Patricia Clark is a poet who finds the spiritual in all that is beautiful: in paintings and sculptures, music and gardens. Despite a continual reach for the incorporeal, Clark’s poems remain planted in the gritty, solid world around her. Like a tide pool on a stormy day, Clark’s collection mesmerizes with its ebb and flow to and from the shores of the earth, and she is able to carry the reader out beyond death in the ebb because her poems crash fully onto the body of this world.
Clark grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but has also lived in Missoula, Montana, and Houston, Texas, and her poems reflect a breadth of worldly experience. She is poet-in-residence and professor in Grand Valley State University’s Department of Writing. Clark has written four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Sunday Rising, the subject of this interview.
The recipient of many awards and honors, Clark has received a Creative Arts Grant from ArtServe Michigan, the Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and the Pablo Neruda/NIMROD award, among many others. In the fall of 2005, she was invited to open the Library of Congress’s noon reading series in Washington D.C. with two other poets.
Roya Sabri: You draw a relationship between inspiration and creation, the other-worldly and the concrete, in these lines from “Risen from the Underworld”:
Stay seated here for eons in a green meadow,
trusting your own sweet time, they offer up,
until thoughts and sentences swirl together from
verbs, nouns, articles, particles.
This theme recurs in the collection. Does any religion inspire or influence your poetry? Do you consider verse writing part of your spiritual practice?
Patricia Clark: Yes, I consider writing some part of my spiritual practice. I was raised Catholic but actually reject a number of their beliefs. Still, the Bible has many sensual parts in the Old Testament, and great rhythms there, too. I think I was influenced by some early church attendance—mainly to love music, ritual, pageantry, and the beauty of people together.
Roya Sabri: What aspects of Catholicism find their way into your poems?
Patricia Clark: It is music, especially, that I believe Catholicism handed to me. And the stirring aspects of it. Perhaps the rituals, too, of “making an office” of writing and the writing life. I think it’s like being a monk, in some ways—living (trying to live) a Spartan life and trying to strip things down to the essences of things: noticing, writing down, caring.
Roya Sabri: The lyricism of your poetry sometimes draws obliquely from music and at others pulls directly from music. For example, in “Oscine,” you write about the more technical elements of songs: “Song to braid this new day or darkening gloom, / notes to send out, testing what the voice / can do—trills, legato, runs and rasps,” while in “Risen from the Underworld” you take a more metaphorical approach: “Voices of those gone are drifting, / zigzagging through, a rough music laced with cicadas, grackles, / flies.” What do you find most difficult about translating music to the musicality of poetry?
Patricia Clark: I’ve tried to write about music, or to write inspired by music, more than I’ve succeeded. Glad you noticed! I just can’t translate the experience at all. Music is such a pure medium. I hear the cello and the piano—and there’s just nothing like it. Or the oboe, the clarinet. It’s hopeless trying to catch any of it. Or its greatness: the Bruch violin concerto. But it strengthens me to hear great music; it can seem fearless and it inspires me.
Roya Sabri: In Sunday Rising, you also pull a lot out of colors. In “Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil,” you write:
What I love along the bank are the skiffs
drawn up, five or more
at the golden side, the first boat
a bright russet like a horizontal flame
the next two mauve, one sailboat,
Here, as in other poems, colors paint the scene. It seems as though every other line has a brush stroke of color in that poem. How do you think about colors? What purpose do they serve for you as a poet?
Patricia Clark: Colors, hmm. Well, I am drawn to color (pun) and like looking at paintings. To me, it’s an important element to include in poetry, especially in fresh names for colors. I try, anyway. I used to say I’d like to try being a painter—but the process is daunting to me. Words, a pen, paper: much more comforting.
Roya Sabri: When you’re inspired by a piece of art, do you prefer writing in front of the piece, like a plein air painter, or taking your ideas home with you to compose later? Do you see a difference between what those two processes produce?
Patricia Clark: Usually I’ve tried to keep some image in front of me—like a Xerox or postcard if I can’t have the original artwork. I like to look at it over and over without any expectation, just kind of dreaming myself into the work of art. Sure, I can imagine just taking notes and having those but I like the other way more. I like looking at the piece until it kind of disappears and it becomes part of me.
Roya Sabri: Your poems often engage in conversation with other poets. “Anti-Love Poem,” you write in a note, is taken after a poem by Grace Paley, for example, and you include a cento in your last section, which borrows lines from poets such as Charles Wright, A. R. Ammons, and Victoria Chang. How do you find the poetry of others different from nature or visual art in the way it inspires your writing?
Patricia Clark: Yes, other writers inspire me. There are some writers I avoid when sitting down to write and others who give me a feeling of power or generosity, “You, too, can do this!” Neruda is one of the generous ones. Sometimes just a sentence, or a turn of phrase catches me, or a way of approaching the world and I think, “Oh, I’d like to try that.” And I’m off. How fun. Glad we have each other.
I think the difference in being inspired by writers is that they might offer me some new insight to craft or form—not something I’d get from a visual artist.
Roya Sabri: Do you find writing about visual art to be a different experience from writing about a natural scene?
Patricia Clark: No, I don’t think there’s much difference between nature and something else. It’s something “out there” and I’m trying to connect or describe it. Both are a challenge. That said, I don’t take a pen or pencil or paper with me when I walk. I want to just be walking around looking and walking. If something’s important, I’ll remember it when I get home or remember it the next day. I want to be free to just walk around with my eyes and my dog beside me.
Roya Sabri: You’ve spoken before about your love of gardening, and your enjoyment and knowledge of nature and gardening come through in many of your poems. These lines at the end of your title poem, “Sunday Rising” stand out to me:
Here the June day
comes up sweet and chill, and I do not
attend to steeple bells tolling across
Sunday air, using instead a red trowel
and my own good hands, planting yellow
daisies, upright grasses, and trailing
hopvine in these twin chapels-
of-the-window-box, near the wide open
Have any of your poems made you see your gardening experience differently in any way? How does gardening affect your work as a poet?
Patricia Clark: Gardening has influenced my poetry in ways I can’t really explain. It’s a good balance with writing work to be digging in the dirt, paying attention to leaf shapes and health of growing things. It’s hard to explain but it’s a lovely balance—to write in the mornings and go to nurseries and plant, etc., other times of the day. It is also very tangible and a slow process, so it’s good for writing.
Roya Sabri: Your poems are often grounded in sensory details and narrative. Do you see a relationship between this grounding and the desire to tear soul from body, as Milosz writes?
Patricia Clark: I love sensory detail and narrative, of course, but sometimes a poem wants something else, a touch of magic, a way of moving that’s like flying. There’s just something else wanted or needed; sometimes the language is able to lift off and go there. If that’s what Milosz means, I agree—a kind of soaring that can happen though one is still part of this earth, part of certain tangible moments.
Roya Sabri: There’s a certain flow to your poems in this book, and of course subjects like nature and death recur, but each of the four sections has a distinct feeling, some being more personal and others more land-based, for example. When organizing your poems, did the four-section format come naturally, or did you consider other options?
Patricia Clark: My book Sunday Rising probably had the most attention paid to an arrangement, or sequence of poems, that I’ve ever paid. I deliberately tried out three or four different arrangements—and had a lot of fun trying them out! I typically don’t concern myself with what theme or motif is coming up again and again in my poems, but here I sat down and tried to actually articulate some themes. Then I worked on several different pleasing arrangements that would highlight themes in different ways. I might have always tried four sections, but I may also have tried out three. My last book, She Walks into the Sea, had no sections, just poems in a certain order, so I definitely wanted sections this time. I worked to have the poems in a sequence that would build in intensity and also bring the reader, in section IV, to some sense of resolution or consolation.
Roya Sabri: Do you have an example of a poem from which you learned about poetry or life in general?
Patricia Clark: That’s an interesting question. I’m assuming you mean poems from other people, is that right? I don’t know if I can answer you. When I read poems, of course I read for pleasure, but I’m also always looking at language other writers use plus techniques—how they work a sentence, how they turn the line, how they open a poem, how it concludes. So I learn about poetry just about every day, I would say.
I love Mark Doty’s recent book of poems Deep Lane—and I would offer that I feel he “teaches” us about generosity and about vulnerability when loving (and trying to love) others in that book. I greatly admire the book and him.
As far as life in general, I find poetry a very emotionally nourishing art form. And I also find it a meditative art that helps me, as a person and individual, slow down and appreciate things a little more than I would do otherwise. I hope I notice things more.
Roya Sabri: Do you have an example of a poem from your collection Sunday Rising from which you learned?
Patricia Clark: Things I learn, oh sure. I learn the particulars of a thing—a red admiral butterfly. Then I forget it and have to learn again. I learn vocabulary words: oscine, quebrada. Nothing seems to stick, except stupid stuff, and I have to re-learn (again). I learn to be quiet and watch.
Roya Sabri: Your collection is dedicated to your sisters. You write that they have “led the way.” They also appear in the poems. How have they influenced your work?
Patricia Clark: I’m trying to be a tad humorous in my sisters having “led the way”—as three of them are older than I am. I think in other ways, too, they have led the way by living boldly, by living their lives as women. So I want to credit them for that. Have they influenced my work as a poet? No, I don’t think so. Something in our competition as sisters may cause me to strive for excellence.
Roya Sabri: What’s next for Patricia Clark?
Patricia Clark: I’m in the midst of putting together and finalizing book #5, tentatively titled Goodbye to the Poetry of Marble. The title poem riffs on a similarly titled poem by James Wright called “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium.” This book will be similar to Sunday Rising in terms of using fairly clear landscapes often in the natural world—but it’s different in that the speaker has a restless time mulling over a sister’s death and some other losses. Ultimately there is a guarded sense of celebration and joy—achieved through difficulty—often coming through the power of naming and knowing the flora and fauna of the world around us.