Little Shrines: An Interview with Lauren Clark

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Lauren Clark is the author of Music for a Wedding, their first full-length collection of poems. Music for a Wedding won the 2016 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press through their Pitt Poetry Series. Clark shared with us their thoughts on the following questions in this interview for MQR Online.

The epigraph starting your book is from the song “Strangers” by The Kinks: “‘til peace we find, tell you what I’ll do: / all the things I own, I will share with you.” What inspired you to select these lines to open Music for a Wedding?

I don’t remember putting them there. They just showed up one draft and never left. When I was doing final edits I asked my mentor, the amazing poet and translator Yvette Siegert, if I should take the epigraph out. Her advice was good: if it’s always been there it probably belongs there.

Then, after Music for a Wedding came out, the equally amazing poet Irina Teveleva wrote a beautiful lyrical review and revealed to me that “Strangers” is actually a song about a loved one’s overdose. My father was an alcoholic and it killed him. It killed all of us, too, the people who loved him, and that kill informs all the love we have to give the people we loved after him. Ray Davies: “It was like, what might have been if he hadn’t died so tragically.” That — if we hadn’t all died so tragically — that’s exactly what this book is like.

In the book, you have a poem about listening to “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele (for twenty hours straight); your poem “Parable” is about Weezer’s 1995 performance of “Say It Ain’t So” on Late Show with David Letterman; and there are several other poems referencing music, entertainment, and the internet. It’s interesting to see how music in particular has inspired and conversed with your poems, especially considering the title of this book. Do you also play or write music? If so, how does that writing process or style relate to your process or style as a poet?

I am not a musician. I played piano for about a decade, when I was a child; then I attended Oberlin College, which is famous for its music conservatory. At Oberlin I was exposed to world-class talents — they were my friends, my rivals, the people I loved, and most of them are celebrated composers and musicians now. I learned most of what I know about structure and form from those artists, and I wrote many of the poems in this book in response to the very highbrow conversations I was then privy to about music theory and the relationship between musician, audience, and instrument. Poets can approximate that relationship, using poem as instrument, but I was really interested in the limitations of art that had to be mediated through the externalized machine body of the instrument. I was also interested in the casual feminizing of the instrument — the way English speakers sometimes feminize boats or buildings — and the inherent maleness of an audience’s gaze. Where does that leave the musician? Who can the musician even be?

But I am not a musician. I love pop songs as mass-market tools to help folks process emotions. That’s definitely a tempting lens through which to approach poems.

The first poem (p. 1-2) in Music for a Wedding, “[Untitled],” reveals “the vows / I said at the altar were not the real vows.” The lines, “not I do, or I will, // or even yes or silence. You say As long as I can,” feel both sad and beautiful. Is it, or can it be, both? This reminds me of the last line of your poem “Heirloom” (p. 15): “It was beautiful if unnecessary.” What were your feelings going into writing these poems?

My real practice: poems are personal devotional devices. They’re little shrines — places you touch again and again, in editing, arranging and rearranging the contents until you have them just right, just so beautiful or compelling that god / God can’t ignore them.

These are two of the oldest poems in the book, ones I touched over and over. I don’t know if god / God ignored them. I guess we never really know that, which means it doesn’t really matter. Prayers are said for the benefit of the precant, not for god / God, and shrines — which make external an internal devotion — are really for community consumption.

Honey becomes somewhat of a motif throughout this book. Reading “honey” makes me think of sweetness, stickiness, and the double meaning of “honey” as an affectionate nickname. Was this repetition intentional?

I had no idea. This has never occurred to me. I still wasn’t out as queer or nonbinary when I wrote this book, though of course I was both, and knew I was both, and was writing toward both even if the poems don’t outwardly acknowledge it. In grad school I loved the insidious nature of gayness in Amy Lowell’s poems, in which flowers unfurl and moonlight stains — those poems are overgrown with homosexuality. Homosexuality is always creeping in, getting cut down, growing back stronger. Honey is hardcore lesbian shit. Of course it seeps through the book. Thanks for pointing out how that lineage manifests itself here.

In your poem “Someone Else’s Wedding” (p. 9), the speaker reflects: “It was just a normal day, except at the end someones go home together, / forever, and they both know it.” The sense of finality is so present, and the delicate balance of “they both enjoy the song exactly the same amount” leads into how, at a wedding reception, the same song plays on a loop “for eight / repeats, before anyone realizes.” What do you feel this delayed realization says about humans and traditions?

Photo of Lauren Clark by Dennis Chalkin

I haven’t thought about this. Maybe nothing. All those things really happened — the eight repeats thing was especially intense. I’m always shocked by the utter normalcy of people who devote their lives to one another. Swear your undying devotion. Hit the repeat button twice accidentally. Like, devoting your life to someone else is so normal. It’s so everyday even the rituals around it sort of don’t matter, but at the same time that kind of devotion is incredibly difficult to find, but everyone I love who’s married tells me that when they got married nothing about their lives actually changed. Like what is this, the most grave commitment you ever make? Or just a regular Tuesday? I still don’t get it. I think I’ll write about this tonal problem forever.

Some fantastic lines in “May Day” (p. 10): “Everything I thought of I loved; I had / no choice.” This language feels so free, so full of possibility. (Also love: “Sitting in it was time travel,” it being the flower chair at a garage sale.) The poem ends, “I bowed beneath the burden.” This release under the weight of something feels like a letting go, an opening. How do those two contradictory ideas connect as one for you?

“May Day” is the only explicitly, literally, intentionally homosexual poem in Music for a Wedding. All other gay poems in this book were only unconsciously gay. I wish that writing this one felt like your reading — a letting go, an opening — but when I read this poem again now what I read is overwhelm, disassociation, problems with consent. In fact I stayed quiet about my sexuality and my gender identity for five more years after writing this poem. I am looking forward to the day I experience and express either with meaningful freedom or possibility.

Within the “Ceremony” section of the poem “Epithalamion” (p. 18), I love the moment: “Walking down the dark street beside you one night / my body blooms. // It opens. Just like that. Here’s a rule: true union always exists before it occurs.” I wonder if art follows that rule — if it exists somewhere in another form before it’s created. Do you have “rules” or a philosophy about art and poetry?

I don’t. Music for a Wedding, though, constantly works to identify rules — how to talk, how to live, how to move through the world — as if healing from abuse, marginalization, and grief might be a simple matter of behavioral modification on my part. If I could only shoehorn myself into coupling rituals for straight folks. If I could only find the missing parent. If I could only convincingly pantomime girl.

This reading comes in hindsight, as I put in the work to actually heal. I love that what I wrote is so misguided, so earnest, and wants healing so so much. The important rules to anything, art included, are kindness, integrity, and honesty. Whatever I make next will also come from those things, but hopefully also from a place of greater consciousness and circumspection than Music for a Wedding.

I’m curious about your experience with the publishing process as a winner of AWP’s Donald Hall Poetry Prize. Were you involved with the cover design, the marketing, or other parts of the process? What was your experience like, and what advice would you give emerging writers who are hopeful to publish their first book?

I found publishing to be the most difficult part of writing a book. I loved writing it and I loved being a member of the poetry community. I was incredibly gratified that my work was selected for this prize, and honored to work with the fantastic people at Pitt Poetry Series, but I was surprised to find how much I struggled with even the very small degree of visibility the prize offered. Plenty of my peers were baffled by my discomfort, which sometimes edged into panic, as if it meant I was ungrateful and my work therefore unworthy.

Emerging writers: do things to which you consent and only things to which you consent. If it’s not hell yes, that’s a no. Do not be afraid of your press and do ask for the things that you want. Ask your friends to help you celebrate your book in their communities and at their schools. You do not have to publicize yourself and you do not have to be very extremely productive or proactive; your book is not worth less if that stuff makes you anxious. Throw yourself a big weird book party in your favorite cowboy bar. But most importantly: don’t be afraid to disappear. Keep following your work wherever it leads you, even if it’s not poems. Your poems will never leave you. They are not what anyone else makes of them.

You collaborated with other artists on King of That Also, “a dynamic interplay of music, text, and visual projections — it’s a game of telephone in which a single idea is passed from artist to artist.” The central piece in this project is called Music for a Wedding, featuring musical adaptations of text from your book. What was that collaborative process like for you, and how did you feel witnessing your poetry expand into the performance of it in this new and unique way?

King of That Also was likely the happiest outcome of these poems. Seeing my poems brought to life by Fontaine Capel (brilliant multimodal artist and arts admin) made me feel understood. John West (brilliant journalist and musician) set sections of the poem “Epithalamion” to music to score his own wedding to Galen Beebe (brilliant podcaster, writer, and all-around maker), and I didn’t hear the arrangement until they had it performed at the actual ceremony.

“Epithalamion” presents the loneliest, saddest, most nightmarish wedding. “I love you obsessively, biologically,” I spiral, “I am never doing this again.” As in, wow love was the worst experience. But in John’s ecstatic wedding arrangement, the poem turns from acerbic to sincere: a vow. “I am never doing this again,” because I won’t have to, that’s how happy you make me. Collaboration offered me a new window into work I thought was useless in its sadness. It helped me feel seen and understood by my community. This is also advice, I guess.

Do you write every day? Could you reflect a bit on your writing routine (if you have one)? And do you have a favorite place to write?

I do not. Constant low-grade journaling. The train: least desirably the New York City subway, and most desirably Amtrak.

You have many new and forthcoming poems published — exciting! Are there plans in the works for a next book? Do you have any upcoming events or future collaborative projects planned? What excites you most about writing and about the future?

In the past several months I’ve dropped off the face of the writing earth, changed fields and cities and lives. It’s been utterly freeing, terrifying, rooting. I am throwing it all away. I am healing. I am working on my next collection, which so far is named after a Wikipedia article and is mostly about nuns. And, provided I hurt or hinder no one in the process, I am doing the things that feel good to me.

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