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Clint Margrave: California Poets Part 3, Three Poems

Clint Margrave

June 25th, 2021

California Poets: Part III

Clint Margrave

Three Poems

Fellow Traveler

On the way to Sofia,

crammed in the middle seat

for my 13-hour flight from L.A.,

the elderly woman next to me

wipes down everything

with hand sanitizer.

First the window,

then her tray,

then the back of her seat.

“I know somebody who

caught a virus on an airplane

and died,” she says.

As the engine starts to roar,

she crosses herself

then offers me some M&Ms.

She warns me she has to

drink a lot of water

and apologizes if she has

to wake me up later

to use the restroom—

she’s just had one of her

kidneys removed.

“You don’t always get

to choose your seat,” she says.

The Quest for Perfect Armor

But before we get there, we're going to have to learn a little bit about the realities of the subsea.

—“The Diving Bell and the Exoskeleton,” Atlantic Monthly

If you want to dive deep,

you must find the perfect armor.

Protect your frail

body as you sink

into the lower depths.

The deeper you dive,

the longer it takes to decompress.

Ascend slowly.

Stop for periods of time

or face serious pain and injury.

Learn how to deal with

the pressure.

Become aware of your breath.

Notice the life around you.

Be in awe of it.

Bird of Prey

Owl, dead among the roadside trash:

dirty sole of a tennis shoe,

ripped rubber from a flat tire,

broken bits of plastic.

Once great guardian of the Acropolis.

Soft wings still spread.

Beaming eyes in a fixed stare,

at what I don’t know.


California Poets Interview Series:

Clint Margrave, Poet and Novelist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Let’s begin with your novel, Lying Bastard, published last year in May; this is a daring work, abundant with satire, philosophy, and piercing observations on the tediousness of quotidian life. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Berlin Saunders, an adjunct instructor at Long Beach City College, we encounter a world that resembles our own; it’s quintessentially American—cutthroat, competitive, and unforgiving, and at the same time, the characters are written in such a way that defy any regional or even national stereotypes. As an American living in Italy, I’ve likewise encountered many a Berlin Saunders on these shores, perhaps not as hell-bent on suicide, but nevertheless similarly disenchanted with not only their jobs (whatever those may be), but also life in general. Along with your own background as an adjunct instructor, can you describe, perhaps, the inspiration behind Saunders, along with the overall essence of the book, and how these themes ultimately transcend the American way of life you’ve so richly described?

CM: When I started writing the novel in 2007, the literary books being published at the time all seemed to have these earnest “likable” characters, flat, humorless, and boring to me. I had written bad drafts of a couple novels like that myself and I wanted to write about a different kind of a character, a kind I hadn’t seen in a while, a character people might consider an “unlikable bastard,” who had no interest in doing “the right thing,” an absurd anti-hero, like the protagonists in some of my favorite novels from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground to Camus’s The Stranger to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I don’t think Berlin Saunders ended up being this character entirely, but I wanted him to be someone who perceived the world in at least an honest and authentic way (even if he himself isn’t honest to others or himself). It was also a response to the institutional deadness of academia, not that much different from the corporation, where everyone wore masks long before the pandemic, regardless of tenure status. That question of authenticity ended up being one of the major themes of the novel and Berlin Saunders is somebody who both seeks it and questions if it’s even possible. Though the work is not overtly autobiographical, other than Berlin’s career choice, this concern with authenticity was no doubt also inspired by the imposter syndrome I felt when I first began teaching college. On top of that, school shootings on college campuses began to ramp up around 2007, beginning with Virginia Tech, which influenced the darker less satirical elements of the book. Suddenly, being a teacher on a college campus became a more literal kind of existential battle, not just the battle for one’s soul. But a novel won’t be confined to simply one theme and as I wrote it, the characters and ideas expanded to be about many other things beyond academia or the life of an adjunct. It is in this way that it hopefully begins to transcend the American experience and touch on more universal themes.

DG: America is the embodiment of a consumerist culture, and many parts of the book capture that essence. One of the funniest instances of this is when Tom, a colleague of Saunders, vehemently defends his reasoning for using an anti-plagiarism detection software called “Copycat,” saying “it’s another thing to add to my résumé. It cost the department $12,000 just to have the account. They want us using it.” Here, we get the sense that it’s ultimately money which dictates why things are done or not—ethics are another matter, and, indeed, before readers get this dialogue, the narrator states: “What differentiated the act of plagiarism from any other of the countless lies being spun around the nation? Didn’t plagiarism equal patriotism? Wasn’t it the American way to copy somebody else’s work?” These outlooks you’ve captured are indeed American, but in what way are they also quintessentially European, for example? Did Rome not copy from Greece? And was the Renaissance not, in fact, a rediscovery of those traditions, rather than a trailblazing institution? After all, much of Europe really looks the same as well, which makes me wonder: Is this book, in fact, a criticism of America per se, or is it actually critique of modernity through the prism of American values?

CM: Elite progressive hypocrisy was invented in universities. A lot of lip service is given these days to catch phrases like “inclusivity,” “diversity,” and especially “equity,” because it makes people in power sound virtuous while not actually having to do anything. But in action, the university today is not much different than the corporation, except that it still sees itself as more noble (and let’s hope for at least a morsel of truth left in that). For all the talk, whether it’s from administrators, department chairs, or tenured faculty, there is very little self-awareness and recognition that the university operates on the backs of a second-class citizenry, namely its 75% adjunct faculty. Tom, like many adjuncts, plays the game because he really wants to be part of this elite class who snidely looks down on him. Mostly, he wants it because he’s financially insecure, but also because working within this tiered system can weigh on one’s self-worth. He is humiliated, alienated, and depleted by this demeaning system. He doesn’t realize it’s never going to happen for him, partly because he’s a weirdo, but also because he’s not really their type no matter how hard he tries. Saunders, on the other hand, has given up this dream long before, figuring it’s better to be disillusioned than delusional.

As for the other part of your question, I agree, I don’t think these outlooks are quintessentially American nor even European. I think they are quintessentially human. I’m not even sure if I’d call it a critique of modernity, but I can see how the novel touches on some of the same themes the modernist writers addressed a hundred years ago regarding the atomization of society and the alienation of the individual. But I don’t have a romantic notion of a time before “modernity” that would have been much better. I’m fairly certain there were individuals who lived in caves thousands of years ago who felt alienated by the human condition. To be human, in a way, is to feel some sense of alienation.

DG: As a poet, novelist, but also writer in general, you’ve never shied away from controversy. Given the far-reaching nature of social media, it’s easy to be attacked and even cancelled outright for exercising your freedom of speech. Although this right is a fundamental cornerstone of democratic life in every aspect, why is it especially important to protect this value in the sphere of art and literature, even perhaps during pandemics and times of war?

CM: I decided long ago this is my one life and nobody is going to silence me. As Christopher Hitchens once said, the grave will provide plenty of time for silence. Unfortunately, it’s a resolve that isn’t easy for most, and with good reason. For myself, I haven’t yet decided if I’m just crazy or naïve. Most of us have to worry about making a living, myself included, and the last thing we want is to find ourselves in the midst of some social media controversy. This has caused a chill on speech. Most would prefer to be silent and who can blame them really? Even if at times, I find it cowardly and disappointing. What’s also disturbing about this era though, is that a lot of threats to free speech come from other writers, artists, and publishers themselves, who participate in these online heresy mobs, and in the case of publishers, meet their demands to remove somebody’s work. Where do we go from here? It used to be the artists and publishers were the ones who stood up to the government. Who needs the government or big tech to do the censoring when people who are supposed to be defending it, are perfectly willing to go along with them if it suits their ideology. And yes, it seems even more important to protect art and literature and our democratic principles during vulnerable times, because as we’ve seen, the human instinct for power and control of others is alive and well.

DG: Let’s shift the discussion to poetry—your new collection, Visitor, is scheduled to be released soon. Without giving away too much, what can we expect from the new collection that might resemble the best aspects of your previous work, but also, how might it be a departure from what you’ve done before, given that most likely some of it, or perhaps even most of it was written during the pandemic?

CM: The new book is a culmination of about four years’ worth of poems (and maybe even a few older poems) so it is a mixture of pre and post pandemic stuff. In fact, there are not a lot of poems written about the pandemic or even written during that time, but I must say that the pandemic has altered the way some of the older ones might be read. I’m thinking of one poem called, “When Death Travels,” that was written two years before, but now seems to have taken on an eerily new presence.

As for what you can expect, I think you will still find some of the same mix of serious and humorous, familiar themes, but maybe, if anything has changed it’s that I’ve learned to trust the reader a bit more and leave a little more mystery to the poems.

DG: You were good friends with Gerald Locklin—not only the larger-than-life figure of Long Beach, but also the archetype of what many would consider the exemplary poet. His work embodied masculinity, uncompromising humor, and the courage to describe life in the way most of us live it—the glorification of the everyday experience, so to speak. Your poem, “Toad Dies and Goes to Heaven,” is a wonderful tribute to him, also mentioned in the LA Times. Along with your favorite poems, do you have any interesting Locklin stories to share, and why is his work especially relevant now—at a time when elitism, censorship, and woke culture seem to be not the exception, but norm?

CM: There is so much I learned about writing from Gerry. I say that, by the way, without ever having taken his writing class (I did strangely take a contemporary lit theory class with him). Just reading his work over the years taught me to strive for clarity, simplicity, humor, and brevity without dumbing anything down or shying away from being intellectual. Gerry was very much someone who embraced life in every aspect. He always said that a writer shouldn’t just read poetry or fiction, but everything, history, science, philosophy, etc. Nor should a writer confine oneself to reading, but should be fully engaged in the pleasures of living. I remember at some point in my twenties, I stopped by his office and was contemplating whether I should travel or stay home and write, and he made it a point that Hemingway didn’t write while he was off living those experiences. That it was as important to go out and engage with life, to gain experience, as it was to stay home and be disciplined at your writing desk. As sad as his death is, it’s not sad in the way that he was someone who lived his life fully in every aspect. He savored this world. He was of another era, informed by existentialism rather than despairing postmodernism. He had dared death in middle age when he had some health issues, and recovered and embraced life even more fully it seemed. He was an amazing cultural aficionado and critic too. He probably has written more ekphrastic poems than any American poet and maybe more than any poet period. These are some of my favorite poems of his for their insight not just into art, but the connection between art and life. He was also the kind of academic you don’t see anymore. I don’t remember who said it, maybe somebody in the LA Times article, but they said Gerry was “the rebel among academics and the academic among rebels.” I thought that was great.

I do think his work is relevant now in that it presents a counter to today’s zeitgeist, which tends to be dogmatic, neo-Victorian, and infantilizing. Gerry stood against all forms of fundamentalism. He disliked dogma and puritanism. Coming out of the university and having read all the theorists who spawned a lot this “woke” stuff, Gerry had been fighting against it for decades by the time it went mainstream. He saw the dogmatism and rigidity within postmodern theory early on and despised it from the beginning. He was a modernist to the core. And yeah, if he were writing and working in academia today, he’d be cancelled. I don’t think he could’ve survived the rigidity of modern academia.

DG: You travel frequently to Europe. What are some of the countries which have made a particularly strong impression on you and how has this influenced both your personal and literary sensibilities?

CM: It’s a cliché to say, but I do believe that spending time abroad wherever it might be, can open you up to learning about yourself and where you come from. Not only that, it’s good to feel a little awkward and uncomfortable as you do when you are in a foreign country. Discomfort creates new ideas and can teach you something about yourself. I definitely think anyone who wants to write should travel the world or try to live abroad as much as they can afford to, which isn’t always possible (I did it on credit cards and school loans when I was young). I love to travel and yes, I no doubt had a romantic affiliation when I was younger with visiting places in Western Europe, particularly I have memories of riding trains through France, Italy, Spain, the kind of stuff I think everyone should experience but can also be a bit cliché. As a young man who’d eaten up Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, as well as the poetry of Baudelaire, or the philosophy and fiction of Jean-Paul Sartre, and had studied the French language for as long as I can remember, I romanticized Paris and for a long time it held a mythical power over me as it does for many people. I lived there as a student for a short time in my twenties and as Hemingway said, one never forgets such a thing. That being said, as much as I still love the city, it’s mostly just a museum these days. Because my girlfriend is Bulgarian, as you know, we spend a lot of time in Bulgaria and Sofia particularly, which is a city I love, and one that is still artistically alive in ways that much of Western Europe doesn’t feel to me anymore, much less the United States. Eastern European poetry (not that it is one thing) has been a huge influence as well. Has there ever been a bad Polish poet? What I love about a lot of Eastern European writing is the dark humor and love of the absurd, conveyed in a clear, minimalistic style. This sense of the absurd and dark humor seems to fall to the wayside in so much American writing, especially American poetry. I do think this has influenced and informed my work.

DG: If you had to pick only one American and one foreign writer to serve as inspiration for the rest of your life, who would they be and why?

CM: Wow. That’s a tough question because I am a fan of so many. Living or dead? I know the minute I say one name, I will later think of multiple others I should have said. It also depends what you mean by inspiration. Style wise or philosophically? I guess I’d say Albert Camus for foreign writer then. Even though I haven’t read some of his work in years, style-wise, he’s an amazing writer, and philosophically I feel very aligned with his worldview. If not Camus, I’d probably say Dostoevsky (these two very much informed my youth so it tells me something about their staying power throughout my life). And since I only get one…for the Americans, maybe I’d say Herman Melville as I can read a book like Moby Dick over and over again and find inspiration and poetry there.

DG: Are you working on anything at the moment?

CM: I am writing poems, finishing up a short story manuscript for what may be a forthcoming book, and contemplating whether I dare attempt to write another novel. Also, speaking of Locklin, I am in the process of putting together a manuscript for what will be the first posthumous selected poems, put out by NYQ Books in early 2023.

Author Bio:

Clint Margrave is the author of the novel Lying Bastard (Run Amok Books, 2020), and the poetry collections, Salute the Wreckage, The Early Death of Men, and Visitor (Forthcoming) all from NYQ Books. His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Rattle, Cimarron Review, Ambit (UK), Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac, among others. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.


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