CORVALLIS, Ore. - After spending nearly 40 years of his life working as a professional carpenter, it wasn't surprising that when Clemens Starck decided to write a book of poetry he would blend his wordsmithing with his woodworking.
The result, "Journeyman's Wages," was critically acclaimed, even winning the 1996 Oregon Book Award for poetry.
Now Starck, a carpenter in the Facilities Services department at Oregon State University, has written a second book of poetry and prose. And instead of verse about hammer and nails, he's chosen to write about the hammer and sickle.
"Studying Russian on Company Time" delves into Starck's visits to Russia and his quest to learn Russian. A self-professed language junkie, he actually started studying Chinese but finally set it aside after having to spend at least four hours a day on the language "just to tread water."
"It didn't leave much time for making a living," he said with a laugh.
His interest in Russian has been longer lasting. It began when he met a visiting professor from Moscow and became frustrated at their inability to communicate. He jokingly suggested they tutor one another. And his interest in the language was kindled.
What started as a joke, he says, became an obsession. He was intrigued by the language itself - the grammar, phonetics and vocabulary. Trying to mouth the sounds of it, he added, "was addictive." Writes Starck:
"As well as an obsession, studying Russian was for me a kind of subterfuge, a clandestine adventure. It was an unlikely thing to be doing, sitting in my truck at work, during coffee breaks and at lunch-time, flipping through Russian flash cards or conjugating Russian verbs aloud. It was a way of sneaking something completely arbitrary and improbable into my life. It felt almost illicit."
He spent part of 1994 living in St. Petersburg, and returned two years later to visit Crimea. His trips, and thoughts, are reflected in the book's prose and poems. In "Lenin's Typewriter," Starck describes the modern-day imagery of the storied Lenin and marvels at the symbolism of a single piece of equipment - an American-made Underwood typewriter - that may have orchestrated a revolution.
His time in the Crimea is captured descriptively in "Friendship of the Peoples," where Starck describes a visit to a collective farm on a holiday.
"There's singing, of course, and speeches;
and for the young folk
a judo tournament. The local
militia is there,
and sportsmen from the school. There's also the man
who can raise a chair above his head
with his teeth."
Starck says he has been writing poetry for 35 to 40 years, yet for most of that time he toiled in anonymity - never letting his co-workers know about his secret life with words. He "lost his cover" in 1991, when a Corvallis Gazette-Times reporter attended a poetry reading that included Starck and vowed to follow up with a feature story. She did, and that yellowed clip still adorns the bulletin board outside the stores shop of OSU Facilities Services.
"I'm kind of glad I've `lost my incognito,'" Starck said. "It had its advantages being under cover. But it was getting hard to hide."
It became impossible after publication of "Journeyman's Wages," which received the William Stafford Memorial Poetry Award from the Pacific Northwest Bookseller's Association, as well as the Oregon Book Award for poetry.
Starck's writing credentials put him on a par with OSU's vaunted creative writing faculty, which include Ehud Havazelet, whose latest book was glowingly reviewed in the New York Times; and fellow award-winning authors Tracy Daugherty, Jennifer C Cornell and Marjorie Sandor. The path he took to success, however, differs sharply.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1937, Starck grew up on the East Coast and went to Princeton, where he studied French literature for two years before dropping out "to pursue carpentry to support myself." His education from that point was self-taught - riding freight trains around the country and working in a variety of jobs, including ranch hand, merchant seaman, newspaper reporter, and door-to-door salesman.
His safety net, financially, was carpentry; emotionally and spiritually, his poetry. Since publishing "Journeyman's Wages," Starck has become a fixture on the Pacific Northwest writers' circuit, giving readings in locales from rural eastern Washington to San Francisco. His work seems to resonate with a broad cross-section, whether it be the ranchers of La Grande or the literati of the Bay area.
Starck is curious about the reception "Studying Russian on Company Time" will receive. It is on one hand, he says, breaking the mold from his writings on the working class. Yet in a sense, he adds, it also is a continuation.
"I write about what interests me," Starck said, "about what I'm immersed in."
These days that includes travel - he's taking several swings throughout Oregon and Washington for poetry readings - and teaching. He's taught poetry writing at Willamette University, among other institutions.
Success probably won't go to Starck's head. He submitted "Journeyman's Wages" to 59 publishers and was rejected by every one until Story Line Press in Ashland, Ore., took it on. "Studying Russian on Company Time" was snapped up, published by Silverfish Review Press in Eugene.
Starck did say he felt like he was growing as a writer, that he has a better command of language and "better agility with words." But, he concedes, the success of his previous book has raised the bar of expectations.
"Going from the rejection of all those publishers to the applause and acclaim after it was published...well, it goes to show you how fickle this business is," Starck said.
Clemens Starck always has carpentry to fall back on.
He probably won't need it.
Note to Editors: A sidebar on Clem Starck's schedule of readings accompanies this news feature. Starck can best be reached at home, 503-623-4895, or by pager, 541-507-0251.