Featured Poet: Clay Cantrell
Updated: Jan 23
Issue 14's featured poet is Clay Cantrell, whose "Mississippi Silver Alert" is a lyric work of art. Join us as we talk about form, breathlessness, and resolutions we won't be keeping.
Jacqueline Boucher: Mississippi Silver Alert has this profound, breathless quality to it that immediately engages the reader. How did you come to that choice?
Clay Cantrell: Thanks so much for accepting the poem, and I truly appreciate your reading of it; I think it is apt. That poem is part of a longer batch—which I call the NextDoor poems—that take their titles and other content from headlines that I started to see on the NextDoor community app, I guess a couple of years ago. We moved to this new house, my family. A new kind of domesticity. I used to be obsessed with the Topix online forums. I don’t know if you’re aware of these. They were just hilarious. But they took those down, probably for good reasons. NextDoor is a tamer stand-in (the NextDoor CEOs will probably not endorse my manuscript). Some of these poems have found their ways to journals, but I am still tinkering with the manuscript. Originally, I tried the poems as an exercise in humor. I wanted the domestic sphere to become a witting or unwitting presence in the poems. An accomplice in the mayhem, so to speak. That one, I was thinking, frankly, of poems that deal with dementia, but I wanted it to turn more mysteriously. So, I made the person described someone whose inner life might be surreal, certainly in the poem. I think it kind of plays on the natural lyricism of domestic life, however insane my projections might be.
JB: What role do form and line break play for you in establishing the mood of a piece? If not those, then what elements do you lean on when you’re trying to craft a specific experience for your reader?
CC: For me, enjambment can create resonances between images and words that are unexpected; the line breaks can move the reader in unexpected ways. My teacher, John Bensko, was big on this. And then, there is a kind of cumulative effect: not every line need have a real significant line break, but if you sprinkle several throughout a short poem, it can give the poem machinations not found in more prosaic syntax. I do like the brief poem as a vessel for communication, and I admire short stories, often, for their ability to do something special with brevity.
Generally, I try for word choice, imagery, that surprises the reader. I think about syllables, but rarely do I think about meter. I like how Clark Coolidge almost views words or syntactic units as ore that can be mined, repurposed. Again, it can lend itself to a kind of surrealism.
JB: What writing “resolution” are you least likely to keep?
CC: My resolution was to rewrite an essay about Rae Armantrout, but I don’t know if I will make the deadline. So, that, and I have a novel that I need to rewrite, and I suspect that I will not make my arbitrary deadlines!
JB: What are you reading right now that excites you?
CC: Rae Armantrout’s The Pretext—she plays with lyric features in emotionally riveting ways. I like to revisit literature of the 1980s and 1990s. At Surface Noise, in Louisville, I found an autographed copy of Barry Hannah’s Hey Jack! I get excited talking about how Hannah constructs sen
tences. Usually, he includes a modifier where you wouldn’t expect. I couldn’t believe my luck. I am reading this collection of stories called F*ckface, by Leah Hampton, and it’s great. I recently read the two new Cormac McCarthy novels and he will probably always count as a writer who excites me. I am reading Gillian White’s Lyric Shame, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ Sleepovers, a book called One Small Step about the first primates in space (I am writing a character who is obsessed with this), and what I view as a neglected James Tate collection from 1997 called Shroud of the Gnome.
JB: What’s your favorite bone?
CC: What a difficult question. I can tell you the more intricate bones of the human body frighten me, and I want nothing to do with them. How about antlers? Do those count? How about Caribou antlers? Ibex tines? Those are the best.