Is Truth in Poetry Important?

poet_sake (2)

A very good bottle of sake I recently enjoyed with some friends. It has nothing to do with this post.

About a week ago the website Change Seven published an interview with me, conducted by writer Curtis Smith. The interview mostly focused on my book of poems, The Magician’s Handbook, that was released by PS Book in October. One question, however, asked about my writing process, and one part of my answer concerns a topic that’s important to me, so I’m going to elaborate here.

I stated in the interview that I often make up or exaggerate situations or events in my poems. I don’t think that’s a revolutionary concept, but sometimes it still leads to raised questions and sometimes raised eyebrows.

Truth, in poetry, is a complicated issue. I cringe when I hear poets talk about how they’re writing the truth or getting at the truth or whatever truthiness idea they go on about. Maybe that’s because I equate truth with facts, and in world where anything a person doesn’t agree with is branded as fake news, truth can be difficult.

Rather than aiming for truth in my poems, I aim for real or authentic (again, a vague and unhelpful word, sorry). Do the situations in the poem feel real, does it move or affect the way real feels move or affect. There’s a sort of truth, I suppose, in all my poems, and many of them do include autobiographical references, but rarely are they completely loyal to the events or people referenced. Because a poem is written in the first person doesn’t mean that it’s naturally about my experience or that the experience happened the way it’s depicted in the poem. It’s always bothered me that a short story is assumed to be fiction (in part because that’s how we’ve come to compartmentalize the genres) while poems are not. The fact that “creative non-fiction” is its own genre kind of baffles me.

Rather than sticking to the facts, my loyalty in writing is to the language—the way it sounds, the response it makes in my gut, the pictures it draws in the head and the places it steers me.

I raise this point because I think it’s important that poets feel free to create, not report. I’ve had students resist following the language out of fear of not properly reporting the facts.

I’ve had people ask me, usually after readings, about specific things in poems, and sometimes they’re disappointed if I tell them part of it was made up. I’ve burned down buildings, broken up with girlfriends, lived in towns, and killed off family members, all that didn’t exist. Every time I publish a book I’ve had to explain to my parents (who are still alive, despite what one of my poems says) not to take it too seriously.

Of course I’m guilty of the fallacy of autobiography too. In being moved by every Philip Levine poem about a factory, I have to remind myself that he didn’t, in fact, work for 40 years in every auto plant in Detroit, however it might seem that way.

Anyway, this is at the top of my mind now because my next book (which is due out this month) includes a section drawn on a group of people who are incredibly close to my heart, yet, out of necessity, are semi-fictional. It’s a series of poems set in the 1980s and describes my sort-of reckless teenage years. Names are changed, events are changed, though there’s a realness to it all that’s important. The three or four recurring characters in those poems are mash ups of about ten different people, as are the stories they act in. It’s easier for me to write that way, and allows me to be loyal to the language, which is what’s really more important for the poetry.


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Reckless Constellations Nearing Publication

Cov_Mock_Clauser_ba2016_v2Hey, just thought I’d let people know that my fourth book, Reckless Constellations, winner of the 2016 Cider Press Review Book Prize, is almost published. I just looked at the final proofs and the cover, added a dedication and some small tweaks. I’m very excited to see this come into the world. You can pre-order it now from the publisher. If you’re local to me (greater Philadelphia area), you can get one in person at one of the readings I’ll be doing in 2018. It will also be available on all the typical online book places.

I very much appreciate all the work the editors at Cider Press Review put into this, and the editors of the journals in which many of these poems previously appeared.  And thank you to Sarah Freligh and Roy Bentley for generously writing back cover endorsements for the book. That means a lot to me. Also I want to thank Anne Harding Woodworth who was the final judge for the contest. If you want to pre-order it, click here.

Here’s one of the poems from the book, originally published in West Texas Literary Review:



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New Poetry Workshop: Nostalgia

Registration is now open for my Rosemont Writers’ Studio workshop: Poetry from Nostalgia. While the description says an MFA is required–just ask me or the program director for permission if you don’t have an MFA. Basically we just want to make sure you have some prior workshop experience and have read a decent amount of contemporary poetry.

Anyway, the workshop description is as follows:

The most fertile ground for finding writing material is in our own past. Our memories and how we feel/reflect on them often produces the best poems, as well as the best insights for the present. We’ll look to your home, your childhood, and your past friends to discover triggers for new poems. We’ll also discuss when it’s right to exaggerate or even lie, especially when writing about your life. This workshop will help writers find ideas and offer strategies for developing them into engaging works.

This is a six-week course, conducted on Thursday evenings beginning February 8th, 2018.  Let me know if you have any questions. Registration and all the other stuff can be found at this link.

New Book: The Magician’s Handbook

magiciansfront_smallres.jpgMy third book, The Magician’s Handbook was just published by PS Books (publisher of Philadelphia Stories magazine).

Here are some brief descriptions from the back cover:

Grant Clauser’s newest collection of poems The Magician’s Handbook uses the surreal and the speculative to examine the beauty and hardship in the everyday. At once magical and mundane, these poems follow the Magician who starts as a neophyte and, like most of us hope, ends as a Magus.

      *  *  *

As intricately beautiful as it is bizarre, The Magician’s Handbook travels to the underworld and lives to tell the tale. And tell the tale it does. Gloriously, rivetingly, without pulling punches, Clauser’s unflinching vision ushers readers on a journey through forbidden realms. Zombies, magicians, carnival sideshows, and tarot readers all have their say in these spellbinding pages. But just when the narrative threatens to become overwhelmingly apocalyptic, Clauser pulls back, makes us laugh, and grounds us safely in this world, reminding us of the simple, majestic, heartrending beauty of mundanity and the redemptive power of love. A breathtaking, one-of-a-kind collection, it will make you see the world with fresh eyes.

–Tawni Waters, author of The Beauty of the Broken and Siren Song

This handbook doesn’t depend on diversion to achieve its effect. Grant Clauser is a poet with a clear eye for detail and a talent for discovering the honesty of even the most unlikely situations. The trick of this collection is how quickly we find ourselves in a world as familiar as our own.

–Brian Beatty, author of Brazil, Indiana and Coyotes I Couldn’t See

You can order the book from Amazon here.




New Poetry Workshop at Rosemont College

workshoppic1In a couple weeks I’ll be leading a new poetry workshop at Rosemont College as part of the school’s new Writers’ Studio program. All the Writers’ Studio workshops are open to all writers. You don’t have to be a Rosemont student, though some classes are geared toward more advanced writers than others.

My fall 2017 class is called The Write Bait, which I know is a little silly, but I’m a lifelong angler and a maker of bad jokes. The six week course will focus on techniques for grabbing the reader’s attention and maintaining control in your poems. Some poems are more passive in their engagement with the reader, some more active—this workshop focuses on the latter. We’ll talk about ways to attract the reader, set the hook and reel them in—sorry, more fishing jargon (I promise to keep that to a minimum in class). Each evening I’ll share a number of examples, talk about how the poems work,  show how you can use similar techniques in your poems, work on in-class exercises, workshop your own poem for the night, then send you home with a poem to write for the next night.

I promise to keep the class fun and productive and to focus on what you need to get the most out of it. The class starts September 14, meets on Thursday nights at 6 PM for six weeks on Rosemont’s beautiful campus. Rosemont’s old trees and stone buildings are really stunning, so show up for that alone.

You can learn more about the program and sign up here. Depending on your prior workshop experience, a writing sample may be requested.

Rosemont is located in Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, about 11 miles from Philadelphia.

Hit me up on twitter @uniambic if you have any questions.

If you’re new here, learn a little about me.


Book Review: Brazil, Indiana by Brian Beatty

brazilindianaWhen I dug into Brian Beatty’s new poetry book, Brazil, Indiana, I was in the middle of season 2 of Twin Peaks (I liked season 1 better), so it’s probably no surprise that I spotted some of the same small town surrealism in Beatty’s book-length poem as is found in Peaks. There’s a man who trains moths, a man who half buried an old truck to spend days sitting in it, a town giant and of course a crazy cat lady.

These are some of the characters that populated the Midwest Beatty grew up in, and he’s populated his book with their stories, as well as, presumably, his own stories, in about 100 short 12-line untitled poems. Each poem is a vignette, some just a little more than anecdotes while others read like psychological profiles of people and locations.

I should note before I go further that I’m not an unbiased reader. I knew Beatty from our MFA years in Bowling Green University, and I have a short blurb on the back of his book. I’ve been reading these poems for years as Brian and I emailed our work to each other. In that time I’ve developed a deep admiration for his insight, talent and discipline to the craft.

About that craft–Beatty’s images strike the critical balance of being both familiar (especially if you’ve lived in a small town) and new. There’s the surreal quality I mentioned earlier, though not the surrealism of Breton, but more the surrealism of Simic, where the real world provides enough weirdness that the author doesn’t have to invent it. There’s the examples I mentioned in the beginning of this post, and many others, such as the kid with Tourette’s who slept under the counter at a burger joint, a beauty queen who wielded butcher knives, and a mayor who kept old circus animals. These people and their stories are used as doorways into a shielded world, one where the gears that kept an old town going are slowly disintegrating, and now the inner workings are starting to show through.

And then there’s the insights that will be familiar to every person who’s been around a farming community:

Every barn at some point becomes

nothing more than a metaphor with a roof

and a door straining against

its last hinge, like this old farmer bent

down to repair the truck tire flat in front

of the only world he’s ever known.

As noted earlier, the poems, are all composed of twelve lines, though the line length and number of stanzas varies throughout. A frequent strategy of his is to work the poem like a Jenga puzzle, stacking images together and then pulling out a key piece at the end to undermine or change it. Just as an image or situation is fresh in your mind, he pulls out a piece to dismantle your first impression. The technique has a way of keeping you alert to shifts and changes, like the weather is constantly on the move, which in his Midwest of memory, it probably was.

While each poem is meant to be read as a part of the book-length work, each stands on its own, and many have appeared individually in journals, though it does benefit from being read in order. The poems build on each other, especially as a few of the characters, notably the main speaker and his family, recur throughout the work. The settings and subjects of Brazil, Indiana will appeal to readers from the Midwest or small towns anywhere, while the technique and quality will appeal to any reader who appreciates surprise, manipulation and lyric story telling.

You can find it here on Amazon.

A few poems from the book can be found here, here and here.

Also check out Beatty’s latest chapbook, Coyotes I Couldn’t See here.

Interview with Obama Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco

richard-blanco_bccc_nov2016About two weeks after the 2016 presidential election, poet Richard Blanco came to Bucks County Community College for a reading to kick off the college’s Many Voices, Many Stories writing conference. Before the reading, Blanco and I sat down in a little stone cottage on campus to discuss the role of poetry in society, his own writing process, and some of the challenges facing people who enjoy the craft.  Read the complete interview at Cleaver here.