Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Clark Allison

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Clark Allison

Born 1961 Glasgow. Attended Glasgow University 80-81. Resident in California 83-92. Studied further at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Took up library studies at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen 93-98. In continuing education in Aberdeen 2000s. Moved to West Lothian 2015. Publications include two pamphlets ‘Temporal Shift/Daubs’ (Trombone Pr 98) as Carl Engerson, ‘Unspoken’ (Smallminded Books 17). Reviews and poems in Shearsman, Robert Sheppard’s Pages blog, Tears in the Fence, Stride particularly. More limited work experience, though trained in librarianship. Continuing regardless with periodic reading/studying and a varying amount of writing.


Stride stridemagazine.blogspot.com/

and archive https://www.stridebooks.co.uk/archive.htm

Shearsman www.shearsman.com

Robert Sheppard Pages robertsheppard.blogspot.com/

Tears in the Fence https://tearsinthefence.com

The Interview

1.What inspired you to write poetry?

I might prefer a term like ‘persuaded’ or ‘conduced’, since I didn’t have to write. However, I put a lot of it down to social adjustment, and how one chooses to think or behave. The short version would have to cite the anthology ‘Poetry 1900-75’ (Longman 80) ed George MacBeth, which was read and studied in high school, including such poets as Eliot, Yeats and Edwin Muir (no MacDiarmid incidentally).

Having become acquainted with poetry especially in high school, but also essay writing generally, I took it upon myself to continue with a significant amount of reading and writing after I left high school. I wanted to, and did read more by Eliot, including a biography of his early years by Lyndall Gordon. I thought Prufrock and The Wasteland set the bar for short form poems, real set pieces, other instances being Olson’s ‘Kingfishers’ or Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’, though this type of poem is actually quite rare, and maybe even ill advised! And yet equally I’m altogether out of the kind of class consciousness Eliot presented or inhabited, my parents were not well to do, it was a sense for me of being inspired by the writing.

I did write poems after high school. These were decidedly not modelled on Eliot, nor really on anybody else particularly. I’d say my earlier poems were much more influenced by what I might term phenomenology or psychoanalytic association, since I was, equally, very interested in psychology, not at high school, but at university. I thought poems might engage, express and reveal what happened to be going on in my mind, but these were uses of language, too. I was getting a kind of ‘subjective’ orientation from psychology and an ‘objective’ one from Eliot, but I really wasn’t writing poems of that kind. I took up more of his critical ideas fairly seriously, the ‘objective correlative’ and the ‘dissociation of sensibility’, notably. My awareness of behaviourist social conditioning psychology (Pavlov, Skinner etc) had quite an effect, the stimulus-response school.

So, one could either write for an audience, wherein I just didn’t have one. Or one could write as an inquiry into self awareness via language, which is what I found myself doing.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Well, this goes back to the first question, that was high school English classes and mainly the MacBeth anthology. We studied Shakespeare too, ‘Lord of the Flies’, Grassic Gibbon. Memorable teaching sessions included whether The Beatles ‘She’s Leaving Home’ counted as poetry; and whether John Cage’s ‘4’33” counted as music or art of any description. I think I was early on struck by the seeming inconsequentiality of writing much. But what I called my writing exercises and reading material continued on, even after I left Scotland in 1983 for the US (until 1992). I really wasn’t sharing my writing much at this time. I found one small magazine called ‘Outposts’ that looked promising and John Calder’s ‘New Writing’ series, but I never took to sending them anything, ie where would that get me anyway?

3.How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Well, part of this was that I didn’t encounter any poets in person. On the other hand we did have a lecturer in film studies who had published a new book, John Caughie ‘Theories of Authorship’, and he was very engaging and down to earth, while warning us that some of the film/social studies theory was difficult.

The key poets for me, Eliot and Yeats, were long gone. In terms of successors to them, I wasn’t really coming up with a lot. I went off to the States and found that they were much more interested in Pound and Olson rather than Eliot, too Anglophile, likely. In Los Angeles, where I lived, I did encounter Holly Prado’s writing group in person. She’s a fine poet I think, married to Harry Northup an actor and fellow poet, published by Bill Mohr’s Momentum press, and I think I gained a lot from her seminars. She was unintimidating. One felt mostly an invitation to try to comprehend the process, which for her certainly included classical myth like Orphism and Thoth (kind of the Egyptian Hermes) and a kind of sensibility question where one would be taking off from certain themes, eg Robert Bly and masculinity. Holly Prado has a wonderful essentialist work called ‘Word Rituals’ (Boxcar 2). Meanwhile I was if anything more interested in the journals Temblor (ed Leland Hickman) and Sulfur (ed Clayton Eshleman), to whom I submitted but was not published. Hickman encouraged me to send work on, even though as it turned out he didn’t use it, and there was a short correspondence. Paul Vangelisti who had been in Temblor was also running seminars, but I felt it beyond me, and not altogether reasonable, to attend both.

I also submitted work to Barrett Watten at ‘Poetics Journal’ (co-ed Lyn Hejinian) and James Sherry at Roof publishers, which they did not use, but were considerate and respectful in responding. I continued writing exercises on my own account, feeling it, as I said, possibly revelatory or therapeutic, part of the process of getting through things. Reading Kerouac and Burroughs helped a little too. But I had little cognisance of any eventual reader.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I effectively don’t have one. I try to set aside time for writing, and try to write down anything halfway important that pops into my head. My appetite for writing exercises has reduced, whereas I might formerly write 3 pages a week, now it might be less than one even. I guess I try to establish where it fits in in terms of psychological need. I don’t set a quota.

5. What motivates you to write?

I guess this is back to the psychology. I’d maintain there is a revelatory aspect to writing, ie going through the act of doing writing changes something and it can be personally enlightening and perhaps socially too if you share your work. It might be a bit like thinking and feeling out loud. Write it down! even if for personal reference.

6. What is your work ethic?

I studied continuing education philosophy. Ethics is exceedingly complicated. More than anything I’m a bit of a Darwinian, ie the survival and preservation of the self and of those others in the collective you happen to identify with. Compared say with crop failure and starvation writing poetry can seem like very small beer. On the other hand writing creativity can be inculcated in the education process. Writing surely has an ethics if we seem to mostly be disagreeing just what that is. Art for art’s sake has an argument behind it, but does not seem to me fully defensible, but then neither is Soviet style social realism..

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Here I could perhaps mention that there were a few writers very relevant for me early on, and they still are. All that has happened is that some of my more youthful enthusiasms have worn out to an extent, so that I’ve diverted attention more latterly to such poets as Charles Bernstein, DuPlessis, Silliman and Nathaniel Tarn. I think that High Modernism is on the wane, and we’re diverting more attention back to the Romantic poets like Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley etc. Ah, did ‘Ancient Mariner’ in high school, but I don’t think it’s at all Coleridge’s best; I look more to the ‘Biographia Literaria’. I think accepting the claims of new writers is a cause for some perplexity; they have to persuade and convince, always that problem of the primacy of first acquaintance.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

This overflows from the last one. One could get quite caught up in a long list. Trying to keep it short. Among contemporaries, usually older, I would include people like Bernstein, who’s a bit of a spokesman for the Language school, Silliman, Bruce Andrews, DuPlessis, Hejinian, in Britain more ‘innovative’ poets like Robert Sheppard, Maggie O’Sullivan, who actually I struggle with, Ken Edwards, Denise Riley, Peter Riley (no relation as he keeps saying), Prynne, Wilkinson, Drew Milne, Andrew Duncan, Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Rupert Loydell, Martin Stannard, Charlie Baylis, Allen Fisher, Rod Mengham, David Rushmer, Kenneth Goldsmith (the Conceptual school), another struggler for me Vahni Capildeo, also poets in translation, but there it tends to thin out, Raul Zurita etc or Zizek’s latest pronouncements on theory and crit.

What I admire most is a sympathy with the innovative and progressive, and addressing writing to the realities that confront us today. However, I don’t think we have to be loud or confrontational, a lot of what’s effective comes out of the words themselves.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

Well, everything in a sense surely comes down to communication and behaviour, of which communication is a part. Communication can take numerous forms, and indeed many writers now are trying to experiment with other artforms besides, like installations or video etc. I just regard writing essentially as part and parcel of communicating., and that includes the likes of social theory, in which I’m also very interested (eg structuralism, Frankfurt School, narratology etc).

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Here I think early education is very important, preschool and primary school included, literacy. Where you have a certain fluency with words it becomes a possibility. But it ties in with motivation. What do you want to do, or achieve? What are your better skills? What is the best use of your time?

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Here it becomes a bit indeterminate. I’ve just had a few book reviews posted or due to appear online, of writing by Wilkinson, Richard Gwyn and Vicente Huidobro. There may be some more poems, but I have to say the muse is not entirely with me at present. I seem to have gotten into a pattern of writing responsively to other things I’ve read. I like Terry Eagleton’s phrase, ‘hope without optimism’.

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