Poet Jackie Clark on Her New Chapbook, Fellowship and Writing on the PATH

Jersey City poet Jackie Clark can’t pinpoint when she decided she wanted to be a writer. For her, writing is just something she has always done.

Right now, Clark is in the zone. Last month, the New Jersey State Council of the Arts awarded her a 2012 Fellowship in Poetry. In December 2011, Lame House Press published her third chapbook, I Live Here Now. Before that, the Vermont Studio Center (VSC) granted her a two-week residency to devote to her writing.

Clark will read from her new chapbook Tuesday, March 27 at 7 p.m. at Public Assembly in Williamsburg.

We recently caught up with Clark to discuss her recent successes and the day-to-day realities of being a poet in Jersey City.

Jersey City Independent: Congratulations. You’ve just published your third chapbook and the State Council of the Arts awarded you a fellowship totaling $7,800 dollars for your poetry. You were granted a two-week residency at the Vermont Studio Center. How has this all been for you?

Jackie Clark: Yeah, the last few months have been pretty exciting. I feel really grateful to have been able to spend two weeks at the Vermont Studio Center.

JCI: It was a really positive experience for me. I participated in three month-long residencies, two in 1997, and one in 2001. Many people do not know what an artist colony is, and do not know how or why an artist colony can benefit an artist.

Why was your experience at VSC positive? What did you work on? And would you recommend VSC to other writers?

Jackie Clark: I guess my time at VSC was so positive for me because I was given just that — time. Time away from my job, time away from New York and the noise and the fast pace. The VSC is up at almost the very top of Vermont in this small town named Johnson. Each resident, both visual artists and writers, gets their own personal studio to work in during their time there.

While having the space was invaluable, what was really awesome for me was to get out of the 9-5 schedule. After working a desk job for what seems like forever, it’s easy to forget that there are other ways to experience the weekdays. I was able to go out walking after breakfast or after lunch and then go to my studio and sit and write. Or I could just sit and read and feel fresh and not over stimulated as I often do after sitting at the computer all day at work.

I allowed myself the luxury of writing just to write, without a particular project in mind. Just reconnecting with the individual poem and not writing in sequences like I did with I Live Here Now.

Also, there are so many interesting artists and writers at VSC that you come to know over the course of your residency. It is really something special to more or less live and eat with all these creative people, even if for a short time.

In fact, a poet friend of mine who spent a month at VSC a couple of years ago is the one who inspired me to apply. And the fellowship, well, let’s just say that I applied because I feel like artists should just apply for every opportunity available to them, but I hardly expected to be selected. I am honored and proud.

JCI: Speaking of the New Jersey State Council of the Arts fellowship, how do you plan to use it? Do you have specific projects in mind?

Jackie Clark: Honestly I don’t have any specific projects in mind right now but I have often paid for a lot of poetry-related expenses out of pocket, for instance, attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference every year which generally involves purchasing airfare, registering for the conference, booking a hotel, etc. So it will be nice to have my expenses covered this time around.

JCI: Lame House Press published I Live Here Now in December. This chapbook contains observations, elegies, laments, invectives and poems of domestic and romantic angst. How did you prepare yourself for these poems? How long did you work on the poems? When and where do you write?

Jackie Clark: Well, there was really no preparing for these poems. These poems came from a deep need to rebuild my emotional stability. I was trying to recover not only from a really bad breakup but from that kind of lost in the world feeling that usually accompanies them.

I worked on these poems internally for about four months before I was brave enough to write anything down. But once I did, I’d say I wrote these poems in about two weeks. Once I started I just couldn’t stop until I had said what I needed to say. I wrote most of these poems on the train in the morning, typing them up later in the day. Usually I find myself writing almost anywhere except at home. When I write varies greatly.

JCI: When you say that you worked on these poems internally, what do you mean? Were you journaling or did you have conversations, phrases, 24/7 internal dialogues running around in your head? As a writer and poet, how do you give form to pain? Can you tell me more about writing on the train?

Jackie Clark: I guess I mean that I was having internal dialogues. I started practicing yoga a few months before I started writing these poems and I think waking up all that dead energy in my spine and all the meditating I was doing in class helped me have a dialogue with my myself about where I was and where I was going, which helped me to be able to sit with my thoughts long enough to write them down. I don’t think I am consciously trying to give form to pain ever. I just try to give form to what I feel when it feels like I should do so. The spectrum of emotion varies incessantly.

Maximizing time/energy is a constant battle when one has a full-time job. The writing on the train in the morning while I was standing on the PATH worked for these poems because I wasn’t physically alone when I was writing them, which was super important because those poems are really lonely I think. I would never have been able to be so honest if I had been alone in my bedroom writing them, but this trick probably wouldn’t work for other kinds of poems. More or less when you see a few spare minutes, you have to grab them.

JCI: As I read your poems, I often found your language slippery, but never to the point of incomprehension. At some point, you insert concrete phrases as direct as a prizefighter’s punch. I love this. First, I read the poems silently, and then I read them aloud, line-by-line, repeating words, sounding out the consonants. There is a tension between the intangible and tangible in your poems. Are you afraid one may undue or overpower the other?

Jackie Clark: Honestly, I don’t know if I am even conscious of this when I am writing but I love that there is a recognizable tension of this in my poems because I often am conscious of that tension in my waking life, thinking about relationships, thinking about hopes and aspirations and the way we piece small gestures together to make our lives and the lives of those around us into these sophisticated narratives. Sometimes things are very clear and direct, as you say like a prizefighter’s punch, other times things are not. It’s like grasping at clouds. I mean, this is the struggle. Also the surprise, being able to recognize a particular (personal) truth and exclaim it loud and clear.

JCI: In addition to your personal writing, you are the former editor-in-chief of LIT Magazine, and the current series editor for Poets off Poetry, on coldfrontmag.com. LIT is the literary journal of The New School’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Poets off Poetry is a monthly series, which invites a poet to contribute one essay about music and one poem to the site. I am interested in the day-to-day realities of this stuff. What is the relationship between editing and writing, between writing and music? Does one inform the other? Have you ever incorporated a line from a poem into a music review or vice versa?

Jackie Clark: I was the editor-in-chief of LIT for almost two years. The EIC of LIT is generally a recent graduate from the MFA program at The New School and the time came for me to rotate off the masthead last winter. I am the series editor for Poets off Poetry, a monthly series where poets write about music, and Song of the Week, a weekly series where poets write about one song in 150 words or less for Coldfront Magazine.

The day to day realities of this stuff (and the work I did with LIT) is that one must be very, very organized. There is a lot of administrative stuff to be mindful of. I have all sorts off labels in my Gmail that I use to keep track of solicitations and actual pieces and then there are spreadsheets tracking the publishing schedule, etc.

The editing part happens naturally, or doesn’t rather, as sometimes I feel like I am a pretty laissez-faire editor. I like that everyone has their own colloquialisms and phrasing. I generally try not to mess with them unless something is really awkward. I think doing this kind of work influences my own writing in that my brain is often in “work mode,” or “poetry mode”; doing this kind of work makes me feel connected to the greater literary community out there and that inspires me to keep on with my own work. I’ve come to know a great many poets that I admire through my work with Coldfront who I may not have otherwise known.

JCI: Jersey City is your home. If you had to ascribe an aesthetic to the city, what would it be, and why?

Jackie Clark: I feel like Jersey City is this weird hybrid of local arts, dollar stores, new condo buildings, WFMU and the homeboys that hang out outside my apartment on warm nights and play cards and sometimes get into really serious altercations with one another. I feel like the different demographics that inhabit the city are constantly competing for their aesthetic to come out on top. From where I sit it seems like the city has reached a stalemate.

JCI: Can you speak a little bit more about the competing aesthetics of Jersey City? Do you subscribe to one of these aesthetics? And do you have any suggestion(s) as to how the city or its artists can unlock the stalemate?

Jackie Clark: I don’t know, it’s tough to talk about this kind of stuff. For me, I am happy to come home to Jersey City because it isn’t some place like Williamsburg, where walking around Bedford Ave. can feel like walking around a college campus. That is an extreme example. I’m just saying there is a mix of people in Jersey City, most of who don’t care if a new trendy restaurant with a good brunch menu opens and probably never will. I don’t know how you change that or if it even needs to be changed. I really commend the folks in town who do organize art events. I think it is important and I have certainly appreciated and participated in a bunch. It totally makes a difference and creates a strong sense of community, albeit a small one. Everyone in Jersey City would need to value the same type of things in the same types of ways, I think, in order to unlock the stalemate. And because the population is so varied, on so many levels, I think that is a hard thing to achieve.

JCI: Speaking of diversity, JWoww and Snooki have moved to Downtown to film their new reality series. According to the blogosphere, the community is pissed. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Jackie Clark: Yeah, it’s sort of disappointing and sort of surprising I guess, especially since Jersey City is not really a destination place. Fingers crossed it doesn’t become one.

Photos courtesy of Jackie Clark

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at brendanscottcarroll.com.