Bernard Clay on Revision, Balance, and “English Lit”

English Lit is a stunning debut collection by Bernard Clay that journeys through the speaker’s youth and the pain and trauma of poverty and racism.

Set in the predominately Black West End of Louisville, Kentucky, Clay artfully brings to life the African American Appalachian – Affrilachian – experience with the tenacity of bluegrass busting up through potholed pavement and the warmth and beauty of a smooth blue aster blooming in the Appalachain sunshine.

I was hooked from the first stanza in the first poem, “Field Trip”:

a first-grade excursion
to the zoo becomes a safari
through the neighborhood
that surrounds the school
that most of my classmates
are bussed to every morning

The contrast of lyrical sounds against the background of racial and economic divides is on full display, and the tone and tenor throughout are sharp, personal, and direct. Clay accomplishes all this while also exalting a sense of the self and personal identity.

And Clay knows his craft, with poem transitions that at times left me physically jarred.

As in the last stanza in “Field Trip” where Clay and his classmates are on a bus ride to the local zoo:

the rest of the way
through industrial parks
we fog the windows
singing ‘old macdonald’
like a flock of egrets
and one crow
until we get to where
the real animals are

And in “Bedtime Stories,” where Clay reveals that he is ultimately drawn to the forbidden books on the family bookshelf and why:

and i slammed
          the book shut

but    time after time every night
i kept going back
to those ebony books
that made me mad, made me scared
made my story truer

And in “Nomadic,” where Clay speaks of constantly moving as a child:

so we have to go back
to being content on the move
packing up quick
carrying life on our backs

easy, this is what we were
built for

It is clear we are witnessing a powerful voice.

One of the many aspects of poetry I love is seeing through someone else’s eyes. So much of poetry is personal experience on the page. And, sometimes, a poet renders their experience in such a way that it simultaneously breaks and mends your heart anew. English Lit is one of those books. Bernard Clay’s poetry is compelling, heartfelt, and transformative.

English Lit is an ode to family, culture, and the Affrilachian experience. It is a poetry collection to be cherished.

Bernard Clay is a Louisville, Kentucky, native who grew up in the shadow of the now-demolished Southwick housing projects on the “West End” of town. He received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Kentucky Creative Writing Program and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective. His work has been published in various journals and anthologies. He currently resides on a farm in eastern Kentucky with his wife, Lauren.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to connect with Bernard Clay and talk about his new book.

English Lit is an autobiographical coming-of-age collection. But it’s also so much more. For me, many of your poems go beyond coming-of-age and survival. They speak to a kind of healing. Did you find writing poetry can bring a sense of overcoming and healing?

Yes, I see poetry as a way to navigate through memories, ideas, and emotions, and as I did that exploration across many years, it was personally transformative. So, I can see how the collection could convey a sense of overcoming and healing.

For me, this collection is a time capsule that I get to share with the whole world, which is humbling but also very scary.

I understand you’ve been working on some of these poems for some time, and many are quite personal. What is your revision process, and how do you know when a poem is done? Did you wrestle with letting any of them go to publication?

My revision process started out virtually non-existent. Then I was exposed to writing workshops, and after that, my poems almost always went through a workshop. But workshops are a specialized focus group, which is good if I only want to be read by writers. But reading the poems to an audience, especially a general audience like high school kids or a community gathering, is the final step in my process. I listen and watch during readings, look at recordings of the reading if available, and talk to audience members who are willing to talk to me about the poems just to get the sense of how it was received.

I could revise and rewrite a poem forever; that’s why English Lit took “some time,” as you put it. Although, I did stop writing on some of these poems years ago once I felt the poem succinctly revealed my narrative. But honestly, this book is sort of how I knew they were finished for many of these poems.

Since this collection is over a long period, different versions of me wrote some of these poems, and early on, it was hard for me to square these contradictory voices. I wanted to cut out many of the poems that I found misrepresented how I am now. However, ultimately my editor and I decided that this conflict added complexity to the overall collection.

English Lit is your first book. What does it feel like to see your first book published? What’s been the best part of your debut publishing experience thus far?

Publishing a book is an honor. It feels good to have the support of Old Cove and Swallow press with all their prestige and history. And the best part of this publishing is the genuine enthusiasm and encouragement I have received from Old Cove and Swallow press. I’m excited to see what the future holds for this little book.

Do you have a favorite poem in the collection or one you think maybe isn’t talked about as much as the others?

My favorite poem to read for a live audience is probably “Daddy would be like,” but the poem that always has a ring of truth to it is “The Good Couch” because I can still feel that plastic couch sticking to my legs…..

I hope people talk more about “Recycling the neighborhood.” It is a microcosm of the entire book, exploring the disposability – lack of value – for Blackness that Louisville has always exhibited.

Although many of your poems speak of difficult times and tragedy, a theme of gratitude and love permeates the collection. Can you speak to how you maintain such a beautiful balance in your writing?

These poems were written over many years, which allowed me to curate the collection with that balance you observed, although I must admit it wasn’t intentional. In my mind, I was crafting a narrative that has a natural progression and growth. My editor, Nyoka Hawkins, helped hone the final product also.

I was trying not to create trauma-porn because that’s not what life is. Life is complex for most people, with flourishes of beauty and happiness when we are willing to recognize it. I think it is important to imbue love into poetry and humor if possible. It makes the poems very accessible and accessible because it mirrors real life.

You are a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective, which this year celebrates 30 years of giving a voice and visibility to the Affrilachian experience. How has being a part of this collective influenced and supported your writing?

Meeting Frank X. Walker, a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the arts in the mid-’90s was probably the most significant event in my writing life. Frank introducing me to some of today’s most accomplished and impactful writers and educators not only formed me as a writer but as a person.

I cannot overstate the impact of this group’s impact on the book. Quite a few of the poems in English Lit have been through Affrilachian Poet workshops. The book’s cover art was created by the husband of co-founder and Kentucky Poet Laureate, Crystal Wilkinson. So, I would say they have been pivotal every step of the way, and I am grateful and honored to be included among them.

You are a strong and distinct voice for the Southern Black experience. What are some of the books that have most influenced your life and writing?

To answer this question completely, I believe I should expand beyond books to the influential artists whose works inspired me, including Zora Neale Hurston, Lucille Clifton, Ethridge Knight, and Amiri Baraka others. But none of those people I would have even found if not for a documentary I saw on PBS when I was in 7th grade called “Eyes on the Prize II.’” In the documentary about the Black struggle during the sixties, there were videos of some of the artists I mention above speaking in their own words. This planted the seed in me that writing could tell a story and expose a seldom-seen experience in service to a cause.

Also, I would be lying if I didn’t say that the earliest poets I loved were hip-hop artists. The first poems I wrote, which got me noticed by my junior year English teacher and set me on the trajectory of writing this book, were raps that I wrote at the lunchroom table inspired by my life observations.

Your poetry is powerful on many levels, personal, generational, cultural. How would you describe English Lit, and what is your hope that readers will take away from your book?

English Lit is a collection of narratives of a person trying to find meaning in a flawed society that appears to lack any real meaning for him. The observation of this lack of meaning in the societal systems and structures does not deter the narrator; he exists despite this meaninglessness.

I hope that readers can engage with these poems and their context. That’s all I can hope for. I’ve let these poems go in the wild, and now it’s time for them to have a life of their own

Is there anything you always wish you could talk about in interviews but never get to?

I never really thought I would ever get interviewed, so a dream question doesn’t come to mind.

What’s next for you? Is there another collection in the works or projects (or readings) you’d like our readers to look forward to?

Well, currently, I am enjoying working on my farm. My wife, Lauren Kallmeyer, an Herbalist, is establishing her practice and manufacturing handmade products derived mostly from materials grown on our property. We are working on a few projects together.

I have readings set up primarily within Kentucky. But I am for sure open to doing more which can be arranged through Swallow Press.

I also started a new collection during the pandemic inspired by an article I read stating that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were in a 100,000 year-long war which seemingly led to the Neanderthals being replaced. So far, it’s about evolution, genetics, and human-caused climate change, and, of course, the themes of racism, classism, and misogyny. I know; it sounds like a joy ride.

English Lit
By Bernard Clay
Swallow Press
Published August 20, 2021