An Interview with Clarence Major

By Eskimo Pie conducted at UC Davis on May 2, 1995. First published in Poetry Now. Dr. Major has published many many books of fiction, poetry, essays, etc., and won many many awards including 2 Pushcarts and has lectured in dozens of U.S. universities and in England, France, Liberia, West Germany, Ghana and Italy.

CM: So you want to know about poetry. What do you want to know about poetry? I suppose we could start with what William Carlos Williams said--that people turn to poetry for various things, and many people have perished for the lack of what can be found in poetry. In other words, you won't find the daily news in poetry, but you will find something that is life sustaining and something that is essential. I think poetry is really misrepresented a large part of the time in our culture because it's not understood to have this really essential correlation with life. In other words, the rhythms of poetry, for example, correlate with the very rhythms of our speech, the way we walk, the way we talk, the heartbeat, the rhythms of the ocean and everything. It's all so intrinsic to human life and by extension to all life because it has its basis in life, in natural rhythms of life.

But I think what happens very often is that cultures don't exactly give up poetry but redefine how it's used and what it's called. For example, today, in a culture like ours which is this huge unmanageable, undefinable 3,000 miles of land, music or lyrics probably take the place of poetry.

EPG: How long have you been writing poetry and how did you first get involved?

CM: I was a teenager before I really discovered that it was possible to write something good. I was reading a lot of things on my own. Not only just in school, but a lot of things that I was discovering on my own, and the first discovery that really mesmerized me was the discovery of the French poets, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire--Flowers of Evil, The Drunken Boat, Illuminations--those poets. And they were decadent. I didn't know what the word meant, but I knew I liked that imagination, and the color and the whole dislocation of the senses that was going on there that was just this beautiful kind of thing that I could visualize. And I thought, "This is something magical. This is something really incredible." And of course I never would have been allowed to read those poets in school because they weren't taught in school, not in the school I went to. I simply wandered into a bookstore one day and discovered a book, an anthology of the three of them, which became a kind of bible for me for a long time. And for a long time I tried to write poetry like that. So that's how I got started.

EPG: You said earlier on the phone that you were teaching a class on "Poetic Theory."

CM: Yes, it helped me define my own theories about poetry. I mean everybody knows that poetry is a kind of music made out of talk. I've known that for a long time, but I never got down to the very technical aspects of counting syllables or counting time. There are two schools of thought about this. A lot of poets believe that you really should be able to count syllables. In other words, a certain number of syllables per line gives you a certain kind of measure, and a certain kind of control is established through careful manipulation of the number of syllables that lies in the falling of the human voice as it goes through those particular paces. But I discovered that maybe William Carlos Williams was right when he said, "Counting syllables is really silly." That's really not what it's about. Maybe what we need to do is count time the way you do in music. You count time, you talk about the beat in music, and counting time, and keeping time. I thought about that for a long time and struggled with that and I think there's a lot to be said for the terminology of music or the musical theoretical approach because poetry is a type of music. It's closer to music than it is to any of the other arts, in theory. In other words, what I'm trying to say is that in teaching a course like that, I was forced to make certain decisions that I probably would not have had occasion to make on my own. So I do feel that I learn things when I'm teaching courses like that.

EPG: You say that poetry is a lot like music. What about painting? Your novel Emergency Exit contained some paintings of yours. Do you do a lot of visual art, and is there a relationship between that and your poetry and writing?

CM: Yes, not only in my work, but just generally, I think there's a strong relationship between modern poetry and painting. I know that's true in my work. In fact, I believe I've been more influenced by painters than I have by poets because I think of myself as a visual thinker. I see things in terms of pictures. I translate abstractions into visually accessible terms. I've listened to other poets talk about this, and in retrospect it seems to be a very common thing. I didn't realize it in the beginning, but e. e. cummings was a painter, William Carlos Williams was a painter, a lot of the modern poets painted. Derek Walcott is a painter. And maybe there is something complementary there. And the sensibility of the painting process, the way the imagination works for painting may be very similar to the way it works for poetry. Poetry, I think, although it's close to music in terms of how it sounds, is certainly closer to painting than fiction is, in the sense that how it looks on the page is very essential, not just how it sounds, at least in terms of modern poetry. That's not necessarily true with fiction which just runs across the page and down the page. As long as fiction is clear and accessible, you don't worry about it too much. And it's not just a matter of color either, and lines. I think it has to do with the shape of things, the perceived shape of things. A word, an isolated word on the page, or a phrase that is set aside for emphasis, for example, can have an incredible amount of energy, the way a certain kind of perceived shape in a painting has. Although it's two dimensional, but the illusion of an object can take on a kind of presence I think that's close to the kind of thing I'm trying to describe in poetry, that can happen in poetry. Anyway . . . you've been reading my work. I'm really flattered.

EPG: It seems like you work poetry into your fiction.

CM: Well, you do that too.

EPG: Also, some of your characters seem to be seeking a truth. Like Mason in My Amputations who says, "The primary responsibility of literature involves creating truth." And I wonder if when you write, do you just want to tell a good story, or are you trying to discover some essential truth?

CM: I'm always searching for a new way to get at a stronger sense of what I'm trying to give expression to--whether it's truth, or reality, or whatever you want to call it. It becomes this thing in the world that has its own presence and it begins to represent a whole complex network of maybe ideas and feelings. Like a piece of sculpture might move you a certain way, and then another person another way, so it gets redefined by whoever is engaged with it. So yeah, I do try to blur the boundaries between the poetry and the fiction for that reason precisely. I am searching each time in an experimental way, because I want to deemphasize the idea of ideas a little bit. In other words, if I give expression to ideas, I want those ideas to be generated through the work rather than to be directly stated. In other words, through symbolism, through whatever. If it's fiction, through action of the characters. And if it's poetry, through the imagery, through the rhythms and whatever, but mainly through the imagery.

EPG: Like William Carlos Williams said, "No ideas but in things."

CM: Right. Exactly. That's exactly it. It's the thingness that I'm after. And that thingness can represent a lot--thoughts, whole ways of life, who knows, in a young person.

EPG: Someone told me you used to be a radical. What do you think they meant by that?

CM: I like to think that I was a radical in a technical sense, radical in terms of esthetics. But I certainly had social ideas and I certainly was not conservative in the sixties. I cared about issues, but largely, I did my fighting in my work.

EPG: How long have you been teaching, and have you seen students' attitudes change over the years? Are there more students interested in poetry now?

CM: It's hard to say. I think there's always been a large interest in poetry, relatively speaking. In a much larger context, there's been no interest at all in poetry in this country. But at the level of poetry workshops in universities, I don't think that the level of interest has diminished or increased very much over the years. I think there's been a consistent amount of interest on the part of a small coterie of people who have come along, one generation after another.

EPG: What about the types of things that people are writing about? Do you see people writing about the "fin de siecle" madness?

CM: Well, I don't really think so. I'm on the committee that evaluates new incoming students, and I read a lot of the stuff that's coming in. And it doesn't look that different to me from what people were writing twenty years ago, really, in terms of subject matter. I really don't see very much doomsday poetry. Although I can't imagine why not with the way the world is going.

EPG: I just wondered if you're working on any new books of poetry?

CM: I've been working on a lot of poetry lately. Not so much with a book in mind. Actually, I've been writing animal poems, and maybe these poems will take shape and end up as a book with poems about animals, and insects and plants. I find it very fascinating to try to see the whole universe in a moment in nature, or to see the whole exp0ression, to see the whole drama of life, maybe through one moment of a lizard poised on a rock. Something like that. I'm very interested in exploring what's possible in that kind of moment. And I've played with a lot of those kinds of things lately, and published a few of them.

EPG: Well, it looks like we're out of time. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. I'll let you get back to your ringing ;phone and the people who keep knocking on your door. I'm looking forward to seeing some of those animal poems.