Note: Books That Matter is Tracking Wonder’s interview series that showcases influential thinkers’ and authors’ relationships with books that matter to them.
“Assemble a congregation. The congregants may come from your workplace, from the street, from a store. You may assemble them in any room. Even though they ask, it is not necessary to explain to them the reason for their congregation. You may not, however, lie.” – from “Ritual for Beginning,” Brian Clements
I met Brian Clements nearly 20 years ago at a reading for his first book Essays Against Ruin. His imaginative daring within the sentence – versus the poetic line – instantly drew me into his world, and I’ve never quite left it as our paths have intersected in publishing, teaching, and more.
Clements once said that “Writing tends to be for me a kind of problem-solving, exploratory in the way that a land-surveyor explores—mapping out a piece of land, finding its contours, its boundaries, getting to know it by knowing its possibilities.” Author of numerous books, he is equally committed to being a writer as he is to being a caring professor, husband and father, and activist community member of Newtown, Connecticut – struck by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, where his wife taught second grade.
Among the many things I admire about Brian is his insistence – amidst inevitable limitations in our humanity and in language – upon staying attuned to possibilities.
In this Books That Matter feature, Brian shares the book that opened his teenage eyes to the possibility of writing in a contemporary voice, the kinds of books he is seeking, and the book he is embarrassed to have never read.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Brian: There have been so many life-changing (that is: brain-changing) books for me, so I will focus on the book that opened my teenage eyes to the possibility of writing in a contemporary voice and sending that chill up the spine and into the hairline. It was Seamus Heaney’s Poems 1965-1975, which I read in probably 1984 or ’85 for a writing class at Hendrix College. Prior to reading that book, poetry only existed for me as something that had been done in the past. Though Heaney’s work did not end up being a model for my own, I still feel the gut punch of “Mid-Term Break” and treasure the exciting strangeness of the bog people poems.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
Many details—it’s a book of details. But I suppose the most powerful detail that I remember is “A four-foot box, a foot for every year.” That detail is especially powerful for me after the deaths of my fellow Newtowners on 12/14/12.
What one book have you most often re-read? Why?
Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God, which is a book that changes every time I read it.
What kinds of books are you seeking these days?
Books that change me, books that show me I am not who I thought I was or that the world wasn’t what I thought it was.
You will read anything written by whom?
Kiese Laymon. Patricia Lockwood. Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Campbell McGrath. Charles Blow. Dave Zirin.
Survey: Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper?
Other than manuscripts and books I am reading as a judge for the Housatonic Book Awards, I rarely read books in digital format. Maybe 2%–and I only do so when it’s a book I don’t really want to read but feel I need to read for whatever reason.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
The future of publishing is in diffusion, specialization, and decentralization.
What little-known book do you most relish and champion?
Denise Duhamel’s Mille et un sentiments, and not just because I published it. It is a 1,001-sentence wonder. And Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons.
What book are you most embarrassed or proud to say you have never read?
I am embarrassed to say that I have never read any of James Baldwin’s books. Truly embarrassed.
What is one thing that you hope readers of your book, A Book of Common Rituals, will come away with?
A renewed faith that, though the world is an awful place to live, the world also is an amazing place to live.
BRIAN CLEMENTS is the MFA Coordinator and Professor of Writing, Linguistics, and Creative Writing at Western Connecticut State University. He is author or editor of over a dozen books of and about poetry, including the anthology An Introduction to the Prose Poem (Firewheel Editions 2009), And How to End It (Quale Press 2008), and Disappointed Psalms (Heritage Press 2008). He is Founding Editor of the small press Firewheel Editions and of Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics. Prof. Clements also has worked professionally in technical communications, corporate communications, grant-writing, and non-profit administration.