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John Thomas Clark - Writer in the Spotlight

Writer in the Spotlight

Summer 2008

Writing is hard work to begin with, but John T. Clark, who has Progressive Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Type 3, still managed to publish over a hundred poems in magazines and poetry journals, including Exit 13, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Hidden Oak, Contemporary Rhyme, Hospital Drive, Right Hand Pointing, the Atlanta Review, The Recorder, The Centrifugal Eye, OCEAN, The Barefoot Muse, Byline, EFQ, The Healing Muse, and Tiger's Eye. When he submitted his first poem to Boston Literary Magazine we were struck by the unique theme of Lexie, his black lab service dog.

John, welcome!

Thank you, Robin. Delighted to be here.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but judging from your material, I'd say you've got one heck of an inspiration there! Can you tell us about Lex's contribution to your writing?

In August of 2005, after two weeks of training at the Medford, NY facility of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), Lex came home to our family. Teamed with this very special dog, within a month's time I learned just how special this black lab was, and I was compelled to write this poem:


—for Lex, my CCI service dog

The hard, green, golfball-sized hickory nut,
down from the shagbark tree, lodged in the rut
there, on the walk, between the first two gray
flagstones, unseen. It refused to give way
to my power chair's ascent. A front wheel
slipped, slid, spun. Then the chair lurched left to heel
over a low stucco wall, where I wound
up affixed, with three right wheels off the ground.
Although our team was less than a month old,
Lex sensed something wrong. Without being told
he moved to my left. Draped over the chair-
arm, locked in, lockjawed, locked there in mid-air,
I was awestruck as Lex ended my woes
by righting my chair—nudging it with his nose.

Lexie had saved me from certain injury, and so I wished to acknowledge what he had done. I wanted the world to know what a wonderful dog Lex is. So, I wrote this poem for him. It wasn't easy, for I hadn't written any poetry in a long time, but finally it took shape. Then I wrote another poem about him. And another. Lexie had me writing again. However, up to that point I'd only written of the quotidiana of a disabled person's life. Thanks to Lexie, I was able to finally find and write about a positive dimension of a disability. That positive dynamic is Lex himself. Then I started to write about other subjects - growing up in The Bronx, The Bronx River and more. After accumulating a body of many Lexie poems and other poems, I began to send them out to publishers. I've written over eighty Lexie poems since this incident, and twenty-five of them, including this one in Tiger's Eye have been published so far, and I'm glad to say Boston Literary Magazine was among the first to publish a Lexie.

Yes, that was "An Aerie Feeling." I remember being very taken with it:

A flightless eagle, I live on the edge
Of your world now. No longer can I soar,
For I am not in high feather. No more
Can I ride life's sunlit thermals. The wedge

Between us widens. But I have a hedge—
Lex who flies to me and nests on the floor,
When I perch on my bedside cliff. There for
Me out of loyalty, his service-pledge

Roost, at my legs, insures I do not fledge
On my own. He places himself before
Me so I cannot fall. To underscore
This, when I am on my morningside ledge

And my bird dog lights by my bedside shelf,
My heart soars for this is something he taught himself.

Had you done any writing before you became disabled?

No, Robin, none at all. I was diagnosed in 1986, twenty years after the onset of symptoms. I retired that year because the dynamics of the condition were exacerbating - my falls were becoming more frequent and exacting more of a toll. Home now, all the time, I needed something to do and fortunately I discovered Queens College in New York City had a program which enabled homebound students to attend undergrad and grad courses. After taking a survey course on Irish poetry, the professor suggested I take some workshops. I found it difficult to write about sunsets and bluebells. So, I began to write about what I knew—being disabled.

How did you and Lexie hook up?

It was my brother-in-law Ray Powell's idea. He's a veterinarian and thought a canine companion would be a big help to me. So I applied to CCI and after a series of interviews and a trial run, I was accepted. Canine Companions for Independence was founded in the mid 1970s and graduated its first team in 1978. CCI's produced over 2500 graduate teams to date—200 just last year. It trains service, hearing, skilled companion and facility dogs, and teams them with individuals who have physical or developmental disabilities who can show these dogs will enhance their lives—at no cost to the individual. Charles Schulz, creator of Snoopy, was a CCI board member, and his widow Jean remains actively involved. If any of your readers wish to know more about CCI, they can visit CCI's website or call them at 1-800-572-BARK (2275) or contact me.

And you've written a collection of sonnets titled The Joy of Lex?

That title says it all for me. The Joy of Lex is a light-hearted romp recounting life with Lexie. It takes the reader through our symbiotic growth at CCI school to life together at home and life in the outside world. Its vignettes describe life with the best service dog in the world: they reveal how Lex works (tugging off my socks, opening a door, turning on a light, picking up my dropped mouthstick, etc.). They show how he plays and they demonstrate Lexie's marvelous personality. These poems are straightforward; there's nothing deep in them except the deep love I have for Lexie. Later this year The Joy of Lex will be published with an introduction written by Dean Koontz.

How did Dean Koontz come to know of your work?

Dean Koontz, who, along with his wife Gerda is on the CCI Board of Directors, had a wonderful release dog, Trixie, obtained from CCI. Among Trixie's many talents was the ability to put pawed pen to paper. Trixie had authored a book entitled "Life is Good." So, my literary-minded labby gathered up some Lexie poems and sent them to Trixie, asking if Trixie had any ideas about how to get the Lexie poems published. A correspondence followed and Dean Koontz very generously said he would write an introduction for The Joy of Lex. There is a sad note to this story, however—Trixie has passed on. CCI's Southwest Regional Center, originally dedicated to Dean and Gerda Koontz, was re-dedicated as the Dean, Gerda and Trixie Koontz Campus in 2007.

I'd love to hear about your other work in progress, Othering.

Othering is both similar and dissimilar to The Joy of Lex. Both are written in sonnet form, and both are about journeys. The 150 or so sonnets in Othering tell of a person's encounter with a progressive neuro-muscular disease, confronting it, coping with it and getting past it. On this journey, the person becomes someone 'other' than what he was. I suppose, in a sense, we all "other" in this life, but in this case the "othering" reduces someone to being a different person. As you might imagine, its tone is much different from that of Lexie's book.

Why the sonnets?

While working on my Master's, I was fortunate to take a tutorial with Marie Ponsot. As she escorted me through the garden of verse, she introduced me to the sonnet. Smitten was I. It was love at first sight. I enjoy the challenge of a sonnet—telling a story with a beginning, a middle, a twist and an end—all in fourteen lines. Most times I start with the end—Poe says the poet must know where he's going to end up before he begins a poem. Sometimes, I start in the middle, especially if the sonnet is palindromically rhymed.

Tell me about your novel, The Captivity of Saint Patrick.

Actually, I have Lexie to thank for the latest development with that book. A literary agent, who is interested in the Lexies, asked if I'd written any fiction. I told her about The Captivity. It's an 854-page novel, which presents a window on fifth-century Ireland and begins with St Patrick's kidnapping from Britannia and his subsequent enslavement in Ireland. St Patrick becomes the object of a nationwide manhunt orchestrated by Ireland's Archdruid, Conaire, who divines that St Patrick will foment the downfall of druidic Ireland if he's allowed to live. Conaire's second-in-command, Cormac, does some divining of his own and sees that the faith of St Pat will be what sustains the Irish people during hard times in the future, so he reckons St Pat must be saved. During the ensuing struggle, the reader encounters such historical personages as St Jerome, Pelagius, Merlin, the youth who would become King Arthur and other legendary figures. Anyway, this literary agent will present The Captivity to some publishing houses after I re-shape it into two books. If it weren't for the Lexie poems, this book would still be sitting on a back shelf.

Eight-hundred and fifty four pages! I think your agent's decision to turn it into two volumes was a good idea! How is the reformatting coming along?

It's going well and I've added a glossary and name-pronunciation guide. I'm thinking about adding a map.

What have been some of your other sources of inspiration?

Some are the everyday experiences of disabled people, the art of Edvard Munch, the massive Irish potato failure of the 1840s, NASA's space program, incidents I read about in the newspaper…

I hear you! I recently saw a story about a chef on TV who accidentally sliced his thumb into a casserole or something, and wound up eating it by mistake. I mean, you can't make that stuff up!

Ha! No!

Now, John, I sort of promised we wouldn't get into this, but we both knew we would! I can't help noticing that the Yankees keep showing up in your poetry. Are you a long time fan?

A life-long Yankee fan. Born and raised in the South Bronx, I grew up about mile and a half from Yankee Stadium. But I have a confession to make: I'm probably the only Yankee fan who has a Boston Red Sox calendar in his den. The reason is that one year the Red Sox players teamed up with CCI dogs for a calendar shoot.

Please tell us a little bit about your writing process... how long have you been writing, and do you try to write every day, and what is that like with your disability?

I've been writing for about twenty years, on and off, after retiring from teaching. The Captivity took about two and a half years to research and another year and a half to write. After completing that, I tried poetry and Derek Mahon, with whom I studied at Queens College, was kind enough to publish some of my poems in The Recorder when he occupied its Poetry Chair. I do try to write every day, if only for self-defense. I've found if I skip writing for a day or two, it's not too difficult to pass back through that ethereal screen and resume writing; but on that third day that screen has solidified into a brick wall. I also find it easier to write in the morning—the first thing, before emails, phone calls—and on an empty stomach. I know that's not quite as interesting as the devices of some literary luminaries in the past—Balzac's caffeine overload, Edith Sitwell's open coffin, Schiller's rotten apples, Amy Lowell's cigars, T. S. Eliot's head cold. The disability doesn't interfere that much with my writing. Yes, because I use a mouthstick to type, I'm a bit slower, okay, a lot slower, than your average writer, but some days I can blaze away and manage fifteen words a minute. Maybe more. The disability does provide me with a perseverance that other writers may not have—I'm tethered to my computer for many hours during the day, but I'm not subject to the distractions that other writers may face, such as household chores. So, being free of those I may have more time to improve on that white page.

On the contrary, I find it fascinating that anyone can do anything before they read their e-mail! What do you look for in poetry, and who do you admire?

I like accessible poetry. Frost tells us the poet should not remain too far away. If the poem's meaning doesn't come through on the first or second read, then it's not for me. I admire Billy Collins for his straightforward presentation of light moments. I like to read Derek Mahon for his sense of place. For raw emotion I enjoy reading the melancholy James Clarence Mangan, a nineteenth-century Irish national poet to whom Yeats pays homage.

Agree with you about accessibility.. I often receive submissions that I know mean a lot to the poet, but to the rest of us... nada. They're just too personal and obscure. What about fiction in general.... any favorite authors?

If I'm reading about ancient times, I enjoy the works of Morgan Llewelyn, Jack Whyte and Rosemary Rowe. But if I can read only one book, it would be by Dean Koontz; I was a fan long before I encountered him through the Lexie poems. Llewelyn, Whyte and Rowe can transport you back in time and, with their amazing details, make you believe you that you are actually where they drop you off. Dean Koontz, using his unusual situations, his well-crafted scenes, his fast-paced narrative, his gift for metaphor, and his masterful vocabulary, likewise, can immerse you in different worlds—the past and the present at the same time, and time-warp you into parallel worlds and alternate universes.

Any interest in writing sci-fi or fantasy yourself?

Not sci-fi. But, someone once told me they thought The Captivity was fantasy. Yes, I might try fantasy but that would be a long way off. I have a sequel planned for The Captivity and I'd like to complete that first.

Thanks so much for stopping by, John. I'm sure we'll be seeing you in our pages soon... oh... and GO SOX!

Thank you, Robin. I'll leave you with this thought—one on which the Fenway Faithful and Yankees fans can agree:

The Mantle of Greatness

The geometry of it is, in the days
of Mick, the Splendid Splinter, Willie Mays,
baseball was better. In between the lines
on diamonds in not-so-friendly confines
of yesteryear's ballparks, these three Hall
of Famers stood squarely. They creamed the ball,
and not their arms, launching tape-measure shots
throughout their careers—their four-base trots
the by-products of purely driven pokes
and in the clear light of day, glory cloaks
their awesome output. Nothing will impinge
their records. Needing no angle, no syringe
of performance-enhancing drugs, no steroids,
they honestly crushed those horsehide spheroids.