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Missouri Poet Laureate David Clewell is a Wise Guy

David Clewell is serious but not solemn

Photographs by Whiteny Curtis

(page 1 of 2)

Last year, David Clewell was weighing an offer from the state of Missouri. They'd offered him the chance to serve as poet laureate.

It wasn’t that he thought he was too good for it; it wasn’t that he thought it was hokey. He just wanted to think about it. Then, one night at the dinner table, Clewell’s 14-year-old-son, Ben, who draws his own graphic novels, told him, “You gotta do it. Because if you do, and you get it, then I can write in the character ‘The Poetry Overlord.’”

“So that’s how I’ve thought about myself,” Clewell says. “Not the poet laureate. But the Poetry Overlord. I said, ‘OK! I’m going to do it.’ Of course, like everything else, not quite as capriciously as that...”

Clewell is Missouri’s second official poet laureate, following Walter Bargen, who’s known for poems that combine ancient myth and postmodernism. The two-year appointment involves traveling around to promote poetry as an art form. Clewell describes his role as “sort of a roving ambassador for the art of poetry,” adding that it’s not to convince people “to walk down the aisle and take poetry as their personal lord and savior.”

Missouri First Lady Georganne Nixon, an avid reader who used to work at publishing company William Morrow in New York, had a big hand in Clewell’s nomination. “David has been a great advocate for poetry, holding readings in Missouri schools, prisons, libraries...even a train station,” she writes in an email. “He’s a down-to-earth person, and I think that makes it easy for people to relate to him and to poetry.”

On the surface, the laureateship might seem like a counterintuitive thing for Clewell. “I tend to be very, very jealous of my time,” he says. “It’s my work, and when I’m here—I’m not teaching this semester—I give that its full shot. But aside from that, the day job, it’s my family and my work.” He teaches poetry workshops at Webster University, and 19th- and 20th-century literature to undergraduates (who he adores because they are easy to infect with a joy of reading for its own sake, rather than looking to their profs as poetry career counselors, as MFA candidates are wont to do), and runs the creative writing program. He spends many hours in his office at Pearson House, which has become sort of legendary for its alien trinkets and Charlie the Tuna paraphernalia and overstuffed shelves of books, which reflect his omnivorous reading tastes—spanning Philips K. Dick, Levine, and Larkin.

Left to his own devices, he’d rarely leave. He’s even been accused of being a hermit.

“He likes people,” explains Murray Farish, a former student who now teaches fiction writing and American lit alongside Clewell. “With the laureate thing, I’ve never seen him for a moment ungracious or unhappy to be somewhere. Now, in terms of being a hermit, yeah, he doesn’t ever leave his house!” Though he’s always been so, it’s become more pronounced in recent years. And that’s because, as Farish notes of Clewell, “You’ve got a limited amount of energy to spend on the things you want to spend it on, and you live a life dedicated to the making of poems, and the reading of books, and the teaching of students. And if you do those things as well as David wants to do them, on a certain level, you don’t have time to play the poetry biz games.”

“Of course, I’m not truly a hermit,” Clewell says, “but I’d rather write poems than be a poet. And for the stuff I tend to get involved with, and care most about, I need more than an hour or two on a given night once a week.”

As he’ll tell you, “Clewell don’t do haiku.” The lines in his poems always seem to be reaching for the right margin. Sometimes his stanzas become little blocks of prose. His poems are dense with historical research, and one poem can take up an entire chapbook. His long, exuberant lines at times earn him comparisons to Walt Whitman; so does the beard. The kids at Nerinx Hall High School “are fond of having what they call their ‘Whitman sightings,’ all instigated by a very good English teacher over there, Jean Fry, who had me over,” he says. “Before they started tearing up this lot back here, they’d see me walk to and from my car: ‘That’s Walt Whitman!’”

“If anyone would imagine what a poet would look like and a poet would sound like, they’d imagine David Clewell. And they would not be disappointed,” says David Wilson, dean of Webster’s College of Arts & Sciences. Wilson came to Webster from UCLA around the time that Clewell became creative writing chair; at first, he said, when he saw Clewell’s office, he was skeptical that he would be a good fit as department chair. His assumptions were wrong. “He was attentive and detail-oriented and meticulous and thorough, and followed through on everything,” Wilson says. “And students love him, and flourish with him, and come to love poetry through his teaching.” (Because chairs get the phone number that rings straight through to Wilson’s office, he says he’ll regularly get phone messages like, “Hey, Wilson. This is Clewell. I’m calling you on your secret bat phone.”)

Though he’s technically on leave, Clewell comes to his office at Pearson House every day to check email on what he calls “The Devil’s Box.” He doesn’t keep a computer at home; there, he drafts poems on legal pads and a typewriter. But he has broken down and bought, for the first time in his life, “what some of you adults call a planner. It’s smaller than my checkbook; I just stuff it into my pocket. But truly, I’ve got 30 things coming in the spring. And then, of course, I have to remember to look at it. I got this at Target 75 percent off, but it still spooks me out that I actually have one.”

Clewell’s term as laureate runs through January 2012. On the surface, that would seem like the perfect end date for a poet who writes about spontaneous human combustion, UFO abductees, and conspiracy theorists who swear you can see a bottle rolling around in the moon-landing footage. But just as when they’re looking at the artifacts in his office, people’s eyes go to the plastic alien head first; it takes an investment of time to understand that Clewell’s poems are not about the paranormal or the curious. Or aliens. On the contrary—his work is all about the human. 

When David Clewell was 14, he told his mother that he was going over to a friend’s house. Instead, he got on a bus in New Brunswick, N.J., and rode up to Rutherford. He got off the bus and walked to 9 Ridge Road, the house where poet William Carlos Williams lived with his wife and kids. That was where Williams’ doctor’s practice was, as well as his attic writing studio, where he spent 20 years writing his epic American poem, Paterson.

It was 1969, and Williams had been dead for six years. Clewell says he thought “it would just be cool to see it, nothing else.”

“It was nothing ostentatious,” he says. “It was just this working-class neighborhood in Rutherford. And I was just taking it in, and the door opened up, and this woman said, ‘Can I help you?’ And I said, ‘I just want to see this house,’ or whatever. I was a pretty shy kid. Plus, I was illicitly there. ‘Well, if you’re here, why don’t you come in?’ So it ended up being a couple of wonderful hours with Flossie Williams—who, of course, is a legendary character in her own right. ‘Well, let me show you where Bill worked, and...’ I think she was just delighted that it wasn’t some nutball, or some Ph.D. candidate working on a dissertation, crawling around.”

As it got later, Clewell started to worry a little. He finally admitted to Flossie that his mom thought he was at a friend’s house. “Well, do you want me to call her?” she asked.

“Way before David Letterman came up with bad phone calls, or whatever his gimmick was from years ago—I just wish I could have had the audio from both sides,” Clewell says. “Flossie Williams and Josephine Clewell! ‘He’s fine…’”

But he wasn’t a poetry groupie. “[Williams] was from New Jersey. I suppose I could have gone to Sinatra’s house instead.” He chuckles. “Joisy!” In fact, Clewell “hated poetry growing up. Screaming top speed in the opposite direction, at least 17 of my years. So the fact that I’m as involved in it as I am now, if we just jump-cut ahead, is certainly surprising.”

His love, at that point in his life, was music. In fourth grade, he’d gone to summer band school, where the instructors laid out the instruments, allowing the kids to take a walk around the room and pick what they wanted to play. Clewell looked at a trumpet. Then a saxophone. Back to the trumpet.

“I picked it because I remember thinking, ‘How hard could this be? Three notes.’ I was quickly disabused of this on the first day of class, when the teacher was playing 40 notes without depressing one of the three valves,” Clewell remembers. “‘Oh no! What have I gotten into?’ But then, like a lot of things in my life, serendipity worked great. I loved playing the trumpet. I don’t know if it comes naturally to me. I worked hard at it. But I really liked it. And music theory. I just liked all of that stuff.”

He didn’t want to be Miles Davis, but Clifford Brown. He bought records, played them over and over again on a portable plastic record player in his bedroom, practicing each bar, adapting the key, until the grooves grew blurry. And then one day—earlier than the trip to Flossie’s, he remembers—he found someone who blew him over, even more so than Brown.

“I was walking around New Brunswick, and floating out of this third-floor walk-up was Coleman Hawkins,” he says. “It was an album called The Hawk Returns. And I just was knocked out. It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, that’s the best jazz I’ve ever heard.’ I didn’t know what it was. I remember going from there to the Rivoli Music Shop on the other side of New Brunswick. And I’m describing it, and I’m the guy who bought singles of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’ on the same day. Now, I’m talking to this guy, and saying, ‘There was this horn, and...’ He knew I was just a kid, but I guess he knew I wasn’t a scruffy kid, and so not only did we track it down—he’s playing me this and that, ‘Does this sound right?’—he not only found out that it was Hawkins, he found the actual damn record. I took it home that day. I didn’t have any money, or I had like a dollar. And he’s like, ‘Just bring it back to me.’ That’s how I fell in love with jazz. It was literally cascading down over my head. But I’d already started with trumpet. I wasn’t going to switch over to saxophone for Coleman Hawkins!”

And though he hated poetry, he loved books. He read science fiction and “books on flying saucers and all things paranormal, right? So that stuff never went away.” After seeing Clewell’s nose smashed against the glass as he waited for the new bookstore in town to open, the owner asked: Do you want to hang out and help unpack some boxes? Before long, Clewell was working for books; by high school, he was working there nearly 40 hours a week. The bookstore, he says, became “its own parallel education, not just for poetry but for all manner of things.”

“I had wonderful contacts and informers who came in,” Clewell says, “and they had laid the Williams on me. So 9 Ridge Road, even to my young neophyte mind, became a legendary address.”

And in school, Williams’ poetry resurfaced, relentlessly. This was Jersey, after all—it would be like a Missouri kid trying to avoid Twain. Clewell’s freshman high-school teacher, “a wonderful guy who was a complete nut, in the richest sense of things,” assigned “not the anthology Willliams”—which was why it was “the only thing that made any kind of dent, any kind of inroad.”

Then, a few years later, he was introduced to some nonanthology Whitman by a teacher who would “ride her motorcycle in from the village, Motorcycle Irene. And we’re not talking about some young and lithesome person… She was at least 60.” Rather than the standard “O Captain! My Captain!” she chose “swaths of chants” from “Song of Myself.” 

Perhaps it was this. Or Williams. Or both. Whatever it was, by the time he was 16 or 17, Clewell started to make a connection between his beloved music and poems.

“It’s not as if I’m literally hearing a trumpet,” he recalls. “But without any special show of it, it’s like measures in music. I remember thinking some of these thoughts. Or a time signature here, or this changes, except I wasn’t being that pinheaded right at the time. That was really the connection, and that really did get me interested, more interested than I would have been in the Rutherford days.”

Now, when he’s reading someplace like Chaminade College Preparatory School, Clewell is sympathetic to the leeriness of the crowd. “At least half that audience, I was them [when I was a teen], sitting there going, ‘Oh, come on. What does this have to do with my life?’ My experience was that every year we rode into the valley of death with the 600,” he says, referring to the Alfred Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” “‘Half a league, half a league!’ And it was fine—the first 14,000 times.

“They can never last, though,” he grins. “I wear them down!”

Meg Sempreora, who teaches in Webster’s English department, says that’s because Clewell shows up prepared. “Sometimes if he goes to give a talk at a high school, he’ll stop at a bookstore and buy the $1 Dover Press ‘Song of Myself,’ like 100 of them, and hand them out after he reads,” she says. “He’s always done that. As I said to him when he was named poet laureate, ‘You’ll continue to do what you’ve been doing, only more of it!’” She laughs. “He said, ‘That’s about right. Just more miles on the car.’”

Near graduation, Clewell found one of his poetic guiding lights—someone who would become a close friend, too—when his informants recommended Donald Finkel’s book A Joyful Noise.

“It knocked me out,” Clewell says. “And then right after that came out, there was a book-length poem called Adequate Earth, and it knocked me out for different reasons.” He remembers reading, while still a teenager in Jersey, a Finkel poem called “For Every Dog,” which is, indeed, written in the voice of a dog (“Something you should never do!”). Clewell begins to recite it from

There comes a day
this is it
there will be no more
collars no more leashes licenses
no more jangling tags
trappings fealty

“And there’s maybe six or seven more lines. But at the end, the dog suggests, ‘Cut me a key of my own, henceforth, I will go when I please. In or out. You will chain the cat out front to the birdbath. Throw him a bone. And when you call again, ‘Here, Boy,’ look out for your throat.’”

One day, Clewell was hanging out at Donaldson Park, down by the Raritan River. A matronly lady walking what Clewell refers to as a “slipper dog” (“They run on batteries—little things like Yorkies”) walked across the parking lot and across a field. And then the dog ate some grass. 

“Her voice,” Clewell says. “‘We don’t have to eat the graaaahhss, Frahncine!’ The poor dog just looks at me like ‘Get me outta here!’ She’s going on and on. Ten minutes later, the dog really tried to make a break for it. And she literally says the words, ‘Here, boy! Here, boy!’

From out of nowhere, he heard a voice in his head: Look out for your throat.

“I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ I had to think. ‘Ah! It was that poem that I liked so much, that I read however many months ago.’ That’s the effect of a poem. That it gets inside you that way.”

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