English instructor and Cal Poly Distinguished Teaching Award winner Kevin Clark read selections of poetry to promote his award-winning new book, “Self-Portrait with Expletives,” at Philips Hall Thursday night.
“Self-Portrait with Expletives” will be published in March of 2010. The thin, paperback book is the third of three chapbooks and won the 2009 Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series Book Competition, a prize which includes publication by Pleiades Press. Clark is also the author of poetry textbook, “The Mind’s Eye,” and was awarded a grant from the Academy of American Poets for his first full-length collection, “In the Evening of No Warning.”
Brad Comann, who attended graduate school and used to play softball with Clark, drove up from San Diego for hour-long reading.
“Kevin’s skill at poetry continues to grow and astound,” Comann said. “Usually you don’t clap after each poem, and yet the audience clapped.”
Clark agreed that this was one of the most appreciative audiences he’s ever read to.
“And you know the audience makes the reading,” Clark said. “When a poet reads and the audience responds, the poet can say a little more and do a little more, because he knows the audience is willing to go a little farther. They’re in an appreciative place.”
The title piece, “Self-Portrait with Expletives,” is about growing up in New Jersey culture.
“It’s not a reading for kids,” Clark said. “There’s going to be some language there. It is tricky to read that poem because there are audiences that get very uptight. But in New York or New Jersey, that’s how everyone talks.”
Clark described his own work as having two different poetic styles.
“One is an edgy, narrative style telling story-like poems, and the other is a more lyrical, melodical style,” Clark said. “And I occasionally invest my poems with humor.”
Michael May, a Cal Poly graduate, got both his undergraduate and master’s degree in English literature.
“He’s a pro with a sense of humor,” May said. “He’s self-deprecating as well, which I love. When a poet can make fun of himself, that’s a great poet.”
May described Clark’s poetry as minimalist.
“It was very cut, very pared down, very stark,” May said. “What I liked about it was that it surprised me. Sometimes there were almost too many good lines. I wanted them to slow down.”
Professor Al Landwehr, who taught fiction writing and literature at Cal Poly from 1970 to 2004 and founded the Al Landwehr Creative Writing Contest, also attended the reading. Landwehr has known Clark for 20 years, and said that he is impressed at how hard Clark works at his craft.
“This book has the best voice all the way around,” Landwehr said. “It’s very strong and consistent throughout, which is a big thing in poetry.”
Clark said most of the poems in the book are based 30 years ago in his child and young-adulthood on the East Coast. .
He said that he grew up in an Irish-Catholic family that valued reading and athletics. His father was a journalist who loved Jack London, and his mother a history major who loved novels.
“There were books all over the house,” Clark said. “And we were expected to always live up to our potential, and to follow our passion.” His passions, as now, were writing and athletics.
Clark received his master’s degree in literature from the University of California, Davis, and taught American literature and creative writing at Cal Poly for the last 21 years. He was awarded the Cal Poly Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002.
Cal Poly graduate student Martin Mares, a former English student of Clark’s, said he took Clark every quarter his senior year at Cal Poly. Mares described Clark as easy-going, mellow and highly involved in the lives of his students.
“His classes were awesome,” Mares said. “Everyone would sit around in a circle and talk, like a circle of friends. Even for core classes. And every now and then he’d grant us a poem.”