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Visiting with Holly Virginia Clark

by Claire Guyton

What inspired you to write your poems “Urge,” “Museum,” and “West 3rd Street”?

With “Urge,” I truly felt overcome by the desire to touch a pigeon while I waited for the train, and, in that moment, I found an unlikely bridge to the natural world in a particularly park-less, concrete intersection of San Francisco.

“Museum” started with my five-year-old’s fear of the 9-foot taxidermied polar bear at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Planetarium. We sublimate so much of our animal nature in our civilized encounters, and I think this makes me suspicious of the safe dioramas we design for our lives. 

“West 3rd Street” is about an incident I witnessed when I lived on Thompson Street near West 3rd in NYC. A guy, probably homeless, definitely not sane, urinated on the hubcap of an SUV while it was stopped in the bumper-to-bumper, thwarted mania of Friday night. I wanted to somehow make sense of what ensued in terms of the question of theodicy.

Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth or development of one or all three of these poems.

I like to write at home at my desk. The bed has to be made, which is about ritual, I guess, and tidiness of mind. I nearly always start with a line or image, or, if I start with an idea, I spend a lot of time thinking of what vehicle can carry the idea, what image, metaphor, scene. Once I acquire that starting point, which always takes a mysterious and inconsistent amount of time, I write to answer why I am compelled by said image or idea. I write until the first answer comes and then keep at it through the next and the next until I’m truly excited by the thought that’s occurred to me. I can’t end it when I take that first breath of relief that I’ve gotten somewhere useful; it has to be more than useful. It has to be something I could only arrive at by writing and refusing to stop. I wanted to end “West 3rd Street” on the driver’s saying, “Pick up your teeth,” because that was what hurt my gut to think about, but it wasn’t the point; the point was why that hurts my gut. I tried to get there by describing the character’s childhood home; in another ending, the first person speaker knelt at his feet like Mary Magdalene. Finally the violence of the ocean led me to the point I was seeking, that there is no accounting for the deeds of Man, of Nature, of God, that we are only ever hoping for reconciliation.

All writers have favorite words we have to guard against overusing. What are yours?

I think my biggest crutches are words that reflect the extremes and absolutes of my own thinking: never, always, every, none. The words even, still, and just feel natural and conversational, but I am actively trying to avoid them, as well, because they seem too easy a choice as tonal directives. I waffle on that, though; a fluid, spoken quality to the writing can really make a poem feel inhabitable. I am also trying to avoid the crutch of certain syntax, especially the rhetorical flourish of “if, then” statements. I think I developed a propensity toward equational thinking as a means of motivating a discovery moment. I do have to be careful, however, that I am using an “if, then” construction organically and in service of discovery and not to superimpose a logician’s kind of intellectualism and solemnity on the poem.

What does your writing space look like?

I have a broad, hollow-core desk board sitting on top of two filing cabinets in front of a large window, which looks out at the white siding and back stairs of the multi-unit apartment building next door. Usually someone or other comes down those stairs with their laundry or to water a plant during the course of my writing stint—a distracting but welcome punctuation of color and motion. On my desk, I keep a filing shelf unit with books I’m reading and a notebook of drafts. My desk chair is a kitchen chair from the 1950s, the only remaining of a set my in-laws used to have in their house.


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