Local poets and Cal Poly faculty members Kevin Clark and James Cushing couldn’t be more different

Kevin Clark in his study. Photo by Joe Johnston 4/12/02
Kevin Clark in his study. Photo by Joe Johnston 4/12/02

It’d be difficult to find two white, male, middle-aged poets more diametrically opposed than James Cushing and Kevin Clark.

Clark writes powerful, personal poems with a clear narrative arc, dealing with such straightforward subjects as masculinity and mortality. Cushing’s surreal, psychedelic poems sizzle with symbolism.

Yet nearly three decades after their first meeting, Clark, 60, and Cushing, 57, remain steadfast friends, colleagues and collaborators.

“Jim has perhaps the most active imagination of anyone I know,” said Clark, who teaches poetry writing and American literature at Cal Poly. “Nobody else I know can radically adjust your idea of what is normal and open you up to possibilities you haven’t considered.”

Cushing, in his second year as San Luis Obispo poet laureate, has similar praise for his fellow faculty member.

“I love the way he uses narrative elements,” the Cal Poly lecturer said of Clark. “He can do what a 300-page novel can in a three-and-a-half page poem.”

The beginning of a friendship

The two men met in 1983 at UC Davis, where Clark was working on his doctorate degree in literature. Cushing, who earned his PhD from UC Irvine, was teaching at the time.

“He was unlike any person I had ever met,” Clark recalled, describing an “extremely smart” man with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, literature and the arts. “Talking to Jim was — and still is — a kind of frisson. You don’t know where the conversation is going but you’re happy to be along for the ride.”

Cushing remembers Clark as a bright, unpretentious guy with a strong New Jersey accent and a solid sense of humor.

“The first thing I noticed about him was his mustache. His hair was as black as (coal),” Cushing said with a chuckle. “Now it’s as white as mine.”

The two poets’ paths crossed again at Cal Poly, where Clark began teaching in 1988. A year later, Cushing joined the university’s faculty.

Although the men’s poetic approaches vary as widely as their personalities, their shared love of language is apparent in two recent books: Clark’s “Self-Portrait with Expletives” and Cushing’s “Pinocchio’s Revolution.”

‘Becoming a survivor’

The title poem in “Self-Portrait with Expletives” takes its inspiration from a trip Clark made in the early 1980s with friend Brian D’Arcy, now a powerful union leader in South California. Rough-and- tumble male bonding ensues as the men navigate heterosexual friendship in a homophobic society.

“Thematically, it’s a book about a guy growing up out of the firestorm of the 1960s,” Clark said. “He ends up by virtue of extraordinary good fortune meeting this woman and becoming a survivor, someone who still has a future.”

The book moves from “fast edgy narrative poems about my past” to “ruminative, reflective, elegiac poems about my past and present,” he said.

Whereas “Eight Hours in the Nixon Era” evokes those wild days of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, “Radio Fate,” “Approaching Days” and “Accident Alert” deal with the loss of Clark’s father, who died when he was 14.

The poet recalls a “romantic flirtation” in “Le Secret,” revels in the music of the Allman Brothers Band in “Whipping Post,” and copes with physical frailty in “I’m Fine” — a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the “crazy weird aspects of the health care system.”

‘Wounded into artistry’

Cushing’s latest poetry book, “Pinocchio’s Revolution,” has a similar mix of the playful, the poignant and the profound.

Cushing said he used the Italian folk tale of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet who becomes a real boy, to explore themes of innocence and experience.

“It struck me as a very useful and attractive metaphor for becoming a human being,” he said.

In “The Man with the Corpse on His Shoulders,” the poet examines the emotional burdens that people carry into adulthood.

“We are wounded into artistry,” said Cushing, who dedicated the poem to Clark. “Something happens at a formative age that we can’t handle emotionally, and the response reveals inner character.”

Other glimpses of the past appear in the title poem, inspired by a high school memory, and “The Spine in the Pigment,” which evokes the Vietnam War. “Once in Cebu: A Perpetual Calendar” grew out of a literary encounter with Filipino-American poet Marisa de los Santos.

“Instead of beginning with a personal experience, I like to end up there,” Cushing explained, adding that he employs the “leaping associative logic of dreams.” “I like to take the reader through a darkly enchanted forest where it’s funny and sexy and challenging.”

According to Clark, he and Cushing share an exploratory approach to poetry.

“Writing is the art of surprising yourself with your own words,” Clark said.

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