Poetry Grabbed Me by the Collar: An Interview with Eli Clare
Kathi Wolfe | April 2021
Today, everyone is talking about intersectionality. As writers, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, we’ve been struggling to call out the racism within ourselves and our society. The #MeToo movement has compelled us to come to grips with sexism and sexual harassment. We worry about climate change and economic inequality. Most of us are part of more than one community. Our identity has many facets: white, Black, male, female, queer, disabled, urban, rural, working-class, upper-class, etc. We’re aware that we live at the crossroads, that we write from the crosshairs of the intersections of our communities and identities.
Poet, essayist, and activist-survivor Eli Clare has been living with and writing from intersectionality long before it was on the radar of media and literary circles. White, disabled, and genderqueer, Clare lives near Lake Champlain in occupied Abenaki territory (currently known as Vermont). Born in 1963, he performs his poetry and speaks about disability, queer and trans identities, and social justice at colleges and conferences. He helped to organize the first Queerness and Disability Conference in 2002 at San Francisco State.
Earlier this year, Clare was awarded a Ford Foundation Disability Futures Fellowship. He is among the first group of twenty artists, filmmakers, and journalists with disabilities to be awarded the Fellowship. The initiative was established by the Ford Foundation in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Fellowships were created so that the Fellows could “use the different lenses they carry—including their disability—to push thinking, foster imagination, and advance the cultural landscape.”
Clare is the author of one poetry collection, The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion and two books of creative nonfiction—Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure and Exile and Pride: Disability, Queernees, and Liberation. Clare’s work has been widely acclaimed. He has been a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. His notable awards include the Publishing Triangle’s Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. As an activist, he has walked across the United States for peace and coordinated a rape prevention program.
Clare’s work shows a fluidity in form. His nonfiction essays often move seamlessly between poetry and prose. His work is a mosaic of intersections and contradictions: logging and salmon fishing and the natural world; viewing disability through a disability rights and culture perspective and exploring the complexities of a cure; and remembering the rural home as he escapes to the city.
Clare “works a vivid alchemy in these poems,” Alison Bechdel, creator of “Fun House” and “Dykes to Watch Out For,” said of The Marrow’s Telling, “Using the language of the elemental world, he delineates a complex human intersection and transmutes cruelty into its opposite—a potent, lifegiving remedy.”
“Clare’s writing is radical in its refusal to condense to a prescriptive right or wrong without ever sliding into passivity,” writer Carolyn Ogburn said of Clare’s work in Ploughshares.
Kathi Wolfe: You grew up white, as a girl, disabled (with cerebral palsy) in a mixed-class background in a working-class salmon fishing and logging town. You were sexually assaulted by your father. You were misdiagnosed as “mentally retarded” (what we, now, would call developmentally disabled). You had to deal with the mental health system. Now, you identify as genderqueer and live as a man. Would you talk about what this has been like for you?
Eli Clare: I grew up in a household which intensely valued education and embraced a mix of working-class and middle-class ways of being. My mother grew up working-class in Detroit, and my father grew up working poor on a dirt farm in North Dakota. They were both the first in their families to graduate from high school and both became teachers, benefiting and buoyed by the New Deal and white privilege.
My whiteness, my disability, my childhood as a tomboy girl, my surviving family violence, my love of the natural world, being raised by upwardly mobile working-class parents in a poor backwoods town, coming out first as queer, and then as trans, combined with this early emphasis on education—have shaped the stories I’m drawn to tell and how I tell them. Some of my most enduring themes—disabled embodiment, home, the importance of community, the rejection of normal—are direct responses to the isolation, fear, alienation, and connection I experienced growing up.
Wolfe: Intersectionality is the buzzword of the moment. But your work has been infused with intersectionality long before it became a hot topic. Did your complex experience growing up influence your thinking about intersectionality? Does intersectionality permeate your work because you’ve (literally) embodied intersectionality in your life?
Clare: Intersectionality is such an important framework for political/activist organizing, analysis, and understanding of daily common encounters with systems of domination, marginalization, and privilege. This framework has existed for a long time, stretching back well before the coining of the word intersectionality.
It emerged from a number of places, most particularly from Black feminism of the 1800s. I’m thinking of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Anna Julia Cooper among many others.
It (intersectionality) is a way of understanding the connections between different facets of identities and different kinds of power and oppression. As such, we, we all—every one of us whether we are multiply marginalized or highly privileged—live intersectional lives. In other words, race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, age, body size and shape, religion, and immigration status are all interlocked for all of us.
Many multiply marginalized people, particularly Black, indigenous, and other women of color, have understood for a long time that racism, sexism, and poverty are connected. I think it’s a newer understanding for white people, particularly for people privileged in multiple ways.
I came of age as a young poet and disabled lesbian activist reading the outpouring of women of color writing in the mid-1970s through the early 1990s. I learned intersectionality from the words of the Combahee River Collective, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Beth Brant, Paula Gunn Allen, Nellie Wong, and so many others. Through them, I came to believe that writers, storytellers, and theorists/thinkers can either engage explicitly with how categories of identities and systems of domination interlock, or we can choose to ignore/dismiss these connections and in doing so support the status quo. Clearly, I have chosen the former; there is no other way of making sense of my life or the places and people I call home.
Wolfe: When and why did you get the writing bug? Do you want to write in part to say for yourself who you are?
Clare: In 1979, I sat in sixth period study hall, a queer disabled teenager desperate for nourishment, bored out of my mind. I decided to try the only alternative—Mr. Beckman’s poetry class. It held no appeal. I hated poetry and didn’t like the teacher much more, but I was bored enough to give it a chance. We wrote poems, read poems, sent poems out for publication, collected our rejection letters. In that tiny backwoods high school none of us studied AP English or became National Merit Scholars. Rather, we ended up single mothers and grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, and regulars at Pitch’s Tavern. We took field trips, driving hundreds of miles to hear Carolyn Kizer, Galway Kinnell, and Gary Synder. We studied Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, but not June Jordan or Lucille Clifton. Poetry grabbed me by the collar, whispered in my ear, “You’re coming with me.” I followed willingly, not knowing where we were headed.
Seven years later, I joined a peace march. Four hundrad of us walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., 3,700 miles for global nuclear disarmament. I couldn’t stop writing. We sang in church basements, told stories in greasy spoon cafes, camped in city parks and cow pastures, read poems at peace rallies. We held vigils, blocked traffic, and were hauled off to jail. I dreamed, walked, woke up with poems, words clamoring and insistent. I wrote about missile silos and army depots, cornfields and garbage dumps. I memorized my poems and stepped up to the microphone. I didn’t feel bold. At those peace rallies and coffeehouses, my voice quivered and cracked, sometimes beginning to carry.
I couldn’t stop writing. We sang in church basements, told stories in greasy spoon cafes, camped in city parks and cow pastures, read poems at peace rallies. We held vigil, blocked traffic, and were hauled off to jail. I dreamed, walked, woke up with poems, words clamoring and insistent.
Wolfe: Whitman said we contain multitudes. Your writing contains so many multitudes that Whitman would have been impressed. Your work—your poetry and creative nonfiction—is filled with intriguing, intermingling contradictions. You write of loving the smells—the rituals—of working-class life, of respecting the work that people do in Port Orford. You write about escaping to the city to escape the bigotry—ableism, homophobia—of where you grew up. You write about disability pride, and of chronically ill people and their desire not to be in pain. How do you navigate this tightrope of contradictions to create the mosaic of your work?
Clare: I write from questions, not answers. And often these questions are full of tension, complexity, and/or contradiction. Questions like: Why do I dislike the word freak while embracing queer and crip? How do I reconcile my environmental politics with my understanding of life in a place dependent on extractive economies? How do we build a politics of cure that carves out space in the messy middle? One could say that I’m drawn to complexity and contradiction. I also write in many layers and drafts, moving from memoir to history to theory to media critique to polemic and back again. This motion across a lot of drafts allows the room and time to grapple with contradictions but not necessarily chase answers.
Wolfe: In The Marrow’s Telling: Words in Motion, the poem “Two Waters,” contains the wonderful lines: “Stories fall like rain/spar trees weathered to bone.” And the beautiful stanza: “We lay our bodies down,/bones beginning to breathe/spar trees weathered to bone,/words shimmering into kisses.”
In Brilliant Imperfection, you interweave stories and poetry into descriptions of everything from the horrors of eugenics to “the land now known as Wisconsin literally draining away.”
Would you talk about the role of poetry and stories in your work?
Clare: As a poet who came to prose after fifteen years of writing poems, I’m always paying attention to words, to sound and rhythm, to images and metaphors, as well as to stories, ideas, and arguments. Sometimes, what I’m writing needs a snippet of personal story, grounded in specific details and other times a broader sweep of history; sometimes, I’m drawn to the spareness of poetry and the ways that line breaks can insert ambiguity and complexity into a train of thought and other times I need the sprawling room that an essay provides.
It would be easy to link my genre-crossing writing to my life as a genderqueer who spent years being called ma’am on one street corner and sir on the next, who grew up a tomboy girl and is now recognized as a white guy in the world. Easy to make an analogy between gender-crossing and genre-crossing. But I suspect my hard-to-categorize writing has less to do with who I am and more to do with the nature of categories—whether they be gendered boxes, genre designations, or the scientific classification of species. Certainly, systems of categorization can be useful in countless ways, but for every category there is something or someone hanging out on the borders.
I spoke earlier of the women of color writers who taught me intersectionality. They combined genres with abandon, insisted on the personal and the political, and knew poetry, story, theory, activist strategy, and survival to be intertwined. Their work resisted so many constraints and borders. My work is deeply indebted to these writers.
Wolfe: Do you teach?
Clare: I currently have a one-year position as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation. In the past I’ve occasionally taught as an adjunct. The position at UB is my first extended academic job. Really, I’m not an academic, but rather a community-based writer, activist, and thinker, who pays my bills (at least in the pre-pandemic world) by doing social justice education across the US and Canada, often on campuses.
Wolfe: Are you working on a project with your Ford Foundation Disability Futures Fellowship?
Clare: I’m currently in the messy middle of a book-length manuscript of poems that explore the crossing of borders between human and other-than-human, organic and non-organic. In part, I’ll be using the Fellowship to give myself an extended period of writing time, which in forty years of writing I’ve never had before. It’s quite a gift. In the future I yearn for, everyone would have time, space, and support to pursue their individual and communal dreams, imaginations, and creativity.
Kathi Wolfe's most recent poetry collection is Love and Kumquats: New and Selected Poems. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her poem “This is Not a Love Poem” published in MOLLYHOUSE. She is a contributor with the Washington Blade, DC's LGBTQ paper.
become a black bear
taking her morning
begin to roll
side to side,
through your bulk,
become that motion,
belongs to whom,
the aspen quiver
let her amble
just a single
as you drop
to all fours,
into needles, spruce
and larch, claws
human again, crawling
is so much better
“Bear” from untitled manuscript in progress, as part of the Ford Foundation Disability Futures Fellowship. Printed with permission by Eli Clare.