Interview with Jennifer Clark

Jennifer Clark’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times and once for the Rhysling Award. Her first book of poems, Necessary Clearings, was recently published by Shabda Press. Her short story published in Fiction Fix received their 2013 Editor’s Choice Award. Clark’s writings have been published in failbetter, Structo, Pacific Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Crab Creek Review, Nimrod, Concho River Review, Ecotone, FlywayEncore Magazine, and elsewhere. Her work has been anthologized in such places as [Ex]tinction & [Ex]tinguished (Twelve Winters Press), Zombies for a Cure (Elektrik Milk Bath Press), and Growing Concerns: An Eco-Horror Anthology (Chupa Cabra House). She recently completed a 26,000-word manuscript for middle school readers who enjoy edgy fiction. Several of her poems were published in the Autumn 2015 issue of The 3288 Review.

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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Jennifer Clark: I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in writing. I don’t know if I could pin my interest in the written word on any one moment or event. I was in second or third grade when, through school book orders, I purchased Funny Jokes and Foxy Riddles by Allan Jaffee. I must have read that book cover to cover at least a hundred times. When I was eleven I wrote a joke book. I titled it Humor My Mother Doesn’t Appreciate and sent it off to a publisher in New York City. I mistakenly assumed it would be a hit. Instead, a few months later I got my first taste of rejection. On the upper left corner of the form letter an editor had written: “Keep Writing!” I kept writing.

3288 Review: In the introduction to the poems you submitted to Issue 1.2 you say that they are part of a larger project, exploring part of American history in poetry. Can you tell us something of your process, both in research and in choosing the aspects of John Chapman/Johnny Appleseed about which you write?

Jennifer Clark: Whenever I do research for a poem, my process is grounded in my belief that to know someone—in this case John Chapman—it’s essential to understand where the person is coming from, to see the world the way they see it. My process is pretty simple. I wonder a lot and ask questions. When John saw an apple, what did he see? Did his contemporaries view apples the same way he did? What and who did John read? How did he spend his time? How did others of the day spend their time? Who did John hang out with? Who didn’t he hang out with?

I believe that we, just like John Chapman, are built by the people around us. In John’s case, he was tremendously shaped by two people who were absent in his life: his mother, Elizabeth Simonds Chapman who died before he was two-years old, and Emanuel Swedenborg, who died in 1772, two years before John was born. Swedenborg was the Leonardo da Vinci of the Swedish world, a real renaissance man, and considered by many to be the father of modern spiritualism. Raised Lutheran, he devoted much of his life to interpreting scripture.

Along with the Holy Bible, John carried pamphlets of Swedenborg’s writings wherever he went. I highlighted this practice in “Pipsissaway Potts Remembers,” one of the six poems from my collection that you feature in The 3288 Review. Chapman’s mind was infused with Swedenborg. So, to capture the truth as best I could within this collection I, too, had to immerse myself in Swedenborg. If I was going to write about John Chapman, apples, anything at all, I first had to understand how he might see a tree, the night sky, an apple seed.

I wasn’t so much interested in the Appleseed myth as I was of soaking up the man whose ways inspired the myth, so I tried to plant myself in the times of Chapman. I found Daniel Walker Howe’s book, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America: 1815-1848 most helpful in this process. I also read every scrap of scholarly work about Chapman I could get my hands on. The more I researched, though, the more I came to realize—not surprisingly—the absence of women and people of color, especially blacks, within the Chapman/Appleseed story. Obviously, women existed at the cusp of the 18th century and slavery was raging in America. So where were they? This desire to flesh out a fuller story led me to seek out those dismissed voices. As a result, I ended up with 52 poems based on over a year’s worth of intense research.

3288 Review: In 2014 you published your first book of poetry, Necessary Clearings. The poems therein are deeply personal, and seem to cycle between themes of birth and death, love and loss. What is the story of this book? What was your experience putting it together?

Jennifer Clark: I didn’t set out to write a book but I started noticing themes running throughout my work, particularly loss. Most of the poems in Necessary Clearings were written over a six year period, from 2006 to 2012. While many of the poems are biographical, they speak to those moments—both big and small—which occur in all our lives. A clearing is made by or for us and offers up an opportunity to contemplate that which was and that which remains.

Becoming a mother in 2005 heightened my own understanding of loss and how nothing stays the same. As a parent, just when I think I’ve got the hang of things, my kid changes it up on me and enters some new developmental phase. Each change involves a loss of what was, but it is often accompanied by some new and even greater discovery.

In pulling Necessary Clearings together, my initial thought was to put poems about environmental losses together, those that spoke more to motherhood together, and so on. But it didn’t feel right. I realized, just like life, it needed to be a bit more messy.

3288 Review: Over the course of your career, which writers and teachers have been most influential to you as a poet? And how have these influences changed and evolved over the years?

Jennifer Clark: The person who has influenced me, perhaps more than anyone else when it comes to my writing, is William McCall. He was my high school English teacher. I can still see him sitting on the edge of his desk, swinging his jeaned legs. He always appeared rather rumpled looking with his scruffy beard, tousled hair, and wrinkled shirt, like he had just dashed out of bed and into the classroom because it was imperative he feed teenagers the short, crisp lines of Ernest Hemingway. He had us read Old Man and the Sea, among other Hemingway novels, and that is when I developed an appetite for clean, concise writing. He introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe and I memorized “The Raven” for his class. It occurs to me only now, in thinking about your question, that this might have been the origin of my penchant for narrative poems. Hmm.

Anyways, he taught us not only poetry but the poets behind the poems, such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who both took their own lives before the age of 50. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned before his 30th birthday. John Keats wasn’t as lucky. He died at 25 of tuberculosis. I remember thinking: poetry is dangerous business. While writing had always been a part of my life, if it wasn’t for Mr. McCall, his encouragement, and passion for literature, I don’t know if I would have pursued writing with the sense of urgency that I do. At the back of my mind is always this: I have a finite number of days to write.

Since then, I’ve gone on to love and be influenced by the works of many, but the ones who come immediately to mind are poets Wendell Berry, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Lucille Clifton, Philip Levine, John Rybicki, Ted Kooser, Jan Beatty, Kim Addonizio, Mary Oliver, and A. Van Jordan. And then there are writers like John Irving, Elizabeth Strout, Roxanne Gay, Steven King, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Simon Van Booy, Nicholson Baker, Anthony Doerr, and Scott Russell Sanders. I can’t help but be influenced by every great poem or book I pick up. They each leave a trace of their DNA under my fingernails.

3288 Review: According to your bio in Encore Kalamazoo, after you earned your master’s degree you spent time as a counselor in Pittsburgh. How did that experience shape you as a writer?

Jennifer Clark: I loved Pittsburgh. I spent a good decade of my life there, working as a substitute teacher, a caseworker with the elderly, counseling those who were dealing with homelessness, mental illness, and being a therapist for sex offenders. I was doing this work against the backdrop of valleys, rivers, and countless bridges of Pittsburgh. Actually, they’re not countless anymore as somebody counted them a few years back and the bridges add up to, I believe, 446—more than any city in the world.

But, back to your question. Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain creates pockets of place that a writer can crawl into and stay indefinitely. Two works heavily influenced by my Pittsburgh experience come to mind. Based on my work with sex offenders, I wrote a play, Fathers Not There which was produced by The New Group Theater and featured some years back at the U.S. National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. More recently, Pittsburgh—five hundred years in the future—is the setting for a manuscript I completed before venturing into the world of John Chapman. The story is geared to middle school readers and is peppered with Pittsburgh places like Wood Street Commons, the Golden Triangle, Cathedral of Learning, and McKees Rocks.

As writers, I believe the heap of experiences and characters we meet along the way composts over the years. It’s helpful to let place and experiences do their thing, break down, and enrich our work in surprising ways.

3288 Review: As a counselor and mentor, what is your take on poetry (or other creative outlets) as a form of therapy?

Jennifer Clark: When I meet someone who doesn’t write, I am filled with horror and wonder. How do they survive? I know I couldn’t. Writing feeds me. It helps me feel more whole and connected to life. When I don’t write, my family will tell you I become crabby. Poetry, at the very least, makes me a not-so-crabby person to be around.

Researchers have found that poetry and other forms of expressive writing have a number of health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, improving mood, enhancing school and work performance, and experiencing more fulfilling relationships. But I don’t need research to tell me that poetry is good for us. I see it working in my life and in the lives of others.

I believe poetry is a powerful tool for transformation. Sometimes, our old ways of being or looking at something need to be broken. Just as a doctor may break a bone to allow it to heal properly, poetry can serve as a mind splinter. The process—both writing and reading poetry—can shatter old ways of thinking and feeling and open us up to possibilities. I’ve seen it happen time and again.

Most recently, I was doing a workshop with elementary children. “I don’t like poetry and I don’t want to write poetry,” a boy announced, even before I had a chance to set my stuff down. When I encouraged him to give it a try, he confided that he couldn’t do anything, that he wasn’t good at school. But, he found the courage to try. At the end of the session he volunteered to read his poem aloud. Afterwards, his classmates clapped and he threw his hands up in the air and announced, “I am a poet!”

Poetry heals. The tape that boy played over and over in his mind, the one that began with “I can’t/I’m not,” had transformed to “I am.” Through the act of writing, he reclaimed his own power and glimpsed a new vision for himself. I love seeing that happen, especially for kids.

3288 Review: Do you have anything coming out in the near future? For instance, a collection of John Chapman-inspired poetry?

Jennifer Clark: Yes. Shabda Press, which published my first book, will be releasing Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman in 2017. I don’t have the release date yet, but when I do, I’ll let everyone know.