Interview with William Bedford Clark
with Chistopher McCraken
I first read William Bedford Clark's collection of poetry, Blue Norther, early in 2010-January or February, maybe. Except I guess I didn't so much read it as edit it. It was my first semester as a graduate assistant intern at the Texas Review Press, and I was tasked with copy-editing and formatting electronic manuscripts using publishing software that I was quite unfamiliar with. Basically I had to make sure that ellipsis were properly spaced, that en-dashes were made into em-dashes, and that there were no otherwise weird formatting issues involving too long lines or single last lines of poems dangling all alone at the top of a page (the editorial term for these is either widows or orphans-I can never remember which). This particular task causes the words on the screen to lose meaning after a short while; it's sort of like repeating a word-like, say, rodeo-over and over until it just becomes a sound. Rodeorodeorodeorodeo. . . . See? So it's hard to absorb a poem when you're too busy adjusting the millimeters of space between words so they'll fit together on a line without looking cramped. Anyway, Blue Norther was my first book to edit and format.
And yet somehow, almost a year and at least ten more edited and formatted books later, when I was asked to pick a new Texas Review Press publication and read it with the goal of eventually interviewing the author, I picked up Blue Norther and remembered it. A lot of it, actually. And I remembered it pretty well, if I do say so myself. A professor of mine once told me that when she was working as an intern at a poetry journal her basest litmus test for any poem was to walk away from the slush-pile for a while then ask herself, "What poems do I remember?" Those were the ones she moved up the editorial ladder. I found that to be good advice when sorting through the Texas Review slush-pile (and maybe now would be a good time to admit that my memory is not exactly photographic-maybe phonographic). And so it speaks to the poignancy of William Bedford Clark's lines that they stuck with me so.
Opening lines like, "No one that I knew that I know of died," from the poem "Oklahoma City" and, "Sing, sluttish Persephone," from "Two Ancient Lyrics" had embedded themselves in my brain. I also realized I had been carrying around in my head closing couplets like, "Urges linger like tipsy guests. Divorce and worse / Line up behind a tardy psychedelic hearse." from "Cultural History" and, "It may be grass is best left to itself, / Like Depression glass on a what-not shelf." from "Lawncare." It was good to be reminded where these lines came from. It was like finding five bucks in a suit jacket pocket and suddenly flashing back mentally to the wedding where you'd last worn it and remembering stuffing the fiver-change from the bartender-into your pocket while being dragged onto the dance floor, trying to hold your drink level, by that ex-girlfriend who kind of makes you sad to think about, and a little mad because you hate to dance, and you wonder what ever happened to her. And whose wedding was that? And did they last?
Does that make sense? Well, that's what William Bedford Clark's poems are like.
Professor Clark teaches English at Texas A&M and is co-editor of rWp: An Annual of Robert Penn Warren Studies. Harboring a healthy graduate student timidity around well established professors such as Prof. Clark, I opted to forego a more personal interview approach in favor of exchanging emails. Based on the wit and thoughtfulness of Prof. Clark's answers, I somewhat regret my decision; it probably would have been much more fun and enlightening than painful or scary.
TR: Seeing as you're a Robert Penn Warren scholar, I was curious if you think author interviews (like this one) somehow violate the intentional fallacy?
WBC: You're astute to bring up the "intentional fallacy." Certainly Warren, along with his lifelong friend Cleanth Brooks, the two great evangelists of the New Criticism, recognized that a poem is much more than the realization of the author's conscious "intention." To know what Keats had in mind when he wrote the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is hardly sufficient for experiencing the poem he left us. And then there is this: Poems tend to take on a life of their own and take the poet to places he in many cases never intended to go; intentions in art, as in life, are seldom realized in any pure, undiluted sense. Yet Warren certainly submitted to his share of interviews over the course of his career, and what he had to say to his interlocutors about the how and why of his writing stands as an invaluable legacy for anyone who wants to read his work wisely and well. But reading the interviews is no substitute for reading the poems, a process that ideally welcomes all the multivalent perspectives it can command.
TR: Your biography on the back of Blue Norther says you "abandoned poetry as an undergraduate" but then "returned to writing verse in late middle-age." Could you talk about this a bit? "Abandon" is a strong word. It suggests a sudden and fundamental flight away from something. Is this an accurate description of what happened with you? What made you decide to come back to poetry?
WBC: Like many Angst-filled young men, I committed my share of youthful indiscretions when it came to writing verse. Having previously "abandoned" my musical ambitions, I found myself an English major at the University of Oklahoma from 1965-1969, and poetry, surprising as it might seem, was a hot item on most campuses during those days. A reading by Karl Shapiro or Brother Antoninus would fill an oversized auditorium, with people sitting in the aisles. I posed and poeticized accordingly, but somewhere around my senior year I realized that I would rather read (and with luck teach) Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden, and Lowell than turn out poor imitations of them. When I completed my graduate studies at LSU and entered upon an academic career, I of course had plenty of students and scholarly and critical projects to keep me busy, and the perfectly legitimate, all-important demands of husbandry and fathering are not inconsiderable. I guess it would be fair to say that until late middle-age I was leading something like the proverbial "unexamined life." A trip to the confessional two or three times a year provided me with about the only introspection and moral accounting I received. But one day, if a man lives long enough, a sense of reckoning looms, and for me that proved an incentive to return to poetry. If nothing else, I had more lived knowledge to draw on, a more mature sense of aesthetic discernment, and a hard-earned awareness of my own not infrequent absurdities. That was a more solid foundation on which to build than the shifting sands of undergraduate cockiness. I might note for the record, though, that two of the poems in Blue Norther, properly tweaked, date back over forty years. The reader is free to speculate, if he or she is so disposed.
TR: Some of the poems have dates as epigraphs. Were the poems written on these dates? Or are they remembrances of these dates?
WBC: I suspect you have in mind "Baton Rouge." The precise date there is quite arbitrary, representing a period in my life that I felt compelled to revisit. The specificity, I hope, lends a measure of dramatic force to the scene, but in any case it is contrived. So is the poem in general, I might add. Retrospection is obviously one of the driving impulses in my poetry. I am convinced that Eliot got it wrong in the Four Quartets when he suggests at one point that we are subject to a radical Heraclitean flux and that as we travel through life the individual who sets out from point-B is not the same person who arrives at point-C. I think we are indeed the same person, however altered by time and circumstance, and to recognize where we are now depends upon better recognizing who we were then. So the poem is autobiographical, but more fictive than factual. The man shares some of my least admirable qualities, I'm afraid. But the girl in the bandanna is a composite portrait, and there is a bit of perverse wish-fulfillment fantasy there too. The neighbor woman sweeping her yard (an old Southern practice) is straight reportage, however. So the poem is a blend of memory and imagination, less confessional than constructed.
TR: In a couple poems ("Plains Song" and "Lawn Care"), the suburban lawn shows up as a motif. I've thought for a while that lawns are kind of a weird aspect of modern middle-class life. On one hand, they seem like time consuming, burdensome, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses type things; but, on the other hand, for many Americans (especially in Texas) working on a lawn is a Zen-like activity. What's your opinion of lawns? Do you work on your own lawn often? Were these poems inspired by yard work?
WBC: The well-manicured suburban lawn, now that I think of it, is probably our version of the eighteenth-century landscape garden: a concession to the vitality of nature on the one hand and a determined expression of our will to keep its potentially threatening fecundity within bounds. (I probably read that somewhere.) In any case, my approach to lawncare, to the disappointment of some of my neighbors, has always been pretty lax. To the tune of the old holiday classic, I am wont to sing "let it grow, let it grow, let it grow." My wife has finally secured the services of a yardman, but he is not much of an improvement over me. As to the second part of your question, I very much agree that work properly done, whether physical or mental, takes on a "Zen-like" quality. The Benedictines have a saying: "Work is prayer." Not always, of course, but when the worker and the work mysteriously merge and conventional time ceases to matter. That's definitely a kind of transcendence, and most of us have felt it now and then.
TR: Two of the poems in Blue Norther approach academia in interesting ways. "Tenure Deliberations" deals with the "grim stakes" of the "Six years, up or out!" system of tenure, and "Demographics" seems concerned with the privileged life of academics juxtaposed (in the case of one Texas university town) with that of an immigrant laborer. Do you find the politics of academia stifling? Do you think, as I think "Demographics" suggests, that some of the work done in English departments ("We worry at a tissue of signifiers, / And deconstruct the Holocaust as social text") is overly precious and detached from actual human experience? Do you find writing poetry that deals with these topics cathartic?
WBC: Most academics, at least those I have encountered in over four decades in the trenches, tend to be Gnostics; they believe they are in possession of a special redemptive knowledge that sets them apart from run-of-the-mill humanity. The fact is our learning is not salvific in and of itself; we are no better than "lay" people and often as bad or worse. Witness the rascally (and pathetic) professor in my poem "Sinphonia." Tenure time brings out the worst in many of us. I will let "Tenure Deliberations" speak for itself. But there is also a more recent force at work in the humanities that I find especially pernicious. The "new" theory in all its multiple permutations divorces mind from matter, language from "things," but somehow has achieved hegemonic status in many departments of literature. This "postmodern" way of coming at the world is reductive in the extreme, and its attractiveness to otherwise intelligent men and women is simply incomprehensible, likely perverse. Despite its historicist claims and its avowed commitment to social justice, the new theory is the enemy of everything that is authentically human, and that means literature too. We live in our bodies and make connections between mind and matter, and language is not a "prison-house" or set of arbitrary signs. If we believe that, it is time to shut down our workplace and turn out the lights. The jig is up, and it may well be that literary study will put itself out of business - and soon. The poor day laborer in "Demographics" is wiser and leads a much richer, more human, life than the professors across town. A measure of his common sense would do the reigning intelligentsia no end of good.
TR: There is a recurring line in "No Lady of Shallot" that reads, "Back in the 60s (not yet THE SIXTIES)." This is a really interesting concept-the decade as it is remembered as opposed to the decade as it was experienced. Certainly there is a difference between "the 60s" and "THE SIXTIES," and I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that difference.
WBC: I came of age in the 1960s, so naturally my memories and impressions from that period are especially acute. For me, it is tempting to break the decade in half. Even given the Kennedy assassination a few years before, the world in 1965, the year I graduated from high school, was a recognizable place, not that different from 1950s. My parents seemed comfortable enough in it. To paraphrase Yeats, the "center" still held and things were not yet flying apart. Historians like to focus on 1968 as the year when everything changed, but - one way or another - the world of 1969, when I graduated from college, was an increasingly disorderly and "disordered" place. By the early 1970s, there was no center anyone could agree on. Now nothing happened all at once. The disorder - social, cultural, and moral - was there (though often invisible) all along, as the brilliant TV series MAD MEN so marvelously reminds us. What we think of as THE SIXTIES is usually the iconic period from 1968 on into the next decade, but things were coming apart long prior to that. To me, the key element in the vintage mantra "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" turned out to be "sex." That is at least the burden of my little poem "Cultural History." Sex has, we know, been a world-historical force forever. But the Pill was a real game-changer. It had the practical effect of "de-naturing" human sexuality, and the fallout has penetrated every aspect of life in the so-called "developed world." We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: Sex is an all-consuming obsession, yet we insist it is "no big deal." I close BLUE NORTHER with a poem titled "Humanae Vitae," my unabashedly papist call for a sexual restoration.
TR: Many of your poems are punctuated with clever and poignant rhyming couplets that seem to wrap up what came before really well. Do you begin writing these poems with these lines already in mind? Or do they come to you after you've written the rest?
WBC: Poe said to write with the end always in mind. I haven't managed to do that very often, and so my closing couplets are usually arrived at after I've worked through the rest of the poem. I like to think they are something more than a convenient artifice for arriving at closure and that there is a sense of the inevitable about them, but that may be self-delusion. John Burt, a remarkably gifted poet, has written me about the couplet that concludes "In the Maze and Mandeville," likening it to one of J.V. Cunningham's epigrams. I take that as high praise, though John's kind and generous heart, not his discernment, may be at work here.
TR: I have to say that other Texas Review interns and I think your author photo on the back of the book is fairly intimidating. The bowtie, pipe, and steely gaze all make for an intense and highly serious picture of the poet of Blue Norther that doesn't seem to match the tone of the many meditative and often funny poems found within. How would you describe your poetic persona? Does this picture match this persona?
WBC: Lord have mercy, I wasn't trying to be "intimidating," but I see what you mean. I guess I will try to smile more, though that makes it harder to keep the pipe in my mouth. About the pipe, bowtie, and my "persona": When I was an undergraduate I was so taken by the professors in their tweeds, smoking pipes and the like, that I wanted to grow up to be one myself. When that dream came true, I patterned my image after theirs. These days, that look is "retro" with a vengeance, but I stubbornly maintain it. The informality of THE SIXTIES - jeans, sneakers, t-shirts - is now the standard-issue uniform of all but a handful of my colleagues, but I am like the old man in James Applewhite's "My Grandfather's Funeral," keeping "the old ways in changing times." It's the rebel in me, I suppose.
TR: One of my first tasks as a Texas Review intern was to edit an electronic draft of Blue Norther. I was learning how to use our desktop publishing software as I went, so, I'm sorry to say, some of my earliest work has some problems. Did you notice anything amiss in Blue Norther? If so, can you ever forgive me?
Thankfully, perhaps graciously, Professor Clark did not respond to this question.