I DON’T WORRY ABOUT LOOKING BACK
A Conversation with Poet and Editor Grant Clauser
Interview by Natalie Kawam
On Cleaver’s five year anniversary, we continue to celebrate with interviews featuring our senior editors. Grant Clauser is the Poetry Craft Essay Editor for Cleaver, and he also reads poetry submissions. His most recent books are The Magician’s Handbook, published by PS Books, and Reckless Constellations, winner of the Cider Press Review Book Prize. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Cortland Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, and others. He runs workshops at Rosemont College’s Writer’s Studio and can be found on Twitter via username @uniambic. He is also a home technology editor at Wirecutter.
Natalie Kawam: When did you join Cleaver?
Grant Clauser: A little more than a year ago.
NK: How did you find out about it? What do you like about it?
GC: I knew that Karen Rile previously published a few of my poems, and we were connected through the Philadelphia literary scene. She was looking for someone to help write and recruit writers for craft essays, and reading poetry submissions. I like doing those things. So, I volunteered.
NK: Why do you like Cleaver? What sets it apart from other publications for you?
GC: Cleaver is unique in that it is one of the more dynamic publications around now. It tries new things. Most of your online or lit pubs break themselves into poetry, fiction, maybe non-fiction. Cleaver has a little bit of everything for the creative person, not just writers, because there’s also audio plays and art features and things like that. Cleaver never stops trying to do something new. There’s the Life As Activism section, there’s the blog with interviews, there’s the craft essays. And then, the core literature sectioNK: poetry, flash fiction, short stories. In fact, right now there’s a graphic narrative feature on the website. Then of course the Ask June advice column, which is one of my favorite parts. So there’s a little bit of everything, and you just don’t find that in any other publication.
NK: What sparked your interest in writing poetry?
GC: I just enjoy how dynamic language can be. My interest in poetry actually started in seventh grade when I memorized Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” I just loved the music of it so much, and the imagery that it evoked in my mind. It’s amazing that it can sound and create an experience within you rather than just be words on the page. Shortly after that, I got into reading Poe for those two elements, sound and images, and it sort of went off into mania from there.
NK: You have two new books, is that correct? How is that going?
GC: It’s great! It’s a bit of luck that two of them happened very closely to each other. The most recent one, Reckless Constellations, just went on sale this past January. The one before that in October, The Magician’s Handbook. So now I have a lot of readings and events planned for the year, to go out and try to get people to like them.
NK: Well, congratulations! It always seems to happen that way. It always comes at once, and then it works out until you go through that period where you can’t write anything!
GC: I’m actually not writing nearly as much now as I had been a year ago, and maybe that’s because I need a rest period.
NK: Who or what are you reading?
GC: I subscribe to a ton of print publications as well as online journals. At the moment, I’m reading the publication that showed up in the mail just yesterday, which was the Southern Review. Also, a book that I bought, which arrived in my mailbox about two days ago, from Devin Kelly called In this Quiet Church of the Night, I say Amen. Kelly’s a person I ran into on Twitter. I started reading some of his stuff online. So I ordered his book and I’m blown away by it. I need to tell everyone I can to get this book. It’s fantastic.
NK: That’s great. It’s one of the best feelings. You feel like you’re being acknowledged through your own pursuit of finding things to read, and it almost feels as good as writing itself.
GC: Yeah. I buy about two books a week, and I subscribe to a lot. So I always have a pile of things to read.
NK: What are your go-to journals or literary magazines?
GC: What I end up doing a lot is following a number of poets and writers on Twitter. When they post poems they love, I click through. So, I can’t say I have a lot of favoritism because I go through and read so much.
NK: I think that speaks to how people find poetry today, in this age. It’s not just going through print journals or books, as they come out. It’s all over the internet.
GC: And there are a couple of writers who have been strong in promoting other poets, too. Like Kaveh Akbar. Any poem he falls in love with, he tries to makes sure everybody else reads it [on Twitter]. I’ve come across a lot of writers that I’ve heard of that way, from other peoples’ suggestions, which tells me there are less gatekeepers in the literary world now than there were twenty years ago.
NK: I think that’s one of the best things about Cleaver being online. I know I have a number of peers that are also writers and, if I like their work, I know their influences are probably resources I’m going to love as well. It’s an incredible network.
GC: Yes, absolutely. Online pubs and social media have changed the poetry landscape in a lot of ways.
NK: What does your start-to-finish process look like for a piece? I know that it can vary and look very different for each piece, but which process is memorable for you?
GC: Oftentimes, my process starts with reading. I get ideas, or the feeling to write something, when I’m sitting down in the evening, going through a pile of books. It usually starts with a word combo or an image that I like, and I try to build something around that. I think my poems are short. I don’t usually go over a page, that’s very rare. I’ll typically finish a draft within 30 minutes and then stare at it for a while, read it out loud to see how it sounds, play with it for a couple of hours, or the next day, and keep going back. That going back process is about looking for speed bumps, things I stumble over and want to correct. Occasionally a poem comes out fully formed, but that’s rare.
NK: Do you feel like sometimes your earlier versions are better than your more revised versions?
GC: I hope not, because I don’t keep drafts! I don’t worry about looking back.
NK: How do you think American writing has changed or evolved in the past five years, specifically in response to the election?
GC: What it’s done is—well, I don’t know that it’s changed writing as much as it’s changed writers. The election and politics, in general, have emotionally charged everyone, not just writers. There’s a lot more energy to express your thoughts and how you feel about the world. The result has been a lot more socially and politically charged poetry, because it is top of the mind for everyone, especially writers who are socially engaged in the world. Activism, or thinking politically about what’s going on in our country now, is so relevant that it’s going to express itself in their writing. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t wake up to think, “My god, what has our lunatic president done today?” Now, you do. That informs everything a person does, even more so if you’re an artist.
NK: What is your stance on writers having a social responsibility to affect societal change?
GC: I wouldn’t be the person to tell anyone what they should and shouldn’t be doing. Does poetry affect societal change? I would hope that a poem affects small changes in a person. Will it affect the way we feel about a social issue or political element? I don’t know. I can’t say whether it does or doesn’t; but the answer to that question shouldn’t affect whether you should do write poetry, especially if you feel you should do it. If it’s a part of your experience, it’s going to be a part of your work.
NK: What do you hope to achieve in your future writing?
GC: I hope I’m able to still do it, and that people respond to the things I do in my work. And, that I don’t go broke doing it! I’m always going to be writing, and I’ve been lucky to have some recognition in that department. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to teach and share my enthusiasm about it. I want to continue all of the above.
NK: Lastly, why do you write what you write about? What is unavoidable for you?
GC: If it’s part of your experience, it’s going to be a part of your poetry. The two things I keep going back to is an outdoors style, and my family. Both of those things are profound parts of what create my experience. In fact, my book, Magicians Hand Book was sort of a turn away from those two things [as subjects] because I think I was getting the reputation of being a nature poet. I thought, “I need to do something completely different.” The next book ended going back a lot to my own experiences.
Social Media Maven Natalie Kawam is an undergraduate poet at Bryn Mawr College. In May, 2016, she received the Academy of American Poets Prize at Bryn Mawr, and was published in September 2016 through the Academy. See her poetry here. Natalie is also a poetry staff reader for Glass Kite Anthology.