Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Muse: Missouri's Poet Laureate

Today's "Monday Muse" introduces you to David Clewell, Missouri's new Poet Laureate. Clewell is only the second poet to hold the honor, which first was awarded to Walter Bargen, who will be featured in an upcoming post. Clewell's appointment runs from March 4, 2010, to January 31, 2012.

The honorary two-year position of Missouri Poet Laureate was established by executive order in 2007, while the criteria for selection were set, also by executive order, in 2009. The appointee is required to be a state resident and a published poet active in the poetry community, to write a poem honoring Missouri, and be able to attend 12 poetry-related events during his or her term. (Bargen logged at least one hundred and a lot of miles on his car.) A Missouri Poet Laureate Advisory Committee evaluates open nominations for the position and sends its recommendations to the governor, who makes the final selection. The poet selected receives a stipend, provided through grants, to cover travel and expenses to events that promote poetry.

* * * * *
My favorite thing to hear at poetry events is,
 'I didn't know poetry could be about that,
 I didn't know poetry could be about us'.*
~ David Clewell

In announcing on March 4 the selection of David Clewell as state Poet Laureate, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon lauded Clewell's "wry humor, tart social commentary and accessible style [that] give his poetry a broad appeal." A professor at Webster University, Clewell teaches 19th and 20th Century literature and poetry workshops and seminars. He also directs the university's creative writing program and coordinates its Visiting Writer Series, which he founded.

Many of the articles I read about Clewell to prepare this post mention his love for and treasure troves of books and memorabilia, humor, his understatement ("I'm just a local poet."), his endless curiosity, his eclectic, insatiable penchant for poetry, which runs from Milton to Nemoy (as in Star Trek's Dr. Spock), and his sense that poetry is for everyone, from pre-schoolers to plumbers to factory workers to prison inmates. If he lacks anything, it is, apparently, intellectual arrogance. He's as apt to write about cereal flavors as CIA misdeeds. He doesn't shy from saying he "hated poetry" when he was in school, calling it "too maudlin, too fanciful, too much about winged horses flying through the sky. . . ."** He credits a high school teacher with showing him that poetry is not just about the words but "about the rhythms and the cadences and the sounds"** on which Clewell focuses his attention.

Line length, phrasing, style, voice — tight, loosened, brought back under control — these are Clewell's signatures, along with delight in popular culture and contemporary events. He's authentic in the best sense of the word, a disprover that poetry is obtuse and irrelevant. An example:

It seemed like such a good idea, growing up:
if I had to walk my family's narrow hallways, I'd find a room
amenable enough to be myself in, find words they couldn't
bring themselves to say. I scribbled hard into so many nights,
writing myself into any world where sooner or later I belonged.
I made it up as I went along, and when it turned into Zombies
from Zomboolia, I stapled those pages between two pieces of grey
cardboard from my father's pressed white shirts. . . .
~ From "Second Wind" in The Low End of Higher Things

The titles of Clewell's poems are what first get your attention: "On the Eve of His Retirement, the Weight-Guesser Goes All Out", "Nostradamus Had to Know", "The CIA in Wonderland", "The Final Meeting of the Pessimists Club", "From the Other Side, Houdini Tries to Come Through for Bess", "Albert Einstein Held Me in His Arms". Who wouldn't be intrigued enough to want to read this work? And who wouldn't agree that, titles aside, the poems deliver? An example:

Even though I'm only staying the night, I have a sinking feeling
there's going to be trouble. The real guests are talking it up
   in the living room
as if this is truly the life: . . When they checked in and filled
    out the card
with way too much space for Tell Us All About Yourself, I bet 
   they were more
than happy to oblige. I can hear them even now, while
    I'm writing down
the only thing I'm sure of, after my name and my actual address:
I can already tell there's no way I deserve this kind of attention.
~ From "America's Bed-and-Breakfasts" in Now We're Getting Somewhere

There is also in Clewell's poetry a sense of wonder and intimacy, as in these examples:

You are something we said last year, and more: you're what came
between us, what we did—our best idea yet. . . .
~ From "All You Can Do: For Benjamin, Not Yet Born" in The Low End of Higher Things

because we're too exhausted to make love: And we don't get it:
we thought by now the entire planet would be thrown off its
balance, or wobble on its axis maybe just enough for someone else
    to feel the slightest difference. . .
And all we have to do is stay awake to get it. . .
. . . We've made our bed, and we're not really
sorry, even now while we're lying in it, more or less married
to the pure physics of inertia: bodies at rest will tend to remain
    that way.
~ From "We've Been Sleeping Together All Week" in The Low End of Higher Things

Clewell has published seven collections of poetry, most recently The Low End of Higher Things (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), in addition to a number of chapbooks and two book-length narrative poems, The Conspiracy Quartet (Garlic Press, 1997) and the 50-page Jack Ruby's America (Garlic Press, 2000), which Clewell says took five years to write and includes historical facts and dialogue. His Blessings in Disguise (Puffin/Penguin Books, 1991) received a National Poetry Series prize, while Now We're Getting Somewhere (University of Wisconsin Press, 1994) received the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. Winner of the Peter I.B. Lavan Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, Clewell also has been nominated seven times for the prestigious Pushcart Prize for poetry.

Clewell's poetry has been published in scores of literary journals and magazines, from Poetry and The Kenyon Review to River Styx. It also has been featured in such anthologies as Best American Poetry 2010 (Scribner, 2010) and Sixty Years of American Poetry (Abrams, 1996). 


Note: Many lines in Clewell's poems are quite long; to fit in the excerpts in the space available here, some lines had to be broken.

* Clewell, quoted in "New Poet Laureate Takes Egalitarian View", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 4, 2010.

** Clewell, quoted in "Words That Matter: David Clewell" in Playback:stl, December 15, 2005.

Clewell's other poetry collections are Room to Breathe (Pentagram Press) and The Blood Knows to Keep Moving.

Examples from The Low of Higher Things are here. A preview of poems from Now We're Getting Somewhere is here.

Clewell's "New Year's Eve Letter to Friends" is here.

Selections from Jack Ruby's America are here.

My first "Monday Muse" column was a post on Virginia's Poet Laureate.


Louise Gallagher said...

Thanks for the path to Clewell's poetry.

I read Alberta Einstein held me in his arms. Perhaps the last two lines say it all:

it’s fifty years later, and I’m the one still alive, all that’s left of the story, telling myself: Yes, it did. No, it didn’t. No, it did.

Glynn said...

I feel like basking in the glow from this. Clewell's university - Webster - is about 5 minutes from my house. What a great, in-depth article this is, Maureen. And I can't wait to see the post on Walter Bargen - I actually met him once at a writing and publishing fair and talked with him about poetry.

Anonymous said...

i like carrots.
but, i don't always think to eat them
until someone washes them, peels them, cuts them up into little sticks, and places them nicely on a plate for me.

Dianna Woolley said...

This guy sounds GREAT - thanks for the introduction!