Jennifer Clark can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in writing. When she was 11, she wrote a joke book and tried to get it published. When she was in high school at Hackett Catholic Central, she was certain she’d be a published author by 18.
She didn’t reach her goal by that age, but now 49, she certainly has been published, prolific and versatile. Her poems, short stories and memoir pieces have appeared in journals, anthologies and newspapers, many in the past five years. One story — “Tendencies,” about a woman who becomes magnetized — won an Editor’s Choice Award from Fiction Fix last year, and she had a poem nominated this year for the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award. Clark also had a play presented at the U.S. National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect in 1993.
And this summer she had her first book published, the poetry collection Necessary Clearings (Shabda Press).
She’s excited, but it also “feels a little scary,” she says, “to see the poems all together in one collection and know that people I know will read it.” While Clark’s fiction tends toward magical realism, her poetry speaks more to her own experiences.
Clark wrote the poems in Necessary Clearings over the course of six years, starting in 2005. She sees loss as a key theme and says the collection provides “an opportunity to pause and reflect on loss and to unshelter from the myth that everything stays the same, because nothing does.”
While loss is a necessary part of life, it’s not without an upside, she adds. “It’s a clearing, this opportunity for something else to be there” — hence the title of her book and the cover art, a spoon turning into a swan.
A key inspiration was becoming a mother, says Clark, who dedicated the collection to her 9-year-old son, Tom. “Parenthood gave me a deeper sense of loss and what loss means. You think you figure things out with your kids, and then they change.”
Her poem “Even Heaven Will Not Be Like This” captures a snowy Sunday morning with her son’s small body snuggled into hers. “Will you come to me / when you are grown / and rest upon my lap?” she asks her son. “Yes mamma,” he replies. The poem ends with this: “Upstairs, a bed creaks, your father rises, / soon you will run to him. Coldness will / rush in to claim your spot. / Even this moment / is ending.”
Clark’s poems cover a wide range of subjects — environmental losses, immigrant deaths, sexual abuse, faith, among others. She thought about grouping her poems “by family, friends, motherly stuff, environmental stuff. But I did not like the way that felt,” she says. “Life is messy and full of losses, and we don’t have control over them. I wanted it to be more like life and how our losses creep up here and there.”
Not all is weighty or serious in this collection, though. In one poem, Clark writes of a 17th-century naturalist who mistook “the knee end of a thigh bone of Megalosaurus” for a certain private portion of a man’s anatomy. In another, she riffs on bumper stickers and an aggressive driver.
In evidence throughout the book are Clark’s keen observation of the world, her delight in its pleasures, and her interest in whatever crosses her path. She credits her broad-ranging interests to her parents, Nancy and Joseph Engemann, who both taught at Western Michigan University. “My mother (former dean of women at Ferris State) instilled a love of people, and my father (an invertebrate zoologist) instilled a love of things and the natural world,” she says.
Clark says she sometimes gets carried away with research for her poems and stories. “I see these pieces of things in the news, and then I want to know more.” The poem that was nominated for a Rhysling Award, “Interim Problem Report 119V-0080,” was written after Clark saw a news article about the severe decline of many of America’s bat species and then found a NASA memo about a bat clinging to the space shuttle during countdown.
Other poems draw their inspiration from issues and places in Kalamazoo. “Allied in Spring” and “Allied in Summer” were prompted by the fight to prevent PCBs from the Kalamazoo River from being dumped at a site in the middle of the city.
Clark grew up in the Arcadia and Westnedge Hill neighborhoods and returned to Kalamazoo in 2001. In between, she lived for 15 years in Pittsburgh, where she earned a master’s degree in existential psychology and worked with sex offenders and homeless, mentally ill individuals. She now lives back in Westnedge Hill with her husband and son and has a part-time job as director of community relations for Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo.
She often writes before the rest of the family awakens. “This collection was mostly written between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.,” she says. “I make myself get up early to set aside writing time. Also, Friday is my writing day. I don’t answer the door. I don’t answer the phone. If I don’t keep that day sacred, no one else will.”
It’s that dedication to her craft, as well as a decision in 2009 to get serious about submitting her work, that have helped her reach the goal she set decades ago.