Jeanne E. Clark Interview, with Mari L’Esperance
Please tell our readers about Chico, California, where you've lived since 2000, teaching in the English Department at California State University, Chico. What's it like to live there as a poet? What are some things unique to Chico that you've come to value? And what kinds of things do you miss?
Chico is a wonderful place to live as a poet. There is a thriving arts community, and I think we have more poets than most large cities have gas stations. Our local, independent bookstore—Lyon Books—is amazingly supportive of the literary arts, hosting events, readings, contests, book signings, and more for local writers. We all want to have our book launches “at home” here in Chico at Lyon Books because these events feel like family gatherings. The 1078 Gallery’s literary committee hosts writing workshops, readings with both local and nationally recognized poets and writers, as well as collaborative events between artists and writers. And the community turns out in a big way to support these events.
I live in the middle of almond orchards and treasure their beauty and daily changes, which I get to witness walking among them. The many trees in Chico generally are astonishing. My walks in the orchards with my dogs are the times when poems begin for me. I always carry a notebook. My dogs and I pass our local CSA farm G.R.U.B. on the edge of these orchards, and that farm and the collective’s work in our community served directly as the inspiration for the poem “Hope Springs” in my latest collection Gorrill’s Orchard.
I do sometimes miss the particular beauty of the deserts in Arizona. The scents of sage and creosote. The blistering sun. I have yet to write much about the desert, and I want to. And I miss the abundant opportunities to teach in community settings. Living in an urban environment, I taught often in community settings, including public schools. I haven’t been able to do that work as much here.
These newer poems are like moments captured, resonant with feeling, yet with a sense that they fall just outside the frame, have one foot out the door, which I like about them—there's a here/not here quality to them that's pleasing. Is there any kind of unifying thread that connects them? And are you aware of writing toward a larger work, or are you simply writing poem to poem at this stage?
I like the way you describe the newer poems. I think that sense of being outside a frame or a here/not here quality is something that describes the state of finishing a book and beginning again to gather moments that capture my attention. On a more personal level, it’s a state I probably inhabit a good bit of the time. I am definitely not writing toward a larger work at this point. Rather, I’m experimenting with various small forms. Charles Wright’s work has been immensely important to me throughout my writing life, and lately I’ve been carrying with me his collection Sestets. With each return to one of these exquisite poems, I’m learning more about what is possible in six lines. They begin to feel utterly expansive, and I am curious about that—in awe, really. I also carry Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks with me everywhere. The intimacy of his relationship to the landscape that holds him and of his conversation with Jim Harrison in these postcard-sized poems ministers to me, and when the field of my own spirit seems bruised or broken, I can open that book to any page and find beauty, companionship, and healing.
In addition to being a university professor, you have a special interest in community-based education and have taught in prisons, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and public schools. What's fulfilling for you about teaching in these settings? And do you have advice for poets who might want to explore these teaching options for themselves?
In all the teaching I do, it’s the questions students ask, that students or workshop participants are asking in their lives that draw me. The ways we ask together “What’s at stake?” and the students’ responses push me out of any easy or complacent understanding. The ways the participants show me connections I would never have imagined otherwise. For example, one afternoon I was reading Emily Dickinson to some women prisoners in the prison yard, and I hadn’t said anything about her biography, particularly. One of the women listening stopped me to ask where Dickinson had done time. Another time I was working on some poems with a young, homeless woman in a transitional living center. She had been on the streets and on her own since she was nine years old. She told me she was writing houses she could live in. Her poems were wild imaginings of home. I hope I have given something back to these writers in small measure to what they have given me.
I don’t want to romanticize this work for people who are considering it. Working in the public schools has become much harder in the overbearing attention to testing, state standards, and the heartbreaking stories children are revealing in their poems. Working in prisons has become more dangerous and difficult. You spend an inordinate amount of time trying to learn to navigate institutional systems so your students don’t suffer consequences. A colleague and I at Cal State, Chico attempted to start a creative writing workshop at the county juvenile facility, and when we were told that the work participants wrote in the workshop would have to be turned in to authorities and destroyed each week because it might be inflammatory, I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be an instrument of that. Inmates and patients that you get close to are transported to other facilities; they are sometimes injured; and some die. You have to hold that somehow. Advice I would give to someone considering this work: talk to people who have been doing it. Be sure to have a good support system. And really listen to your own heart and mind about why you want to do this work. When I was young, it was the work I could get with my training and background, and I had a child to support. It became a way to give back to people who trusted me with their work.
Your books of poetry are Ohio Blue Tips, which was awarded an Akron Poetry Prize, and Gorrill's Orchard, which the wonderful Bear Star Press published in 2010. Can you tell us something about each of these collections? And what were the years like for you between your first and second books in terms of generating poems, shaping a unified second manuscript, etc.?
Ohio Blue Tips began in a class entitled something like “Literature of Obsession” that I took in graduate school. We were given the assignment to write a five-word image, and mine was “Joe Spinner brought me lilacs,” or something like that. Then, the real work began. We had to stay with that image, writing from it all semester. I wrote drafts of the first third of the poems in OBT in that class. The poems are all—with two exceptions—persona poems in the voice of one of the three main characters in the book, Quinn Margaret, a woman teaching in an Ohio prison. I grew up in a prison town in Ohio, and so the poems certainly contain autobiographical moments, transfigured. They also tell the stories of other women I came to know and they tell the story of a place.
OBT is a very narrative book in the way Gorrill’s Orchard is not, so there were many years in between these books, years in which I moved from a place—the desert of Arizona—where I had lived for over 20 years to a place of orchards, rice fields, and for me, border collies. I have had to reimagine my relationship to place, a relationship that defines my imagination and my writing, shaping it. Gorrill’s Orchard began in walks with my dogs in the orchards. There was no narrative to cling to, just footfall, and so this collection is more lyrical, fragmentary, contemplative. I’ve written the poems a walk at a time. I’ve also been gifted with the tremendous support of my writing group, and the brilliant, generous work that Beth Spencer of Bear Star Press did on the book.
You're currently the Vice President of Border Collie Rescue of Northern California. When and how did you become involved in this work?
My first border collie Belle was the true start of my work with border collie rescue. She came to me from a small shelter in Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas when I was still living in Arizona. Getting to know Belle, I fell in love with the breed. I now have five. When I moved to Northern California, I saw border collies everywhere I went because this is a ranching and agricultural area. I respond to seeing border collies in the world the way some people respond to seeing young children or babies: I fall in love instantly. I want each and every one. That said, I have a huge respect for these dogs and all the work they can do in the world, if they find their right place. Early in my life here I visited our local shelter, and they had two BC pups they were trying to find a rescue for. I found Border Collie Rescue of Northern California on the Internet, and contacted them to say that I’d foster the pups if I could do so under their auspices. The rest is, as they say, history. Over the past 11 years, I’ve fostered hundreds of border collies, and it’s been an amazing way to get to know this place better, and these dogs. I’m learning about many communities here: ranch communities, dog rescue communities, therapeutic communities, shelter and animal control communities, dog sports communities. I fall in love over and over, live in a constant state of amazement, and witness miracles when sick, injured, neglected, and abused animals find their right place and heal. Or when a magnificent dog takes on a human who needs him or her. Admittedly, there are heartbreaking stories, too, and sometimes these are overwhelming. And there is a lot of laundry and scooping poop. My father talks about my “Scooping Poop Meditation.” Some day that will find its way into a poem!
has a sliver missing tonight.
I name this November moon
for him that I love and want to live.
Courtship of girl and dog, the walls
of our room hold against grieving —
morning that comes in waves of crows, their terrible shade.
“Butte Humane Society”
Winter Solstice 2011
The solstice ground is frozen,
lights like snow sparkling
around neighborhood windows.
Soups and stews steam the glass
from the inside: fat, hand-
warming bowls. And when the brass
key locks the last gate, Bender drifts
into the blankets you’ve left him.
He watches the car lights dance. Far-away stars.
“That Spring in the Desert”
It was the spring of creosote. And of sage.
Blankets spread across your knees while tumors splayed
inside your body like buckshot. The sky too blue.
Solari bells rang in the small breeze.
It was the spring morning I read to you — blind
now and allowing the other senses
their intimacy with the world. The story?
A blue bird that reappears.
“Avenue of the Trees”
after a line by Linda Gregg
Another early afternoon and you sweeten
the bitter tea with two lumps of brown sugar
before adding ice, your spoon circling the glass like a dog
on its rug before it drifts down to sleep. The dog is lemon
and white, crescent of cloud and light from some other world.
You stand alone under the fan, as if waiting for instructions
about what to change into before you
step out onto this avenue of trees, green and more green,
a place to be now that love is gone.
The glass sweats in your hand, and you leave it on the porch
rail next to the red pots of cumin and oregano.
“Traveling to Elsewhere”
Sweetwater gathers. Last night’s rain
fills the blue bath tucked amid the grasses.
Crows like hard wind—don’t repeat rain—
gallop across the brightening sky.
Terrible lullaby. When the music is dear,
hold fast to the words—that screen door flying open.