The difficulty with interviewing Clarence Major is deciding where to begin. His long and varied career encompasses numerous literary and artistic movements here and abroad. As a painter, poet, and novelist he has encountered people in many fields and has incorporated this experience into his art. His paintings have been exhibited across the globe and the most recent of his numerous awards includes the 2016 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is currently distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis. His latest book, Chicago Heat and Other Stories, is already in its second printing from Green Writer’s Press.
I corresponded with Major recently via email during which we discussed the artist’s role in politics, Donald Trump and race relations, and Paris in the good old days.
The Rumpus: You are an accomplished visual artist as well as a writer. Which calling first reached out to you?
Clarence Major: The painting came first. It’s true, though, isn’t it: we all start out drawing and painting. I just never stopped. I was also lucky enough to win a scholarship to The Art Institute of Chicago while I was still in grade school. I stayed with those classes all the way through highs school. I learned a lot there, not only in the lecture and sketch classes, but upstairs in the galleries, studying the works of the Old Masters and the Modern Masters. I also was taking private art lessons from a local artist, Gus Nall. I worked in his studio, drawing mostly, but later also doing some painting as well. Gus was a big inspiration for me at a time when I most needed it. So, yes, the painting, definitely, came first. But as soon as I had a sufficient command of the written word I started writing poetry. Why? From an early age mother always read to my sister and me. So, I had an early exposure to the wonders of literature.
Rumpus: Many writers seem to be visual artists on the side (musicians too) how do you balance your pursuits?
Major: For me it’s really not a matter of balance. When I’m absorbed in one the other tends to get neglected—but only for awhile. Despite this neglect there is a continuous connection in the sense that they influence each other. I work at the painting in long intense spells, same with the writing. Lately, I’ve been working a lot on poetry, seeing each poem emerge as part of a whole collection. Yet somehow the terms of painting are in the back of my mind as I write poetry. So, the painting influences the writing probably more than the other way around. There are connections, though, that link them as art forms: narrative, metaphor, allusion, etc. So, I would say that in those terms, in a odd way, they balance each other. But I don’t consciously, methodically, try to give equal time to each.
Rumpus: We are living in a politically divisive year, which has unearthed an ugly under current of harsh racial bias. What role do you think the artist can play in turning the tide?
Major: Socially and politically, we seem to be living in dire times, worse times than in the past. But there were far worse horrors in our past. The writer’s role is to be a truth sayer. I sincerely believe that each society, each country lives by a particular fantasy vision, a fantasy vision of itself. The truth of how they live is hardly ever faced. Look how long it took Germany to start facing the atrocities committed under Hitler’s policies. We, as a country, have also had some difficulties facing up to the horrors of American slavery. So, in the interest of the ethical and moral health of the country, the writer, the poet, the artist, the thinker, must hold a mirror up his or her country and say, look, this is who we are, this is how we live, this is our past, we must own it, forgive ourselves, transcend our transgressions, and become better people. Turning the tide must be a continuous effort.
Rumpus: You remind me of a James Baldwin quote in which he states people cling stubbornly to their hate because without it, they would have to face their own pain.
Major: Yes, absolutely! I had the rather odd experience of both growing up reading James Baldwin and later knowing him as a friend. While I was teaching at the University of Nice in France in 1981-1983, Jimmy was living in nearby Saint Paul, just up the road. We had occasion to socialize, talk art, etc. The fact that I grew up reading his novels and, as a young man, reading his essays, no doubt influenced my way of seeing the world. But I was also reading extensively in psychology, religion, history, and mythology. I read people like Martin Heidegger, Soren Kierkegaard, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Theodor Reik, Thomas Carlyle, Sigmund Freud, et al. My way of thinking about human communities (and human behavior) was perhaps shaped more profoundly by readings in these areas. I’m also talking about the works of other late nineteenth century and early twentieth century historians and anthropologists. Despite the sometimes grim outlook of many of these thinkers, I would like to think that history is not absolutely a nightmare from which we will never awake.
Rumpus: Did reading writers like Baldwin when you were young influence you to take up writing or did it have more impact on your philosophical outlook?
Major: Yes. Discovering African-American novelists and reading their works while still a teenager set a great example for me. Baldwin, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Zora Neal Hurston, Nella Larsen, Archibald Motley, William Gardner Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, et al, were great influences. Wright’s Native Son was set in the neighborhood where I was living. That was real. In my mind that setting gave that great book a foundation in reality that connected me to great literature. Despite the obstacles of race and class, I was always taught that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. So, African-American writers, for me, were a beacon, a guiding force.
Rumpus: What effect do you think the possible election of Donald Trump would have on race relations?
Major: The prospect of Hillary Clinton not winning the presidency opens up a vast dark hole, an unknown, beyond which it is impossible to know what would happen to race relations or anything else we, as a county, want to improve. It has surprised me that Trump has done so well. I used to think the clamor for Trump was simply part of the rightwing backlash against eight years of President Obama. But perhaps it is that and more than that. There is a lot of suspicion, fear, mistrust, anger and hatred out there. But I’m not the person to tell you what conservatives or Republicans want.
Rumpus: Much of your work has a strong sense of place. How influential is that in the narrative of a story?
Major: Extremely essential. I’m a visual thinker. Before beginning a scene in a story I try to visualize the setting. If it’s a room in a house, the interior of a car, or an area outside, I try to see (in my mind) the space where the character (or characters) are located. I don’t spend a lot of time detailing items in a place. I’m much more interested in capturing the sense of space (or place) by allusion or with a few carefully chosen references to items in that space. The sense of space helps to shape the character, to give the character context, weight, and, yes, character. When I was teaching creative writing, I often gave beginning students an allusion assignment. They had to describe a few items in a room without any reference to the person or people who occupied that room. The emerging sense of the room had to tell us a great deal not only about the room but those items had to suggest who the person or people were who occupied that room. Something similar happens when I paint a landscape. I use allusion rather than excessive detail to suggest the nature of place.
Rumpus: While we are on the subject of mixed media, do you ever consider soundtracks for what you write?
Major: No, I’ve never considered soundtracks for what I write. Nor have I considered computer drawing or painting. As a painter, I’m still trying to perfect what I started out doing with brushes, pen and ink, paint, etc. The transition, for me, from typewriter to computer was a big step. I am now very comfortable with writing on a computer but it took awhile. Because I did make that big step I won’t rule out what happens in the future.
Rumpus: Your new collection of short stories, Chicago Heat and Other Stories, portrays various aspects of relationships both familial and romantic that are sometimes unsettling, at least to this reader. Was this a conscious theme for this collection?
Major: No, it was not a conscious theme for Chicago Heat and Other Stories. From time to time I write short stories. If there are common themes it’s because those concerns are in me on an emotional level. My fiction is based on both my own experience transformed, altered, juggled and changed to suit the demands of composition, character, and plot. If I see a theme emerging in a story I will likely take it up and develop it. I hardly ever set out with a conscious plan and if I do the story usually takes over and takes me where it wants to go. Life can be unsettling. Writers have always gravitated to conflict, unhappiness and disturbing themes. We as readers would get bored pretty quickly if stories were about all the pleasant things in life. Since we know our troubles are always coming we want to see in our fiction examples of how others (even characters in fiction) have dealt with them. Although not consciously planned, there are patterns in the collection. The stories are set in states and cities and towns across America from coast to coast. That happened simply because that is the pattern of my own life. I’ve lived in Chicago, Seattle, Boulder, New York City, Omaha, and so on.
Rumpus: Life is unsettling. Some of your stories remind me of episodes in my own life which makes it more than a story with just conflict, it has personal resonance. How often do we go through life numb to our own existence until we see a writer spell it out for us?
Major: It’s true but if we make an effort, and if we are honest with ourselves, in time we gain perspective on what has happened. Donald Hall has a poem in which a man says we were all fools seven years ago—or something to that effect. The writer writes about what happened in order to make it make sense, to put it in perspective, to turn it into art; and art becomes the vehicle on which we ride out the truth of our experiences.
Rumpus: I wanted to go back to your various travels. You moved to New York City in the mid 1960s, a place in the midst of a major literary and arts scene. What was that like?
Major: I moved from the Midwest to New York in December 1966. At first I was rooming with another poet and friend from the Midwest, Dave Rasey.We had an apartment on East 12th Street between First Avenue and Second Avenue. The bathtub was in the kitchen. I quickly got into the Lower East Side (East Village) poetry scene at Saint Marks Church. It was there (and at the Judson Memorial Church) that I learned how to do public readings. Leroi Jones was not yet Baraka. When cops beat him in Newark, I joined a group of poets at the Judson to raise money for his defense. The Beat poets were very active at this time and so was Umbra, a group of black poets. I had published in journals with both groups. I soon landed a job as a researcher with Simulmatics analyzing news coverage of the riots. I also did field work in Milwaukee and Detroit. I soon got my own apartment and started teaching creative writing at The New Lincoln School in Harlem. Poets Walter Lowenfels and William Meredith helped me get my first book of poems published at Wesleyan University Press. Dave got married and moved from the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, a friend of mine, Charlotte, was an assistant editor at Olympia Press, 220 Park Avenue South. She suggested I send my novel to Maurice Girodias, the publisher. Olympia Press had published Henry Miller, Georges Bataille, Samuel Beckett, J. P. Donleavy, William S. Burroughs, Chester Himes, and other writers I admired. So my first novel, All-Night Visitors, was accepted and published. My girlfriend at the time, Sheila, and I went to Mexico for about a month in the summer of 1968. After that we broke up. But now I was a published writer and other teaching jobs started coming my way. That same year I started teaching at Brooklyn College where I met the writers of the Fiction Collective, the publisher of my second novel, Reflex and Bone Structure.
Rumpus: Was it before then that you started your own literary magazine?
Major: I started Coercion Review in the Spring of 1959. I was twenty-two. I’d just come back home to Chicago from the Air Force where I had served at a desk job filing papers. I published works by Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Paul Eluard, Curtis Zahn, James Boyer May, Harold Witt, David Kalugin, David Cornell De Jong, Charles Shaw, Emilie Glen, E. W. Northnagel, D. V. Smith, and other American and Canadian writers active at that time. There were only three issues. Coercion Review put me in touch with other writers. It paved the way for my eventual move to New York. James Boyer May was doing Trace, a journal that was a meeting place for people active in the literary and little magazine world. If I remember correctly, he was in Los Angeles. I kept up with Trace and reported my literary activities there as did other poets involved in our circle. I was also writing book reviews for Sheri Martinelli’s magazine, Anagogic and Paideumic Review. She was in San Francisco and had previously lived in New York where she had had an affair with Charlie Parker before she was involved with Ezra Pound at Saint Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, DC. During these years, from 1959 to 1965, I was also writing my first novel, All-Night Visitors.
Rumpus: You have led such a rich life; would you ever consider writing a memoir? Any plans for the future?
Major: I probably won’t write a memoir although I have written a lot of autobiographical essays, including one long one in a forthcoming monograph of my paintings, The Paintings of Clarence Major: Between Imagination and Motif, due out September 2017. In a book that collects some of my essays, Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism, there is a whole autobiographical section. I feel that the truth of my life is better expressed in poetry and fiction. I say “truth” as opposed to “facts.” I did write a memoir of my mother’s life. A lot of my own life is there too.
Rumpus: You are also a prolific poet. Do you have a muse?
Major: I have no single muse. Rather, over time I have had a string of muses: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Walt Whitman, Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Robert Hayden, et al. Early in my career I sent some of my poems to William Carlos Williams and he was kind enough to give me constructive criticism. A muse is something that serves a poet well early in his or her career. In later years one writers out of one’s own driven inspiration. One learns to find inspiration rather than waiting for it to come for a visit. I can find inspiration almost anywhere. For example, an incident in the street can be a source for a poem. I saw two girls walking together in the park. Rather than talking to each other, each of them was talking on a cell phone. That struck me as an ironic subject for a poem. Poems can come from seemingly insignificant incidents. A picture or a word can be the inspiration for a poem.
Rumpus: I will close with a line from one of your poems, one of my favorites: “Like the man said, just keep stepping to the trumpet, or at least keep kissing the doorway.”
Major: Yes, keep the faith! Stay positive! Love is the answer! Keep the door open!