong, maybe transgressive to me. I thought that electric, even adrenal sensation was a good place to start the book. The lyric, more romantic poems logically positioned themselves afterwards as a kind of response or resolution. I didn’t write the poems in that order by any means, but, yes, the tone suggested the arc of development you mention. Though I’m not sure the speaker is ever truly “settled.”
PLEIADES: You seem to use many different forms to tell different kinds of stories. How conscious of form are you?
KEVIN CLARK: Though there are lyric poems and plenty more lyric interludes in the book, I really like the way poems can help cut to the chase of a good story. I like immediacy. I like narrative as long as it’s crosscut with surprises, whether they’re in the form of subplots, reversals, moments of self-consciousness, shifts in point-of-view, even surrealism. (All of these make the poems fun to perform at readings, by the way.) And I’m in love with the seemingly infinite number of forms available in free verse, though I sometimes write in syllabics, too. I like to play with white space, enjambment, dialog, regular and irregular stanzaic patterns, drop lines, and sometimes many of these at once.
PLEIADES: The erotic life, marriage, romance … These seem to play important roles throughout the book. In fact, there are some sexy moments here.
KEVIN CLARK: I’m kind of a post-postmodern romantic, if that’s possible. I’m painfully aware that language is constructed, we’re all products of our native tongue and society, and so on. I’m also aware that my deep past involved dangerous and foolish goings-on. The countercultural life, not to mention the writing life … both could have left me detritus on the wind. But somehow, against all odds, I met an intuitive, brilliant, and by god good-looking woman who was willing to marry me and stay with me. Call it what you will, it’s some kind of grace. I want language that knows its limits but seeks redemption anyway. That’s what I mean by “post-postmodern.” And so to your question, yes, all the immature naïve longing for sex and love in the first section finds some vivid resolution in the last two sections.
PLEIADES: Finally, the book alternates between dread and happiness. Is there a theme consciously at work throughout?
KEVIN CLARK: I think I can answer that this way: After a prefatory poem, the book is divided into four sections. The first employs a fast, narrative style to show how the past bores into the present. The title poem’s in there. The second section marshals diverse forms to investigate ways of dealing with mortality. I guess that’s the key. We know we’re going to die and we know we don’t know much more than that, but we try to figure out how to proceed. The third blends narrative with a kind of lyric, even melodic introspection to explore intricacies in marriage. A sustaining; perhaps a buoyancy. The final section is one longish syllabic poem, examining the relation between mortality, creativity, love, and apparently random events. Here, the speaker admits longing for “open / closure, the kind that improvs its own end- / lessness.” I think those lines are thematic; they’re about the way we move forward.
Kevin Prufer & Susan Ludvigson, Editors
Department of English, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, MO 64093
To order Self-Portrait with Expletives, please contact Louisiana State University Press at 800.861.3477 or visit the author’s page on the LSU Press website.