Grant Clauser’s newest book is the poetry collection Muddy Dragon on the Road the Heaven, winner of the Codhill Press Poetry Award. His other books include The Magician’s Handbook, Reckless Constellations, Necessary Myths, and The Trouble with Rivers. He’s also won the Cider Press Book Award, and the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Cortland Review, Tar River Poetry, Poet Lore and others. He lives in Pennsylvania where he works as an editor and writer and also teaches poetry at Rosemont College.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven. You’ve had a few collections hit in relative quick succession. What do you owe this to? Are you in a good groove now? Is it a timing thing? Are you understanding the process or your voice more?
Grant Clauser: Thank you. The simple answer is that poems are short, so it doesn’t take much time to write them. I don’t have the patience or skill for long works, and have much respect for people who do. When I’m working well I can produce a lot, but sometimes I’ll go months without writing anything, though I’ll fill those gaps with reading. As for my poems and books, I find that when I’ve discovered a pattern or voice that I like, I can keep that going for a while, and I’ll work it for as many poems as I can, which is why some sections in my books have a lot of thematic or tone connections. The poems in the new book reflecting on childhood events were mostly written around the same time, and the section set it in the woods were written over two or three camping trips. It’s like when you find a loose thread on a sweater—you can’t help but keep pulling. It’s important for me, and I think any writer, to understand their own process, their tricks and strengths, as well as their failings, so they can repeat or avoid them.
CS: We’re both nature lovers, and there’s a lot of nature in these poems, but you take us to deeper places. There’s the indifferent, dangerous nature of your poem “2050,” then there’s the healing nature of a poem like “Swimming in the Lake Alone.” First, can you talk about the inspiration you find in the natural world, and second, can you address the duality of nature that finds its way into your work?
GC: Ever since I was a kid when there was a trail from my backyard leading to woods, I’ve felt happier when I’m around trees or lakes or creeks. I’m hiking or kayaking nearly every weekend. Being surprised or excited by things I find in the wild helps me separate from other thoughts, and allows me to put both small and large things in perspective. The wild is a great place to find and explore metaphors, to see issues and the self from a different (or indifferent) point of view, and so it offers wonderful opportunities for discovery. When you’re walking on a trail, your focus is on your feet, so you don’t trip on a rock or step on snake, on your breath or the ache in your shoulders, and on the sights and sounds around you, rather than on the bills you have to pay or the deadlines you have to meet. I don’t meditate, but I assume it’s a lot like that, especially since I mostly go to the woods alone.
At the same time, especially now, I can’t help thinking about how we, humans, have changed the environment, and how close we are to losing it, which is what comes up in that poem and a few others. The duality is really in ourselves rather than in nature. My lifestyle depends on fossil fuels, yet I hate the destruction and conflict they cause. I’m excited by thunderstorms, but I don’t want to get caught in one. We’re quick to complain, but terrible about taking responsibility. I think that’s why I write poems, because I’ can’t make up my mind about the world and have to keep poking at it.
CS: We both share Pennsylvania roots, and we’re familiar with our kind of woods and seasons. Do you feel that there are distinctively PA aspects of your work beyond the natural world we touched upon earlier? If so, what are they and how do they find their way into your poems?
GC: Pennsylvania places and quirks come up often in my poems, like the poem “Onion Snow,” which is an old Pennsylvania Dutch saying. I use what I have, and what I have is the environment I grew up in, the foods, the place names, the traditions. Pennsylvanians will probably recognize things, maybe see themselves, in aspects of my poems, and I’d be very happy about that. I do sort of think of my work as a kind of record keeping. There are moments, ideas, that I don’t want to get lost in time, and even if the only people I’m preserving it for is my two daughters, that’s enough. I want them to know what it was like to eat dinner at my grandmother’s table, to watch my father fix his car where it died in in a parking lot, to cross a railroad trestle overgrown with sumac, or leap into straw bales at my cousin’s farm.
CS: And a last question about nature—there’s a lot of fishing in here. I’ve never gotten into fishing. What am I missing?
GC: Oh, boy. Fishing is exactly like poetry. You cast in your line and hope to pull something out. Often you have a target, something you’re reaching for, and often you’re disappointed. You might blame the fish, or the weather, but you know the truth. It can be hard, sometimes you have to hike or paddle a long way to get to the right spot. Sometimes luck hits you on the first cast, so you get overconfident and end up with nothing but sunburn for the rest of the day. A lot of times it’s boring—hours doing the same thing over and over again with no results (a lot like submitting to literary journals), and then when you’re not expecting it, you get a hit.
CS: I love your control of language. Can I ask about your process? In your early drafts, do you wrestle with language—or do you focus on getting your ideas down and then revisiting later to hone the words? Do you find revision just as exciting as creating those early drafts?
GC: When drafting I’m much more focused on the elements of craft rather than on ideas. Everyone has ideas, and mine aren’t any more important or original than anyone else’s. For me, what distinguishes poetry is the attention to language. I’ll use images, sounds, rhythms, line breaks, etc. to get me from one line to the next, and I don’t think about ideas or sense until much later. Again, like fishing, I think it’s better to focus on the process of making the poem, rather than the end result. Practice your cast, study the water, read the weather. I had a teacher who used to say “be the person who writes, rather than the one who wants to have written.” He probably stole that.
CS: And another process question—these poems contain striking images. They stand out so vibrantly that I was wondering if the image is your usual starting point? And if so, how do you unravel it from there? Do you have a concept in mind as you sit down with an image—or do you just start writing and see where you go?
GC: Yes, image, and also metaphor, tend to be my starting points, and usually my sustaining points too, especially because all image is metaphor. Maybe it’s because I’m easily impressed, but I like things that get attention, so I’m really attracted to images that work hard. Galway Kinnell and Brigit Pegeen Kelly were masters of that, so I study them, and many others. I like to use things that I can transform into something else the way a simile turns one thing into another. For me, that’s a foundational element in poetry.
CS: The book is divided into four sections—and while they’re not titled, each claims a unique territory—death, childhood, nature, hope (at least that’s what I’m feeling). When did this structure come into play? At the beginning or in the middle—or were you holding a bunch of completed poems and then discovered you could structure the collection in terms of these reoccurring themes?
GC: The two middle sections, the childhood poems and the nature poems, came together pretty easily. It was always clear they belonged together, and in an earlier version of the manuscript there were a lot more of them, but I pulled a bunch out that I thought were doing the same work. The poems in the first section were actually written sort of as a response to the others—I was noticing that my poems weren’t responding enough to the world outside of my own bubble of memories and experience, so I purposely pushed outside of that, and the result was a series of poems focused on some of the awful things in the world—violence, depression, ecological destruction. But there’s only so much of that a person can take in one book, so the last section is intentionally focused on hope. I am an optimistic person, and want to leave people with a picture of the good, even if you have to squint to see it.
CS: We’ve taught together in the Rosemont MFA program—but teaching was something you came to later in your career, correct? What has teaching meant to you, both as a writer and as a member of the writing community?
GC: I taught freshman classes as an adjunct right after graduate school, but left that quickly for an editorial career because it was an easier way to get health insurance. I came back to teaching later when Kathleen Bonanno asked me to teach poetry at Musehouse, and since then Rosemont has become kind of a home for me. I joke that I teach as a hobby, but honestly I really enjoy it, especially since I get to teach something I love. It allows me to talk about poetry to people who care about it, something I don’t get to do at my other job, and gives me a good excuse to dive deeper into books and ideas then maybe I would if I wasn’t preparing for a class session. And just as important, it’s introduced me to so many people who’ve become friends. I know full-time teaching can sometimes be a stressful lifestyle, but I mostly get to participate just in the fun parts. I hope I continue to feel that way (see above statement on being an optimist).
CS: What’s next?
GC: After this newest book came out I thought I would take a break for a while, but I stumbled into a project already that I think may end up as a book manuscript. I’ve been writing a series of poems loosely based on wilderness survival tips. Maybe it’s because I’ve been binge-watching the Survivorman show, or maybe it’s the pandemic quarantine that’s forcing everyone to think about how to get through these times, but the poems have been coming along. Some of them are going to start showing up in journals later this year and next.
Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).