Interview with Former Poet Laureate of Missouri, David Clewell

Photo: David Clewell

Photo: David Clewell

Brief Biography:

David Clewell is the author of ten collections of poems—most recently, Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016)—and two book-length poems. His work has appeared regularly in a wide variety of national magazines and journals—including Harper’s, Poetry, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and New Letters—and is represented in more than fifty anthologies. Among his honors are several book awards: two Four Lakes Poetry Prizes (for Taken Somehow By Surprise and Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of), the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize (for Now We’re Getting Somewhere), and a National Poetry Series selection (Blessings in Disguise). He served as Poet Laureate of Missouri from 2010-2012.

Clewell teaches writing and literature at Webster University in St. Louis, where he also directs the English Department’s creative writing program and the attendant Visiting Writers Series. His collection of Charlie the Tuna iconography is currently the largest in private curatorship. And don’t even get him started on the subject of flying saucers.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about the story of the 14 year old boy who got on a bus in New Brunswick, N.J, to see where poet William Carlos Williams lived with his wife and kids?

David Clewell: 9 Ridge Road was long a famous street address, even before Dr. Williams’ death in 1963. Some five years later, I somehow got it into my head that I just wanted to see the house. This piece discloses a bit of how it all went down (especially the second paragraph, for our purposes here):

                                      This Could Happen Only in My New Jersey

Shortly after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Bob Stephens read every word of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience out loud to his 8 a.m. Freshman English class at Highland Park High because he honestly believed that words, used well, had the power to change lives. Small wonder, then, that he was the person to show me the first poems I actually cared about in mine. I’d always been a voracious reader—cereal boxes, newspapers, flying saucer books, Ray Bradbury, even some John Steinbeck—but my brushes with what passed for poetry, grade by inexorable grade, never failed to send me running at top speed in the opposite direction: delicate flowers cracking up through the ground, winged horses in the sky. I wasn’t much of a horses-and-flowers kind of guy in those days. I also got tired of charging into the Valley of Death with that celebrated six hundred every year, too (although that was hardly the good Lord Tennyson’s fault). And so it was that, at age fourteen (and at 8 in the morning, remember), I first made the company of Papa Whitman, Mama Emily D. and, maybe most meaningfully, Uncle William Carlos Williams—fellow citizen of New Jersey who’d died only five years earlier. Not just his red wheelbarrow and beloved plums, either; we read Pictures from Brueghel and the good doctor’s Autobiography. We even took our nutty stab at Paterson, Book I. And somewhere along that WCW way, I fell crazy-in-love with his pitch-perfect portrait in solitude, “Danse Russe.” This poet was speaking my kind of American language, and I wanted to be “the happy genius” of my household, too.

I don’t exactly know why I told my mother I was going to Mark Rosenberg’s house on that particular Saturday afternoon when, instead, I hopped a bus in New Brunswick and made for Williams’ Rutherford, then somehow found my way to that already legendary 9 Ridge Road address. I knew only that I wanted to see where he’d lived. After a few minutes of just standing there on the sidewalk, I was turning to head back to the bus station when the front door opened, and Flossie Williams—perhaps gleaning that I wasn’t a graduate student working up a dissertation, looking for an interview—invited me inside. She talked about her husband for the next two hours, showing me his workroom, his typewriter, a few of his favorite books. I knew I should be getting home; I was taking this good woman’s time. And I was supposedly a mere few blocks away at Rosenberg’s. I actually said this, out loud, to Flossie Williams and, instead of being perturbed (she was fifty-something years a mother herself, after all), she offered to call Josephine Clewell and explain why I’d be running late. And although “This is Flossie Williams” meant nothing to my mother, that fall afternoon both she and her husband meant everything to me.

When I got home, my mother was less than happy. I read “Danse Russe” to her three times that night; I guess she finally had to smile. She loved me more than poetry, and she promised she’d keep on trying to understand us both.

Geosi Gyasi: How did your study with Finkel at Washington University shape you as a writer?

David Clewell: I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to go to graduate school; I’d been fortunate to find some reliable personal work habits (let’s call it discipline) and some success in placing poems in good magazines and journals. But I knew that if I wanted to teach someday, I’d need the graduate Fine Arts degree. When I considered possible schools to apply to, I discovered that Donald Finkel–a terrific and still-underappreciated American poet whose work I loved, and who could never be accused of writing any academically-fashionable-only poems (something I surely wanted to avoid at all costs)–was teaching in the program at Washington University in St. Louis. I applied, was accepted, attended…and wound up working closely with the person who would become my best friend–as well as my best critical reader–for many years (until his death eight years ago).

Finkel taught me how never to settle for the merely-skillful…the pretty thing well-made. I wasn’t much doing that anyway, but by his own examples he showed me the wide, wild territories of poetry and encouraged me in the longer, breathing lines I was discovering.

Geosi Gyasi: Poet David Lee once referred to your book, “Blessings in Disguise” as a “breakthrough book”. Could you comment on this?

David Clewell: In calling Blessings in Disguise a “breakthrough book,” I think Lee was  speaking in terms of my own work–certainly not, say, in terms of all American poetry! In the most pragmatic sense of the phrase, this was the first of my books to reach a larger, national audience–no doubt helped along by its being chosen as a winner in the National Poetry Series. It’s also the collection that featured poems longer than I’d written up to that point, and the “enlarging of the canvas,” as it were, would be something that stayed with me and allowed for all kinds of new possibilities.

Geosi Gyasi: What triggered the idea to write, “Now We’re Getting Somewhere”?

David Clewell: Now We’re Getting Somewhere–the book that followed Blessings in Disguise–came together as a whole and found its shape when I was working on a poem called “A Long Way from the Starlight.” This is what happens with almost all my books. I don’t sit down with the intent of “writing a book”…rather, I’m thinking of and working inside of one poem at a time. Sooner or later, what will actually emerge as a book more or less declares itself to me: thematic concerns…linguistic concerns…certain subject matters…  Poems that connect up with each other. And often it’s while working on a particular poem that something kicks in almost out of nowhere, suggesting what the next manuscript might include… what shape it might take. And just as often it’s a line, or part of a line, from that poem that ends up operating as the title for the book–an umbrella under which I’d like to think the poems find comfortable mingling.

Having said that, I’ve also published three book-length poems: Lost in the Fire (an imagined history of Spontaneous Human Combustion); The Conspiracy Quartet (four linked poems trafficking in American conspiracy theories); and Jack Ruby’s America ( a narrative poem taking up the life of the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of JF Kennedy). Each of those books were largely written with the idea and shape already in my mind–if not the particular specifics– as I went into the project. But those are significant exceptions to the way my books usually come together.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you good at memorizing poems?

David Clewell: Most of the poems I’ve memorized is the work of other poets. Those are the things I love having that kind of immediate access to. And mostly I never set out “to memorize” poems (although there are a few exceptions to that). Instead, it ends up happening because I’ve returned to read them so often, for their various reasons I love. And even though some of my students find the phrase “by heart” to be hopelessly old-fashioned, it’s how I like to think of memorization–emphasis on heart. In that sense, I’m about as old-fashioned as they come! I don’t have quite the entirety of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” by heart…but I’m getting frighteningly closer.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific ritual you embark on before you write?

David Clewell: I have no specific ritual that I practice before getting ready to write–other than reminding myself that I’ll willingly write down anything–no matter how seemingly silly, tangential, or precariously unlikely. I always have two legal pads at the ready: one with yellow paper and one with grey paper. I work in long-hand, always, until close to the very end (or what I think might be near the end) of what’s usually a large number of drafts. At that point I’ll move to my typewriter, typing late drafts and then scribbling all over those in ink again…then back to the typer…back to the crossing out…till finally something comes (with any luck, usually after at least several days or weeks)) to some kind of place of rest.

In the course of working on my newest book, Almost Nothing toTo Be Scared Of, an odd habit of sorts–if not exactly a ritual–did enter my writing life. Because of a rib injury, I’d taken to sleeping in a recliner (the only place I could get into an almost-comfortable position). Most nights as I managed to fall asleep, my semi-conscious mind would do its nutty dance through all kinds of language: phrases, mostly…not visual images. I’d do my best to scrawl those down on the pad I kept at the ready. But since I had no lamp near this recliner, I was literally scribbling in the dark…and I couldn’t always read what was there when I woke up in the morning. But sometimes I could, and I noticed I was tapping into different kinds of verbal constructions than I more usually did. Some poems actually sprang out of those oddball proceedings, and a good friend began referring to this recliner as “the dream chair.” The new book has its own section, fittingly called “A Dozen from the Dream Chair”–poems that are a bit on the short side for the likes of me, and maybe (just maybe) a little bit quirkier, too.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer?

David Clewell: I never write on a computer. It’s too easy to make things disappear. It’s too easy to add things. And if there’s going to be any machinery involved, I prefer the sound of typewriter keys.

Geosi Gyasi: So far, how has been the response to your new book, “Almost Nothing to Be Scared of”?

 David Clewell: So far, the response to the new book, Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of (the key word here is “almost”!), has been very gratifying. Stefene Russell, Culture Editor for St, Louis Magazine, writes: “No one is more of a perfectionist than Clewell. His lines crack wise and breathe easy, but break out your mechanical pencil and map the scansion, and it’s clear they’ve gone through draft after draft. As with any master, his hand is invisible unless you look hard.”

I like that “crack wise and breathe easy” part…

And even though the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” is often good advice, I don’t mind at all if folks judge this book by its cover…what a great (and mixed-message) photo from 1961, in the heart of the Cold War years!

(Here’s a short thing about the very cover:

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me how you started the Webster University Visiting Writers Series and how far it has come?

David Clewell: I started the Visiting Writers Series at Webster University thirty years ago (1986). We’ve present a variety of writers (not just poets, but also novelists, short-story writers, nonfiction writers, and playwrights) at different stages of their writing lives–from first-book authors to seasoned, multi-book veterans. Our 100-or-so visitors have included Philip Levine, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Lynda Barry, C.K. Williams, Billy Collins, Lucia Perillo, Jamie Quatro, George Saunders, Li-Young Lee, Naomi Nye, and Ron Carlson.

The sole criterion that determines who we (myself and my writer colleagues) invite is: that we are enthusiastic about their work–the style and finesse, regardless of subject matter. While many reading series feature writers who are buddies of the organizers, I would say that at least 90 per cent of our writers were invited without our knowing them personally at all.

We’ve been extremely fortunate; over the years Webster has a reputation (among writers) as a great place to read from their work.

Geosi Gyasi: You tell me, how does it feel to have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry seven times?

David Clewell: To be nominated for a prize is always an honor. In that the Pushcart Prize nominations were put forward by editors who’d already once selected Clewell poems for their magazines and journals–and then felt as if they wanted to push things to another level, choosing from so many things they’d published in a given year to make the few nominations they’re allotted…well, that’s very gratifying. But still, although it’s nice to be nominated on those multiple occasions, I’d point out that it’s also seven times I came up short of getting an actual prize!

Four of my books have won book prizes, including my new book (which received the Four Lakes Poetry Prize, making me the first two-time Four Lakes winner). (Gee…does “two-time Four Lakes” mean Eight Lakes?!)

Geosi Gyasi: Does the company a writer keeps have any major influence on the writer’s life?

David Clewell: I think the company that a writer keeps can certainly have an influence on that writer’s work–sometimes directly, and other times more indirectly. In recent times, the Beat writers had important friendships (think especially of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac). So did the so-called “New York School” of poets (think especially of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery).

“The company I keep” is not made up exclusively of other writers, either–far from it. Keeping the company of good and curious human beings has always been a wonderful influence in my life. And when I do spend time with writer friends, we tend not to engage in too much “shop talk,” if we can help it.

Final thought on this: I try always to keep the company of some of the best minds and hearts that have gone before me, too–reading and rereading the likes of Whitman, Dickinson, W.C. Williams, Keats, and Yeats (among so many others) provides me with some of the best company I can possibly imagine.

Geosi Gyasi: How does a poem start for you?

David Clewell: I almost never begin a poem with any distinct or cogent “idea.” Instead, it usually begins somewhere in the realm of language itself: a turn of phrase or an overheard comment–but always specific language in  a non-literay context, to be sure. From there the poem proceeds to lead me to some sense of concrete images or situations. And even when I finally stumble upon even a sort-of-idea, I try not to get overly attached to it too soon. One of my favorite American poets, Richard Hugo, suggested that the problem with insisting on something too much (and too early) is that by doing so, you’re giving up the chance of finding something even better. I seem to have to learn and re-learn this–and often the hard way– with almost every poem I write.

In Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of, there appears a specific. phrase I’d carried with me for years.  I followed it up a lot of blind alleys and walked it into a lot of dead ends before it finally worked its nutty magic and declared to me where it belonged: “We want you to believe in us–but not too much.” Those words were supposedly spoken to a young Nebraska patrolman by space aliens  whose roadside lights he was investigating.

It took almost ten years for me to realize the poem, if there was ever actually to be one, could not or would not be merely a zany account of flying saucers in America. But it ultimately ended up being a poem very much concerned about a particular America! It took that long for me to settle in with a range of literal and figurative implications inherent in that alien’s remark.

And of course the question of whether or not the incident itself actually, factually happened winds up being completely irrelevant.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever put your personal life experiences into you writing?

David Clewell: To the extent that all of my poems wind up being about things I’ve thought about, I could say that my “personal experiences” are never far from any poem’s heart. But as to whether or not the poems are made up of events, situations, and the like that have personally (autobiographically) occurred in my real life…? Well, that’s sometimes a different story. When I give talks about my work, I’m fond of saying: “When I say I, it isn’t always me.” I want the same freedom that a fiction writer has when it comes to creating narrators who might effectively convey the goings-on they’re describing. I’m writing about things that, in the larger sense, are not unique to me alone. I want the poem to “be about” the reader’s life, finally–not mine.

I’m here attaching the text of a short talk I gave recently. It speaks more clearly, I think, to these matters. Feel free to excerpt from it if there’s anything useful there:

                                 When I Say I, It Isn’t Always Me ————-Clewell

For me, poems don’t usually begin with a thought-out idea—let alone any idea about David Clewell’s anecdotal life. They start from concrete instances: an image…some language (for its sound or its “sense”)…

and then, with any luck, it’s a matter of finding out why I might have seized on those particulars in the first place. I’ve just used the pronoun “I,” and in this context I am indeed referring to the factual, actual me—who’s more interested in writing as an act of discovery than as a process of confirming or affirming what I think I already know.

In the broadest sense, poetry is made up of two types of impulses: the lyric and the narrative. The lyric mode is an expression of feeling or thought, unhinged from any particular “story line.” As the name suggests, the narrative mode tells a kind of story—implies some sense of “this, then this, then this.” Contemporary poetry is most often a hybrid, a combination of these two impulses, as opposed to being “purely” one or the other.

Traditionally, the lyric had been considered a type of autobiographical, first-person expression—a “burst” of thought or feeling that expresses the poet’s state of mind-or-heart. The narrative was traditionally a “story”—which might or might not involve the pronoun “I” (ostensibly, then, the poet)—told to entertain or instruct. Some of this might have to do with a conception of the poem as some kind of intimate truth-telling. People might assume that a poem is inherently more strictly autobiographical than other genres of writing.

In our time, when so many poems use both lyrical and narrative elements, it’s important to understand that the “I” is a particular creation of the poet; it comes with a lot of flexible possibility. The “I” need not be the poet’s factual actual, autobiographical self—although sometimes it might be something very close to that. Think of the “I” as a created speaker who gives voice to whatever-the-goings-on of the poem. In these days of public readings and presentations by poets-in-the-actual-flesh, it might be hard not to think of the “I” as actual, factual…autobiographical. After all, here’s someone facing you, not far away at all, and often insisting on “I…I…I.”

In this important sense, it’s similar to the way that “I” works in novels and short stories. When Herman Melville wrote one of the most famous first sentences in American fiction—“Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick)—it wasn’t because he’d got tired of people calling him “Herman” in his real life. Ishmael is someone Melville decides is better able to relate the concerns that Melville himself is interested in, even beyond the hunting of an elusive whale: passion…power…greed…obsession…etc… .

Poets are more interested in what I like to think of as “the emotional truth” than in any strictly-accounted-for

‘actual factuals” from their own lives, from what they’ve actually experienced. Poet William Stafford was often asked, “Did that really happen to you that way?” His favorite answer: “Does it seem as if it could have?” And, ultimately, that’s the important consideration. The poet cares more about showing us some aspect of the human heart—human life—in a way that perhaps we’ve never thought about it before. The poet wants to evoke in the reader or listener a particular combination of the unexpected and the inevitable. “I’ve never thought about it [whatever “it” might be in the poem’s moment] quite this way before” is what I mean by the unexpected. “…But now that I do, it seems so right” is the sense of the inevitable.

There’s a significant difference between what’s richly personal and what’s merely autobiographically anecdotal. Because poetry is bigger than any one poet, the material of a poem is bigger than any poet’s autobiographical experiences. A poem’s given situation and circumstances—its concrete particulars—allow the reader to participate, no matter how briefly, in the specific, human world the poem is trafficking in. It’s the poet’s job not merely to tell the reader about an experience, but to allow the reader, vicariously, to have that experience—whether or not the reader’s ever had such an experience in her factual life. Therefore, the reader, too, needs to move beyond the bounds of mere autobiography (beyond “I can’t relate to this because it’s never actually happened to me…”). For this to occur, the poem most often needs grounding in a real-world, space/time continuum—a place for the reader to be.

Poetry is more than journal entries broken into lines. It’s more than personal credos, no matter how passionate or sincere. Poetry is a way of giving some specific shape—no matter how small or only momentary—to some of the many things that swirl through a more collective human experience. The poet’s job is to show us human life by showing us human lives in the context of the world we actually live in. I’ve been working on that for what’s been, by now, a considerable while, and still it’s an art I’m constantly relearning in so many ways from scratch. I’m always trying to find new strategies for keeping the possibilities open, even while I try to keep the words moving.

Geosi Gyasi: With this business of writing, have you gained anything you would consider worthwhile?

David Clewell: Writing (along with reading) is the single most pleasurable thing that I do in my life.  It has also helped me learn how to pay better attention to the world we really live in every day. That seems a worthwhile thing for human beings on the planet, whether or not they are writers. It’s more than worthwhile, actually. It’s increasingly necessary.

Geosi Gyasi: What was your main role as a Missouri poet laureate?

David Clewell: As Missouri’s Poet Laureate, it was my distinct pleasure to travel all around the state, talking with many different kinds of groups about poetry. I’m always delighted to talk with students and teachers (anywhere from kindergarten through university), but I was especially glad to have opportunities to talk with other folks who were not already what I like to call “poetry-inclined”: farmers…factory workers…military veterans…hospital staff, etc. I found myself in many “non-literary” situations, and I was exceedingly happy for those.

One of the criteria for being Poet Laureate (in addition to a solid, good body of work) is the ability to communicate at many different levels with a variety of people. Because I’m a pretty down-to-Earth kind of guy, my audiences were genuinely curious–and always fairly enthusiastically receptive. For many, these events provided their first genuine exposure to poetry–or at least their first since however-many-years-ago they had to “put up with it” in their early schooling. If I had a dollar for each time someone said to me, “I didn’t know a poem could do that” or “I didn’t know poetry could be about this,” I’d be a richer man than I am.

I think I was able to help open a lot of minds and hearts.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you observed some of your students gone on to be better and successful poets/writers?

David Clewell: In thirty years of teaching, I indeed have seen many students become better and successful writers. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see the definite beginnings of that process while they are still in classes, but more often it occurs after they’ve graduated. Those who want poetry to be a continuing part of their lives need to find the sense of discipline that will keep them working, keep the poems, somehow, in the heart of their daily lives. The world at large couldn’t care less if they keep writing poems. And the same is true about the world and me. It’s the writer who’s got to care.

The world cares about me paying the rent…buying groceries…showing up to meetings. And that means I’ll always be juggling other pragmatic concerns and fighting for the time to write on a regular basis. Time is the coin of the realm for the poet.

This is the discipline a good number of my students have managed to learn for themselves. While they’re in my classes, I can coax, wheedle, admonish, cajole, and applaud–but they teach themselves how to write better by learning how to make–and save–the time in which to do it. And if they find satisfaction and pleasure in continuing to practice the art (as I find my versions of those things, always), that is the measure of their true success; that’s above and beyond any publications, prizes, and awards.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any young American poets whose work you would consider important?

David Clewell: As I advance further and farther into old-codger-dom, it’s harder for me to get a handle on the sense of “young”–anyone who’s not quite as old as I am? Trying to do a wee bit better than that, and purposely avoiding naming former students of mine, lest the charge of nepotism rear its head, I’ll say: Patricia Lockwood. Brian Turner. And now creeping up much closer to my age, where there are so many I consider “important: Lucia Perillo. Daisy Fried. Amy Gerstler. H.L. Hix . Campbell McGrath. Lynn Emanuel. Amy Newman…  And, though he’s a wee bit older than I, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Albert Goldbarth–America’s one-man-genius-poetry-band. And Frank Stanford, forever young (1948-1978)–a primal force of poetry nature whose What About This: Collected Poems, was just last year loosed upon the world.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you changed as a writer since your first publication?

David Clewell: Have I changed as a writer since my first publication? Indisputably. I just hope it’s been mostly for the better! I’ve learned a lot about both the art itself (that’s lower-case “a”…nothing hifalutin going on here!) and the world I’ve always tried to take on in that wonderfully maddening enterprise. Ultimately, I guess that’s for others to say.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you describe in precise detail, how you start off your day and how you end it?

David Clewell: I’m not sure that precise details about how I start off my day and how I end it would be particularly interesting–or even factually possible. Aside from drinking a decent amount of strong black coffee at the outset (always) and a tumbler of ginger ale at the stroke of midnight (not always, but always Canada Dry when I do), most everything else– from the sublime to the ridiculous–varies wildly. I try to read for an hour or two before falling off into sleep but, given my aforementioned old-codger-dom, sometimes that turns out to be more like fifteen minutes. But if I’m in the throes of a new poem or new revisions, I somehow seem to have the energy to lose myself in those pages until, out of nowhere, the sun is actually coming up. And then it’s clearly Coffee Time all over again.



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