Regarding Adam Clay’s newest collection Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016), Ada Limón notes the collection is “dedicated to the unsung suspension of time that occurs when life suddenly goes awry.” Stranger is a collection that is also ever-approaching “a new and sudden way of being,” particularly concerning the ideas of family, home and forgiveness. Clay is also co-editor of TYPO Magazine, a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review, and teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield. In this conversation, Adam Clay and I talk about all things poetry, the “space between remembering and forgetting, between presence and absence,” his influences and the many excavations of that picturesque house in a bottle which not only graces the cover but also serves as equal points of departure and arrival.—Rosebud Ben-Oni
ROSEBUD BEN-ONI: Stranger is broken up into four sections of varying lengths— section three, in fact, is one long poem in which the speaker reveals: “it’s all one day happening/ like a conundrum/ of a dream, the engine/ falling right out a car.” Four is a significant number: the cardinal directions, limbs of the human body, and of course seasons, which serves as a motif in your collection. I know many poets often worry about the sequence and order of poems in their manuscripts; what was your thinking in putting the collection together?
ADAM CLAY: It’s human nature to organize and categorize, right? It gives us the illusion that we have control over the world and our surroundings. As I started ordering the book, I actually wanted it to be all one section, but even so, it felt like there were direct breaks between certain groups of poems. The long poem in section three was added fairly late in the process and it solidified my suspicion that section breaks would be helpful (and perhaps humane). The book is largely broken down into geography, as the book was written in distinct locations: lower Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, Kentucky, and Illinois. Even though I used geography early on to order the book, I began to see how some poems written in different places began to speak to poems written in others. “Northern Lights” is a good example of that—the poem was written here in Illinois, but its pre-occupation with perception, memory, and alienation spoke to my time in Michigan and my time leaving there, as well. I wish the separation of the poems was as simple as geographical or chronological, but there’s a blurring that happened when I began crafting the book, as a whole. It felt strange, at first, having one of the oldest poems as the opening poem and then one of the newest as the second poem of the book, but the more I step back from it, the more right it feels. Sometimes an impulse occurs and you just go with it—often times, it’s the right decision.
RB: Did you grow up in the Midwest? Has geography also always played a pivotal role in your work?
AC: I actually grew up in Mississippi and lived there until I graduated from college. I would say that place has played an important role in my work—a lot of the poems I wrote as an undergraduate were narrative poems. The south, of course, doesn’t own narrative poems, but I do think it’s hard not to be faced with the storytelling tradition. My first time living out of the deep south was in Northwest Arkansas, a place some people might call the south, but it’s a strange sort of in-between place: not quite the south, not quite the Midwest. The poems I wrote there were less narrative and less personal—it was a conscious decision to move away from the narrative. Since then, I wouldn’t say that I’ve returned to narrative poems, but rather I’ve found a way to talk about daily life in a way that feels right. I don’t know if this is the result of my life changing or my poems changing—perhaps it’s a combination of both.
RB: Another recurring theme in Stranger is arrivals and forgiveness; in “Northern Lights,” the speaker believes: “Of course it’s a pleasure to arrive most anywhere/ these days filled with desire.” The second section begins with “Start This Record Over” and the hope that “Perhaps there is a new way and sudden way of being,” followed by “I’d like to make a map not of the land, but of the path I took to arrive in this place”—as if remembering is not going back, not dwelling on “a notion of hell,” but as you write in “Sounds of an Emptying House,” that “There’s a way of stepping back/ that someone now dead once taught me.” Is to arrive in present also to step back and pay homage to how you got there? Is that a form of seeking forgiveness?
AC: I think so, yes. The book’s really pre-occupied with considering the past as a way of understanding the present and, also, the future. Forgiveness is a big theme in the book in the way that it deals with regrets and what we can’t change. An acceptance of this pathway is a way of hopefully changing the future. In a book about so many transitions, it’s hard not to have some regret about the way things played out and what could have been different or better. I don’t think anyone is truly prepared to be a parent and perhaps so much of being a parent is second-guessing yourself and the things you do, both as a parent but also in the relationship with your partner.
RB: One finds the actual cover of Stranger—the picturesque house in a bottle— repeatedly throughout the collection: in “Along the Edge of a Season,” you write that “Perhaps/ you were hoping or desiring/ a bottle to place this house/ (like a ship) into?” There are times the speaker is both protecting as builder and trying to escape or excavate this place while being overwhelmed in doing so; returning to “Sounds of an Emptying House,” the speaker declares: “I hit a wall every hour on the hour.// A body of water is a body too large for the space of my mind.” In “This Pastoral Way of Living,” one of the last poems in the collection, the speaker confronts the tenant of this space: “I believe in the pastoral/ because I live in the pastoral,” that home is “a world where often/ the horses disregard our presence.” How do you as a poet finally emerge in the space in which you’ve both struggled and created?
AC: That’s a great question—and one I’ve thought about a lot. I think the answer resides in accepting the everyday-ness of life as subject matter worthy of exploring. For this book, I wrote daily for months at a time, generating material and bringing in everything from the sound of a newspaper hitting the ground to a church being repaired in downtown Lexington. I wanted this book to be a catalog of moments as much as it was also a reflection on those moments. Writing poem’s about one’s life is narcissistic on some level, but all writing is, isn’t it? We create so we can reflect and also hope that the work will connect with a reader who’s had a similar experience. I talk to my students a lot about this idea: we have to be specific in our work so we can connect with readers. It seems like it should be the opposite, right? A general observation should reach more people, but it doesn’t. Through the specific, an image is created and then, as readers, we imagine our own experiences in relation to them.
RB: Stranger did not come off as narcissistic at all to me; instead, because you write so openly, it seemed you wanted to reach life outside that picturesque house in a bottle, to seek communion with the reader through poetry by using the “everyday-ness of life” to arrive at some greater, common humanity. And because you write so openly, the different realities and resolutions of people, places and things grow in Stranger as much as they reach an impasse, hesitate, falter. I don’t think one needs to have your own specific experiences to read the collection. I’m curious: what was the most difficult poem to write?
AC: I’d have to say “Sounds of an Empyting House” was difficult to write, even though it arrived quickly (I wrote the poem over the course of a few days in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, sitting at the kitchen table, overlooking Lake Superior on Grand Traverse Bay). The difficult part of the poem wasn’t the initial drafting of it; rather, the challenge was revising it. I knew the poem would become a centerpiece of the new book, but I didn’t really know what role it would play. I wanted to write a poem that balanced a focus on everyday life while also focusing on the absence of things—it’s a poem about the space between remembering and forgetting, between presence and absence. It was written during a difficult time of transition, which also made it hard to return to when it was time to start thinking about how it was working and how I wanted it to work.
RB: Who is the “you” in the collection? Does it change throughout the collection?
AC: It does change throughout the book. In places, the “you” is the speaker in the poems. In places, it’s a reader (whether it be a specific person or a more general one). My other books didn’t do a lot with the second-person address so it’s something I wanted to make use of throughout the book. I liked the idea of the “you” being comprised of many different people in a book about change and the strangeness of how we shift our identities based on the people we interact with and even our daily activities. The “stranger” of the title suggests the different people a single person can be.
RB: Can you talk a little bit more about the idea of stranger(s)/strangeness in the book? When is stranger most alien? When does the speaker lose himself completely? Can one come back as stranger to place in which he left?
AC: This notion of returning wasn’t something I thought about—I wanted the poems to be about a place that one couldn’t return to (whether that place was a literal place or a metaphorical one). It’s like that Charles Simic poem: “Miracle Glass Co.” Each moment is unique and then it’s gone. On top of that, there’s this notion that humans can’t really dwell in the present. We’re always a millisecond behind—from the moment we’re born, life is nothing more than departures. The poems in Stranger are trying to examine the present from the present. It’s an impossible task, but the notion of fleeting time was something I thought a lot about when writing these poems. I can remember people telling me how fast time would go once my daughter was born. It becomes a cliché after a while, but it’s really true. The act of writing might not slow time down, but it allows us to examine what’s happened in a way that perhaps other art forms can’t accomplish (at least not in the same way).
In terms of the stranger being the most alien, I think it’s when we make choices that make ourselves unrecognizable. It has little to do with our surroundings—it has more to do with the choices we make and the path we take to arrive there. “Start this Record Over” tries to get at that idea: “I’d like to make a map not of the land / but of the path I took to arrive in this place.” The past is the only way to make sense of the present.
RB: Your daughter’s presence throughout Stranger seem to be in the new foundation on which you as a poet build; in your “Notes,” you even credit the opening of “Elegant Comparison” to her: “With the trees falling off the leaves.” How does her way of speaking and seeing the world change and reshape the way in which you experience the world as a person and a poet? Is there a strangeness there, in her words and observations, that also become a source of familiarity for you— that is, does the newness return you to some former part of yourself?
AC: I felt nervous writing about fatherhood—I feared the poems might become sentimental so I waited a while. A number of the early poems I wrote about Penny didn’t end up in the book—they just didn’t feel right within this collection. “Upper Peninsula” might be the earliest written poem in the book that mentions her. As she began to learn to speak, I found a voice for my poems. I found interacting with her, listening to her, and simply spending time with her viewpoint of the world allowed me a way into writing about fatherhood. The Upper Peninsula in this book (and the poem itself) represented, for me, this uncharted and wild place. Being a parent is scary. It’s wild. It’s uncertain, but there’s really nothing like the care and love I feel for my daughter. Trying to unpack the range of feelings about parenthood is a big pre-occupation of the book. And I think it will be part of the next book. And the one after, too.
RB: Who are you reading now? What poets and authors inspire you?
AC: I’m reading Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude today. He does something I can’t do (or I choose not to), and I find a lot to like about reading poets different from me. I usually have a book open next to me when I’m writing, too, so that the writing process doesn’t feel isolated—I prefer to think of writing as a conversation. There are slivers of many other poets throughout Stranger, either in the form of direct response to lines or ideas in poets like Emily Dickinson or Mary Ruefle, but there are also poems structured around the work of others. “Along the Edge of a Season” is an example of that—I read a poem by Paul Killebrew and used words from each of his lines in sculpting my own poem. It was an assignment I gave my students in Kalamazoo—it was an attempt at moving away from shorter poems, something I wanted to do in this new book.
RB: I love the idea of “writing as a conversation.” What writers really challenge your poetics and/or style? Is it only poetry or are there prose writers that make you rethink your place in the conversation— that is to say, what has caused your own work to shift direction in the larger picture?
AC: I love reading writers who do what I can’t do. When summer hits, I usually read novel after novel. It’s a form that I don’t think I can undertake right now, but I love the scope and the possibility that they offer. The question about writers that challenge my poetics is an interesting one. Dickinson is an important figure for me—I’ve always admired the economy of her work and the manner in which every word serves an important purpose. She plays a lot with expectations, too. In the same way, Graham Foust is a poet I’ve always admired. He writes such seemingly simple poems that include wonderful turns of phrases. He’s a great poet for students to imitate because they think it’ll be easy, but he’s working on another level entirely.
RB: What’s next for you, Adam?
AC: I’m writing new poems with the idea that they’ll become the next book—I don’t know what that will look like yet or what might come from it. I’ve written a number of formal poems since Stranger and I can see perhaps something coming from that, though I don’t really know for sure. I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the new book and on giving it a life in the world through readings (and conversations like this one!). I like the idea of taking it slow between books and just writing without the notion of a book as a thing. I’ve thought, too, about a hybrid-type book next with some element of prose, a form I’ve been thinking about a while but that hasn’t come easy to me when I sit down to actually write. This difficulty suggests to me that I should approach it and see what happens next—I can tell that the form will force (or allow?) me to address some of the same subject matter in a different way. It’s interesting to think about what’s possible in examining some of the same themes and ideas from this book, but I want to shift the filter through which they’re seen. It’s something I tell my students a lot: every subject you can imagine has been written about, but what makes a poem unique is the way you approach the subject matter. Perhaps perception is the only thing we can control when we write poems. In that way, it opens up the possibilities for not only what we write about, but also for how we’ll write. I like not knowing what’s next until I’m in the midst of it. Once I’m there, we’ll see what happens.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013), and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her poems appear in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, The Volta, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review. Find her Facebook, Twitter and at 7TrainLove.org
Adam Clay’s most recent book is Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016). His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. A co-editor of TYPO Magazine, he serves as a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review and teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield.