Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books: The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books), Reckless Constellations (winner of the 2016 Cider Press Review Book Award), Necessary Myths (winner of the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing). Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Folio, The Literary Review, Gargoyle, Painted Bride Quarterly, Seattle Review, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. In 2010 he was the Montgomery County Poet Laureate, selected by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet of the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. He also writes about electronics, teaches in the Rosemont College Writers’ Studio and chases trout with a stick. Grant’s blog is www.uniambic.com.
Curtis Smith: I’m always interested in a collection’s origins. How did you come to work with PS Books? What’s the experience been like?
Grant Clauser: The Magician’s Handbook started shortly after my second book, and I was trying to get away from the nature poem rut I thought I was stuck in, so one evening wrote six short poems about a magician character. I showed them to friends in my poetry group, and they seemed to like them, so I kept it going and expanded the themes a bit.
As for how the book came to be published, I’d had a few poems published by PS Books’ literary magazine, Philadelphia Stories, which is how Carla, the publisher, came to first know my work. A few years later she invited me to teach at the Rosemont College summer writers’ retreat, and at a reading there I talked about and read a number of poems from the then-in-progress manuscript. At the end of the conference she told me that she’d be interested in seeing the manuscript when it was done. A year or more later she mentioned it again, and I was more than happy to send it to her. Working with a local publisher has been great. You get to work with people in person to discuss edits and design, which is something that isn’t easy to do when the publisher is half a country away. The publisher organized a fun book launch event, and has been helpful in keeping me connected to other events throughout the year.
CS: You and I taught together at the Rosemont MFA Summer Retreat—but your day job is outside teaching/academia—specifically technical writing, correct? I imagine this can have both positive and negative impacts on one’s creative work. Can you address your work/writing life balance? And while we’re in that realm, can you also address how you balance them with your family and personal lives?
GC: In my day job I write and edit for Wirecutter, a web publication that does product reviews, mostly about technology. I cover things like TVs, speakers and smart home devices. And you’re correct, it’s very different from my other writing life. Most of the contemporary poets I read and follow are teachers, and I sometimes envy that—they get to discuss writing and literature almost every day—but other times I think it’s a benefit. I never get sick of poetry. When I meet with my monthly writers’ group, or with the students I teach through Rosemont’s Writers’ Studio, I’ve got lots of energy available for talking about poetry, and I think sometimes writers who spend their whole work week discussing Whitman or sonnets or whatever probably get weary of it after a while.
I also make sure that I don’t allow poetry to slip under the rug. I read poetry, or poetry prose (I’m a real nerd for books on craft and poetics) every day, so there’s little chance that I’ll get too wrapped up in the day work stuff to forget about the poetry work stuff. I used to stress about staying on a writing schedule, and I’d worry if I wasn’t writing frequently enough, but that doesn’t bother me so much now. I fit my writing in whenever I need to, and trust that the poems that need to be written will find their way out into the air when they’re ready.
CS: I’m always interested in a writer’s process. How and when do you work? What’s your process for generating new work? For revising?
GC: A lot of my new work comes from reading other people’s work. I read a ton, so I’m always encountering a new or interesting way to do things, and frequently I’ll use those discoveries to start my own poems. Maybe the way a poem is structured or how it treats its main metaphor or the way it resolves its argument appeals to me, so I’ll see if I can do it too—with my own subject or my own perspective. I also make up a lot of stuff. If a poem sounds autobiographical, it’s probably only about 50 percent true. Reality doesn’t always fit the poem, so I alter reality. I often look for ideas from weird news items, and sometimes will write poems based on those. For instance, if I come across an article about a man who finds a black bear sleeping in his bed, I’ll try to write a poem about that. I like interesting titles, and situational titles like “Man Find Bear Sleeping in Bed with Wife” is just the kind of thing I’d be interested in if I saw it in a poetry journal.
Usually I’ll draft a complete poem in one sitting (rather than just some stanzas) and then I’ll tinker with it over the next few days, weeks, months or years. I have to read my poems out load to myself to get a sense of sound and pacing, and that can help me fix word or line issues. The openings and the closings are often the places that need the most work, and usually that means getting rid of them. I have a habit of writing beyond the end of the poem, which means I end up cutting the last few lines once I’ve figure out where the real ending is.
CS: Was it poetry first and always for you? Have you made forays into other genres—or would you like to?
GC: It’s always been poetry for me. I memorized Poe’s The Raven when I was in middle school, and since then I’ve loved poetry. Poe got me started with sound, especially with poems like The Bells, so that’s probably why I tend to keep an open ear when writing.
I’ve tried writing stories, but I have a short attention span and don’t understand things like plot and character—I get too obsessed with metaphors and images. I’ve started a few flash fiction pieces, and have a handful I like, but I really need to learn more about how that format works before I’d have any confidence in them.
In my day job I write or edit long expository articles, so maybe that’s burned me out for longer creative forms.
CS: I really enjoyed the collection—in fact, I read most of it in a single sitting (I would have read it all given the chance)—and I found myself taken in by the book’s vibe. But first, a question about structure. Not to give too much away, but the book is divided into three parts. When in the process did this structure come to you? And once it did, how did the individual pieces fall into place? What do you think this structure adds to the reader’s experience?
GC: The first six or eight poems I wrote in the magician series were non-specific about his age. As I thought more about him, I wanted to look at him at different points of his life, and then at different stages in his development. As I filled in with other poems, some fitting the magical/supernatural themes, some not, they too began to fall into different development stages. I ended up dividing the book more-or-less along those stages and based them on developmental stages from The Golden Dawn, the occult order that W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Aleister Crowley belonged to. Of course none of that is really necessary for reading the book, it’s just the kind thing that I got interested in when writing the poems. I wanted this collection to feel like it’s best read in the order the poems are presented. Since there’s a recurring character, who grows and ages throughout the book, it should feel as if it’s telling his story, and in a way, telling mine as well.
CS: Now back to the book’s vibe. I admired the tone of the pieces—we have this mysterious world of magic, séances, and carnival sideshows—and as I read, I felt this very compelling dual undertow—how beneath the mysterious and freaky there is beauty—and how beneath beauty, there is often the mysterious and freaky. Am I on the right track here? Is this is the lens you’re using to view the world in these poems?
GC: You are perfectly on track, and it makes me very happy to hear you experienced the book exactly as I hope people will. While carnivals, occult, zombies and other weird interests of mine fill the book, they’re not really the subject. The subject is the magic underneath the mundane, the things which give life meaning and the trouble finding it. Well, at least I hope that’s the subject. As I mentioned earlier, for a long time I’d been writing different variations of nature poems—camping, fishing, working the garden, and poems about life with my family, and I’d grown a little tired of that, so I went searching for a new landscape to draw from. I want the unusual surface subjects in these poems to be appealing to more people, but I hope the poems still do what good poems are supposed to do—peel back the skin and see what moves underneath.
CS: What’s next?
GC: The most immediate next thing is I have another book of poems, Reckless Constellations, coming out mid-January from Cider Press Review. That one includes some semi-nostalgic poems about the people that were important to me as a teenager, and the trouble we got into. I also fall back into the nature and family poems a bit, but that’s all an inevitable consequence of middle age. I’ve been writing less over the past year, but reading a lot more, so that’s all part of the same process for me. I’ll be doing readings for both new books throughout 2018 and hope to meet some new people that way.
Recently I raised my hand to participate in a poetry blog revival, something started by Kelli Russell Agodon and Donna Vorreyer. The project asks poets to pledge to blog at least once a week throughout 2018 as a way to sort of encourage a wide and deep poetry conversation, or many conversations. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on schedule.
I’m also teaching another workshop through Rosemont College’s Writers’ Studio. The next one is on poetry of nostalgia, and it’s open to anyone—you don’t have to be a Rosemont student to participate.
And maybe I’ll finally figure out how flash fiction works.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out five story collections, three novels, and three works of creative nonfiction. His new novel, Lovepain, will be released by Braddock Avenue Books in Spring 2018.
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