With his neatly trimmed mustache and swept-back gray hair, Kevin Clark looks like a retired major league ballplayer or maybe a retired fire chief. The genial longtime Cal Poly poetry teacher retired from the university three years ago, but he continues to teach summers at the Rainier Writing Workshop as well as mentor two of the workshop's poets year-round.
Clark's third full-length volume of poems, The Consecrations, will soon be published by the Stephen F. Austin University Press, a follow-up to his Pleiades Prize-winning second volume, Self-Portrait with Expletives. His first book of poems, In the Evening of No Warning, earned an Academy of American Poets grant. He's also published several chapbooks and collected a number of other prizes and honors. Now he's SLO County's new poet laureate.
"I love what the poet Muriel Rukeyser said: 'If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger,'" Clark wrote over email. "Good poems transport us from the white noise of our lives to that kernel of our being where feeling and thought are in communion. It's a seductive habit, this writing and reading of poetry."
Wordsworth described poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." What's Clark's definition?
"Funny, it's like trying to define the mystery of quantum physics, but here goes. As I've said elsewhere, poetry is the unpredictable inquiry into the unknown. It's surprising words that form a lens by which we see into the world, into 'the heart's core,' as Yeats would say. It's the heightened language of a voice telling a story from another realm. A good poem is a deep secret gone public," Clark explained.
Poetry is arguably an arcane art form, but Clark's work has an unusual accessibility. Is it important to him to make meanings clear rather than create a complicated puzzle to be solved?
"To a degree, yes," he wrote. "But I think strangeness or something inexpressible is part of the art, too. I like the word 'duende.' If a poem has what the great poet Lorca calls 'duende,' if it senses life's innate urgency, if there are layers of meaning resonating throughout it, if it moves me before I quite 'get it' all, then the level of difficulty doesn't bother me."
As a longtime poetry teacher, can he identify what poorly written poems have in common?
"Maybe the author doesn't realize it, but I think a poorly written poem simply isn't finished yet," Clark responded. "I hate to be paradoxical about this, but, having said that, I think all works of art are never quite finished because they never attain perfection. Still, the successful poem gets close to the hidden state of the universe. Good poems engage a reader so that both heart and mind are moved simultaneously."
Being selected poet laureate is certainly an honor, but it also comes with responsibilities. What are Clark's goals as our county's new top wordsmith?
"Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it's a strange moment for all of us," he admitted. "Reading as well as writing poetry can allow a person to see into the world's ever-enfolded enigmas, and, in time of crisis, it can offer inner calm. Poetry is an areligious spiritual aspiration. I want to evangelize poetry from the inside out, do some teaching, say, so all kinds of folks can call it up to write for themselves.
"I'd also like to give several readings throughout the county. Let's hope that's sooner than later," he continued. "Meanwhile, I'm thinking through a few ideas about some online video recordings of poems to help weather the crisis. I read a tremendous amount of poetry, and so I'd also like to find a way to recommend a variety of different new books of poetry that others may not know about."
Clark's been in the local poetry scene for years. How does it feel to be singled out?
"There are many really good poets in the county, and being appointed poet laureate is a special honor for me. I'm deeply grateful to the people who nominated me and wrote letters of support, and the committee that chose me. Likewise, I have nothing but gratitude for all the savvy, honest writers who continue to help me edit my own work.
"Finally," he said, "let me give a shout out to Kevin Patrick Sullivan, the progenitor of SLO County poetry who has done far more than anyone in our region of the world to promote the power of poetry. He's an arts hero." Δ
Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey doesn't like to be singled out. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.