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2004 Writers' Forum
Clemens Starck

Clemens Starck sailed off the West Coast as a merchant seaman in the late '60s. He has worked at many jobs, but mostly as a carpenter and construction foreman in San Francisco, British Columbia, and in Oregon where he lives now. His first book of poems, Journeyman's Wages, received the 1996 Oregon Book Award as well as the William Stafford Memorial Poetry Award from the Pacific Nothwest Booksellers Association. His most recent collection, Traveling Incognito, is a letterpress chapbook from Woodworks in Seattle.
photo credit:
dean wong
Conversation with Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 11, 2004, Clemens and Belle discuss literature and culture (espicially Chinese and Russian), performance, form and verse, memorization and composotion, and more.
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
19:59 / 12MB
CS [reading]
BR

Thank you. I'm here with Clem Starck, and he's reading a poem with a lot of Su Dongpo?
CS Su Dongpo.
BR




…I know who it is but his name is hard to say I always kind of remembered it by "Dog Paw" someplace. Anyway, a wonderful Chinese poet. Also a calligrapher and painter of bamboo, right? I remember I showed my Chinese ink painting teacher his bamboo and she said "very famous."
CS

He is very famous. In fact he was more famous actually in many ways as a painter than he was as a poet.
BR


Maybe that poem will give evidence of how Chinese and Asian poetry has influenced your work. I mean there are the landscapes and everything in that poem.
CS









Well, yeah. The Song Dynasty, which was the time of Su Dongpo, was quite famous for its landscape painting, and he was one of the eminent landscape painters of that time. None of his work remains, we only know his paintings through his students. I'm a great admirer of Su Dongpo, he's one of the great Chinese poets, probably one of the three or four greatest Chinese poets. I don't know that I encountered Su Dongpo when I first encountered Chinese poetry, but sooner or later I came across his work.
BR


Well, your poems seem to have the clarity that I associate with Chinese poetry, although they have a very different kind of subject matter.
CS










Well, I'm an American, I'm not Chinese! But, clarity is a good word to use, it's one of the qualities that I so admire and it has been influential on my work and reading Chinese poetry in translation. Simplicity and a clarity, an everyday quality that amazingly persists over hundreds of years. That was what first struck me about Chinese poetry, that it was as if someone was talking to me across a vast gulf of time and space, a totally different culture, a totally different language. And yet, here was this poet, talking about what it was like to live in 8th Century China.
BR






It has a very human quality… But I want you to articulate some of the ways that the Chinese aesthetic is different. It seems to have a very different place for metaphor than Western poetry for instance. But when I think that myself as I'm reading through Chinese poems then I see metaphors, so I can't say it doesn't have any. I'm interested in what you would say about that.
CS












I don't know that I ever thought of it before as such but it's almost the absence of metaphor, the absence of rhetorical flourishes, the absence of ornamentation that was what appealed to me. And of course we're talking about reading Chinese poetry in translation. I later became so interested in Chinese poetry that I studied the language for a while. Never really got far enough along to read Su Dongpo in the original! But, I did get a feeling both for the language and for classical Chinese poetry and I know that it's different reading it in English. But the impressions that I had of course were from English translation—free verse English translations of these very tight formal original Chinese poems.
BR



Have you pursued Chinese literary theory? ...Of course it changes over the periods because it's a long tradition. But I've just wondered if any of those ideas have influenced you.
CS






Well, I've read a little bit about literary theory, although to be honest I couldn't report specifics of what I'd read. I love the various designations of styles, even styles of painting as well as poetry. They have names like… like the moves in karate or the moves in tai chi. They are often associated with an animal or a feature of nature. Of 'wind blowing through birch leaves', something of the sort.
BR







I've got a quote I want to read about your poetry. It's a very serious kind of compliment: "Well crafted, well tuned, open hearted poems. I can't think of many poets who could read to university audiences and work folk sweating out in the dirt and the heat and the rain and be appreciated and understood by both." I would think you would be very pleased to have that said about your poetry.
CS








Oh certainly, certainly, it's a very nice compliment. The fact is that I have read successfully to very diverse audiences. In a way, I don't know that I've ever formulated it as a goal, as what I was trying to do… but having lived the life I have as a working man, as a carpenter—that's been my livelihood for forty years—I have an interest in being able to communicate with people who don't read poetry as well as with people who do read poetry.
BR


And, how have those two interests come together? Mostly by making your poetry more accessible, you think and making you more...
CS

















Probably, without my knowing, I mean that probably has been what happened. I mean it started with the amazing revelation to me, after I'd been writing very formal verse for four or five years, when I first started out. I had become involved in the carpentry apprenticeship program as a means of making a living, and here I was working on construction jobs, this was in San Francisco in the early sixties, and I wanted to bring that into my poetry. I mean that was a whole new world that I was discovering as a construction carpenter. And, although I tried I guess to some degree writing rhymed poems about constructions jobs, I soon found it inadequate to express the sense of what I was doing throughout the day. The language that was being used, the names of tools, the names of construction processes and so forth and so on. So I broke out into a freer form with freer verse, and it so happened that it was almost at this time that I discovered Chinese poetry. So the two really dovetailed.
BR

Hm. And it certainly made you very concrete. Even to pouring it.
CS

Even to pouring it, right. I've worked a lot with concrete.
BR

Did you feel alienated on the job because you were a poet?
CS




Oh no, not at all. For many years I lived two lives, totally two lives. I'm something of a chameleon so I was able to adjust myself to the construction world and I wrote my poetry in the evenings and on weekends, I worked on it then.
BR


I would think at least you lived two lives I guess for 35 years you say that was how long before your first book was published?
CS


It was a long time. I published my first book when I was 57 years old. So I had been writing, I started writing when I was 21, so 36 years.
BR



Well I'm impressed with your comfort with those two lives. I mean, I used to be a waitress who wrote poems and go around feeling like I had an enormous secret pride in my drawer at home.
CS






Well, I had that same sense of a secret but, it was as though my secret and the open life that I was leading fed each other in strange ways as it turned out, that I never anticipated. I certainly never thought I'd write poems about being a carpenter, it was the furthest thing from my mind. But that's what I was doing a good part of my life, and, it was interesting. So I started writing about it.
BR

Well I think one of your recent books is called Traveling Incognito so I guess that's what you were doing.
CS

That's exactly what I was doing, that's the story of my life. I've always trevelled incognito.
BR

I love that title so, it probably touches a common chord. With every Safeway checker and… waitress…
CS

Right, well you've gotta resort to strange shifts in order to be a poet, you know.
BR


You said that your method of composition... that you compose an entire poem in your head or aloud to yourself before you even write it down.
CS

























That's true. I didn't always do that. I certainly didn't start out doing that when I first started writing. In fact I wrote just in the conventional manner of putting things down in longhand and then typing them up. But at some point, I guess in the early sixties in San Francisco when I first started to do public readings, I realized that there was an enormous advantage to being able to look the audience in the eye. I mean, you're telling a story, you're conveying a piece of information. "This is what happened, this is the way it was, this is what I saw, this is what I did." And that precluded staring down at the pages of a book. So I set myself the exercise of composing poems in my head as I walked the streets of San Francisco. Little short poems, little pieces that I knew by heart, as they say. It was not a matter of first writing the poem and then memorizing it, but I actually composed the poem. And then to my astonishment I found that that had a lot to do with the quality of the writing that I was doing, that the word patterns and the rhythms, there was a consistency to it as a result of having to build a poem line by line like a little structure. First you get the first line and where does that lead, and then it leads to something else and then it leads to a third line, and slowly, slowly, incrementally, this poem is built. And it's built in terms of its rhythmic consistency somehow, its rhythmic integrity, something.
BR



It seems unlikely but actually I have written in the same way. I don't know that I always do but, yes, you get a feeling if the thing coheres and then if it coheres you remember it.
CS






Right, right. And it's a way of testing line by line. Testing each line for its veracity somehow. Is it truthful, can I really say that? Can I stand in front of an audience and say that without feeling a little lame? Or without feeling that this is some form of self-inflation? Can I be straight, can I just deliver, can I talk straight? I mean, can I say this in a straightforward, plain manner?
BR







Well, several people have mentioned while they're here that, in that way even reading out loud seems to be a kind of ultimate test. You can have convinced yourself that there's no extraneous words or whatever, and then you get in front of an audience and you say it and you just hear those places where you still on your own hadn't seen it but you, hearing it through someone else's ears you know…
CS














Absolutely. Of course what happens to me, I literally finish, or think I finish the poem in my head before I ever put words to paper and then at some point I'll write it out. And invariably I'll then start a whole process of revision and rewriting and adjusting and… tinkering with it. Because you can do an awful lot with your voice and you don't have, with words on a sheet of paper you don't have all the possibilities of inflection and tone, all the things that at this moment our two voices are doing. You know, as a spoken language does. You've got to indicate, to your reader, how he or she is to read the poem. You have to use the line breaks and the punctuation as stage directions almost. And that's what I'm saying, that's a whole second process after the mental, mentally composing you know.
BR




Mm-hmm. I was off thinking, I was thinking, "I wonder if Clem does this too?" When I go to sleep I have my poem in my head and it is like working on it then through the night, and your unconscious takes over at some point and it's there.
CS

Oh absolutely. Every night that's what I run through my head, the thing I'm working on, sure.
BR


So how long usually does this process take you, like for the poem you just read, or any of them, or is it very uneven?
CS












It varies. It is uneven but I would say at a minimum it's a month. And sometimes longer. As a result I'm a slow worker. I'm not prolific. And sometimes things come easily to me, and, you know, this is true of any writer I'm sure. And sometimes I just, come across a spot, I get two stanzas going and I just don't know where to go with it. I just don't know where it's going to go next. And I keep repeating those two stanzas over and over to myself hundreds of times and waiting, it's like waiting for a break, waiting for a break in the weather somehow, waiting for an opening somehow, just a something that'll trip me into the next, into the beginning of the third stanza, say.
BR


What experiences got you started doing this, do you think? I mean, since it wasn't part of your milieu, if that's the word?
CS

Started writing poetry you mean? Or started composing…?
BR

No, writing poetry. We know you did it in your head because you had to use your hands.
CS







That's true, yeah, that's absolutely true. I had two things that were my passions as a kid. One was reading, I was a voracious reader. And the second thing was building models. I built model airplanes and trains and cars and so forth and so on. And I thought of being a writer when I grew up but this was you know, I grew up in the forties and fifties. There were no writing workshops or creative writing classes and so forth.
So, when I started writing at 21 I thought of writing novels. That was what I read a lot. I didn't read poetry much before that time. But I had no idea how to write a novel, so I thought, well, I'd start by trying a poem. Because it's short and you can put it on one page you know, and then that will lead me into writing a novel someday.
Well, I got hooked by poems. I was absolutely fascinated with the process of making these little constructions out of words that could be put on a page. And then very soon, and I'm sure that it echoed with my model building as a teenager it was like here I was making little models, you know, little word models. And that proved absolutely fascinating.
BR

Did you identify with what was going on in, [the] Bay Area writing scene in those years?
CS











Oh, no. First of all I started, I'm from the East. So I grew up in western New York. And then I spent time with a college in New Jersey and dropped out of college after a couple of years, and eventually wound up in New York City working as a newspaper reporter. And that was just soon after I started writing poetry. So I was a complete isolate. I had no poetry friends or no one to compare notes with or anything. That really didn't happen to me until the early sixties when I moved to the Bay Area, when I moved to San Francisco and I started to meet a few other young poets, who like myself were serious about the craft.
BR





And, so, both speaking your poems out loud and having them exist on the page to be read in solitude by a reader, both those seem to be important to you. I've talked to some poets for whom performance is almost their form of publication. But I get the impression that they're both important to you.
CS






Very much so. I would say equally. I would like to be able to read a poem to a person and have them understand it, completely understand what it's about on its initial level the first time through. But I would then also like to have imbedded somehow in this poem enough substance that would reward further readings again and again and again and again.
BR



You seem to be receiving quite a bit of recognition now. Why do you think it took so long for your first book to be published? I mean, I thought it took a long time for me, I was 33. But 57 you said. Right?
CS


























Well, yeah. But I never made real efforts. I mean during the sixties we talked about meeting other young poets and giving readings. At a certain point I became turned off by the egotism and the self-congratulation, the careerism I guess of the whole poetry scene in San Francisco in the sixties. And it turned me off. You know, I was becoming known as a poet. I was getting published, I was giving readings. But it was not satisfying to me, it was not what I wanted. And I realized that, I don't know if I thought of it this way at the time or whether in retrospect, but it occurred to me that there's a difference between someone who wants to be a poet, and someone who wants to write poems. I wanted to write poems. I didn't give a damn about being a poet, it never occurred to me. You know, like having a costume and, walking down the street with a turtle on a string. It was the actual building of these little words contraptions that really interested me. So what happened was I left San Francisco, I went to sea, I shipped out as a merchant seaman for a couple of years. And my whole life changed, and I stopped writing for 8 or 9 years. I just quit. I didn't write a thing. And I didn't get back to it until I moved to Oregon in the mid-seventies. I thought that I would try it again to see if it held any interest for me. I was married, raised a family, I was homesteading a place and my life was quite interesting to me without writing about it.
BR


One of my favorite phrases in your poems is "the savagery of family life." Which, I have a happy family too, but…
CS

Yeah, I'm sure we could all be comparing notes on the savagery of family life.
BR

Well, and you're also involved somehow with Russia and Russian poetry. How did that come in?
CS





































Well that's, that's almost a whole 'nother story, just a pure happenstance. I've been fascinated with languages all my life. The two years I spent at college I'd planned to be a French Lit major. And I studied German, that was my minor. And then I studied classical Greek for a while on my own after I dropped out of college 'cause I figured in order to be educated you should know Greek and Latin. Well, I started with Greek and I learned relatively little, but it has been very valuable to me. Unfortunately I never got around to Latin and that's always I feel a hole in my education. But anyway, so I had those languages and interest in them and then I became involved in Chinese, as we spoke about earlier. And then what happened was, this was before my first book was published, but I'd given a reading in Salem at Willamette University and afterwards a professor came up to me and asked if I would be interested in teaching her creative writing course. I thought this was very funny, I have no degrees whatsoever and, I sort of laughed at it. But anyway one thing led to another and she said it didn't matter that I didn't have any degrees and I could come anyway. So… anyway I taught this class and I was going to share an office (to meet these students in) with a visiting professor. The visiting professor turned out to be a woman from Russia. This was 1991, just after the attempted coup on Gorbachev and the Soviet Union appeared to be falling apart, which was unthinkable to me who had grown up as a child of the Cold War. So I wanted to find out what was going on. And here was this woman who'd just gotten off the plane from Moscow. But she couldn't speak English. Her English was so bad that I couldn't make heads or tails of it. So I agreed, as a joke, to help her with her English and she could teach me Russian. I went out and I got an introductory Russian book and, one thing has led to another and, thirteen years later I'm still studying Russian. I just found the language and then the culture—and I really got to the culture through the language—was absolutely fascinating.
BR Were you able to understand her English eventually?
CS









Oh… yeah, to some extent. It was difficult. But she really got me started on Russian and gave me a taste of Russian, a taste of Russia. For example, at one point she told me, talking about the 75 years of Soviet rule, she said, "It didn't work" she said, "it was a mistake, it didn't really work, but God was conducting an experiment with the Russian people." That just blew my mind. You know—Oh, oh! That explains it, "God is conducting an experiment." The Russians have been chosen to have this experiment of socialism.
BR














Well, I sort of want to go back, in the first place to say that I think it's a real compliment that you were hired to teach creative writing on the basis of someone experiencing your poetry, and that's the way I think it should be done. Although all too often nowadays it seems that people are hired on the basis simply of resumes by people who have no interest in ever hearing their poetry. And you mentioned careerism. You know, 1970 was the first time I remember being asked for a resume, and I thought, and I wrote back, you know, poets don't have resumes. And now to remember that the world was different in that way. Now we have all these poets no one's heard of or ever read. Well anyway, that's not a very good note to end on so, maybe you could read us another poem.
CS


















Yeah. Let's see. Well here, this is another poem of Chinese derivation, so to speak. It's called "The Chinese Way." And I wrote it for a friend of mine, a Canadian friend actually who shared my love of Chinese poetry, but he's also a painter and he'd sent me some copies of his recent watercolors, so I wrote this little poem. And I should tell you that one genre in Chinese poetry is the genre or motif really of leave-taking. Chinese poets were often dispatched to far corners of the Chinese empire and knew that they would never see their friends again and so there arose this whole category almost of poets taking leave of one another. So this is a little, it ends with a little leave-taking poem. And the Chinese painter who's mentioned here is actually the same person as was mentioned in that earlier poem that I read although this is his—the first was his literary name Su Dongpo—this is his family name, Su Shi. So it's called, "The Chinese Way." In reply to my friend—Master Boyce, I call him—after receiving copies of his recent paintings.
Art


















[reading follows]
BR

Thank you. Clem Starck reading us his poems. Thank you very much.
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