Adam Clay is the author of Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016), A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World (Milkweed Editions, 2012), and The Wash (Parlor Press, 2006). His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, The Pinch, and elsewhere. A co-editor of TYPO Magazine, he serves as a Book Review Editor for The Kenyon Review and teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t know if I’d say my first book changed my life, necessarily, but it did feel like a nod to the work I had put into writing up until that point. My first book feels very different from my latest—this is a result of a number of things, but I do feel I’ve made a conscious choice to write different types of poems and different types of books. My early poems are mostly persona poems that are more lyrical than not, and my new work feels more expansive and a lot more personal than the first book.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote poetry in high school because it seemed to come naturally to me. I didn’t know that one could study creative writing in college when I started my undergraduate courses, but I took poetry and fiction my first semester—luckily I had great teachers. I enjoyed writing fiction, but the stories just didn’t feel right on the page. I gravitated to poetry because it felt the most comfortable to me. I like the range of possibilities of form and how often times what isn’t said can be as important as what is.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I revise extensively. I used to just write when it felt like I had something to say, but I tend to go through periods now of writing daily (I write a poem a day in April, for example). Summer is a productive time, too, and then I tend to revise throughout the academic year. One advantage of writing so much is that I feel more at ease throwing drafts out—writing feels less precious if one does a lot of it. A big part of revision comes when the poem is placed in a manuscript and I begin to see how it’s working on concert within the larger work.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I just write poems without a clear goal or theme. I find that determining an order or a direction comes much later.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I used to dread them, but I really enjoy the process—writing can be solitary at times and it seems important to get out into the world and share one’s poems in that format. On the flip side, it’s also important to attend readings and contribute to the literary world in that way.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
It always changes and, I think, it’s better for me not to know when working on a project. I might have a loose idea in mind, but I prefer for the poems to take their own direction. In my next book, the poems are reckoning with nature and the environment, especially in the face of climate change.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
With our current political environment, rhetoric has become so pointed. I think art has a role in that it provides a different way of thinking about the political or the social. Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” comes to mind. It’s a political poem, but it’s coming from a very different place and it does something that other types of rhetoric can’t.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. It’s valuable to have others read and comment on your work—and I welcome it. Editors often approach the process of offering comments with caution (perhaps they’ve been bitten before?), but I’m always humbled when someone has taken the time to think about my work in a critical way.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My professors always told me to be a voracious reader if I wanted to be a writer. It took me a long time to see the merits in it (sadly), but I do think that considering tradition and literary history is crucial for both knowing the place from which you’re coming from and also in knowing what tradition you plan to work against.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Prose is much harder for me, if only because it takes more time to develop thoughts in that way—and it takes me more time in front of the computer. The appeal is the same in what it might allow a musician who learns how to play a new instrument. You’re starting over in some ways, but you’re still learning something new you can bring to your first love.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write early and usually on the screen. I find my writing mind is usually shot by 2pm so I make it a point to write early if I’m going to. I write in coffee shops usually (or at home if the house isn’t too much of a mess).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I used to feel anxious, but I turn to revision or to submitting work as a way of alleviating anxiety. Writing isn’t just writing: there are other things one can be doing. I also think of Oppen and his silence—it’s okay to not write and to even embrace the silence. The writing part of your brain is still at work even when things slow down.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I grew up in Mississippi so I’d have to say pine trees and fried food.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I always listen to music when I’m writing—sometimes the influence ends up in very obvious ways, but sometimes it’s more subtle.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have several close friends that I exchange poems with. Seeing what they’re up to (and sharing my work with them) is important to my life as a writer. It’s a way of being accountable (on one level), but it also allows for a conversation that can occur between poems.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write more prose, but I just don’t have the time to devote to it now. I have ideas for what it might look like, but it demands more time and more headspace than I have now.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
That’s a great question. I actually never thought I’d be a teacher, but I’ve ended up doing so (and really loving it). I don’t know if there’s anything else I can see myself doing now that I’m here. I feel very fortunate to teach writing and to have the opportunity to learn from my students.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The range of possibilities within poetry, as I mentioned earlier, led me to writing. The idea of inexhaustible forms and content is really appealing—it’s hard to imagine being bored as a writer.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I can’t think of the last movie I saw, to be honest. I just finished Zach Savich’s Diving Makes the Water Deep, and I felt very moved by not only the content but also the form of the book. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was amazing, too, but it was also devastating.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m tinkering on a new book of poems that I mentioned earlier and writing new poems for whatever will come next. I don’t usually think about the big picture until the deadline is looming. For now, it’s one poem at a time.