Charlie Clark's poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Smartish Pace, Threepenny Review, West Branch, and other journals. He has studied poetry at the University of Maryland and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He lives in Austin, Texas.
His poem, "What Tongues Are Given," appeared in Issue Eighty-Four of The Rupture.
Here, he speaks with interviewer Angela Redmond-Theodore about voice, titles as propositions, and the physicality of words.
"What Tongues Are Given" reads as if you couldn't get the words on the page fast enough. How did the poem come to be written?
This poem did come in a bit of a rush. Or at least the initial draft. I think the short lines help suggest the excitement inherent in its composition. There is a choppiness in it, a way that the line breaks work against the clarity of utterance, that I think enhances what this poem is trying to convey. Content-wise, I often find etymology to be a great entry into a poem—there's so much to discover in how a word came to be. They sometimes have these surprising histories. The first section, where the speaker is explaining the history of "ecstasy" in a failed attempt to calm himself, was not actually the first part I wrote. The fourth part came first. The initial trigger was a story my father told me about being locked in a room just a few minutes before my parents' wedding. I immediately started imaging that scenario, imagining what a person in that scenario might imagine (or what would be amusing to have a person in that scenario imagine). And "give," the word the speaker is ruminating on in that fourth section, is fairly flexible in terms of possible meanings. Offering, charity, surrender, breaking. I can't recall exactly how I landed on that word, but the idea of the door having to give so the speaker could give himself away, so to speak, was exciting to me.
Anyway, once I had the occasion/basic scenario, the use of first-person, and the exploration of etymology, I had a framework through which to explore. Though that makes it sound much more calculated than it actually was (or ever is). I'm usually just groping around, feeling out for something that makes sense or surprises. But having those basic limitations made it easier to know what would and wouldn't work in the poem.
Aside from the groom behind a stuck door, the ur-narrative, of a priest and nun meeting, falling in love, leaving the church—the technical term for that last part is "laicized" (which is far, far too sexy-sounding a word for what it actually means)—and then getting married in a church, that is, more or less, my parents' actual story. So even though the composition happened over a short period of time, that portion of the content had been gestating for quite a while. All that said, I didn't feel a particular need to stay completely true to the specific details of my parents' romance. Or their interests. Those things provided a framework into which I launched myself, looking for ideas and images that would resonate with, expand, or complicate the initial scenario.
Once I had the groom's voice, I knew pretty quickly that I'd want counterpoint, so the bride's voice felt necessary early on. It read it as counterpoint in terms of voice and character, but also tone. There is a clarity of confidence that contrasts to the way the groom's voice is thinking about words.
Though I don't remember, I'd be willing to bet that the last section I actually wrote was the third part, in the voice of god. Given where the two characters are in their emotional and spiritual lives, it seemed right to include god in the conversation—there's something about trinities, right? But writing in the voice of god presents its own challenges, so I'm glad that part is the briefest. God probably is, too. But it is also the slowest part, the most casual, I think. Which is how I'd like to think god would be, observing this scenario.
The contrast between the lengthy, mysterious section titles and the extremely brief, nearly empty, lines that follow is quite dramatic. I'd be interested to know why you chose this form for the poem. Which came first, the titles or the stanzas?
Great question. Some years ago I read an interview with the novelist Donald Antrim in which he said he thought of titles as propositions (The 300 Brothersbeing a great example). That's stayed with me. I don't always follow that tenet, but I think that in "What Tongues Are Given," the section titles do employ that strategy, to a certain extent. The rush of composition led to the short verse lines, and to voices that were limited in terms of how much they would realistically explain about their situation. So the titles provided a good place to ground the particulars of each section; to set the stage. And I think there is something pleasing about the long, overly explanatory titles contrasting with the quickness of the lines. The more information one packs into a title, the more particular and odd they can seem, and the more opportunity there is for the poem to release in different directions.
But to answer your question about which came first, the lines/line length did, but only just. I probably had the first sentence or two of the fourth part down when I started to suspect the title would need to explain what was going on. So the line length helped determine the need for the longer part titles.
Always the best / explanations /involve a body. These lines from the beginning of the poem seem to speak beyond the subject being addressed—that is, the definition of ecstasy. They come across, rather, as a tenet to be adhered to, one that the speaker does adhere to as the poem progresses. Is this a personal/professional philosophy of yours as a poet?
Well, thank you. I do enjoy when a phrase or sentence speaks to something beyond the tensions within the poem itself. And I can see how the stakes of the poem suggest a sort of larger striving toward meaning (emotional and spiritual states of being). I'd be wary, though, of saying I adhere to anything as clarified as a philosophy—unless one would call trying to be open to following any particular line of inquiry a philosophy. Most of what I do in my writing life (and, honestly, my life-life) involves uncertain meandering, accumulating material on the page—words, phrases, images—and seeing whether some parts resonate with one another or do something compelling. Even in the case of this poem, where a particular narrative was the catalyst for composition, the goal of the work was to see how far away I could get from the story of a priest and nun falling in love. In that way, the material becomes immaterial. Or I want it to be. Somewhere Larry Levis said he knew early on that his goal was to write poems that were about nothing, whatever their material. I'm butchering that statement to suit my own devices.
I will say I do believe in, or have experienced, the value of the tactile, the physical—the prop that becomes the proposition. In my writing, I often find the physical to be a good place to begin. Of course, I say that, and then I remember that the poem under discussion begins in abstraction, in breaking down how the word ecstasy's meaning takes shape. So, you know, my philosophy may be that I contradict myself. Though I should say that by breaking down a word, by looking at it as a thing made of parts and containing histories, a word does, in and of itself, become a sort of body. A word can seem to have properties that mirror the physical. And pitting the physical restriction of the speaker—trapped behind a stuck door—against abstract thought is a satisfying launch pad for the tensions with which the poem seems to want to grapple.
Is there a new (to you) author whose work you look forward to delving into as time goes on?
My wife (poet Sasha West) turned me on to N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy. That's been a compelling thing in which to lose myself. Reading it, I have been regularly astounded by how expansive but internally consistent a world she is able to make. World-building aside (which, that's a lot to set aside; there is so much going on there), Jemisin has a pretty great sense of attack, in terms of tone. There is a good deal in the writing that I find invitingly crisp and bemused.
Anna Burns's novel Milkmanis similarly incredible in terms of tone. She has a really vast range at her disposal, and in service of illuminating a terrible and seemingly inescapable situation (essentially life in Belfast during The Troubles, though aside from "Milkman" nothing in the book [people or places] actually gets a proper noun). There is a sequence in the book about a dead cat that I will never forget. Or ever fully understand, in terms of how she managed to make it work as well as she did. That book makes for a great pairing with the show Derry Girls.
As far as poets go, I really enjoyed Jana Prikryl's first book, The After Party,from a couple of years back. I like how she approaches language—there is a lot of wit and play, but in the service of something sincere. I'm looking forward to her new book No Matter, which is coming out this summer.
Traci Brimhall's Saudade(also recommended by Sasha) was a bit of a revelation. The structure as well as the individual poems and lines. She seems to have a really vivid and capacious imagination. I haven't read too much of her work, so I'm looking forward to going through all of it, old and new.
And I—along with probably every other discerning reader of poetry in the twenty-first century—am eagerly awaiting Diane Seuss's new book, Frank. Seeing those poems out in the world over the last several years, and seeing how celebrated she has become, has been very exciting.
Is there anything about what you're currently working on that has made you rethink what you've written in the past?
Hmm. This is an interesting question. I mean, there are a lot of failed poems, or only marginally successful poems in my past that are best left there. But I think your question applies more readily to the older poems I thought/think of as successful. When thinking about those poems, my sense is less that my new writing makes me rethink my old writing (it's all about loss, anyway, right?) than that what I'm writing now helps clarify which obsessions/interests are passing and which persist. I do like being able to look at certain poems I've written and think, "yes, I wrote that, and I stand by it, but I have no real interest in writing that now." And I like looking at certain poems and feeling totally flummoxed as to how I managed to make them. That's both exciting and terrifying.
I've been rereading all the books by my recently departed teacher Stanley Plumly. It's informative to see how willingly he treads and retreads certain subjects, ideas, forms, lines of inquiry. He sometimes even pulls lines or sections from poems published years before and inserts them into new work. See, for example, the last line of "White Oaks Ascending" inThe Marriage in the Treesand the last line of "Childhood" inOld Heart. Or "Lapsed Meadow," inSummer Celestial, and how he rewrites it as "Lapsed Meadows" inOrphan Hours.Even when he is reworking old material, the work does, naturally, expand and deepen. I don't have as clearly defined a range of subjects or interests as Stan did, or at least none that I can plumb so deeply for so long. But in reading his work again, it is valuable to see that one needn't remake oneself each time one comes to the page. I am definitely not obsessive about always doing something new. Nor do I need to have everything I write sound like it proceeds from a singular, unchanging voice. I just don't have enough time at my disposal to be choosy. If I write something and I find it compelling, I'm thankful.