Words That Matter: David Clewell

“This has been a great town for me to hide in and get the work done. Here I’m just a local poet,” he said.

 

Nestled deep in a quiet, second-floor corner of Pearson House, which is itself nestled deep in a quiet, northwest corner of Webster University's campus, is the office of David Clewell. It’s a small room—about the size of a generous walk-in closet—that is littered, in the truest sense of the word, with two types of objects. There are the eye-grabbing collected figures, a wide array of kitsch honoring Charlie the Tuna, the Big Boy Hamburger boy, and variations on flying-saucer bug-eyed men. A bevy of bijoux strewn high and low. Second are the books. Books everywhere, piled with what seems complete disregard for genre or alphabetization, stacked haphazardly in a way that identifies Clewell as someone who actually reads what’s on his shelf. Will I Think of You, a book of Leonard Nemoy love poems sharing a shelf with D.H. Lawrence and Paradise Lost.

“I’ve always had a penchant for poetry of the stars,” Clewell explained. “My reputation around here is, ‘Ask Clewell, he’ll at least know about it.’ I might not literally be able to stomach my way through Nemoy, but figuratively speaking, I want to be able to appreciate Nemoy and Milton… It’s like putting on a record: am I in a Sinatra kind of mood, or an Elvis Costello kind of mood?”

Clewell, a round, jolly bear of a man with a dense, sprawling, ash-gray beard and a thinning head of hair, came to St. Louis in the early ’80s to pursue his M.F.A. in poetry at Washington University. “It’s not like St. Louis emerged as some exotic spot; I think I’d been through here once or twice. One thing in particular was Don Finkel. I said, gee, if there’s one poet who could never be accused of being academically fashionable or just going through the motions, it was Finkel.” Afterward, inertia kept Clewell in town, where he worked several shifts at Left Bank Books. When a teaching position at Webster became available in 1985, he again turned to Finkel for guidance, and he’s been here ever since.

“This has been a great town for me to hide in and get the work done. Here I’m just a local poet,” he said. Except not exactly. He’s also the chair of a Webster undergraduate creative writing program that has quietly become one of the better ones in the country. Clewell explained, “Personally speaking, I can do more good as a teacher at the undergraduate level than at the graduate. That’s my prejudice. So many people think these days, just by getting accepted into a decent M.F.A. program, ‘hey, I’m the bees-n-knees of a writer.’ The egos that you’re suddenly dealing with generally outstrip the degree of talent…that I just find the best of the undergraduate talents easier to work with.”

Recently, the University of Wisconsin Press released The Low End of Higher Things. By this point in his career, one which began with his first published collection in 1977, the same year he attained his B.A., Clewell has achieved a poetic version of that rare confluence of humor, factual insight, and heart-prodding emotion that one finds in the best fiction of Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, or David Foster Wallace (and without the intellectual arrogance of Jonathan Franzen). He’ll follow “Nostradamus Had to Know,” in which he writes, “I’m betting skinny Nostradamus must have taken it on the chin/more than once: that four-sided hat he sported wasn’t big on the 16th-century playground,” with the emotional wrenching of “Yes,” a husband’s interior monologue in response to his wife’s question: “But you still love me, right?” It is a question Clewell so powerfully describes as, “the single thing none of us can honestly stop asking ourselves/about whoever’s nestled so tightly inside those naturally percussive/chambers of the heart.”

But far from emotive force, it was the musical possibilities of poetry that first enticed Clewell. “I hated poetry when I was in school,” he explained. It was too maudlin, too fanciful, too much about winged horses flying through the sky… It wasn’t until I was close to getting out of high school, when I serendipitously ran into a teacher who really got me excited about it, because he seemed to believe it was as much about the rhythms and the cadences and the sounds.”

Once he delved, he delved deep. Working at a bookstore, he developed what remains today his strongest advice to new writers: “Read your ass off. Those are the teachers.” He read all that he could and found the people he enjoyed “were much more for the music, I never worried so much about the content. One of the first persons I read was [William Carlos] Williams…who really got me thinking about the possibilities. In my work then and now the most important thing to me is the line. So that even when you get to a book like [The Low End of…] where the breaths are long, I’m still not stopping because I’ve run out of room. With Williams, you really begin to hear American speech, in line.” From Williams, it was a short leap to Whitman. “There was poetry in America before him, but until Whitman there was never really an ‘American poetry.’”

David Clewell is an American poet. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks he’s a damned good one, at that. But what’s even nicer, perhaps, is the fact that Clewell is such a good person, the kind of person who is literally everyone’s favorite teacher. He’s friendly and compassionate and has an amazing, great gust of a laugh that seems to erupt from a warm core deep inside of his person. Maybe Clewell himself says it best: “I don’t need that in a writer, but it’s always a nice bit of gravy when someone lives an okay life on the planet.”

No matter what success he achieves, you get the feeling Clewell will continue to hide in his tiny corner office on a little-known campus in our neglected city, right where he wants to be. And that’s just gravy for the rest of us.

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Words That Matter: David Clewell

Nestled deep in a quiet, second-floor corner of Pearson House, which is itself nestled deep in a quiet, northwest corner of Webster University’s campus, is the office of David Clewell. It’s a small room—about the size of a generous walk-in closet—that is littered, in the truest sense of the word, with two types of objects. There are the eye-grabbing collected figures, a wide array of kitsch honoring Charlie the Tuna, the Big Boy Hamburger boy, and variations on flying-saucer bug-eyed men. A bevy of bijoux strewn high and low. Second are the books. Books everywhere, piled with what seems complete disregard for genre or alphabetization, stacked haphazardly in a way that identifies Clewell as someone who actually reads what’s on his shelf. Will I Think of You, a book of Leonard Nemoy love poems sharing a shelf with D.H. Lawrence and Paradise Lost.

“I’ve always had a penchant for poetry of the stars,” Clewell explained. “My reputation around here is, ‘Ask Clewell, he’ll at least know about it.’ I might not literally be able to stomach my way through Nemoy, but figuratively speaking, I want to be able to appreciate Nemoy and Milton… It’s like putting on a record: am I in a Sinatra kind of mood, or an Elvis Costello kind of mood?”

Clewell, a round, jolly bear of a man with a dense, sprawling, ash-gray beard and a thinning head of hair, came to St. Louis in the early ’80s to pursue his M.F.A. in poetry at Washington University. “It’s not like St. Louis emerged as some exotic spot; I think I’d been through here once or twice. One thing in particular was Don Finkel. I said, gee, if there’s one poet who could never be accused of being academically fashionable or just going through the motions, it was Finkel.” Afterward, inertia kept Clewell in town, where he worked several shifts at Left Bank Books. When a teaching position at Webster became available in 1985, he again turned to Finkel for guidance, and he’s been here ever since.

“This has been a great town for me to hide in and get the work done. Here I’m just a local poet,” he said. Except not exactly. He’s also the chair of a Webster undergraduate creative writing program that has quietly become one of the better ones in the country. Clewell explained, “Personally speaking, I can do more good as a teacher at the undergraduate level than at the graduate. That’s my prejudice. So many people think these days, just by getting accepted into a decent M.F.A. program, ‘hey, I’m the bees-n-knees of a writer.’ The egos that you’re suddenly dealing with generally outstrip the degree of talent…that I just find the best of the undergraduate talents easier to work with.”

Recently, the University of Wisconsin Press released The Low End of Higher Things. By this point in his career, one which began with his first published collection in 1977, the same year he attained his B.A., Clewell has achieved a poetic version of that rare confluence of humor, factual insight, and heart-prodding emotion that one finds in the best fiction of Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, or David Foster Wallace (and without the intellectual arrogance of Jonathan Franzen). He’ll follow “Nostradamus Had to Know,” in which he writes, “I’m betting skinny Nostradamus must have taken it on the chin/more than once: that four-sided hat he sported wasn’t big on the 16th-century playground,” with the emotional wrenching of “Yes,” a husband’s interior monologue in response to his wife’s question: “But you still love me, right?” It is a question Clewell so powerfully describes as, “the single thing none of us can honestly stop asking ourselves/about whoever’s nestled so tightly inside those naturally percussive/chambers of the heart.”

But far from emotive force, it was the musical possibilities of poetry that first enticed Clewell. “I hated poetry when I was in school,” he explained. It was too maudlin, too fanciful, too much about winged horses flying through the sky… It wasn’t until I was close to getting out of high school, when I serendipitously ran into a teacher who really got me excited about it, because he seemed to believe it was as much about the rhythms and the cadences and the sounds.”

Once he delved, he delved deep. Working at a bookstore, he developed what remains today his strongest advice to new writers: “Read your ass off. Those are the teachers.” He read all that he could and found the people he enjoyed “were much more for the music, I never worried so much about the content. One of the first persons I read was [William Carlos] Williams…who really got me thinking about the possibilities. In my work then and now the most important thing to me is the line. So that even when you get to a book like [The Low End of…] where the breaths are long, I’m still not stopping because I’ve run out of room. With Williams, you really begin to hear American speech, in line.” From Williams, it was a short leap to Whitman. “There was poetry in America before him, but until Whitman there was never really an ‘American poetry.’”

David Clewell is an American poet. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks he’s a damned good one, at that. But what’s even nicer, perhaps, is the fact that Clewell is such a good person, the kind of person who is literally everyone’s favorite teacher. He’s friendly and compassionate and has an amazing, great gust of a laugh that seems to erupt from a warm core deep inside of his person. Maybe Clewell himself says it best: “I don’t need that in a writer, but it’s always a nice bit of gravy when someone lives an okay life on the planet.”

No matter what success he achieves, you get the feeling Clewell will continue to hide in his tiny corner office on a little-known campus in our neglected city, right where he wants to be. And that’s just gravy for the rest of us.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Words That Matter: David Clewell

Nestled deep in a quiet, second-floor corner of Pearson House, which is itself nestled deep in a quiet, northwest corner of Webster University’s campus, is the office of David Clewell. It’s a small room—about the size of a generous walk-in closet—that is littered, in the truest sense of the word, with two types of objects. There are the eye-grabbing collected figures, a wide array of kitsch honoring Charlie the Tuna, the Big Boy Hamburger boy, and variations on flying-saucer bug-eyed men. A bevy of bijoux strewn high and low. Second are the books. Books everywhere, piled with what seems complete disregard for genre or alphabetization, stacked haphazardly in a way that identifies Clewell as someone who actually reads what’s on his shelf. Will I Think of You, a book of Leonard Nemoy love poems sharing a shelf with D.H. Lawrence and Paradise Lost.

“I’ve always had a penchant for poetry of the stars,” Clewell explained. “My reputation around here is, ‘Ask Clewell, he’ll at least know about it.’ I might not literally be able to stomach my way through Nemoy, but figuratively speaking, I want to be able to appreciate Nemoy and Milton… It’s like putting on a record: am I in a Sinatra kind of mood, or an Elvis Costello kind of mood?”

Clewell, a round, jolly bear of a man with a dense, sprawling, ash-gray beard and a thinning head of hair, came to St. Louis in the early ’80s to pursue his M.F.A. in poetry at Washington University. “It’s not like St. Louis emerged as some exotic spot; I think I’d been through here once or twice. One thing in particular was Don Finkel. I said, gee, if there’s one poet who could never be accused of being academically fashionable or just going through the motions, it was Finkel.” Afterward, inertia kept Clewell in town, where he worked several shifts at Left Bank Books. When a teaching position at Webster became available in 1985, he again turned to Finkel for guidance, and he’s been here ever since.

“This has been a great town for me to hide in and get the work done. Here I’m just a local poet,” he said. Except not exactly. He’s also the chair of a Webster undergraduate creative writing program that has quietly become one of the better ones in the country. Clewell explained, “Personally speaking, I can do more good as a teacher at the undergraduate level than at the graduate. That’s my prejudice. So many people think these days, just by getting accepted into a decent M.F.A. program, ‘hey, I’m the bees-n-knees of a writer.’ The egos that you’re suddenly dealing with generally outstrip the degree of talent…that I just find the best of the undergraduate talents easier to work with.”

Recently, the University of Wisconsin Press released The Low End of Higher Things. By this point in his career, one which began with his first published collection in 1977, the same year he attained his B.A., Clewell has achieved a poetic version of that rare confluence of humor, factual insight, and heart-prodding emotion that one finds in the best fiction of Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, or David Foster Wallace (and without the intellectual arrogance of Jonathan Franzen). He’ll follow “Nostradamus Had to Know,” in which he writes, “I’m betting skinny Nostradamus must have taken it on the chin/more than once: that four-sided hat he sported wasn’t big on the 16th-century playground,” with the emotional wrenching of “Yes,” a husband’s interior monologue in response to his wife’s question: “But you still love me, right?” It is a question Clewell so powerfully describes as, “the single thing none of us can honestly stop asking ourselves/about whoever’s nestled so tightly inside those naturally percussive/chambers of the heart.”

But far from emotive force, it was the musical possibilities of poetry that first enticed Clewell. “I hated poetry when I was in school,” he explained. It was too maudlin, too fanciful, too much about winged horses flying through the sky… It wasn’t until I was close to getting out of high school, when I serendipitously ran into a teacher who really got me excited about it, because he seemed to believe it was as much about the rhythms and the cadences and the sounds.”

Once he delved, he delved deep. Working at a bookstore, he developed what remains today his strongest advice to new writers: “Read your ass off. Those are the teachers.” He read all that he could and found the people he enjoyed “were much more for the music, I never worried so much about the content. One of the first persons I read was [William Carlos] Williams…who really got me thinking about the possibilities. In my work then and now the most important thing to me is the line. So that even when you get to a book like [The Low End of…] where the breaths are long, I’m still not stopping because I’ve run out of room. With Williams, you really begin to hear American speech, in line.” From Williams, it was a short leap to Whitman. “There was poetry in America before him, but until Whitman there was never really an ‘American poetry.’”

David Clewell is an American poet. Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks he’s a damned good one, at that. But what’s even nicer, perhaps, is the fact that Clewell is such a good person, the kind of person who is literally everyone’s favorite teacher. He’s friendly and compassionate and has an amazing, great gust of a laugh that seems to erupt from a warm core deep inside of his person. Maybe Clewell himself says it best: “I don’t need that in a writer, but it’s always a nice bit of gravy when someone lives an okay life on the planet.”

No matter what success he achieves, you get the feeling Clewell will continue to hide in his tiny corner office on a little-known campus in our neglected city, right where he wants to be. And that’s just gravy for the rest of us.

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