Poet Andrew K. Clark on wild horses, violence and splintered attention spans

TODAY'S APPROACH: "Contemporary poetry addresses every topic under the sun — some dark, some light, some sensual — from many unique and interesting voices," says poet Andrew K. Clark. "It is also a great package for a world with such a splintered attention span." Photo courtesy of Clark

Though it may appear otherwise, local poet Andrew K. Clark is often working on a poem. “We think of writers as sitting at the keyboard all the time,” he says. “But writers are always writing. I’m always pondering a line or a scene and reworking it in my head even when I’m not sitting down.”

Originally from nearby Alexander, Clark now resides in Asheville. Growing up in Buncombe County, he was first drawn to the poetry of Langston Hughes. “I loved his use of vernacular language,” he says. “It taught me I could use my Southern voice in poetry, and it didn’t need to sound like Shakespeare.”

Clark’s poetry collection, Jesus in the Trailer, was published by Main Street Rag Press in 2019. His work has also appeared in a number of literary journals, including The American Journal of Poetry, Appalachian ReviewRappahannock Review and elsewhere. In the fall of 2024, Cowboy Jamboree Press will publish his debut novel, Where Dark Things Grow.

Xpress recently caught up with Clark as part of the paper’s ongoing monthly poetry feature. Below, readers will find Clark’s poem, “equine | canine,” as well as a conversation about his life as a poet.

                         equine | canine

Xpress: Can you start with the inspiration behind this poem?

Clark: As with a lot of art, this poem starts from a kernel of truth. I grew up surrounded by farms and forests. Up the mountain behind our house there were a number of horses kept in a field. Over time, their owners stopped visiting to care for them, and they seemed abandoned. Their shelter fell down and their manes became matted. They grew afraid of people, but I won their trust by taking them apples. I was the only person in my group of friends that could approach most of them. So, I was trying to find a way to describe this transformation from trained animals to feral creatures and settled on the canine imagery to make this change feel magical and wild.

How long was it between the personal experience you describe and the poem itself? 

Probably about 25 years.

Is that typical? Do you require significant distance before exploring and folding an experience into your work? 

I think the more we write, the more we are aware of our influences, including their limitations. I kept working the images of wild horses into my work, both poetry and fiction, and wasn’t consciously thinking about this childhood experience. Some of my writing is exploring things that are happening to me in the present, but distance helps us face things that we can’t face or put into context in the moment. Probably most of my work could be described in the academic sense as magical realism. I inject the supernatural or otherworldly into a concrete realistic setting. So, my sense of place is very much grounded in the Southern Appalachians where I grew up and live. Even when I moved away, it was a constant theme.

What drew you to magical realism?

I think we’re drawn as creators to the kind of stories we like to read. I was always a fan of fantasy, but I like realistic fiction as well. With magical realism, maybe it’s the best of both worlds for me. My master’s thesis was on how magical realism is used to deal with difficult topics and trauma in general. Violence may be easier to take if something supernatural is going on versus your neighbor doing it.  I think the challenge is that not all readers are open to seeing magic in a setting with which they are familiar. They kind of have a strong delineation between fantasy, where entire worlds are created, and realism. I like magical realism because it subverts this expectation, and in general I’m drawn to art that bends genre.

Having read some of your other works, it strikes me that brutality is never too far away.  As a poet, what draws you to explore humanity’s darker inclinations?

My favorite rejection letter so far said something like, “We loved the vivid writing but it was just too dark for us to publish.” I think art is the place to excavate and explore the darker side of humanity. I prefer work that isn’t all dark or all light — the beauty is in the contrasts, even subtle ones. So, in “equine | canine,” we learn of these supernatural horses that are morphing, becoming wolflike and brutal, yet at the end of the poem, we learn that the speaker can pet them. Does this say something about the speaker, as in they are on the same level, or does it suggest these beasts crave affection and connection in some way? A good poem, as in any good piece of art, is a conversation between the reader and the artist. My favorite moments are when a reader brings up an idea from a poem I didn’t intend. Together, we have created something new.

I love that notion of collaborating with the reader — whether they realize it or not! What role do you see poetry playing in today’s culture? 

Contemporary poetry addresses every topic under the sun — some dark, some light, some sensual — from many unique and interesting voices. It is also a great package for a world with such a splintered attention span. I can sit and read a poem and dwell on the images and ideas all day from the poem, but it wasn’t the same time commitment to read an entire novel. We poets hope for a resurgence but understand our audience is different. And I get it — that’s why I write both poetry and fiction. I like to read both and usually have one poetry collection going alongside a novel or work of nonfiction.

Is there a local collection that recently came out or is forthcoming that you’re particularly excited to read? If so, what is it about the poet’s style that appeals to you? 

I’m really excited to read Mildred Barya’s new collection [The Animals of My Earth School]. Also, I know Whittier-based poet Benjamin Cutler has a new collection forthcoming, as well as Brandon Amico. I’m excited about Alan Mearns’ upcoming book; I got to hear him read from it at a recent Juniper Bends reading. One of my favorite local poets is Jessica Jacobs. She is the master of the unapologetic love poem, and I agree with her that “all poems are love poems” in some sense. Eric Nelson, one of my mentors, has a great collection called Horse Not Zebra, which has won a number of awards and is a must-read. I also admire the work of Catherine Carter, Luke Hankins, Nickole Brown and Keith Flynn. Asheville and the greater WNC area are blessed with a large number of really talented writers who are also wonderfully supportive and warm literary citizens. People overlook Ron Rash’s poetry because he’s more known for fiction, but they shouldn’t.

Lastly, who are the four poets on your personal Mount Rushmore? 

Ilya Kaminsky, Ada Limón, Kim Addonizio, W.S. Merlin, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton, William Blake, Yeats — it’s impossible to name just four.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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