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Jonathan Clark on Writing and Poetry

Jonathan Clark ’16 outdoors in Louisiana where he attends the MFA program at LSU.

When Jonathan Clark graduated from Moravian in 2016, he knew he wanted to move on to a master of fine arts (MFA) program in creative writing, but it had to be the right fit. So he began a thoughtful search while serving as a Moravian College admissions counselor. Clark found the right fit in the program at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge. Late last spring, Inside Moravian, met with Clark over coffee in DeLight’s Café to talk about his writing process, his poetry, and his decision to go to LSU. Befitting National Poetry Month, we continued that conversation via e-mail this April.

Why did you choose the MFA program at Louisiana State University?

As a three-year program it is more extensive and comprehensive than most, requiring literature courses along with creative work, and providing teaching experience over those three years. Most MFA programs require you to specialize in fiction or poetry. LSU offers poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and screen writing, and it is one of the few programs in the country that allows for cross-genre work.

The LSU faculty are outstanding and give you more freedom than other programs to blend genres and create the project you want. They work within your vision rather than bend you to a certain aesthetic that the program leans toward. While some of my poems are more traditional, I consider myself an experimental poet, and LSU offers one of the few programs that is considered experimental. The canon of public poetry is expanding in regard to what poetry is, and I am excited to be developing my poetry in a period and an environment that will work for me.

How are you finding the MFA program at LSU now that you’ve been there about a year?

I have to admit I came into the MFA with lofty expectations. No article or blog post or Q&A detailing the MFA experience prepared me for being the only black man in LSU’s program. At first, in teaching myself to navigate this environment, a lot of self-doubt surfaced about whether I belonged in such a privileged space, inherently placing pressure on the making of my art in a way I never had to negotiate; or maybe I always negotiated this pressure by simply being a black male artist and wasn’t yet aware. But I’m now comfortably adapted, and don’t view the MFA as all that different from teaching myself poetry. I just try to commit each day to my craft, to be innovative, to never waver in my convictions and to write through those convictions. Trusting my intuition afforded me this opportunity, along with the incredible support of family and friends.

In my opinion, and others may disagree, the MFA is like any social setting inhabiting a group of people with a range of diverse experiences—you seek out and establish relationships with like-minded people. The MFA structure is based on two principles—networking and production and when presented with an opportunity such as the MFA, an artist harnesses the power to take ownership of their production and networking. The MFA is a very privileged bridge into getting this sort of access—funding, teaching, a new environment, and most importantly, time. Overall, the MFA can be an enriching experience if you learn to mold its structure to meet your ambitions

Are there certain themes that you are currently grappling with in your poetry, and if so what are they?

I’d say the two themes I’m grappling with are honesty and vulnerability. In considering these two themes, I believe honesty begets vulnerability. In other words, whether I am able to access the poem’s vulnerability—the poem’s true essence—is contingent on how honest I can be with myself in relation to curating material. Selecting the subject of the poem is just as important as the execution of that subject, if not more. In turn, a poem has the potential to build bridges of empathy to connect with readers.

Where do those themes come from?

The poet, Tony Hoagland, once presented a brilliant analogy for the difference between poems that arrest and poems that attempt to arrest. He said—and I’m paraphrasing—imagine a house on fire, during which someone phones the fire in from a phone booth three blocks away, not knowing that someone else about to be swallowed up by the fire already made the call minutes before. He then said he’s able to immediately discern the difference between the poem of a poet standing in the fire versus a poem of a poet phoning that fire in from a phone booth three blocks away. With every poem I write, I strive to embody that poet standing in the fire, and it’s only possible to achieve this sort of authority if the poem is steeped in that combination of honesty and vulnerability.

What is your process like? Does a poem or an idea come to you and then you shape it? Or do you get a line or an image, put it down, and work from there? Do you revise a lot, or does the poem come to you well-formed in your mind? 

The poet, Carl Phillips, says of poetry, “to write poetry is to give shapelessness form.” And so, the ideas, emotions, and experiences I’m most compelled to shape a form around are the ones I feel the most resistance toward excavating. But it’s in these ideas, emotions, and experiences of resistance from which I’m able to resurrect the most fertile of substance to reflect upon. This practice begins with curating a line that triggers some kind of tension, a tension that’s crucial to maintaining momentum throughout the process of building a poem. From here, I enter into a space of submission to the language’s guidance, which shapes the form for the poem’s syntactical structure, a kind of home for which the poem’s tension can remain hyper-contained.

A profound thinker, Fred Moten, says of revision, “revision is keeping it open, seeing it again, letting it see, remaining at sea, in passage. Revision is rehearsal, hearing it again, playing it again. Practicing.” I subscribe to this thinking in my practice of writing, and therefore, a poem is never complete. Even published poems of mine are fair game for revision, especially as I consider that my personhood fluctuates in a state of constant revision.

Do you write on paper or on the computer, and what about that medium do you like?

There was a long phase where I wrote using an electric typewriter, but I was more infatuated with participating in the nostalgic quality of this medium rather than writing in the actual medium itself. With that said, all my writings and musings begin on paper in very loose structures, similar to brainstorming. And so, I carry a notepad at all times. If I continue to retreat back to something, nearly to the point of involuntary action, then I know it’s time to transfer that something to the computer where the process begins of thoroughly fleshing that something out. I use different colored flash drives to distinguish between projects, so the computer as a medium allows me to conveniently organize the various drafts of these long-term projects.

Poetry has an aural tradition, do you read your poems out loud during the writing process?

Yes! I read poems aloud during and after the writing of that poem, as the musicality or sonic quality of a poem is crucial for me. I also curate and catalogue voice recordings of poems, and listen to the recordings as I read the poem. This practice helps me to refine a poem’s cadence and to further develop a more intimate knowledge with how the language functions as an essential additive of the air rather than on the page. I consider the writing of poems and listening to poems being read as two separate art forms. I’m always conscious of balancing the necessary ingredients in the making of a poem that allow for the poem to live in both worlds. This practice is what makes the poet so special, being able to balance working across two art forms at once.

Do you expect readers to work at your poetry until they “get” what you mean? What is your hope and/or expectation for your reader’s response to your poetry?

I’m a firm believer that despite poetry’s notorious reputation to puzzle, poetry has a responsibility just as all writing does to communicate a thought, emotion, or experience with as much clarity as possible. I’m not saying a poem shouldn’t challenge a reader to grapple with whatever the poem asks the reader to wrestle with, or challenge a reader to think, but the reader shouldn’t have to leave a poem feeling entirely removed and confused. I always aim to write poems with the intention of including a wider audience. I want the reader’s response to mirror a kind of personal reflection and/or resonation for them, however that may look.

What is poetry's role in society? What is its point?

The poet and essayist, Dionne Brand, writes in a verso, “in this city, you fall in love at Chester Subway, it’s not a beautiful subway so your love makes it so. But its ugliness may doom your love, and you know it but you love anyway.” If we are to apply the logic in Brand’s verso to poetry’s role in society, or that of the fine arts, artists are compelled to do what they do because it’s a necessary impulse of our human wiring to spread hope where there’s hopelessness, and to remind us of the intricacies that are so essential in stitching together the fabric of our human makeup.

Why do you choose to write poetry?

Poetry is simply innate. For whatever reason, you constantly go back to it; you constantly find yourself writing in that form. The British poet Robert Graves once said, “poets are born not made.” Whatever being is up there watching over us, they just select you, and you can accept it or run away from it. It’s a daunting task because you are working with language at such a fundamental level, and you know your viewership is never going to be beyond a certain grouping of people, but you write because you have to.

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