10 Questions for Clayton Adam Clark
- By Sarah Lofstrom
"Trees on the bluff, its layered limestone
and the plants grown into rockface,
down to the river road and in
across two pontoons and the water
you stand in. Try to make the image
wash you out. You take on the sun's halo,"
—from “Self-portrait with Asian Carp and Mississippi,” Summer 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I’m hesitant to tell you about the first poetry I wrote because I don’t think anyone wants to hear about the poems I wrote in high school to my girlfriend (I thought quatrains with repeated end-rhyme was a good idea; i.e. a-a-a-a, b-b-b-b, c-c-c-c). But instead, perhaps, I can talk about the first poem I wrote that was in a style similar to “Self-portrait with Asian Carp and Mississippi.” I was halfway through my MFA and had been floundering quite a bit when I wrote this poem called “Skeleton.” It was this windy, discursive half-lyric/half-narrative poem, not quite blank verse but with a strong iambic current to it, and for content it included, among others, references to a state fair butter sculpture, the spinal abnormality of one of my friends, and the time my mom got amnesia after getting hit by a car on her bike. Before that I’d been desperately trying to avoid writing about myself out of equal parts fear of sentimentality and not really knowing how to write about myself in a way that would be interesting to readers. And as a result, I was writing poems without much humanity or pathos for readers to connect with.
With “Skeleton,” I had stumbled upon a way of writing about myself—specifically the ways I make decisions and my growing suspicion of linear cause-and-effect thinking—but I only referenced myself as one piece in a larger collection of loosely related subject matter. It seems so obvious now, but at the time, it was a revelation. By positioning myself in the context of all of these things and connecting them through associative logic and loose meter, I was able to write a poem that sounded like me, thought like me, and was about my history, but was about so much more than me, too. My personal experience was just one piece of the larger picture, which, thematically and rhetorically, was where I’d been aiming all along. I got a lot of reinforcement in workshop, which (for better or worse) encouraged me to keep writing like this. Since then, I’ve tinkered with the ratios of content types (personal, research, abstraction, etc.) and the associative leaps between, but the same basic approach started there in that workshop and continues today as seen in “Self-portrait with Asian Carp and Mississippi.”
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Of the contemporary poets alive today, I’d say Terrance Hayes, Maurice Manning, Andrew Hudgins, and Bob Hicok. It was no coincidence that I had recently discovered Bob Hicok’s work in the second year of my MFA (in a class with Andrew Hudgins, a tremendous teacher) when I wrote that poem, “Skeleton." Hicok’s work was doing a lot of things I wanted my poems to do, so I read as much of his work as I could get, dissecting how his poems were put together. It’s a genuine honor to see one of my poems published alongside Hicok’s work in this issue.
What other professions have you worked in?
Right now I work as a public health researcher. For the past 6 years, I’ve worked in nonprofit health organizations as a communicator and fundraiser, so my current role is an extension of that. I find the subject matter of health and the body fascinating (it informs my writing, too), but truth be told, I struggle with having a job where I spend most of my day at the computer, with little interaction with others. So I’m also currently studying to become a clinical mental health counselor, which I think will be a better fit for my extroverted tendencies but also allow me to stay in the health field and keep helping people.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a lawyer. Fortunately, I interned at a law firm in college, which was the best thing that could have happened to me as I learned quickly that I had no business going into law.
What inspired you to write this piece?
This poem is inspired by some time I spent on the Mississippi River. North of St. Louis, the river opens up a bit, becoming almost lake-like, and so people boat there and hang out on the sandbars and banks. It was also the first time I’d seen Asian carp in person, after having read a lot about their effects on the river’s ecosystem. So I guess that’s the place and the research that inspired it, but the human, personal part was inspired by the ugly stages of a closing marriage before knowing it was in fact ending. During that time, I’d also stumbled across the mental and physiological benefits of turning my focus outward rather than letting my mind stagnate inward on everything that was happening (what I later learned is called “mindfulness”). I wanted to write about all of those things, but each piece on its own was too risky—too sentimental, too abstract, too argumentative. It took a lot of revision and time to meld the pieces together in this poem, but it was through this amalgam that I could take on each of these things.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I write a lot about Missouri and the Midwest. I was born and raised in St. Louis, and then returned as a young adult. I remember being in my MFA with people who were from deserts or beach towns or mountain communities, and I was so jealous that they had such interesting geographical features from their homes to write about. Eventually, I stopped being so lazy and looked closer at the place I’m from. We have the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, which are remarkable, sure. But there’s also this profound geological history here (this region was beneath a shallow sea long long ago), which I didn’t discover until I started researching the region and spending more time in our state parks. It’s a physical history, one you can see and touch—and also see changing as it gets touched—which offers a complexity that I think is ripe for writing.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I run to stay in shape, and one of the things I’ve learned is that running is a great time to work through the problem areas in my poems. It’s rare that I’ll come up with a new poem while I’m running, but if I have a poem I’m working on, I can let my mind go to work on a part I want to improve or just free-associate on the content and test out new bits of language until I find something that sticks. Then I scribble down as much as I can remember when I get home.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
In the past, I would workshop long distance with some former classmates from my MFA program. Presently, I’m not connected to a writing community in that way, so I suppose the answer to that question are the editors at literary magazines where I send my work. I don’t want it to stay this way, but it’s actually working for me right now, given my current projects and my commitments outside the literary world.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on edits for my first book, A Finitude of Skin, which will be published by Moon City Press this November. I’m really excited about it, but I'm feeling all sorts of pressure to get it right. I have to remind myself to trust in the years and years of work that went into it already instead of trying to get it 'perfect' right now. I’m also slowly fine-tuning and adding new poems to my second collection, Flight Theories, while I send it out to publication contests.
What are you reading right now?
Last week, I finished Matthew Sumpter’s Public Land. Matt and I got our undergrad together and eventually our graduate degrees, so it was a real treat to read his first collection, which I highly recommend. It gave me plenty to think about in terms of how we write about the self engaging with nature, particularly through work. Next up is Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs. I read this a while back, but I just visited Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is the setting for his book, so I decided to read it again. Between the time since last reading it and the visit to the cave, I think it’ll be a whole new reading experience.
Clayton Adam Clark lives in Saint Louis, his hometown, where he works as a public health researcher and volunteers for River Styx magazine. His first poetry collection, A Finitude of Skin, will be published later this year (Moon City Press, 2018), and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Mid-American Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. He earned the MFA in creative writing at Ohio State University and is studying to become a clinical mental health counselor at University of Missouri-St. Louis.