Writing While Grieving: A Conversation with Adam Clay 

Whenever I read Adam Clay’s poetry, I find myself slowing down and taking stock of the world around me and within myself. In his recent collection, To Make Room for the Sea, Clay deftly weaves together the vulnerable narrative with the ontological. He examines the situation, perhaps even the origins, of the inner life so that we can live more fully in the outer. There is in these poems the questioning of memory—how it shapes us, how it shouldn’t, its power, and the power that we permit it to practice over ourselves. 

I met Adam back when I was an undergrad in the early aughts. It was a world and time that we will never fully return to. Since then, the world has spun along, bringing with it each day its gains and losses—a shrinking coastline, the ghost that was once a love, and the daily effort of hope. Does a thing that no longer exists still shape and define us? It’s one of the many questions Clay asks in his work. And then he invites us to join along in the search for answers. It’s a journey I certainly recommend. 

Nathan Lipps: Let’s begin with running. You’re an avid runner. You participate in races, including marathons. Is this an old pursuit or something only a few years old? How does running interact with the rest of your life, especially your writing?

Adam Clay: I ran some in high school but wouldn’t say I was very serious or dedicated. I’ve dabbled with running off and on over the years, but I started training for my first marathon seriously back in 2018 around the time I turned forty. I think one of the things I like so much about running is the metrics of it, and how you can see improvement on an almost daily basis if you look at your numbers. Writing’s a little different when you’re in the weeds. It’s hard to track the success of a poem in quantitative terms, so I find myself really drawn to running and what it means to push myself on a daily basis. 

I will say, though, that distance running affords me a lot of time to think because I don’t listen to music or audiobooks, so I do think through poems or ideas for poems while I’m running. In that way, running offers an opportunity to clear the mind and work through things mentally. 

NL: I’d like to talk about the title of your book—To Make Room for the Sea—which is the last line in your poem “Meditation for the Silence of Morning.” There’s a kind of transient or impermanent quality in the poem. It opens with “I wake myself imagining the shape / of the day and where I will find / myself within it” and then goes on to ask if these changing perspectives are “permanent.” It then ends with a declaration that “we destroy the paths of rivers / to make room for the sea.” I think there’s a lot to unpack in that statement: the notion that we destroy the source to make room for a larger destination. The sea is essentially the future tense of a river, so here we’re destroying the past, the memory. Not to mention the always lingering threat of climate change somehow in the background. For you, what about this line and this poem led you to place it as the title (and title-poem)?

AC: I’m trying now to remember the moment when it hit me that I wanted that line to be the title of the manuscript, but it feels so long ago now, and I’m not sure it really happened in any sort of an epiphanic moment. It just sort of felt right to me. That poem, in particular, was one of the earliest poems I drafted, and I imagined the collection would be one interested in climate change, specifically focusing on the idea of what it means to raise a child in a world we’re essentially destroying. As I was finalizing the manuscript, my marriage ended abruptly, and I decided to bring that change into the manuscript, both as a way of working through the grief and because I found some parallels between loss in my personal life and loss in the natural world. My first wife and I were married on Earth Day, a connection that hit me one day as I was thinking about the poems in the book that explore climate change and the poems that consider the end of our marriage. And I think there are poems that do both. In the end, I wanted the book to be a hopeful one, a collection that looks at loss and considers what growth can come from it, and in the end, I decided that the title I landed on very early in the process still worked well.  

NL: All poetry readings and in-person book signings have been either postponed or outright cancelled due to COVID-19. Has this affected you in any unexpected, surprising ways? Is there a silver lining?

AC: It’s hard to say right now, writing these words in early May 2020. In the past, with my previous collections, I’ve had the next book—or at least a draft of the next book—finished, and at least right now, I don’t have a draft finished. I’ve written over a hundred poems towards a new project, but I don’t feel a real push right now to draft the next thing. Perhaps that’s a silver lining: I feel forced to re-think notions of what it means to be a parent, a teacher, and even just a human being. I’m pretty used to pushing myself on a daily basis, and I’m not used to hitting a wall, but lately it feels like I’m hitting a wall on a daily basis, sometimes a few times a day. I’m not sure how that will manifest itself in my writing, but I’m sure the next collection will be different in some way or another. 

NL: Looking at To Make Room for the Sea and your past work, one notices the usage of epigraphs. For example, with “Form of Love,” the poem is introduced by this killer Angela Ball quote: “I always think that I can manage the highest form of love.” The word “think” knocks me over. So, what function or hope do you have for these epigraphs to accomplish? And how do you go about choosing which ones should go with which poems, or if a poem even needs or warrants this type of entry point?

AC: Many of my poems are born from an interaction with other works of art, whether they be poems, stories, films, or paintings. I used to write by just staring at the computer screen and allowing an idea to form, but it felt sometimes frustrating when ideas didn’t form. Through summers teaching in Gambier, Ohio, for the Kenyon Review’s Young Writers Workshop, I’ve really gained a love for writing poems based on prompts, and many of the poems in this collection (and in Stranger, my previous collection) came from prompts used in my summers in Gambier, along with prompts I’ve written with my graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Southern Mississippi (which I usually require on a weekly basis). Many of my poems, I suppose, are in conversation with other poems and could probably include epigraphs or at least notes detailing their source—I did a bit more of this in Stranger. I opted to leave the scaffolding for some of them, whereas with others, I ended up cutting it back a little. I guess I make the choice to leave scaffolding when it seems to serve as a helpful doorway into the poem. If the poem seems to have departed from the gateway, I usually remove it and let the poem stand on its own.

NL: A few of these poems seem to address the end, or eventual end, of a relationship. I’m thinking of “Last Anniversary” as an example. The image of “an emergency exit/for each of us—/though the doorknobs/were taken off in a fit/of hope” seems to haunt me and, possibly, all the poems that follow. And the final thought of the poem—“Most of those/paintings we saw that day/were puzzles that hadn’t been cut/into a thousand pieces yet”—casts a sense of impending doom. The idea of an image, a painting, a relationship that was once whole, now facing the shears that will cut it to pieces. Though we can try to put them back together, they will forever remain, at best, a collection of well-fitting pieces. I am curious about the placement of this poem, as the second poem in the book and the first poem with a clear narrative. Can you talk about the ordering of poems within this book?

AC: That poem was originally much later in the manuscript and had a different title when I first wrote it. Originally it was called “Always Something to Celebrate.” I drafted it on April 22, 2018, after a visit to the Ogden Museum in New Orleans and ended up calling the poem “Last Anniversary” as I was finalizing the manuscript. My friend Autumn McClintock was instrumental in the ordering of the manuscript and recommended that I move that poem to the front of the collection because it helps to establish some of the themes of loss and grief early on in the book. I wanted the collection to explore these notions of grief and loss, but I didn’t want it to be stuck in that world completely, so it made sense for the book to have that poem early on and then move away from it. The closing poem, “In Praise of Unknowing,” is a very different tone, and having as much separation between those two poems as possible made sense. I did a lot of other shuffling towards the end of the process. I tend to think less in terms of specific poems and more in terms of themes. For me, this means drafting out feelings or ideas of poems on an index card (on one side) and then the title of the poem on the other. From there, I’ll order the book based on the theme without thinking too much about the poem. Sometimes this process works out well. In other instances, it puts poems up against poems that don’t fit well together. My main goal in ordering the book was a movement towards a hopeful ending, and I wanted to make sure the shift towards the final poem felt as natural as possible. I also found myself imagining my daughter reading this book in 10, 20, or 30 years, and I wanted her to see that I had created something positive out of what was a very difficult time. 

NL: Much of your work seems to have an ontological element. There is this looking inward and then outward, looking at the past, considering the power of memory and how ourselves and our existences are shaped. There seems to be this sense of both knowing and seeking purpose. I find this in the opening line of the opening poem “Goodbye to Golden Nights”:      

         If measuring

         one’s life circular

         makes sense of movement,

         then how should    

         we muscle meaning

         into days? 

Is this something you often pursue in your writing—something you hope to explore and accomplish? I’m also wondering how much of this pursuit is already alive within the very nature of poetry? For some more context here, I’m thinking of lines from “How do you feel about Ashbery”: “There’s more sense / in the unfamiliar stars we chart our lives by, following their / paths like what’s lived is right out of reach” … “What’s unknown / in the future feels more sensible than the past, but I’ll / trust what can be seen before I trust the small houses / still lit up with memories from the night before.” There seems to be a hesitancy to trust the past or to place one’s faith in memory. Meanwhile, the speaker seems to have this phenomenological approach to the present, trusting in what can be verified through present experience. I think this struggle between our natural practice of definition via the past and the attempt to look at each moment as though it were new and unclaimed is fascinating. Is this something you are actively pursuing in work—the nature of existence; the value of any given day; our attempts to “catch a glimpse / of the self within the self”?

AC: I’m glad you quoted the Ashbery poem because he’s a poet I’ve grown to admire more and more over the years who, I think, does this in a sense. Though perhaps my poems might be a bit more direct in how they engage with this idea of memory and perception whereas Ashbery’s work seems to be more interested in the act of perception, holding it up to the reader and allowing them to engage with the world of his poems on their terms. I used to get frustrated with Ashbery’s poems when I first started reading them because I was coming to them with expectations that the poems just weren’t going to provide. I think his poem “This Room” was the first one that really opened things up for me and made me realize that Ashbery’s poems are less interested in providing the reader with a “point.” It feels more like they want to resonate with us in such a way that they change the way we see the world we inhabit once we walk away from the poems. And I think my third collection Stranger was really trying to think about this idea of how fatherhood can impact one’s everyday experiences. The first poem in the book is speaking directly to the speaker of Ashbery’s “This Room,” so he’s definitely someone I’m thinking about often. And that notion or idea of memory and experience is something that carried into this new collection, though the lens of grief and loss might be the new way of thinking of experience as opposed to fatherhood. It’s just fascinating to think about how a seismic life change can make something as mundane as watching a bird fly across your path seem so surreal and so strange. 

NL: Unlike your other books, this one is not separated into sections. Why the change?

AC: I ordered the book in sections initially but made the choice to remove the section breaks before the book went into production. I had been thinking a lot about the impulse poets have towards the three-section book and how it functions. It feels largely like a tool to help the poet with theme and structure, but I’m not sure it’s something the reader necessarily needs, in the end. With some of the biographical elements of the book, too, I wanted the collection to be less interested in chronology, and it felt like sections imposed a structure on the book that worked against how I felt the book might best function. 

NL: I’m fascinated by the book’s three “Only Child” poems. They are some of the shortest poems in the book, and they are told backwards—we first encounter number three, then two, then one. How did these poems come to be? Why three separate poems instead of one single, longer, poem?

AC: In some ways, this question nods back to the question about sections. I thought about having an “Only Child” poem in each section of the book. Initially, “Only Child (I)” was the only poem with the title “Only Child,” and the other poems had different titles, but I retitled them. For a while, I actually thought about titling the manuscript “Only Child,” but I settled on “To Make Room for the Sea” for some of the reasons mentioned earlier. I guess the reason for having these poems exist as three separate pieces is that they begin to carry more weight individually in how they’re split up throughout the book. I also feel like they emphasize the notion of the only child because there are three separate poems. Had there been only one poem with “Only Child” as the title, its importance might have been lost on the reader. 

NL: The speaker in many of these poems often addresses a we or sometimes a you, and in “The Seams Don’t Show,” the speaker addresses both. Can you talk about the addressee in your poems and in poems in general? For example, the line “What we want becomes replaced by / high windows you can’t clean and nothing to see but light / inside the dark corners of the rooms you’ve left behind.” How are you hoping the “we” interacts with or affects the reader?

AC: That’s a really interesting question. In my previous collections, I’ve been really aware of how the poems have been functioning in terms of their point of view and in terms of how I structured the manuscripts. It wasn’t something I thought much about in this collection because I think the poems are often using “you,” “I,” and “we” interchangeably. I was writing a series of poems through the month of October when I went through a pretty major life change. Many of these poems ended up in the collection, and I think quite a few of those poems are using “you” as a distancing technique. This was probably a subconscious choice, now that I think about it, because the poems were an attempt at writing through some difficult material near the deadline for finishing the manuscript. 

NL: Towards the middle of the book there are a couple poems that seem more clearly (at least in their titles) political: “American” and “State of the Union.” One of my past teachers once said that all poetry is political. I wonder what you think about this. And how do you see politics—let’s say especially current events—take shape and purpose in your writing? Is it something you intentionally pursue? I also enjoy how you bring a sense of order to “State of the Union” by writing it as a sestina. Why the choice of form?

AC: Looking back, those overtly political poems were some of the earliest poems I wrote for the collection. I suppose I imagined the book being a more political collection, one considering climate change in a very direct way. I had a few other sestinas that were political, actually, that didn’t end up in the collection. I’ve always been drawn to that form in particular, but more as a reader of the poems than a writer. I think one of those poems came from a prompt assignment, and I found some interesting parallels between the political content of “State of the Union” and the poetic form of the sestina. Maybe it was something about the repetition and oppressive nature of those six words appearing and reappearing? As I finalized the book, I didn’t want it to be overtly political, but I did feel like those poems had a place within the collection still. 

NL: I often find myself drawn to poems about grief. You are probably familiar with Jack Gilbert’s numerous poems on the subject (“Finding Something,” “Michiko Dead” for example). Another poem I’m drawn to is “Postcard From Gethsemane” by Hannah Dow: “the trees in this garden / wear grief like they’ve been / holding it in for a thousand / years.” A few of your poems speak to this topic—for example ,“Broken Form.” I find it very interesting, even powerful, how many of these grief poems are in fact quite short, as though the extreme brevity matches the marathon of suffering. How do you think grief shapes a poem? And is the poem—yours and poems of grief in general—meant to serve as a balm, an angry shout, or a mournful whimper?

AC: That’s a great question. With this collection in particular, so many of the shorter poems that explore grief were drafted out of necessity more than anything. I was writing poems daily in the month of October when it became clear that things were about to change in a fairly major way. I wasn’t really sure if it made sense to keep writing poems or if I should just stop. There was something I found in the daily pause of exploring grief and loss through art, even if I didn’t really understand its magnitude at that moment. Some days all I could really write would be a few lines or two, and maybe that’s why some of those poems are so short. Looking back at my third book, Stranger, there’s a poem called “Sounds of an Emptying House” that explores grief but in a more extended way—it’s a much longer poem. It was written under different circumstances and with different intentions for a path forward. I don’t really know what poetry’s goal is with regards to grief. I think it can be therapeutic, but I don’t think that’s it’s primary function. I’ve often written poetry as a way to figure out what I’m thinking or feeling about something. In that way, it becomes a marker of a particular moment or time of my life. Revisiting these poems, even now, I feel removed in a strange way, but I’m glad I kept writing through that month of October and found room in this book for these poems. This project didn’t end up being what I thought it would, but it feels like the book I needed to write at the moment it came together. 

NL: You mentioned how you’ve gained a love for writing from prompts. Would you be willing to leave us with one of your favorite writing prompts?

AC: Of course! Cate Peebles shared this prompt with me, so I’ll have to give her full credit for it. The prompt asks that you take another poet’s poem and split it up, sentence by sentence. From there, you drop in a sentence of your own between that poem’s sentences that might somehow make it cohesive. Once you’ve done this, you go back through and delete all of the original poem so that all that remains is your work. It’s a poem that’s in conversation with another poem, but in the end, the poem itself you were conversing with is gone, almost like a ghost. The final effect isn’t always completely cohesive or complete, but I often find the juxtapositions are really interesting and can lead to some fascinating leaps in language and ideas.  


Nathan Lipps

Nathan Lipps is a poet & teacher. (nathanlipps.com)

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