Adam Clay

recorded in Kalamazoo, MI

 

Adam Clay

Welcome to the Knox Writers’ House, my name is Adam Clay and I live in Kalamazoo now, but I’ve spent probably the majority of my life in the Deep South. I grew up down in Mississippi, lived in Jackson and Hattiesburg and I lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas between my time in Mississippi and Kalamazoo, which is kind of good, because Fayetteville is sort of in the, not quite in the South, not quite in the Midwest. I moved up here for graduate school, essentially. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had found that place, I think, impacted my writing in a lot of ways. I think growing up in the South, narrative poetry is just what everyone does. The approach to writing is you write, it’s called Grit Lit a lot of times down there. There’s this idea that a poem is about these gritty things or things that you’ve seen or done, you know, trailer parks, or whatever. And I think when I went to Arkansas I really wanted to get away from that. I went there mainly because it was more of a formal camp. A lot of professors there were formal writers, and I wanted to write poems that were more formal. So I went there. And then when I got here, strangely enough, being away from the South brought me back to narrative poems and I really started to engage with the things that I was seeing every day. One thing we had going on was we had a family of thirteen living next door to us when we first moved here, so living with that atmosphere was something I had to write about. Another thing I saw that came into my poems was the political, which we talked about a little bit earlier, but the way in which, seeing the economy was affecting the city and the state and the country, in a larger sense. Also, two of the flags here in Michigan are always at half-mast because there’s often a soldier who’s died because, you know, what are you going to do when you live in Michigan? It’s hard to find work, so you go overseas and you fight. So seeing these things every day, it was hard for me not to write about them, so I sort of found the narrative that I was running away from in the South sneaking its way into my work. My new book that’s coming out from Milkweed Editions is really about living in Michigan and coming to terms with those things.


The Knox Writers’ House

As someone who’s come to the Midwest, with maybe an outside perspective, do you think there’s a Midwestern voice or aesthetic?


Clay

That’s a really great question. I don’t know. I think maybe the Midwestern aesthetic is that there—is it fair to say that there isn’t an aesthetic? That there’s so many different voices that—it seems like in the South, there’s the narrative poem that comes from the oral tradition of storytelling, from the South, but here, I feel like the Midwest is so—and you know, you’ve been driving across it—there’s so much to it. When you go to Chicago, which is a Midwestern city, you find poets that are really different and doing different things, you go to Kalamazoo, there’s different aesthetics, you go to Iowa City, there’s a different aesthetic. For me, the Midwest has the most diverse aesthetic and its aesthetic is that it doesn’t have one. There’s so much variety, which is kind of what I like about it. For one of my Readings exams, I was thinking about place, maybe even considering the Midwest, and I had a hard time putting my finger on something because it felt like every book I picked up by a Midwestern poet was something completely different. That’s not really an answer, but…


KWH

Do you think that the coasts or the South have more uniform voices because they’re older traditions?


Clay

I think so, yeah. Especially in the South with that oral tradition. And I’m not sure why. This is something Charles Wright talks a lot about in his work. He’s been called a Southern poet before; he calls himself a post-Southern poet, that’s his term for it, that he’s coming after the Southern movement. And I would consider a lot of poets from the coast, especially New England, to be maybe more lyrical poets and maybe from the South to be more narrative, but I think what happens in the Midwest a lot is you have these different pieces that come—I mean, there are people from the Midwest, but a lot of people that live in the Midwest aren’t from the Midwest. A lot of writers that end up here are transplants. So I think you have these pieces that come in, like I brought narrative with me, I experimented a lot with lyrical when I was in Arkansas, so I feel like it’s this nice hodgepodge of all these different things and that’s what gives it its uniqueness.


KWH

We talked with a writer in Chicago who was very interested in gothic literature and he told us he expects a resurgence of a cohesive Midwestern voice and he thinks it will mirror the rise of Southern gothic, coming out of economic decline and massive industrialization. Do you think there’s something there?


Clay

Yeah, that’s something I think about a lot. I was in Detroit, a friend of mine, poet Zach Schomburg, he lives in Portland now, but he was here in town and he kept begging me to go see a Tigers game because he wanted to go to downtown Detroit. Have you been down there, or walked down there? It’s a pretty wild experience because it was on par with Chicago. They were both growing in the same way, same populations, and you go to Chicago, which you just came from, and you saw how bustling it is, there’s so much going on, and then you go to downtown Detroit and there are literally sky rises that are empty. You mention the Southern gothic and I definitely think about that when I’m down there. I think about old houses in disrepair. And I don’t know what will bring it back. And it’s hard to go down there and not write about it. We came back that day and I wrote a poem about the downtown. Because the Midwest is the heart of the country, supposedly. It’s America. It’s the Heartland. But it’s empty. A lot of the cities are falling apart and empty. I think a lot of Midwestern poets are writing about that. The same way a poet like James Wright was really writing about the strip mining, the coal mining, and what that was doing to the landscape. I think these empty industrial buildings will have to find their way into that voice.

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