Making Spaces: An Interview with Thomas A. Clark by David Herd
Thomas A. Clark was born in Greenock, Scotland, in 1944. Two collections published this year, The Tempers of Hazard (Paladin) and Tormentil And Bleached Bones (Polygon) gather together most of the poetry Clark has written since the late '70s. With his wife Laurie, Thomas A. Clark runs the Cairn Gallery, a centre for experimental art.
When did you start writing?
I would have been about eighteen or nineteen, in the early to mid '60s. I started to write under the impetus of the Beats, so I used to write spontaneous prose in the Kerouacian manner. My writing has, of course, moved on a great deal since then, but I do feel it worth recording a real debt to Kerouac in particular.
Under whose influence did you arrive at your more recognisable style?
The first poet I ever met was Ian Hamilton Finlay and through him I came across 'concrete' poetry. Ian's was the first body of work I discovered which offered a different view of things to the Beats. Instead of a spontaneous outpouring, it was a very careful, small, meticulous making. It was the poem as an objective thing, the poem as a thing made. Ian has remained a friend and is to this day the only Scottish poet I admire and feel close to. My correspondence with Ian has been an education for me. He has a hugely creative imagination.
Do you feel more affinity with American than with British traditions?
The first time I had an idea that contemporary poetry could be of interest at all was through American writing. From writers such as Gary Snyder, Robert Creely, and later Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky, there was a sense of excitement, a sense that to be a writer was not a peculiar, rarefied business, but that it was involved, that it addressed particular concerns. The poet I feel particularly close to is Larine Niedecker, and I continue to read her poetry with great pleasure.
Until recently you have published your work throug!1 small publishers, particularly your own Moschatel Press. Why have you chosen this form of distribution?
Moschatel Press began quite practically in 1972 when my wife and I were given a small press as a wedding present. This suddenly seemed to provide a way of doing things. If you wrote a poem you could immediately set it up, print it and send it out to friends. But again the influence of Finlay comes in here. Ian's work embodied the idea that, instead of a fat book of poems, you could have just one poem published on its own in a particular and appropriate format, perhaps as a small booklet or card. That brought a different kind of attention as well as being a further layer of objectification. Also, using the press went with the concrete poetry sense of making rather than writing. An important corollary of this is that I felt then that I was a writer who didn't have anything to say, and although that has changed a bit over the years I've always kept a distance from the idea that the writer is someone who knows or feels something special which is expressed in the writing. What interested me then was the idea of making objects that have a life of their own in the world. Working with the press greatly increased my sense of the material nature of a poem. I also found that when this phase of my work went into magazines it fitted very uncomfortably with poems that demanded a different kind of reading process. So I began to lose interest in publishing in that way. I would like to say that to me the way poetry is published in this country, the way it finds a public, is extremely unimaginative. There are just magazines, pamphlets and books. The whole area of production and format is completely unexamined. At certain periods our little Adana press was perhaps the main influence on my work. I would have a certain size to work with, a particular paper, a favourite typeface, and these would be the beginnings of a poem. It's important to realise what a pleasure this way of working is.
Do you think that you have since found a way of preserving the sense of a poetic object, and the kind of attention you achieved with the cards, in a form that can live in a book? The poems in The Tempers of Hazard seem to require their own kind of attention.
I think that I have developed a more discursive writing, and indeed I have found a position from which I have things I want to say. But the earlier period informs this writing. I still have a sense of the poem as something made that must be attended to very carefully. In 'The Hollow Way' and 'The Idle Road' sections of The Tempers of Hazard each line stands on its own. Individual lines can add up and cross over, but only in a problematic way. It is up to the reader to make the links between the different lines. So there is still a kind of stasis within the flow.
Much of your early poetry was explicitly 'found'. What is the value of the act of finding for you, and to what extent is your poetry now, though clearly more constructed, still 'found'?
The 'found' stuff began partly, as I have suggested, with having nothing to say of my own, and in part also from the objective nature of my idea of poetry. I was interested in the way that a body of language contains meanings and overtones, which shift subtly within a different context. It was directing a certain kind of attention on to language. Although that phase was soon abandoned, as its possibilities are restricted, there is still an element of it informing The Tempers of Hazard. In that book I often use proverbs, or proverbial lore, or else fabricate my own 'proverbs'. The poems are made up of units of sense that are largely found in common usage. Cliches are in the air, particularly relating to life in the country. What I'm doing there is placing them in different contexts and looking at them, putting them up for scrutiny, seeing how much they stand up for themselves.
Is cliche a valuable form of utterance for you? I have a sense that the cliche in your poetry is a common place, a place where people can meet.
I want to look at the language that is or has been used commonly by people, in the traditional culture, and see what is the experience behind that language. It does not seem good enough simply to dismiss cliche from some sophisticated, urban perspective. I find that callous. But more than that, the commonplace is an interesting concept for me, because I am always suspicious of the exceptional. I hold the Emersonian view that the best diet for poets is bread and water. This is not some kind of asceticism. It is to do with the fact that it is only on a common, bare, basic regime that nuances can be observed and fully registered.
In 'Of Truth of Tone' you speak of the 'absolutely necessary facts'. What is the importance of such 'facts' to your poetry?
At the time of writing A Ruskin Sketchbook I thought I knew what 'the absolutely necessary fact' was. I would be less sure now, but it has something to do with what is outside human agency, which exists on its own, with its own truth. I think that human beings, with their incessant anthropomorphic greed, actually yearn for something that exists outside the sphere of culture. So I would see a note of longing in that poem now. I suppose the way I would describe the pursuit of the necessary in my writing now would be to say that I am dealing with something that for me is prior to a political or cultural stance. I think that most people are caught up in a contemporary debate. I have my own sense of my writing contributing to a contemporary debate, but it is perhaps at a distance. I would want to address the barest facts of being in the world: the question of being thrown, to use Heidegger's term, into a world which you haven't made, which comes to you as a gift. In order to get back to that level we have to establish a decorum of images, to sort among information. The subject is made up of information derived from elsewhere, and which is unsorted; the culture all the time throws images at us. I would want first of all to sort amongst those images and to see which ones are important to me and which are not. But I'd want to go further than that now and actually uphold other images which it seems to me are undervalued, and which might cause the reader perhaps to place his own assumptions in parenthesis. The body of work that is published in The Tempers of Hazard is largely from the '80s, the time of a particular political regime in Britain, and the decade I felt perhaps most uncomfortable with. The reaction of many writers to that decade was to directly oppose the system. My reaction, when presented with values that were alien to me, was not simply to reject those values, but to try and find what my own values were. That is why other voices come in. I'm giving space to other arguments, seeing what they contain, and how far I can go with or against them.
In the final poem of the series 'Out of the Wind' you speak of "a community of interest", which is not a phrase I would have expected to find in your earlier work. Is your poetry attending more to the utopian?
During the writing of the work gathered in The Tempers of Hazard I thought of it as being specifically utopian but I have been corrected on that point. People have told me that it is not utopian but pastoral. I suppose it differs from utopianism in not having a programme. The image of paradise that comes into the poetry is to be understood in terms of its distance from what we have now. A common perception of my work is that it is not very much like the life people know now. I would say that you can either hold up a mirror to the life you lead, or you can knock down a building and open a horizon. So the utopian or pastoral images have a distance of yearning. They are yearning for an impossible simplicity in the midst of complexity.
Is your poetry vulnerable to the charge of escapism?
This is a way in which the political discourse as it exists is unsatisfactory. Of course there is a sense in which the word 'escapist' is correctly pejorative. But what that use of the term also implies is that there is no escape, and it seems to me that that is a cruelty on the part of the discourse in question. There are some situations in which one needs to escape. If one lives in a crowded culture it might be useful to have images of empty landscapes, broader spaces. I think that the nostalgic, insofar as it is there in my poetry, works in the same way. It is a wish for certain things that are absent, or not sufficiently present, which are deliberately conjured up in order to further or to heal. To me that is how the poems work. They manage small harmonies which attune our ears to harmony.
The act of giving, and the acceptance of the given is an enduring theme in your poetry. Does the gift constitute a model of positive human exchange for you?
Yes it does, but I think the initial gift is the world. That comes before the question of exchange. We can choose either to examine that gift, working out the best angles, grabbing as much of it as we can for ourselves; or we accept it simply as a gift, and the moment of acceptance seems to me one of great import and at the same time of lightness. It is possible both to accept and give at the same time; to accept the gift of the world and to offer back gratitude, these two are al most inextricably linked. But certainly in raising the question of the gift one is at the same time rejecting the view of the world that is determined by the exchange of money. The non-acceptance of the gift, the examining of the gift-horse's mouth is what builds up the subject. It is what contributes to gravity. The welcoming of the gift as a gift lightens the subject.
Does your poetry mean to accept the gift unquestioningly?
Yes, absolutely. This forme is one of the values of art. It teaches one to accept the gift in the sense that you can't immediately adopt a critical attitude to a work of art. You have to leave yourself open to the work in order to experience it. In that sense a reading of a poem, a looking at a painting, is a model, a small rehearsal of the total, nonjudgmental acceptance of the given. Of course that must not be confused with an acceptance of the status quo. The perception has to be received. Later on the decision can be made as what we are going to do with that perception. It is at that point that the political decisions and commitments have to be made. This is what I mean when I say that the area I am working in seems to me to be prior to politics. But the priority is of the slightest - the political and the social immediately follow.
Your poetry is increasingly finding or making a clearing. What are you clearing a space for?
Well there are both clearings and glades. A glade is a space you find. A clearing is one you make or that has been made. It is a common perception of people now that they don't have time and space, that life is taken up with making money, working, getting from here to there, rather than the primary process of leading a human life. So the clearings first of all make time and room for that to happen. They are little spaces of quiet where things can be seen clearly. Their function is, I hope, recuperative.
In the new Polygon book, Tormentil And Bleached Bones, all the poems are related to walking. What is the significance of the walking theme?
I do a great deal of walking from day to day and I find that it clears my head, while it quite literally puts me in touch with my surroundings. At the same time walking is an adventure, a direction. It's leaving everything you know and setting out into the world. Whether we remember it or not, human life is dependent upon the non-human. I think it is imperative that we get to know this, physically, for ourselves. If we have been given the gift of the world, the very least we can do in return is to give it our attention. I think that one of the main concerns of poetry, and of all art, is openness, laying yourself open to fresh experience, actively going towards it.