You might recognize Patricia Clark from one of her four books, the latest of which is Sunday Rising. Or maybe you caught her work in journals like Poetry, The Atlantic, or Slate. Personally, though, I’m hoping that name rings a bell because we here at Atticus Review were privileged to publish her poem, Body Ash, back in June. And we’re even more pleased to proclaim her our Featured Poet for September, with all the rights and privileges afforded by that title. (Patricia, your gold-plated Cadillac, first edition of Leaves of Grass, and a coupon entitling you to lifetime tax exemption should be arriving in a day or two.)
Body Ash wasn’t the first time I encountered Patricia’s work, though it felt that way. That’s part of her strength; each time a fit of serendipity steers you under the archways of one of her lyrical dances, you find yourself gaping like an awestruck tourist. Yet those familiar with our Poetry Features know that lyrical acrobats aren’t enough to earn that gold-plated Cadillac; lyricism also requires a deep sense of humanity and purpose to sustain it, and Patricia’s poems are roiling with it. As I think you’ll agree, Patricia’s poems contemplate existence even as they celebrate it, weaving wit and music to tremendous effect.
But first, let’s chat with Patricia about poetry form, some influences, and a word or two of advice for young writers.
Michael Meyerhofer: I noticed that some of your poems (like Aerodynamicand Undertone) play with form and build tension by using some indented lines whereas other, equally strong poems are “traditionally” left-justified. As both a writer and a teacher, I’ve found that a lot of readers and students are interested in pulling back the curtain and hearing a writer’s rationale for this. Can you talk about how you go about selecting the form for a poem?
Patricia Clark: Yes, sure, this is an issue I’m happy to discuss. You identify correctly some of what I’m doing with these forms — “play with form” and “build tension.” I want to keep it interesting for me, the writer, and if I simply did flush left margins all the time, I’d be bored, I think. That said, I’ve heard the poet Charles Wright talk about some of his shapes and forms — his step-down line, for instance. He says he wants to use “all the page” and I think he’s talking about the page as a landscape. Either he mentioned the painter Mark Rothko or I invented that he mentioned Rothko. But it’s as though the writer is doing some “color field” painting and wants to stretch out and use both vertical and horizontal directions on the page.
I also certainly try to marry the form with the type of content coming up in the poem. Usually in my notebooks I am making quite a mess, writing longhand, and perhaps am not sure initially what form the poem will take. Somehow I want the poem to tell me organically what direction it would like to go in.
I think of the two poems you mention, “Undertone” is probably working most with the line and line breaks with its form; I think “Aerodynamic” is more riffing on the subject and letting the lines be playful in responding, hopefully surprising the reader in a few places.
MM: On a related note, do you have any advice for aspiring writers when it comes to form—or, in a broader sense, developing one’s own aesthetic?
PC: My standard advice probably isn’t surprising: try a lot of different shapes and lines; and read a lot of poetry (from the old classic writers from any age to the present) and see what others have done. Charles Wright didn’t invent that step down line — I mean, look at William Carlos Williams. And I’d add a couple of corollary points to the others here: a) try to develop your ear by counting beats and hearing your lines. I’d even recommend memorizing some of the favorite poems of others that you know and admire. Work on ear development and I think the line and your rationale for it will be strengthened. b) I’m fond of saying to students that the Rule of Distraction says, “Is this distraction worth it?” The whole key with writing is about how effective it is as writing, how well a line is pulling its weight in the poem. If we end up distracted by indents or drop downs or whatever and falling out of the dream of the poem, it may not be worth it.
Lastly, c) don’t settle too quickly into an aesthetic — as a young writer, be OPEN to trying many different voices, shapes, lines, styles. Don’t feel you must immediately know your voice. I don’t think you will and I don’t you can hurry it. Take your time, grow into writing, and the aesthetic issue will solve itself. But you must FEED your knowledge — and I mean with international poetry, historical poetry, types of poetry you’re not immediately drawn to. Embrace a wide aesthetic for poetry, rule out as little as possible. You’ll have more fun and you’ll learn so much!
MM: Many readers often want to know how a particular writer got started. Can you talk about how your first book came about (both the writing and the publishing of it)?
PC: Sure. North of Wondering is my first book — it has some poems I wrote in graduate school, though nothing much (maybe 1 poem) from my MFA days of poetry. When I arrived at University of Houston for a Ph.D. program and looked back at my work, I felt dissatisfied, as though I’d never really written poems before. They looked like poems but they weren’t–either weren’t very good, or just weren’t exciting and interesting enough.
I’ve just looked back at North of Wondering — and I remember a couple of very productive times AFTER graduate school. There’s a whole bunch of poems in the book that I wrote at a writers retreat in Virginia — Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I went there on my first sabbatical and I wrote a ton of poems — and quite a few ended up in the book. Those retreats can be helpful because the places typically feed you and it frees you my home chores and daily things (which can be both a plus and a minus). The other thing I see in the book is a summer or two of intense writing when I gave myself assignments: Write a poem in terza rima; write a poem about a painting; write a poem that uses a foreign language phrase; write a poem using a specific street address.
Happily I went about trying to arrange all these poems into a book and found a coherent whole. This book won a competition — and the publisher told me to call one of the judges to ask her about taking any of the poems out. It was an amazing conversation and the judge said “There isn’t a weak poem in the book. Don’t take any of them out!” That made me feel good. That was a New York poet who I’ve yet to meet, by the way: Mary Stewart Hammond.
MM: How do you think your work changed over the years? Are there any elements that have stayed the same?
PC: Funny, yes, but though my work has changed there are definite elements that have stayed the same. Well, what? I’m really into the music of poems, so I hope there are sonic qualities. That said, I do try to roughen things up and to fool around with my harsh sounds from time to time.
I think one big change is that when you gain confidence in your writing, you know when you can leave things out — and you’re able to leave more & more out, still confident you won’t confuse people (too much) but instead will entice them, interest them in the poem’s movement.
I’m still consistently interested in some emotional depth, along with some verbal and syntactical surprises. I want to PLAY more as I write, and I’ve gained more confident in how to do that.
Always I’m trying to widen the range of what I write about, the tones I use, etc. etc. I hope my reach exceeds my grasp, but I want to continue to explore and to take risks, even big ones, even ones where I fail.
MM: What got you into poetry?
PC: I think both the music and the emotion got to me. Some tuning fork inside me vibrated me what I read or heard. I’m thinking now of poets I loved when I was young — Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, And of course a lot of music was around with great lyrics — Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles. It’s not the same, exactly, as poetry, but I just knew by the time college was over that I wanted to be a poet. I haven’t looked back since then.
MM: Any new projects in the works?
PC: I’m finishing a new book of poems. It’s my fifth and I’m as excited about this manuscript as I’ve been about each of them. Writing is really an adventure, though harrowing at times and isolated at times. It’s also really, really fun, and challenging.
MM: Where can readers find you online? Any websites you want to plug?
PC: I’ve had poems in Slate and the Atlantic. Also Terrain, and Cortland Review.
MM: Just for kicks, what was your favorite toy as a child?
PC: I don’t have much interesting here to say — I had a prized rocking horse I liked to ride, wearing a cowboy hat, etc. I had a (live) rabbit named Nervous given to me by my grandfather.
Photo By: Jose Chavarry
I love what Patricia says here about keeping the writing of a poem interesting for the writer, for herself. She reminds us that this is art – that this is playing, this is creation, and the greatest satisfaction is in the doing. Nice interview.