Clayton Adam Clark received his MFA from The Ohio State University in 2012 and returned to St. Louis, where he grew up. He started exploring the region’s terrain and natural beauty and examining the ways in which this environment influenced him.
He weaved those observations into a collection of poems, “A Finitude of Skin,” that won the 2017 Moon City Poetry Award and was published by Moon City Press this past November. This all happened while Clark was on his way to earning an MA in communication from the University of Missouri–St. Louis last summer and then enrolling in the College of Education’s counseling MEd program in the fall.
The distinct Missouri flavor of Clark’s writing attracted the Springfield-based publishing company to his work.
“One of the things Moon City Press said they really liked was that they felt like the cadence of it, the language of it, was very Missourian,” Clark said. “That’s the way I try to write: the way I and people around me talk.”
The creative writing program at Ohio State drew students from all over. Clark would hear his classmates draw on their upbringings – the exotic sun-splashed beaches or rugged, remote mountains of their hometowns – in their writing.
It’s a shame, Clark would think, that I’m just from Fenton, Missouri.
“I finally quit that,” Clark said. “I started really looking at the geography and the geology here. There is an interesting history here because all this used to be underwater at one point. You have these caves, this limestone. It’s not everywhere that you have two of the biggest rivers in the country coming together in the same place. I call it intellectual laziness. I finally realized there’s a lot to see here, that I just needed to explore it both intellectually and physically.”
The title of the collection, “A Finitude of Skin,” comes from a line in one of Clark’s poems, in which the speaker ponders whether he believes his existence is confined to the limits of his skin or whether it extends beyond physical boundaries and is part of the ecosystem around him. The poems in the collection loosely follow the narrative of a couple coming together and drifting apart and what effect that coupling and uncoupling has on them.
Clark said he had been entering versions of the collection in contests for about four years – adding and subtracting, tweaking and adjusting – before the fateful call in the fall of 2017.
He didn’t answer at first because he didn’t recognize the number.
“It was a 417 area code on the caller ID, which is Springfield, so I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll just answer this one,’” Clark said. “Usually your collection gets rejected, and sometimes, you’re a finalist. I just got through this one time. I feel really fortunate about that.”
Even with his first book hitting stores, Clark realizes it’s a difficult proposition to make a living as a poet. He works as a health communications professional and pursued his MA from UMSL to further his career.
During that course of study, he gained an interest in counseling and decided to re-enroll for an MEd. He plans to graduate by spring 2020 and, for now, is interested in pursuing the field of substance use disorders.
“Counseling is complicated and subjective,” Clark said. “We all have our individual experiences, and it’s hard to understand another person’s experience, but you can sure try. In writing, you just kind of jump in and figure it out. I think that’s what you do with counseling. It’s trying to understand somebody as best you can and help them find what they’re looking for.”
His writing doesn’t come up too often during his UMSL classes, but Clark did recently find out that one of the counseling faculty – Professor R. Rocco Cottone – has dabbled in creative writing himself. Additionally, Mary Troy, UMSL English professor emeritus who taught in the MFA in Creative Writing program, reached out to Clark once she heard the news about the publication of his collection, having published a novel with Moon City Press herself.
She offered to help connect Clark with the writing community at UMSL, including a reading event in the Monday Noon Series hosted by the UMSL Center for the Humanities, from 12:15-1:15 p.m. on Apr. 22 in the Gallery 210 Auditorium.
“There’s that ‘UMSL is everywhere’ sort of thing,” Clark said. “Just kind of by happenstance, it worked out. Mary’s been really gracious.”
Clark is still figuring out this whole “published author” thing. He has three readings scheduled in St. Louis and one in Springfield this coming spring and is continuing to send another collection of his work off to various contests and hoping for the best.
He’s also taking some time to explore his surroundings, reflect and add to his oeuvre. You know, when he’s not busy with work or school.
“I’m putting together ideas for book No. 3,” Clark said. “Keep writing, that’s the thing, at whatever pace you can do.”