OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU'S poet-carpenter, Clem Starck, publishes new book

04/22/2002

CORVALLIS - Clemens Starck, whose inaugural book of poetry won the Oregon Book Award in 1995, has published another book of poems that explore work, education, culture and life.

Called "China Basin," the new collection includes all of the poems Starck has written since his stunning debut seven years ago. His new book has just been released by Story Line Press of Ashland, and should be in bookstores by the end of the month.

Starck's 1995 "Journeyman's Wages" put him on the literary map - and not just because he won the Oregon Book Award and the William Stafford Memorial Poetry Award. Starck is a full-time carpenter with OSU's Facilities Services and, he says, a college dropout - albeit one from Princeton University.

His blue-collar background, combined with his experiences as a merchant seaman, newspaper reporter and door-to-door salesman, have influenced his poetry and given the genre a new and different voice. "China Basin" continues his reflections on life with 25 new poems produced in the last decade - in fact, all of the poems he has written during that time.

"I'm not too prolific," Starck said with a laugh. "I sometimes spend months working on a single poem. It usually starts with a piece of language - a line or two, or a phrase. I never start with an idea, just a phrase or image that strikes me. It's like doodling. I never know where I'm going when I start."

Starck's "doodling" is done mostly in his head. He composes each poem by repeating the lines aloud to himself hundreds of times, refining them until he is reasonably satisfied. When the poem seems complete, he commits it to paper - and then begins another refining process.

"When I start a poem, my entire life is like a funnel," Starck said. "Every thought and conversation I have flows back to the poem. I may not ever use those ideas or conversations, but they are part of the process. The poem consumes me.

"It didn't use to be like that," he added. "Now I'm superstitious about putting things down on paper too soon."

In "China Basin," Starck's poems are divided into four sections. "Falsework," "Russian Lessons," "Camouflage" and "Deciding the Course."

Falsework is a construction term for temporary supports, commonly used in building bridges and other large structures. All of the poems in that section relate to work experiences Starck has had, and the term itself is a metaphor for his view of his work life. "Work, in a sense, is a 'falsework' for me because it is what I have done to support my poetry," he said matter-of-factly.

"Russian Lessons" contains the poems Starck published in a previous book of poetry and prose called "Studying Russian on Company Time." Stripped of the prose, the poems recall his visits to St. Petersburg and the Crimea and his efforts to learn Russian.

"Camouflage" consists of a single, long poem called "The Wisdom of Camouflage" - a title from a poem by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Starck calls it "a roller coaster ride, or fantasy of sorts." "It is about living in disguise, which is what I've done with my life," he said. "I feel as much in disguise when I play my role as a poet as I do when I play my role as a carpenter."

The final section, "Deciding the Course," is Starck's way of exploring his own informal education once he dropped out of college.

"I've always considered myself responsible for my own education, whether I choose to read Russian history or study some medieval text," he said. For many years, Starck added, he has been infatuated with Chinese art and poetry.

The final poem in the book, "Deciding the Course My Education Should Take," provides insight into Starck's thirst for knowledge and his recognition that he cannot do everything he would like to do. At age 64, he knows his true calling.

…Why not study ethnobotany,
or practice juggling?
I could learn to read Chinese, and start in
on the ten thousand poems extant
of Lu You.

It's unlikely I'll take up blacksmithing,
or become a backhoe operator.

For the time being
I think I'll just concentrate
on finding the words
for the mist that rises from the fields in the morning,
or the moon
as seen once from Joel's truck
on the way home from a job in Corvallis.

Starck will give a number of readings from his new book around the Pacific Northwest during the next few weeks, including one on Thursday, May 9, at OSU. The reading begins at noon in the Memorial Union Lounge and is sponsored by the OSU Book Store.

He also will be featured in an upcoming episode of "Oregon Art Beat," an Oregon Public Broadcasting show that will be televised on Thursday, May 2, at 8 p.m. It will be rebroadcast on Sunday, May 6, at 5 p.m.