Friday Feature: Interview with Louie Crew Clay

Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Louie Crew Clay, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.

Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?

“On Being Alive,” Comment  6.1 (1968): 8. Comment was (is still?) a student literary journal at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was 31 at the time and taught at the university while working on my Ph.D. It felt good.  I realized that for too long I had been writing just for my dresser drawer and a few friends who would get together to share our work.  In the same year I won “Best-Actor” award at the University Theater for my performance as Shylock.  Earlier I had taught in the slums of London. The poem has been re-published five times, most recently in my book Letters from Samaria: Prose and Poetry of Louie Crew Clay, NYC:  Seabury Press, 2015. It’s about ecstasy through imagination.

What inspired your pieces in the Jenny?

“A Question of American Canon” exposes Frost for his racism in consciously avoiding controversy to keep himself mainstream. Artists who sell out are frequently very articulate. I love Frost’s writing, but have no problem imagining why his son committed suicide. Only imagining!  I have not researched why he did or how he did. I do know something about the anguish of depending on the fine public reputation of someone close who would not have a fine reputation at all if the public saw their icon in private.

“Words’ Worth” is a playful diddle in cyberspeak. Wordsworth’s original supplies the frame. With it he was also diddling. In most of his poetry he can be very somber about the centrality of Nature in his vision of the world. Here he enjoys himself. Bookishness can stifle joy, as can a PARITY CHECK.

What got you into writing?

As a newborn, I probably did not utter just “goo.” More likely it was “goo, goo” and at times perhaps “goo-goo, goo-goo, goo-goo…” Poetry is quite literally our birthright, but as e.e.cummings once wrote, “down they forgot as up they grew.”

Fortunately a 6th grade teacher sensed that, given my joy in words, I might like to write poetry. She gave me many private assignments and often called on me to read them in class. This did not help diminish my growing reputation as the class fairy, but it surely kept my fairy wings aflutter. 

She was from a hick town nearby, not the sort of person my little snob self would have chosen as a mentor. Throughout my 79 years on the planet I have been nurtured the most by people not like me.  

I continued to write snippets and occasionally whole poems. Mainly though, I enjoyed reading poems, most of them I now consider frightfully sentimental. 

My Dad liked poetry too. I shall never forget his reading to me “The Ancient Mariner.” When we got to the lines, “Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” he wasn’t looking at the page anymore, but had closed his eyes reciting it from his heart (not from his memory, but from his heart).  I saw a melancholy tear in his right eye.

How could I not value the power of poetry when I experienced it in such a personal way?

What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?

I admire the canonical writers but unlike them, I do not strive to write “eternal lines” (as Shakespeare said he did. See his Sonnet 116). Rather I write poems as valuable and as ephemeral as my early goo-goo, goo-goo’s.  

I publish an enormous amount of prose, principally to demystify theology, sexuality, racism, sexism, heterosexism…. I write poetry to re-mystify my world, to stay in touch with possibilities too deep for prose.

What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?

Judy Grahn, James Baldwin, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Willa Cather, Ann Allen Shockley, John Beecher, Robert Peters….

What’s your proudest moment as an author?

Lots of them. From way back: A former student showed up at one of my poetry readings in Atlanta back in 1975 or 1976. “You’re the reason I stopped being a lawyer and went back to school to become a teacher. I was weary of lawyering. It’s boooooring! I kept remembering you as my 10th grade teacher. You were never boring. One day you came into the classroom early, recited an Emily Dickenson poem into an empty Coca-Cola cup for an echo effect, then jumped flat-footed to the top of the desk, and said, “God, I wish I had written that.” I wanted my life to be that full.”

From 3-4 days ago: By accident, looking for something else, I spotted one of my poems on a stranger’s Facebook page. Below it, the stranger said that my poem described his experience better than he had been able to.

How has your writing developed over time?

Tennyson’s Ulysses said, after an odyssey of 20 years, “I am a part of all that I have met.” I’ll turn 80 in December.

Some of the early work seems more insightful than I see some of my current work to be. Did I really know that back then? How could I have forgotten so much?

But writers at our best are ageless, just as actors are. We can be 80 when we need to be and 25 when we need to be.    

It took me 20 years to shed most of the academic jargon, TB2G!

Are you currently working on anything?

See below.

What’s your writing process?

I usually write at least twice as much as I dare keep at the end, all of it the best that I can make it, and reduce it, reduce it…relentlessly shedding some of my favorite parts so that the work stands on its own.

What are you currently reading?

If Only We Could See: Mystical Vision and Social Transformation by Gary Commin

A Book of Memory by Petia Gappah

Devil’s Bridge by Linda Fairstein

Have you ever co-written something with another author? If so, what was that experience like?

Currently I am collaborating with a 23-year-old Dutchman on an article, “Desegregating Our Spiritual Lives.” It looks at systemic racism in The Episcopal Church. Our bishops have challenged us all to work for racial reconciliation through deepening real and sustained relationships. He overheard me telling some others over breakfast that I was going to count how many friends of color bishops have among pictures of their “friends” on Facebook. He liked the sneaky detective work and asked if he might work with me. “Only if you share equally on the byline and on the designs for the article. I want us both to be integrally engaged by collaboration, each sharing the creative work and the grunt work.”

The article ’s nearly finished, but we have been saying that for the last 16 drafts.  It’s now down to about 1,700 words. It addresses the leadership of the Episcopal Church (most of whom I know very well personally). It commends evidence we found for their diversity and challenges all of us to move more intentionally from being a church that is 86.1% white to a church that like the USA is only 62% white. Here’s one of the many charts we have created:

Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?

Yes. I was a professional actor for several summers while working on my doctorate. I have collaborated on several projects with the composer Jeffrey Hoover. I have 88 videos on Youtube, including Andrew Grossman’s 2007 80-minute documentary Not That Kind of Christian about my husband and me, which appeared in numerous film-festivals world-wide.

In the 1980s and early 90s I wrote numerous computer programs to assist writers:

  • One tracks submissions.
  • Another prompts them to revise prose stifled by nominalizations.
  • Another scrambles words and phrases randomly. For an alert writer it can work as an heuristic and prompt new insights. It’s also quite fun to play with.

In 1986 I won an award from the Hong Kong Computer Society for “Best Article.” My article explained how I used the mailmerge program of my word processor to teach myself Cantonese.

Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.


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