Stranger by Adam Clay (Milkweed Editions, 2016) | interview by Ariel Berry | headshot by Alain Finkeltroc
Adam Clay is the author of two previous books of poetry, A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World and The Wash. His new book, Stranger, is now available from Milkweed Editions. He currently teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield and is co-editor of TYPO Magazine. We recently communicated through e-mail to discuss Stranger, his writing process, and the writers who have influenced him the most.
AB: Stranger is your third published book of poetry. How have you seen your writing evolve? What can readers expect from this new book?
AC: I’ve tried to do different things in all of my books. With The Wash, my first collection, the personal was embedded deeply within persona—in many ways, I felt strange bringing the personal into my work unless it was explored through other voices. I suppose it felt strange to use the “I” as myself because I felt young and as if I lacked life experience. What, after all, could I offer? I was also working against the Southern tradition of narrative/story-telling I had explored as an undergraduate in Mississippi—I wanted to consider more lyrical work, alongside formal poems. It just felt like it was time to do something new. In my second collection, A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World, there was a definite shift from this hidden personal voice to a more direct use of “I” as myself as poet within the book. The poems in this second book were deeply influenced by the work of Larry Levis in terms of line and form, but I also wanted a more narrative approach as well. I’m not sure how or why I shifted to a more personal voice. In some ways I returned to the narrative tradition because of my time in the Midwest—it felt like I had to write about what I was seeing around me. For my third book, I made a conscious effort to write longer poems to explore this form and what it might allow. The new book is a deeply personal book, and writing longer poems led me to explore poetry as a subject matter, along with notions of a shifting identity, domesticity, and the political, as well.
AB: What was your writing process like when you were working on Stranger?
AC: My process has changed a bit since my previous collection. For this third book, I drafted a number of poems without a clear vision or understanding of where the manuscript (as a whole) was headed. I wouldn’t say I wrote as often with my first two books—there’s been a shift towards writing as a routine. I usually write a poem-a-day in April and sometimes carry it on through May, June, or even longer. I find it’s ideal to have a large amount of work to reflect on and tinker with during the process of forming a book. From there, I’ll usually print off everything I’ve written since the previous book and start sorting, tinkering, and revising. With hundreds of poems to cull from, there are places where one poem will do the same work as another one, so a lot of my changes are connected to creating a cohesive book where every poem has a unique function or purpose.
AB: Several of your poems express a brooding discomfort with using words to define abstract concepts. This is particularly apparent in “Along the Edge of a Season,” which includes the line “I’m / hearing one thing / and speaking another.” As a poet, have you struggled with the limitations of language and how have you dealt with it?
AC: This is something I often talk with my students about in terms of writing. When one feels limited by what language can do, one has to write through it, even if what’s being written doesn’t seem to make sense at the time or even if it doesn’t feel remotely related to what’s come before.
I’ve had success from putting fragments of poetry into a document all together and seeing what can happen from the randomness of what ends up next to each other. It’s a trick Kate Greenstreet taught me. Sometimes juxtaposition can provide a way out or a way to illuminate the connection between two seemingly unrelated images or ideas.
AB: You often draw attention to time in your poems with a particular emphasis placed on days of the week and time of day. In my reading this felt grounding in poems that were in many ways abstract. What is the significance of time for you in your life and in your work?
AC: I haven’t really thought about it before, but I would have to say that this connection to time comes with the act of writing daily. I also find that a lot of my poems explore the notion of language and how arbitrary it can be. Time is like that, too. It gives the appearance of form in a fairly chaotic world. I’m really fascinated by the idea of how humans have managed to give structure to a world without it. Obviously poetry does this, too.
AB: Your poems frequently evoke images from nature. Rather than poetic placidity, these poems often link nature with calamity and decay. In one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Not Quite Right,” nature is sullen and deathly, showing “birds with their / heads temporarily taken off.” In contrast, the next poem, “Compost Hymn,” rejoices in the rebirth that can come from decay. Do you view nature as a destructive force or as benevolent? Are these hopeful poems?
AC: That’s a great question. I suppose I’d have to say both—it’s pleasing to me in the way that nature can function as both destructive and restorative. I’ve been thinking a lot about how energy can’t be created or destroyed—it can only be changed to another form. I’d say writing about nature is something I’ve always done in each of my books. I think it’s hard not to write about this as a poet—it’s something we encounter on a daily basis. Even though we are altering it (and destroying aspects of it), I take hope in knowing that nature will adapt and thrive long after we’re gone. When my daughter was very young, she mentioned something to us about the dinosaurs returning to earth, digging our bones up, and examining them to learn about us. I love that idea. I hope she’s right.
AB: These poems are haunted by a sense of alienation and defamiliarization. The title of the collection highlights this. Why do you think this emerged as a theme in Stranger? Is this something that has interested you previously?
AC: I toyed with notions of alienation in previous books, but it was something I wanted to explore after the birth of my daughter. I was thinking about the way in which life experience can impact the world in such a way that it really isn’t the same again. With the birth of a child, one welcomes a stranger into the world, but as a parent you also become a different person, even to your partner or to those close to you. To be honest, it took me a long time to find a way of writing about fatherhood that didn’t feel sentimental. I wanted to explore the challenges that come with taking on a new role and becoming, in essence, a different person. In that sense, it’s a book about transition as much as it’s about alienation.
AB: Stranger is divided into four sections. What led to that decision? How do the sections work together?
AC: I originally didn’t want to have sections, but as the book grew, it felt like they were an ideal way of breaking the work up into thematic sections. The book has Michigan poems, Kentucky poems, and some Illinois poems, too. I didn’t arrange these sections entirely along geographical lines, but I did loosely. The book was originally in three sections as I finalized the book, and adding the third section (the long poem, “This is a Frame”) came very late in the process. I bumped into Juliet Patterson and Rachel Moritz at an AWP gathering at Milkweed and they asked about the new book and if the longer poem was in it (it was originally published in The Volta). This led me to think about the possibility of another section. “This is a Frame” is in many ways about poetry as subject matter, along with language and how we frame daily experiences through it. “This is a Frame” was written over the course of a month—I wrote a page each day.
AB: Many of your poems are written in first person. Though the speaker in a poem can certainly be a separate entity from the author, several of these poems seem to be inspired by nonfictional events. This is particularly noticeable in the discovery of a friend’s cancer diagnosis in “The Cradle of All There Is.” How much does your personal life influence your work? What other sources do you draw from?
AC: My personal life is a huge part of my writing, which comes from the process of writing every day. I find that process really impacts the way one views the world in that everything becomes material. The opening line of “Elegant Comparison” came from my daughter who one fall commented that the “trees were falling off the leaves.” It was too good not to use. The routine of writing daily often trains the mind to be open to what can be repurposed into poems. I’d have to say that most of the poems in Stranger came from personal experiences. A number of the poems also come from writing exercises I’ve given my students or work I’ve written when I teach in the summer for the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. I’m fascinated by the constraints offered by restrictions and many of these poems are the result of focusing on music more than meaning, though of course meaning emerges eventually. In fact, “The Cradle of All There Is” had its genesis in a conversation with a friend, but it also came from an assignment I assigned my students based on a Mary Ruefle poem.
AB: Can you describe the Mary Ruefle assignment? Does your teaching often influence your own creative work?
AC: It’s been a while, but I think it was an assignment where I essentially reverse engineered a poem, using some constraints from Ruefle’s poem, “After a Rain.” The students were asked to use a phrase from her poem as their title and the rest of the constraints were syntactical (I think the poem was supposed to be two sentences—the first one fairly lengthy and the second one fairly short). I like the idea of looking through free verse poems and imagining what kind of constraints could have produced it. I’ve used content-based requirements, as well, for assignments. Quan Barry’s “Motif #1 as Location” is one that I’ve taken apart and used. The first prompt might be something like this: in line one, have something speak that doesn’t normally speak, which is based on her opening line: “This is what the afternoon said: content begets form.” The trick, though, is to not know the poem and just have the guidelines. During the semester, I have each student generate forms like this and share them with the class—it’s a great resource for countless structures that can be used for writing poems, something crucial when one isn’t feeling inspired.
Teaching has always been an important part of my writing life, if only because of what my students teach me about music and meaning. It’s remarkable to think about there being no limit for what one can learn about poetry—it might seem overwhelming at times, but it makes me realize there’s always a new path to consider, no matter how many paths you’ve taken before.
AB: Section twelve of “Sounds of an Emptying House” begins with the lines “In a dream I was alive just long enough on this earth / to remind you of something you had always meant to do.” Is this what you hope to accomplish with your poetry? How do you want people to respond to your work?
AC: This is such an interesting question, one I’ve haven’t thought about enough, to be honest. I think the “you” in that poem (or at least in this moment) is actually the speaker of the poem, but there’s definitely a voice reaching outward as well. As a poet, one of the greatest responses to my work is simply when someone feels inspired to write because of it. I think there’s a lot to be said for the way that a line or an image might impact the way someone views the world. Some of my favorite lines of poetry have become my favorite because they’ve become a part of my life—I can’t see the thing being described without thinking of their work.
AB: What writers have most affected you as a reader? Do you see this influence coming out in your work?
AC: I mentioned Larry Levis earlier—he’s been an important part of my writing life. I also connect a lot with the work of Emily Dickinson, a poet who seems very interested in contradictions but also in the playfulness of language and what can be explored through it. During the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time with John Ashbery’s Three Poems, a book that challenges notions of what poetry can be or do—the first poem of Stranger is an address to Ashbery (and more specifically, his poem, “This Room”). I think a lot of my poems are speaking to his work, at least in a tangential way. I often write with a book open next to me. I used to think of reading and writing as two separate acts. Now I know one can’t happen without the other.
Stranger by Adam Clay