Thursday, March 15, 2012

An Interview with Jeanne Clark

Jeanne E. Clark

KIRPAL GORDON: Although you were born and raised in Lima, Ohio, you had a long apprenticeship in the undergrad & graduate writing program at Arizona State University before you published yr first book, “Ohio Blue Tips.” Among other moving elements in that collection was your eye to the impact of prison on the human spirit as embodied by Joe. For example: 


The Man said, he's dangerous, Miss.
And Joe smiled,
A yellow-toothed smile, chicken fat yellow.
The Man said, if I take these cuffs off him . . .
And I said, take them off.
When Joe put his two uncuffed hands on my shoulders,
He was laughing like something was really funny,
With the Man saying, he ain't like a human being.
And me saying, what's wrong with him,
And wondering what Joe-now dangerous
Because some woman the state paid
$200 a month to raise him
Kept him seven years in a chicken coop-
What was Joe going to do next?
I'm going to put those cuffs back on,
The Man said, before we all live to regret it.

 Would you say this poem is representative of the book?

JEANNE CLARK: Yes, this is certainly a cornerstone or touchstone poem for the poem.  The worlds of outside & inside the prison collide, & the poem asks what everyone is going to do, I hope.   

Ohio Blue Tips (Akron Series in Poetry) 

KIRPAL GORDON: Most prison literature is male in orientation & direction, yet you've won the Akron Poetry Prize with a book that causes us to re-think gender roles.  What’s up with that?

JEANNE CLARK: One of the things that has been missing for me in prison literature, although I didn't set out to write a book of prison poems, is the ways imprisonment implicates others outside the walls of the institution, in this case a woman who grew up in a "prison town" & who teaches in the prison as an adult.  She needs to support her child, & this is the only job she can get.  So, she works in a dangerous, utterly misogynist environment every day.  She's doing her own kind of time.

KIRPAL GORDON: Gorril’s Orchard, your second collection, came out in 2012 after you moved to Chico, CA, to teach in the English Department at the UC branch.  Did the move further west change your outlook?

JEANNE CLARK: Actually, Chico is a Cal State school rather than a UC school.  That said, every move--from Ohio to the Arizona desert to the almond orchards of Northern California--has changed my outlook & the way I approach the work.  OBT was full of story & narrative, a certain midwesterner determination.  GO is meditative & reflective, lyrical I hope, in the manner of the orchards themselves & their cycles.  What connects these books is that they are love poems to these places, these landscapes.

KIRPAL GORDON: Throughout those landscapes and the writing of those love poems, you have also been a most dedicated teacher of writing and literature.  Do you see comparisons over the last thirty years with your students at ASU & Chico & the inmates in Ohio?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't think you can make much comparison between the teaching of inmates and the teaching of college students. The exigencies for each of these student groups is utterly different. What I'm starting to see in college students is all kind of external pressures--financial, social, educational (in terms of their preparation)--that I didn't see 10 years ago, and which are calling for teachers to learn more about their lives, these pressures, and how to meet them in meaningful ways, ways that will help.  We can't make assumptions about who is walking into our classrooms in profound ways.  In this way, my approach to teaching might be moving toward something like it was when I taught in prison, focusing less of official understandings and having to work in a committed way to learning what is going on with a student or group of students and reinventing my work accordingly. 
I tailor individual reading lists for students, as much as possible.  I work to create lots of different kinds of work for students to do in the classes, so they can find ways that engage them.   

KIRPAL GORDON: Some in your profession see a breakdown in teaching critical thinking to young folks who are not deep readers.  What is your experience?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't believe that young people are not deep readers these days.  I think we have to work harder to follow the trails of their own curiosities and build inquiry and practice around that. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Compare your own education at ASU.

JEANNE CLARK: I had a wonderfully supportive group of writers and scholars around me, who supported my work.  I took a long time to finish.  And I sat my butt in a chair for many, many hours. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Poetry outside the academy is everywhere these days with open mics & online journals, poet laureates for every county making those old battle lines & poetry wars of the 70s & 80s seem so far off.  Commentaria?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't think--perhaps I'm wrong--that I'm ambitious with regard to my work.  I have dedicated readers in a writing community that I love, and this is such a gift.  I get to do the work I love with students.  I walk my dogs in the orchards.  Those wars have never been my own.   
KIRPAL GORDON: What do you make of the changes in the publishing industry & its impact on poetry?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't know that the changes in publishing make much impact on poetry, as poetry has been on the precarious fringe for a long time.  The changes perhaps press for further changes in practices: reaching out to community audiences, alternative publication venues, the rise of spoken word.  All exciting directions. 

KIRPAL GORDON: What's next?  What's happening with you and dogs?

JEANNE CLARK: I don't know what I'll write next.  I'm in a quiet time. The dogs are anything but quiet.  They're clamoring for what's next, & they intend to play starring roles.   

KIRPAL GORDON: How can GSP readers stay in closer touch with all that you do?  

JEANNE CLARK: I don't blog or have a website.  Readers can stay in touch with the border collie rescue work I do through the website of Border Collie Rescue of Northern California.  The written work shows up on Facebook when something finds its way into print or public performance.  I also teach in the Summer Arts Festival at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska in July.  There's a blog associated with the festival workshop maintained by one of the participants.


  1. Interesting read and a fine poem

  2. Thank you Jeanne for that insightful interview. You have such a real, refreshing outlook on writing and your work brings such a sensitive understanding to what education really means. I really like the poem included here. The social factors that contribute to incarceration and the stereotypes and stigmas associated with incarceration are monumental. I admire your spirit to teach and spread "the word" to others. Thanks.