Jeremy Michael Clark

jeremy-clark

Jeremy Michael Clark is from Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in Callaloo, The Rumpus, Forklift, Ohio, & elsewhere. He has received fellowships & scholarships from Callaloo, Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival, Squaw Valley, & the Fine Arts Work Center. Currently, he is an MFA candidate in poetry at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

How Does It Feel?
after D’Angelo

Outside, a blizzard reduces the skyline to suggestion. Snowed in,
I try to peek at my stepfather’s mute television. Through the grain

he watches what might be a hand caress what might be a thigh
but the image scrolls higher & higher up the screen. A month later,

I’m ten. I press against the television & beg the camera, lower,
lower
. At the song’s climax D’Angelo sings, Let me take off

your clothes & I’ll…& if words won’t go further, I want to
know what image his mind is fixed on so that from within

surges not a word but music, a moan, something forced free.
I’ve seen what older boys did or said they did on school buses.

I’ve heard through walls my mother’s moans & screams, skin
against skin, a boot crunching through snow. That night, I enter

her room, see why the bed always sighed when I sat on its edge
& what I had to say I forget. What was scrawled on the bus seat

sometimes smeared before it dried. The screen filled with snow
& my stepfather smacked the set to bring the image back.

Last Night in Louisville

I didn’t wake this morning
because I never slept. For what felt
like the final time I crawled

through the window of an old life.
All night I laughed with a woman
who snuffed fires with her palm. Leaving

the bar, she slipped a faded photo
in her pocket. In it, I was clean
shaven, wide-eyed, not like now. Now,

my mind’s a flickering streetlight,
a pint glass stained with the last drops
of why my stomach is clenched. Now,

the microphone’s off. I’ve lost
my keys, the book, & the candle I was
given. The book was one I owned

already, inscribed with a message for me.
Raised to think I’d leave someday, here
I am, on layover, too drunk to see

the wheels touch down, smoke
trailing behind. An airport toilet
was the last thing I hugged. Tossing

my keys in a drawer,
a bartender waits for me to call.

No Angel
after Gabriel García Márquez

Does it matter if he isn’t? Chickens
peck his feathers loose. Like the water keeps
its quiet lapping, strange eyes visit at night
to see if he sleeps. If awake, his eyes are star
-latched & his fingers lace the cage’s wire.
The other children skip their nightly gossip,
whisper, It must end soon. Each day, more
feathers line the floor. When the time comes,
bury him close to the sea. Let each grain of sand
be his. From my window, I’ve seen the wind
force seagulls back to shore.

Interview with Jeremy Michael Clark by Phillip B. Williams

Phillip: Thank you, Jeremy, for taking the time out to chat with me. The Olympics are going and I know there is much to be excited about other than this interview.

Jeremy: Thanks, Phillip – I’m happy to make the time to talk with you. Most of the Olympics I can do without, but I will forever be impressed by what the human body is capable of, so I’ve just been looking up specific highlights & performances after the fact. There’s too much else I want to do, like this interview!

P: Well I hope this can be as thrilling as the highlights! And really, we are speaking about the human body and its capabilities when we speak about your poems. Jumping right in, your poem “How Does it Feel” definitely seems interested in the limitations of the body as related to what can be seen or not seen, what is hidden versus what is known, but also how those limitations are slowly chipped away by curiosity, by need:

 

Outside, a blizzard reduces the skyline to suggestion. Snowed in,
I try to peek at my stepfather’s mute television. Through the grain

        he watches what might be a hand caress what might be a thigh
but the image scrolls higher & higher up the screen. A month later,

I’m ten. I press against the television & beg the camera, lower,
lower.

What are the possibilities of the body in the mind? How does you see desire playing out here where so much of it happens out of frame or out of focus?

J: That segue was definitely highlight worthy, lol. Apologies in advance if I start to ramble here, I have a couple different thoughts. So I think desire fundamentally points elsewhere, it’s born out of a lack, a negative space. I want to say that no matter what we desire, that lack is the root of the issue. So desire is often a catalyst for motion, a restlessness (the word wanderlust immediately came to mind, though not in the way the word is supposed to mean, lol). So, with all this in mind, I think one can be be motivated by desire without even knowing what one desires, if that makes sense. I don’t know what I’m looking for but I know it’s not what I have right now. Simply knowing there’s something one doesn’t know, hasn’t experienced, then, inspires curiosity, and I think the child in the poem is curious, as most children are, though that curiosity seems channeled/amplified by the environment they’re existing in. Maybe not of all us, though, like to imagine what’s beyond what we already see/know, but I can’t help it. I’m also interested in implication, how much we can render a thing just by suggesting it. I can’t think of specific films, but films do this all the time. Things off-screen can exert a kind of energy in their own right. Also, in not looking at (or being able to “see”) the bodies in the poem, the desire to see them is even more heightened, and I like to think this poem is enacting that to some degree.

 

P: Can we talk about how objects work in your poems? This set of lines sticks out to me from “Last Night in Louisville”:

        Now,

my mind’s a flickering streetlight,
a pint glass stained with the last drops
of why my stomach is clenched. Now,

the microphone’s off. I’ve lost
my keys, the book, & the candle I was
given.

What is the operation of the list? How do objects work in your poem? I get a sense that time is affected by these objects or maybe “clarified” is a better word.

J: Great question. In the moment this poem takes place, the speaker is reflecting back upon the previous night’s events from both a temporal and geographical distance, and is taking stock. It’s a kind of “morning after” poem, although the divide between one day & another stands in for this large divide of “that life” and what feels like “this life,” if that makes sense. So, the image of the pint glass enters because of the image system set up earlier in the poem, & the emptiness of the glass implies an amount of time spent, an enduring of something, in that a glass is once full and then slowly drank down to nothing. So without saying all that (lol) I can try to evoke that emotion into the poem, using the pint glass & the streetlight. Also, the speaker loses these things they had, things that accumulated, and has a sense of, “well, things are different now,” and it’s a way to differentiate “now” from “then,” in this speaker’s mind. I don’t consider myself a surreal image-maker. Often, my image systems are culled from the scenes my speakers are occupying. I think setting & objects are more interesting ways of communicating tone, than just saying “I’m hungover and I feel like I’ve left some shit behind.” I fully describe to the school of thought that says what a person chooses to focus on or how they describe something can tell us something about their mental state. I also like how through our attention, we can raise something from simple detail to metaphor.

P: In your poem “No Angel” you write:

When the time comes,
bury him close to the sea. Let each grain of sand
be his. From my window, I’ve seen the wind
force seagulls back to shore.

I feel you working with elegy here, which makes sense considering the idea of what an angel is but also that the idea could be a failure, that the subject may be no angel at all. Can you talk a little about how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” inspired you to write this poem? In those lines above, and throughout the entire poem, what part does faith play in the speaker’s tone?

J: So this poem originally came from a prompt given to my craft class last fall by Kamilah Aisha Moon, where we had to bring in a paragraph of prose and use it as a generative springboard. I first read this story by Marquez as a sophomore in high school, and it’s always kind of haunted me since. To write the poem, I imagined myself in the position of Elisenda, who is the last person to see the angel in the story, and who has an ambivalence (if not disdain) toward the angel. But I want to mention an earlier passage. After the angel is found, the priest, Father Gonzaga, goes to look over the angel, and we get this moment: “Then he noticed that seen close up he was much too human…[Father Gonzaga] argued that if wings were not the essential element in determining the difference between hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels.” Two questions/curiosities came to mind: what is it about the presence of human qualities that makes someone unfit for reverence, and how is it we come to determine what makes someone an “angel,” whether that’s literally or figuratively speaking? I had been thinking about those who die at the hands of police brutality, how often criminal histories or other details about their life are used to imply (if not outright say) they deserved to die. For Father Gonzaga, his faith requires that what he worships not be too close to human, but what does that say about how he sees humanity? There’s a danger in that separation, a dehumanizing, an inability to accept their complexity, i.e. their humanity. So what concerns me is how dehumanization can occur on both sides, by those trying to honor someone & those trying to discredit someone. When I started to write this poem, the tension was originally more centered on whether this angel was a “real” angel. Through revision, I realized, what does it matter? That’s how the question that opens the poem comes in, which really gave me the frame of the poem. Hah, I don’t know if anyone would have gotten all that from this short poem, but that’s what is there for me. The speaker of this poem is trying to resist the “Is he/Isn’t he” binary, and isn’t that the difficulty of elegy, to honor someone without reduction?

P: The explorations of self and the searching for ceremony to honor a self really stand out to me in all of these poems. Time is revised/expanded in order to allow deeper contemplation of a lived life, desire is intensified by merely suggesting toward an object, and self itself is allowed to be nothing or at least not what one expects. Are these poems part of a larger project?

J: Yes, but I tend to pretend there’s no larger project I’m working on, because I feel constrained by the idea of a project. But I have my obsessions: family, defining “home,” what it means to create a self in a collective, the importance of myth when lacking memory, all that. I’m in the last year of my MFA now, which means I have an eye on my thesis. While I don’t expect that to be the project I put into the world, I know there are some foundational poems within that I can build on. It’s clear, after reading my poems in conversation with each other, that those obsessions are very much intact, hah. So I’m in no rush. I’m actively resisting a pressure to publish (which seems to me like an external pressure). I just want to write something that, when I look back at it, I can say, “You went for it. You wrote what you needed to write.” When it’s ready, I’ll know.

P: Recently you participated in The Conversation as a fellow. On their website, The Conversation is described as “a multi-media company who specializes in organizing readings, hosting workshops & craft talks, hosts a week long fellowship program in the American South.”

Can you speak to your recent experiences with The Conversation as a fellow and participant of the festival?

I assume that any time a group of writers gets together that energy goes flying everywhere. What did you learn about yourself in those intimate moments you spent with fellow writers?

J: Man, it’s only been a couple days since I got home from The Conversation, and I still feel so grateful to have been there. How can I express how incredible it was? As a fellow, I got to give a craft talk with other fellows at the University of Mississippi about displacement and what we mean when we talk about “home” and “lineage;” I got to talk with high school students at Central High School in Tuscaloosa, as well as undergrads at the University of Alabama. I also did a reading at the University of Alabama with other fellows Nate Marshall, Angel Nafis, José Olivarez, & Danez Smith, which might be one of the best/most fun/most emotional readings I’ve ever been a part of. Other highlights include visiting fellow Jerriod Avant’s mother’s house in Longtown, Mississippi, and hearing her tell us about the history of the property; eating way too much catfish at a restaurant appropriately named Catfish Heaven in Tuscaloosa; & an impromptu walkthrough at Studio Be in New Orleans, which is an art gallery owned by the artist Brandon “Bmike” Odums.

But to your second question, I think the downtime between events was also really meaningful. I’ve never been with a more gracious group of people than this group. Each of the fellows & participants are people who I really think are doing exciting work right now, as poets & also as intellectuals, activists, as people in the world. Listening to each of them read poems damn near brought me to tears & that was just good for the soul, you know? But I’m also grateful for the moments where we were just up late playing spades, telling stories on long car rides, or just sitting on a porch in New Orleans talking about how we imagine we want our lives to be. Now that The Conversation has ended, I’m back out in the world with a new family, and inspired all over again to do the sort of work that makes this a world we want to live in. I’m excited to see what the co-founders (Aziza Barnes & Nabila Lovelace) have in store for the future.

P: And what is in the future for you?

J: We’ll see. Most likely the future involves getting away from New York after I graduate. My time here has been incredibly important, but New York doesn’t feel conducive to getting the work done, to me, and I don’t want to live someplace that I’m actively fighting against. There’s also a part of me that wants to go back to the South because too often I was told I needed to leave. Even though I understood why, it was always disappointing when I lived in Louisville to watch people leave to pursue their passions. I always think about what would have happened if everyone stayed and created a space there. So, I’m now thinking of challenging myself to do what I hoped other people would do. Of course, I’d love to get some sort of postgraduate fellowship or residency opportunity to continue working on my book. But I also know I could go back to Louisville and be afforded the time and space that a more formal residency might offer, so I think about that. I also think about going back to work with younger folk as a mentor, since that was something I definitely needed when I was in high school. At the very least, as long as I’m writing, and I can help take care of my younger brothers, and my closest people are within reach, everything else is truly a bonus.

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