Hopeful Poetry at the End of the Anthropocene

In To Make Room for the Sea, Adam Clay writes with the keen introspection of a person intent on finding light in the dark. Adam’s poems meditate on those moments most trying, moments seeped in despair and grief and unknowing. All the while, Adam never stops asking: “What does the future hold?”

In their lyrical phrasings and human connection to the everyday, the poems in To Make Room for the Sea vividly paint images of the space between known and unknown, the space where hope first takes its hold. The result is a collection of meditative poems that never lose faith in the persistence of the human spirit. Experiencing the world painted by Adam Clay is to discover that most enduring of human traits: the will to survive.

Adam Clay is the author of three previous poetry collections, The Wash (2006), A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World (2012), and Stranger (2016). In addition to writing, Adam is the editor of Mississippi Review, a co-editor of Typo Magazine, and a book review editor for Kenyon Review. He teaches in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. 

In preparation for the release, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Adam via email about his new collection.

How would you describe To Make Room for the Sea to someone who has not read your previous books?

Each of my books has been different from the one before in a very conscious, purposeful way. I initially wrote To Make Room for the Sea thinking about my daughter and what it means to raise a child in the Anthropocene. These themes remain in the book, but when my marriage ended as I was finalizing the manuscript, the poems clearly changed, though I did see some parallels between the initial draft of the book and the final version. What are we to do with despair and grief? Can hope exist there?

I came across a W.S. Merwin quote in C.D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade: “On the last day of the world / I would want to plant a tree,” and this quote really resonated with me as I finalized the collection, reordering the poems and adding new work. Can a book about the end of a marriage and about living in the Anthropocene be hopeful? I wanted it to be somehow, and that drive directed my revisions (both globally and on the line-level). I also wanted to write a book that my daughter could read years from now as a marker of this time with a hopeful frame on the future.

The series of Only Child poems left me meditating on how the self changes after becoming a parent. As a parent myself, I would love to know how these poems reflect your experience as a father. Is there meaning behind these poems being listed in reverse order?

One of these poems was called “Only Child” first, and the rest ended up finding those titles later. As I shifted into single parenthood, the idea of my daughter being an only child seemed like more of a reality (whether it is or not). I actually almost changed the book title to be Only Child because I wanted the emphasis to be on her in the face of these personal and global changes. Writing about my daughter has always been tricky—I want to avoid sentimentality, but I also know she’ll read the poems one day (as I mentioned earlier), so I’m thinking a lot about how to present parenthood to a wider audience but also to my daughter. It’s a wild balance trying to write to so many different audiences. So many moments of parenthood can feel like missteps or mistakes (I think of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”), and I want my poems about fatherhood to illuminate that there’s no perfect way to parent, but that I’m doing the best I can in the wake of everything around me.

Time and impermanence and that nebulous state between knowing and unknowing seem to be themes in your work and are especially present in To Make Room for the Sea, can you elaborate on what draws you to these themes? 

I’m drawn to these themes as a human being trying to figure out how to live in a world of constant flux and change. Poetry as an art form demands a slowing down and an attention to detail. I also like how writing daily allows one’s poems to become a marker of a specific time and place. Mundane situations or experiences takes on a gravity when they find their way into a poem.  

While reading To Make Room for the Sea, I found myself meditating on many aspects of my life and renewed my belief that the journey is more important than the destination. Was that a message you wanted to convey in this book?

As someone who meditates daily, I think it’s important to dwell in the present and simply feel what one feels. That seems like an obvious thing to do, but it can often be very challenging. Poetry, like meditation, slows down time and allows for the same sort of analysis and engagement. It’s easy to think in advance about what’s to come (especially in the aftermath of a major life change), but I’m interested in what one can learn in any given moment by dwelling fully in that particular moment. It’s something I’ve always found compelling about poetry as an art.   

Through the lens of the everyday – the computer’s blue screen of death, the silence in the morning, or the simple act of making dinner – the poems in this book often reflect how we experience, be it love, loss, grief, or hope. Do you have a process for making these connections, or are these connections more spontaneous for you?

Many of these poems came from writing daily for a month or two at a time. I used to just write when I felt inspired, but I’ve found that writing daily actually makes inspiration arrive more often. I’m a long-distance runner, too, and a lot of training goes into preparing for a marathon. I’ve found that writing also requires that we train and develop our minds to be inspired. Writing habits help bring about connections between daily life and some of the bigger questions that I want my poems to reckon with. 

In addition to writing books, you’re the editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review, a co-editor of Typo Magazine, and a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review. I’m always thinking about the reciprocal relationship between writing and editing. How does your editing influence your writing? And vice versa?

That’s such a great question. I’d be such a different writer if I wasn’t also an editor. When reading through submissions, one has to keep coming back to the question of what makes something function from the perspective of form and content (and how the two are related). There are so many different possibilities, and the influence of reading a wide range of work is constantly instructive. In some ways, I don’t see the acts of writing and editing as being separate in any way. 

What’s next for you? Any projects (or book tours!) that you’d like our readers to look forward to? 

I’ll definitely read in support of the book’s release while starting to work on the next collection. I wrote close to a hundred poems last year that I haven’t really even looked at yet, so I’ll spend some time to see if there’s a manuscript there. I’ll get back to writing a poem-a-day in April, too. I like to just let a book form organically without a real clear plan or path until I have enough content to look back and see what’s there. 

To Make Room for the Sea
By Adam Clay
Milkweed Editions
Published March 10, 2020