My scope of Kentucky as a place expands – An Interview with Bernard Clay

Kentucky native Bernard Clay grew up in Louisville. He has spent years developing a deep appreciation of the state’s unique natural and urban areas. Bernard earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Kentucky Creative Writing Program and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. He currently lives on Scorpion Hollow Farm in eastern Kentucky with his herbalist partner Lauren, founder of Resilient Roots, where he homesteads and continues writing. English Lit is his first book.

Let’s start with a bit of your background. How crucial is Louisville to your work as a writer? How crucial is being a native Kentuckian? What do you see as the relationship between the two as far as your development both as a person and as a poet?

I would say that the most crucial aspect of growing up in Louisville was being raised in the West End, a redlined district during the 1980s. There, everyone looked like me, and we all seemed to be in the same economic and social situation. That all changed when I began Carter Elementary, one of those ‘bussing’ loophole traditional schools. It started to become clear to me that I lived in a totally different world than my white peers, and that the curriculum, media, laws, and just about everything was built around their worldview, and I and people like me were either minimized or ignored.

So, I began writing stories very early, unabashedly about my life in the West End, as a way to acknowledge our existence at first. Then eventually as a way of fighting back against this idea that the place and people where I was from, should be hidden.

Going to UK, like starting elementary school, opened my eyes even more because leaving Louisville, which I saw as a so-called liberal bastion (even though I knew it was highly segregated), I expected to see a Kentucky devoid of Black people. But what I discovered was, of course, the natural beauty of the state (that I was ignorant of) but also that there were Black people populating what I thought of as sundown country and they were proudly staking a claim to the state, even though for the most part, the general population didn’t want to admit it. For the first time I found myself wanting to do the same and my writing began to reflect this embracing of being a part of this state that my ancestors helped build, and I belonged here and deserved to appreciate its beauty just as much as anyone. 

So, while Louisville spurred and shaped the direction of my early writings, actually going out into the state of Kentucky broadened my ideas of Blackness and its relation to place and ultimately allowed more depth and nuance in the poetry I was writing.

In the question above I used both writer and poet. Do you identify as a poet or a writer? Do you prefer one or default to one? Are they the same thing to you? 

I don’t mind if people call me a poet or a writer, although most people refer to me as a poet because I wrote English Lit, but I also write other genres. Personally, I don’t think of myself as either because I see the poet and writer aspects of myself as just parts of me. If I do use those characteristics to identify myself, I usually say, ‘I’m Bernard and I write…’ or ‘I wrote English Lit.’

Ultimately, I see poetry as a primordial technology that humans stumbled upon tens of thousands of years ago, as a magical way to disperse ideas, emotions, and most importantly, stories, using language as a vehicle. Writing came along much later to preserve and deliver that poetry across generations. Now, with writing being an industry, we have various genres, and poetry is categorized as a type of writing. But for me, I connect poetry to its oral traditions and being the origins of it all, so the terms poet or writer are interchangeable.

One aspect of your bio that I find interesting is that (unlike many poets and writers) you are not working in academia. This feels refreshingly rare in today’s world. How does not being in this line of work affect you as a poet and writer? Is it freeing? Having been both inside and outside of it, how do you see the academic world’s relationship to the written word?

It’s hard for me to say since I only participated in Academia as a student. I entered the workforce early with every intention of eventually going to academia, but it never happened. This I think impacted my view of myself as a poet or writer instead of seeing myself as one of those, they became traits or facets of me. Maybe as an Academic, I would have had to embrace those identities more for the sake of my career, but it is hard to say. I do know that while I was teaching as an MFA student, which I found quite challenging, writing was laborious but imperative, and while I cranked out a lot, I wasn’t allowed enough time to refine and expand on my writing enough for English Lit until I went back to a corporate job, which took up less of my mental bandwidth. But again, who knows? With summers off as an academic, maybe that would have enabled me to do that additional needed work on my writing.

As for the relationship between academia and the written word, I speculate that the Venn diagram of what is considered academically significant and significant to the general population from a writing perspective is not a circle, but there is some overlap, or it takes a while for one to catch up to the other.

Your excellent work English Lit came out in 2021 from Old Cove/Swallow Press. What was your experience of publishing the work during that time?

I was extremely fortunate to have my work published by two highly respected presses. Working with Nyoka Hawkins, the editor at Old Cove Press, was a transformative experience for me. She helped me see the possibilities of what English Lit could be, and the process of compiling my writings from the past two decades was both cathartic and rewarding. Swallow Press was equally excellent, with their extensive infrastructure and connections in the literary world enabling me to reach new audiences and connect with people and places I never thought I would. Overall, the experience of working with both publishers was fantastic and I hope to work with both of them again. However, the timing of the release was not ideal, as it was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This limited my ability to do readings and other events to promote the book, which was disappointing. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Old Cove and Swallow Press for handling the release so well, given the circumstances.

What did publishing this work mean to you as a poet, and what does it mean to you now? How are those meanings intertwined and morphing over time?

Getting published was the culmination of over twenty years of writing. For me, it was a moment of great accomplishment, and I felt very fortunate that somebody wanted to put this work out there for others to read. When my work was first released, I saw myself simply as an anonymous writer, a sort of a vessel through which these poems poured out. However, the act of publication has made me realize that who I am, my personality, my experiences, my worldview, all are coursing through these poems. It can be a little overwhelming to know that your work is so closely connected to your personal identity, but it can also be quite rewarding. While the act of writing can be a solitary one, sharing your work with others is enlightening. I have been fortunate enough to receive positive feedback from readers who have related to my work on a personal level, and this has made the experience of publication all the more meaningful to me.

How did you come to be a member of the Affrilachian Poets collective? What did this experience do for your work or life?

I became a member back in the late 90s when I started at UK, and the group was only a few years old. Frank X. Walker, co-founder of the group and coiner of the word “Affrilachia,” was the director of the Martin Luther King Cultural Center – an oasis for black students on a homogeneously populated campus. He allowed the space to be used every Monday for workshops. I had met Frank when he taught at the Governor’s School for the Arts, and the Affrilachian group performed for the school one evening. To be honest, their presence at UK was one of the major drivers behind my decision to attend there. I relished every Monday and learned from Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, Mitchell Douglas, Crystal Wilkerson, and many others. Being a part of that group was the single most influential part of my development. It was there that I started appreciating my identity as a Kentuckian who is Black and first started meeting Black people who communed with nature and wrote about it. I cannot reiterate how treasured those workshops are to me, and several of the poems in English Lit went through the fire of that process. Those workshops lasted a few more years with monthly readings, but as time moved on, so did the talented founding members dispersing across the country. After that experience I knew I was always going to write.

The poems in English Lit have one foot in an urban experience and one in a rural landscape. What do these two worlds do for your work as a writer? How do you personally see them as more than simply backdrops or setting?

I have always been a nature lover, even though I grew up in the city. My parents took us to state parks and nature reserves at an early age to expose us to the natural world. To me, it was clear that there was a dichotomy between nature and urban life. While the urban environment tries to recreate nature, it cannot supplant it entirely. That’s why I explore themes of superimposing nature and recognizing glimpses of it within urban spaces in my poems like “My Nature” and “Urban Oasis.” These worlds are more than just settings; they add context and inform the dynamics of what many of my poems discuss.

How does life on Scorpion Hollow Farm suit you? What does living in a natural surrounding do for Bernard Clay the poet and person?

Moving out here, I discovered the existence of exurbs, where I assume a lot of some suburbanites began fleeing to starting around 2008, these areas serve as a borderland between suburban and rural. Although I have a few acres of land and my neighbors have personal ponds, there’s still a developed feel to where I live. Most people spend hours on their zero-turn mowers maintaining obnoxiously large lawns, polluting the night sky with their security spotlights, and there’s more gunfire here than I ever heard in any urban area.

Alas, Farming is hard work, especially without community support. All I have is YouTube really.  Nevertheless, living here allows me to learn and experiment, while providing great fodder for my writing. My scope of Kentucky as a place expands, and occasional quiet moments allow for self-reflective ruminations.

What is one thing you have recently learned from your natural surroundings that has found its way into your work? 

I recently learned that the grasses we consider desirable, including bluegrass, are invasive and destructive in the long run. If we allowed native grasses to spread and grow naturally, our soils would be healthier, retaining more water, and wildlife would be bolstered, ultimately impacting the climate. I explore these concepts in a poem that appeared in Still: The Journal recently, which connects colonialism with the spread of ornamental grasses and the act of mowing the lawn.

When I read your book initially and especially when I go back to it now, thinking of poems like “28th and Catalpa” (about your experience of Louisville juxtaposed with your mother’s memory of an older Louisville), and even the title poem, I think of the term Afrosurrealism. For readers not familiar with the term, I think Amiri Baraka provides the seminal definition: “Real and unreal, it would seem, defining the disintegration and the ‘crossed Jordan’ of wholeness or liberation, are contending themes and modes. At the same time, they are naturally twained, as fall and rise, tragedy and transcendence, slavery and freedom-parameters of the Black Aesthetic: Africa and African American, Death and Birth and Rebirth.” 

Do you think this is an apt descriptor of your work? If so, would you tweak anything about this description from Baraka published in 1988? How has the experience of the last few decades or even the last few years affected, altered, or abused this initial expression?

If you feel this descriptor is not applicable to your work, what do you think of the renewed attention to the term? Such as D. Scot Miller’s “Afrosurreal Manifesto”?

I find it fascinating to hear how readers interpret English Lit. I had not previously considered my poems through the lens of Afrosurrealism, but after reading Baraka’s definition and Miller’s Afrosurreal Manifesto, I can see how my work fits within that framework. Many of my poems deal with the aftermath of a societal collapse, an apocalypse so to speak, that has impacted Black folks, and the speakers in these poems are forced to navigate a dystopian world that often feels unreal. “28th and Catalpa” is a perfect illustration of this and reveals that the apocalypses that happen to black people keep happening repeatedly. The speaker’s mother grows up in a Jim Crow dystopic world where her only semblance of freedom is within a few square blocks. The speaker now lives in a post King assassination world where he appears to have more freedoms than his mother but has to navigate through a wasteland, his neighborhood, to take a hour long bus get to those freedoms. And if you couple that with the poems “My Malls” and “I still ride the TARC” those freedoms appear cosmetic. However, the poems themselves seem to be a device for the speaker, to perceive and transcend the bleak reality.

In terms of how the last few decades or years have affected this expression, I believe that the renewed attention to the term Afrosurrealism reflects the continued struggle for Black liberation and the amplification of Black voices through social media and the internet. As more people of color can share their experiences and perspectives, we are seeing a wider range of artistic expressions that challenge and subvert dominant cultural narratives. This in turn has also led to the opposition to these expressions becoming more emboldened and overt, which again spurs a feeling of even more surrealness and continues the cycle.

Overall, I believe that most art that addresses the real experience of being Black in modern society is inherently Afrosurreal, as it grapples with the absurdity and complexity of our current racialized reality. While there may be nuances to the definition that could be refined or expanded upon, I find the term to be a useful in understanding and contextualizing English Lit.

What currently has you excited about poetry? What poets are you reading now? What places, sounds, objects, or living things currently inspire you?

It’s fascinating to witness the evolution of poetry and how technology is influencing the presentation of poems in new and innovative ways. Platforms like TikTok allow for visual elements to be added to spoken words, making poetry more accessible to a wider audience. Seeing poetry embraced in new mediums gives me hope for the future of the art form.

I also find myself drawn to reading works by Affrilachian writers and make a point to purchase their latest releases. It’s inspiring to witness the renaissance of Black and Brown writing that’s taking place within the group.

Currently, I’m delving into the world of medicinal herbs and exploring the history of their use by indigenous peoples around the world. The stories and knowledge behind these plants are rich and diverse, and I feel inspired to share them through my poetry.

Back to Spring 2023 Issue

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