Clint Margrave has been described as one of the elite verbal practitioners of his generation. With the help of iconic editor/publisher, Raymond Hammond, one of this year’s best debut collections of poetry, The Early Death of Men, has been launched through NYQ Books. Margrave’s poetry definitely packs a wallop and dwells on the absurdities of daily life, brewing dark, ironic humour out of it.
Margrave resides in Long Beach, California and his work has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals including The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Ambit, Chiron Review, and Pearl, as well as anthologies At the Gate: Arrivals and Departures (King Estate Press), Beside the City of Angels: An Anthology of Long Beach Poetry (World Parade Books), Incidental Buildings and Accidental Beauty (Tebot Bach) and So Luminous the Wildflowers: An Anthology of California Poets (Tebot Bach).
My Father’s Brain
I’m looking at my father’s brain.
My sister and I found it
stuffed in an envelope
in my parent’s garage
Only weeks before,
it had been alive,
now it was here,
stacked in this box,
with all the other
stuff we don’t know
what to do with.
“That’s the frontal lobe,” my sister says,
picking it up
and turning it around
to show me.
“Can I keep it?” I say,
lifting it into the sun
for a better glimpse.
“Do whatever you want with it,”
she tells me.
There’s a woman who cries in our neighborhood.
The first time we realized it, my wife and I were in bed.
“Do you hear that?” she asked.
I followed her into the living room
where we both stared out the window.
“Look,” said my wife.
There was the woman, sitting on a curb,
head in her hands,
“Should we do something?”
“No,” I said. “She probably had a fight with her boyfriend.”
It must’ve been around two in the morning.
“Last call,” my wife said. “She’s probably just drunk.
Let’s go back to bed.”
We did and never thought much about it
until this woman started popping up on every corner.
I’d see her by the bank, on the pier,
outside the grocery store.
Soon, it became a point of conversation
“I saw her again today,” I’d tell my wife
when she got home.
“Was she doing the same thing?” she’d ask.
Now it’s gotten even worse.
Like this afternoon, while I was trying to write a poem,
she sat directly beneath my window.
I thought maybe the mailman
or passerby would notice,
but they just kept walking.
She never seems to have anywhere to go.
She never has to work
or do her laundry
or take an important phone call.
Some of my friends have even seen her,
asking when they visit:
“Why’s she so sad?”
I shrug it off and tell them
there’s a part of me
that doesn’t want to know,
though I never bother mentioning
the other part,
that doesn’t need to ask.
Man Freed after 100 Hours Trapped in a Lavatory
According to the article,
this 55 year old retired Scottish school teacher
was stoical about the whole event saying,
“At least there was a toilet to use.”
But I can’t help think about the part the news didn’t print,
like why nobody came looking for him.
At 55, no wife, no daughter, no son, no friend, nobody to ask,
“Where’s David been for the past four days?
He never did come home from
that lawn bowling club in Aberdeen.”
Not even a missing persons report.
And why am I so jealous?
Is it because he somehow managed
to avoid all those other traps?
And what did he think about for one hundred hours?
Did he regret the course of his life or was he pleased with it?
Did he wish he brought a newspaper? A book? A pen?
A cell phone? And how many men try to do this
inside their own bathrooms every morning,
away from the wife, the kids, the neighbors, the job,
the bills, the hopelessness?
He called it captivity.
The article called it ‘caught.’
I guess it depends how you look at things.
Personally, I think a more appropriate
headline could’ve read:
“Man Trapped Again After 100 Hours Freed In a Lavatory.”
TTQ – Was there a specific moment in your life or major influence that inspired you to start writing poetry?
Clint Margrave – As a kid, I never wrote poetry, but I read and wrote stories constantly. I finished my first “novel” at the age of 10. My father would bring home his electric typewriter from his office on weekends and I’d stay in my room writing – if only I had that kind of discipline now! Then I got into music as a teenager, post-punk and punk mostly, and began writing song lyrics. It was also around this time I started listening to bands like The Smiths, who were more literary than most rock bands because they mentioned writers like Oscar Wilde and some of the Romantic poets, which really became the starting point for my engagement with literature. After that, it was the Beats, but I couldn’t stay with the Beats for too long upon discovering Bukowski. Like a lot of young men, he really sealed my interest in poetry. He was better than the Beats and it was through his work I came upon so many other great writers like Robinson Jeffers, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Camus, Sartre, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, John Fante and many others. From there I just followed the path which led me to even more writers.
Still, I didn’t decide to take writing seriously until the age of 22 when my grandmother died and I knew time was short, and I had to make deeper meaning out of my life. I think it was the very next day I went out and bought a typewriter (despite it being 1996, I still had a silly romantic inclination toward the machine), and six months later I had published my first poem in Chiron Review. I didn’t expect to ever only write poetry and saw myself as an aspiring novelist more than a poet. Yet the poems kept coming. So did the novels, but after a while I realized my interests were more with the philosophical and emotional ideas rather than with figuring out how to get Emma to the ball, which is to say, I became bored with plotting and bulking up a narrative, wanting instead to get directly to the point, so I finally abandoned novel writing and threw everything into poetry.
TTQ – How difficult has the process of writing a good poem been for you?
Clint Margrave – One of the difficult things is knowing when you even have a good poem – that comes with time and experience, but mostly guesswork. Like a lot of writers, I’m not necessarily the best judge of my own work. Of course, the really bad stuff is obvious, but knowing when something is good can be a lot more difficult. I’ve had experiences when I found myself shaking because I was excited about a particular line or idea I thought was great only to disregard it as bullshit an hour later; thank goodness too because the moment you lose self-doubt and think you are great is the moment you’ve missed the mark again. So the short answer is very difficult. I write a lot, but most of it never leaves a file I’ve labeled on my computer called “Crap.” Luckily I’ve come to terms with the idea that it takes a lot of bad writing to produce good work and though being heavily critical of myself can be a curse, it can also be a blessing. A secular blessing, anyway.
TTQ – Talk about the genesis of your debut collection of poetry, The Early Death of Men (NYQ Books, 2012), and how it all eventually came about?
Clint Margrave – Like a lot of poets will tell you, the genesis of a poetry collection often comes out of the grouping together of a bunch of individual poems without any real initial plan. The poems that ended up in The Early Death of Men were written over a few years as individual pieces without any vision of a larger collection. Like most writers I have my obsessions and as I began grouping poems together, themes began to emerge. So everything just sort of came together.
TTQ – The Early Death of Men, was described in a press release as being dark and humorous, and written in a language as accessible and sturdy as our bones. A great summation, I thought. How would you best describe your writing style?
Clint Margrave – Something I value above all else is clarity. I guess this is where the accessibility part comes from. I have a strong desire to want to communicate something to people. At the same time I’m ambivalent about the word accessible. Accessibility can sound almost like dumbing something down. I’m not interested in dumbing down my poems or the ideas in them. I don’t want to shy away from complex or intellectual ideas – I just want to write about them in as clear and simple a way as possible. The use of humor, I think, is probably the influence of Southern California, which is a hilarious place to live in itself, but also has produced a tradition of humorous poetry beginning with poets like Gerald Locklin and Charles Harper Webb, who are two of the funniest poets I know and whose influence I haven’t managed to escape. At the same time, I don’t really fit the typical mold of a member of this great state. I hate the sun, never go to the beach, and was Goth as a teenager, or a Death Rocker as they used to call us, a name I liked much better. I guess this is where the “dark” part comes in – there’s also a darkness to humor as well, I think, sort of an existential snort at the absurdity of everything.
TTQ – What’s your personal writing process been like over the years and do you prefer a specific environment to write in or a certain time of the day?
Clint Margrave – My personal writing process has stayed consistent over the years regardless of whether or not I am working on poetry or fiction. Obviously writing a novel takes a sustained effort of accruing a daily word count. But I’ve also adopted this same approach to writing poetry. I don’t wait to be inspired. Throughout the day, I’ll take a few notes, but only so I can get up at 5:30 every morning (depending how my night goes) and at least write a couple pages of ideas that may or may not turn into a poem at a later date. I do most of my initial drafting early in the morning before I get on with all those mundane responsibilities of making a living.
TTQ – How do you counteract bouts of writers block?
Clint Margrave – I write my way out of it, using the process I’ve just described. On many of those early mornings, the effort turns to nothing. I may fill up a 200 page composition notebook over the course of three months and end up with only 10 keepers. Still, that’s 10 keepers. I’ll take it. There probably is a better, more productive method, no doubt, but as my wife likes to say, I don’t like change.
TTQ – Do you enjoy reading your poetry in front of a live audience and in what ways do you find it helps you in the writing process?
Clint Margrave – No. I don’t particularly enjoy readings. Not only do I get sick of my own voice and my own poems, but I’m terribly shy and introverted, though others may not necessarily see me this way because I can be very social. I never expected to be standing up in front of people and I’m never entirely comfortable with it. I can see why writers have to drink before they do a reading. On the other hand, I do like getting out there and sharing my work. If I can connect to people and get them to like my stuff, it’s worth it to me. Now that the book is out, I’ve scheduled a number of readings which I feel simultaneously enthusiastic and nervous about. It also doesn’t help that about a year ago I began getting terrible panic attacks when I read (or did anything else really), which I’ve only now gotten under control. So, I’m not one of those poets who shows up early to be first on the open mic list, I can tell you that. There is no shortage of those poets to take my place.
As for the writing process, I wonder sometimes if readings hurt it rather than help. Sometimes, the more you’re out there doing readings, the more your work tends to reflect an appeal to a live audience. I don’t think it’s healthy to write this way. For one, you tend to write lighter, funnier poems because they go over much better with a crowd than the darker, serious stuff. After all, people want to be entertained. And the moment you start thinking of this, you’ve already begun to compromise your work – which is not to say that some good poems will not arise from this, but at times you have to disconnect and get back to thinking about the page, which is where it all matters most. The best of those poems can work in both places.
Not only that, the whole experience of a poem is different when read live and though I know many poets who have measured the success of a poem by an audience’s reaction to it, I don’t think it’s healthy to do this either. Some of the best poems in the English language would go over shitty in front of a live audience. Have you ever heard those live recordings of Eliot? After all, the experience of reading a poem in solitude is much different than the experience of hearing it read in public and it doesn’t always translate well in either direction. Even some of the dark stuff may come across differently than you expected when read out loud. For instance, there’s a poem in The Early Death of Men, called “I Don’t Believe in Ghosts” that I never thought was funny until it got laughs at a reading. I’m still not sure it’s funny, but hey, you can’t control how people are going to receive your work.
TTQ – How prevalent is the poetry community in Long Beach, California?
Clint Margrave – The poetry community in Long Beach has always been prevalent, but it is currently thriving. I’m not always one for poetry communities and for a long time watched it from the sidelines up until the last couple years, but I have to say there’s something special going on in Long Beach right now and really has been for the past 30 years. Long Beach has a international reputation in poetry, partially because we claim Bukowski as one of our own, San Pedro geographically is much closer to Long Beach than Los Angeles proper, but also, I think stylistically he’s closer due to many of the things previously mentioned that seem to be cherished by a lot of poets in this city like clarity, accessibility, and humour. At the university you have people like Gerald Locklin and Charles Harper Webb, who have really been at the forefront of this community for decades. Fred Voss and Joan Jobe Smith and Donna Hilbert all live and write here, people I’ve been reading for years. You have Pearl magazine (edited by Joan Jobe Smith and Marilyn Johnson) as well as a bunch of new magazines and presses such as Aortic Books, World Parade Books, and Bank-Heavy Press popping up, carrying on the tradition that started back in the 1970s. Not only that, it’s an unpretentious community due to its working class roots and being a safe distance from all the B.S. of Hollywood and celebrity culture.
TTQ – What’s your relationship been like with Raymond Hammond and the folks at the New York Quarterly Books?
Clint Margrave – Raymond Hammond is a punker in the world of poetry and I mean that as the finest possible compliment. I’m not kissing ass or saying that because he published my book. NYQ Books would have been my choice of publisher had they not chosen me first. Before I ever got to know Raymond personally, I knew his book Poetic Amusement, which was a big influence on me as a poet and as a teacher; I also knew him as the guy who had inherited the New York Quarterly from the great William Packard. After reading a few interviews with him about his attitude toward contests, I knew he was the real deal, and I respected the honest way he was running NYQ Books. At the time I was buying into the belief that the only way I was ever going to get a book published was by paying $25 a pop to enter my manuscript into contests where the odds of winning were grim. It’s all a big sham, isn’t it? Who can afford to sustain that? What that does is exclude any poet who can’t. Despite Hammond’s efforts to set an example, this system is still in place which is why I feel incredibly lucky to have NYQ Books publish me. There is so much to Raymond’s philosophy as a publisher and editor that I agree with. He does it for the right reasons, with the right spirit, and holds no illusions about the world of poetry in America. Not to mention I had a chance to meet him last year when he came out for the Beside the City of Angels Long Beach Poetry Festival which I run alongside a handful of other Long Beach poets and he’s just a nice, down-to-earth guy. But what I also like about him is that niceness has its limits because he’s also ideologically fiery and full of passion for what he does, and doesn’t mind sticking his middle finger up at the poetry establishment. As far as being part of NYQ Books, it’s been a thrill, just as it was the first time I got an acceptance letter from the magazine because of their long history of publishing great poetry.
TTQ – What is your opinion on the current state of poetry in America?
Clint Margrave – I don’t think I can answer this question until I first talk about the current state of reading in America, which is dismal, to say the least. What’s the statistic I read recently? The average American reads at an 8th grade level? This sounds about right—scary as it is—given the popularity of adults reading books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games over Herman Melville, say, or James Baldwin. No offense to 8th graders, but this might explain the election of certain past presidents or the fact that 46% of Americans believe the Earth was created in six days. With that type of literal-mindedness, how is poetry supposed to thrive in this country?
To be more specific, I see two main different states of poetry in America: the “perceived” state of poetry when measured by the establishment presses and the “real” state of poetry as measured by the small presses which I still see as thriving. The mainstream establishment press poets bore the shit out of me and I guess they always have and probably always will. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of writers who might be considered giants of the mainstream that I still read regularly, people like Tony Hoagland, W.S. Merwin, and Charles Simic, to name a few, but to be honest, I don’t know when the last time was I picked up a copy of Poetry magazine and didn’t want to throw it against the wall. Then, of course, to break it down more, you have a divide between language poetry and slam poetry on the farthest ends of the spectrum. On one hand, you have highly elitist, extremely academic language poetry that has essentially murdered any enthusiasm in America for poetry. On the other end there’s the popularity of slam poetry, which was better off without the word “poetry” when it was more suitably called spoken word (there were some good spoken word artists) devised mostly of narcissistic actor types who aren’t really poets at all, less interested in saying something about our lives than they are about saying “Look at me!” There are, of course, exceptions on both ends, but in the middle you have this whole wide range of stuff going on, the best of it in the small presses, that isn’t as loud and doesn’t get as much attention, but is extremely alive.
TTQ – What are you currently working on?
Clint Margrave – I’m still writing poems. I also gave myself a break from poetry this summer and decided to work on essays instead which I hope to continue doing until I get enough for a collection of those. I’ve also been tinkering with another poetry manuscript, completed before this book, which is a memoir-in-verse called Negligence about my relationship with my father (a couple of the poems are included in Early Death), and a novella that I scaled down from the draft of a novel I’d written a few years ago.