“Sometimes I think that place is a character in my work,” says poet and novelist Andrew K. Clark. He grew up in Western North Carolina and lived in Georgia and South Carolina before returning to Asheville two years ago. His debut collection of poems incorporates the rural mountain landscape with themes of family, memory, religion, the search for self, and love both brutal and tender.
Clark will present that book, Jesus in the Trailer, at Malaprop’s on Sunday, Jan. 12. The launch also includes readings from Eric Nelson, Meagan Smith Lucas and Benjamin Cutler.
The name of the poetry project is evocative (as is the moody black-and-white cover photo, taken by Clark, of a church steeple surrounded by storm clouds on his family’s land). But the title poem is a departure — especially in its airy, white-space-laden structure — from its cohort. Instead, Clark says, the poem “Revival” best encompasses the themes of his collection. “I was raised in the tradition of camp revivals and tent meetings,” he says. The poem alludes to those religious events; it was also written during the time of the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and so touches on issues of race and Southern history (“trying to face it, not mask it,” Clark says).
“And when the nation’s sins bring storms, / Use your feet to hold the side (the tent wants to collapse) / And when the lightning crashes the trees / Lie to the children and say they’re safe,” the poem reads.
Clark admits that religion and Jesus were not the topics he was keen to explore. “I wanted to write about other things, but the work was flat,” he says. “When I allowed myself to be brutally honest and go there, the work improved.”
But within that honesty there’s also levity: “The cassette smells like the future / smells like possibility and sex — / my headphones on, walkman cranked / I rock a tobacco stake guitar and / twirl on the heels of my cowboy boots,” he writes in “old man johnson’s barn,” named in reference to the Prince song, “Raspberry Beret.”
While Jesus in the Trailer is informed by the writer’s past and family, it’s not strictly literal. Poetic license is at play, and “persona poems are interesting because they let you try on things that maybe aren’t organic to you,” Clark says. “But even the best persona poems have a nugget of truth to them. They’re not completely outside of the self.”
The voices and landscape of Jesus in the Trailer align Clark with the often place-based North Carolina literary tradition, a heritage he hopes to honor — but in his own way. “When I was in middle school, my first loves were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I loved the supernatural part of [their books],” he says. What he’s tried to incorporate somewhat in his poetry and more so in his forthcoming YA novel, The Day Thief, is magic within the setting.
“New York’s idea of Southern literature is ‘Tell us about the meth addicts,’” Clark says. “I love people who do that work when they do it with compassion and sincerity, but I’m trying to do something different.”
And, though working in both poetry and fiction genres isn’t unique to Clark, it’s an ambitious undertaking. Of his process, the writer says, “With prose, as I long as I know what the next few chapters are, I draft quickly and messily.” With poetry, on the other hand, “I labor over every word.”
Asheville is a supportive place to undertake such explorations. From contemporary authors such as Wiley Cash and David Joy to local poets including Jessica Jacobs and poet/novelist Ron Rash, it’s “a very generous community of arts and writers,” Clark says.
That sense of network is reflected in the author event for Jesus in the Trailer. The reading will feature other writers whom Clark admires or considers mentors, and it will be emceed by local poet and Wordplay Radio host Lockie Hunter. “When I go to a reading, I like to hear other voices,” Clark explains of his decision to invite fellow poets. “And I also want to expose people to the writers I love.”
WHO: Andrew K. Clark presents Jesus in the Trailer with additional readings by Eric Nelson, Meagan Smith Lucas and Benjamin Cutler
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 12, 4 p.m. Free to attend