Touching What Once Was: A Conversation with Meredith Clark


Meredith Clark is the author of Lyrebird (Platypus Press, 2020), a story of loss, told in fragments. Documenting a miscarriage and the end of a love relationship, Clark’s debut presents a moving meditation on how it is possible to approach a thing with tenderness and still watch it break.

Clark has received Black Warrior Review’s nonfiction prize and the Sonora Review nonfiction prize and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Phoebe, Gigantic Sequins, Denver Quarterly, Berkeley Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BA in creative writing from Oberlin College. She is the recipient of grants and residencies from Artist Trust, Art Farm Nebraska, Jack Straw, and Vermont Studio Center.

I first met Clark at a chapbook-binding work party at Common Area Maintenance, a cooperative gallery in Belltown, Seattle. She’d come to hand-stitch books and to support the community of writers in putting out a new anthology of poems for the Till Residency. As we developed a friendship, we realized that we had many things in common; we both graduated from the same art school-based writing program and worked with many of the same artists. We both appreciated the labor and focus of letterpress printing and used leaves as a canvas upon which to print. Most significantly, we each knew the grief of losing a child.


The Rumpus: Your new book is described as a “lyric memoir.” As a poet, what was your experience of setting out to write a work of prose? Were there models that you turned to as you crafted Lyrebird? 

Meredith Clark: I think calling this book a lyric memoir is a bit of a nod to the musicality of the lyrebird—much of the book itself wants to be sung. But I don’t necessarily think of Lyrebird as neatly fitting into either poetry or prose. People have referred to it as each, neither, and both. I’m very interested in writing and reading work that resists categorization, or that does many things at once. Some of the books that most influenced Lyrebird were Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jenny Boully’s The Body, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee.

Rumpus: In Lyrebird, the speaker asks herself if she is writing the child into being. Her pregnancy becomes real when she sees a cluster of cells on her ultrasound. How do words and language work in a similar way to speak an abstract idea into reality? How did you go about “writing a memoir about a real person” that you didn’t know?

Clark: I do think that speaking is a kind of conjuring, especially when it comes to human connection. So much of the forming and deepening of a relationship is tied to language, and so much of a human bond is truly spoken into being. Vows, apologies, promises—there are many cases where language forms a kind of fact or artifact, and it made sense to me to engage in a conversation that would build a relationship as the body of this child was also being built.

As far as how I wrote a memoir about a real person that I didn’t know… well, that’s the book. The book is how I did it. I wrote about my own very brief experience of that being, and then wrote about my experience without them. I cast questions out into space, and sometimes answers came back, and sometimes they did not, and all of that is how these pages came to be.

Rumpus: Can you say more about the notion of vows, apologies, and promises as fact or artifact? How do these forms of language operate differently from everyday language?

Clark: It was in a linguistics class that I first learned about this—those ways in which certain kinds of speech make a thing out of language. It isn’t like saying “apple” or “button” or “key,” in which the words are gesturing out of themselves, at something else. The spoken wish becomes the wish, the spoken vow becomes the vow. And, to me, those cases where the language itself becomes the thing have a particular kind of potency.

Rumpus: What was the invitation that pregnancy and motherhood offered to you? And what did that invitation mean to you? Has it in some way defined who you are now? If so, how?

Clark: Pregnancy and motherhood are a thousand invitations at once. In fact, I think pregnancy and motherhood are an invitation into a sort of concrete unknown—here is the shape of a life, which you will share and touch and love, but there is no way you can know all that it contains.

That invitation called me more deeply into myself, while concurrently calling me out of myself. It made me both much, much smaller and much, much bigger at the same time, and even though the pregnancy ended in miscarriage, that twinned sense of being both the granular present and the distant future still lives in me.

Rumpus: What did the experience of miscarriage teach you about faith and love?

Clark: The simplest answer to this is that miscarriage set into me a very firm belief that we continue. I still feel in conversation with that child, even though the last time we touched was years ago. I think this is something many people who have miscarried agree with—the sense that the conversation is not over, but is simply continuing from a greater distance.

Rumpus: The speaker attends closely to the passage of time, both internally and externally. From day to day and within the life cycle of a complete pregnancy, to the anniversary of a due date and birthdays marked. How do different cycles of personal time and a shared collective sense of time interact in your book?

Clark: Time has always been a very difficult engine for me to feel a part of, but while I was writing Lyrebird, I began to realize I feel very much a part of natural clocks—those clocks of the seasons, trees, flowers, bodies, years. There are so many kinds of time in this book, yes, and to me they feel like a series of concentric circles, with the smallest circle of the body at the center, and the semicircle of the pregnancy that never completed, and the larger circles of seasons and the year enclosing these. So then, each life is the center of its own set of circles like this, and the way they interact is like any series of orbits—each clock strikes its own twelve in its own time. There was a sense, for example, that the clock of the due date struck in summer, when the year itself was only half past, but the clock of the plums and the clock of that would-be birth both rang out together.

Rumpus: You write that you were unsure about the timing of your pregnancy. Before my own miscarriage, my spouse expressed uncertainty to me about his own readiness. When we lost our child unexpectedly, these thoughts haunted us and created a particular sorrow around having felt unwelcoming. How do you feel now about your uncertainty of feeling, in retrospect?

Clark: There was a lot of uncertainty, but the uncertainty was as much a “maybe yes” as it was a “maybe no,” which is why there was also the invitation to stay. “Stay. There will be a place for you,” I wrote.

I had the sense, for as long as the pregnancy lasted and for well after, that what I had entered into was a conversation, which meant there were two voices navigating. And so though I think I did have an element of that same sense of having been perhaps unwelcoming, the larger sense for me was that the shared life I had entered into was much bigger and more complex than my wavering alone could undo.

Rumpus: Throughout Lyrebird, you refer to the man that you were engaged to marry as “your father,” in lieu of a “lover” or a “partner.” He is defined by his relationship to his unborn child, setting up a particular understanding of a relationship that is both unrealized and directly referential to what bonds you together. Why define and record the relationship in this way?

Clark: This decision was the only way to write about him when the book was truly written to the “you” of the child. I didn’t set out to write a book that would be published—I set out to write a story of the world to the child I expected to have. It was a letter to my child, about their own becoming, and originally intended to be read only by them, so it made sense to refer to my partner by the name this child would know him as—father.

Rumpus: Your book tells the story of two different, but interrelated losses. A miscarriage and the gradual dissolution of a relationship. Loss is associated with more loss. The speaker grieves, “crying for a heart that I can recognize.” Is it possible or useful to uncouple different kinds of love or grief to discretely examine what is lost?

Clark: I believe that, like a series of bells, the separate griefs in one person’s life start to ring and resonate together. As I was writing the book, it was nowhere near as clear to me that the relationship was dissolving as it seems from reading the text. When I look back at this time in my life, I can see how these losses spilled and pooled together, and that inhabiting one grief prevented me from fully understanding that another had begun.

I find the question of uncoupling different kinds of grief such an interesting one… I guess that’s not really how my mind works. I like to hold and observe the tangle, without necessarily trying to separate the threads.

Rumpus: It can be difficult to conceive of grief as a gift. Yet you write about “taking the gift that is given.” What was the gift that resulted from your miscarriage? How have you been changed by that experience?

Clark: That phrase, “take the gift that is given,” was most directly in reference to the relationship between me and my partner—holding the love for what it was, which was both deep and imperfect. As for the gift that resulted from my miscarriage, I don’t tend to categorize it that way. There’s a tendency to want to see silver linings in loss, rather than just letting loss be what it is. I found myself wanting to let grief be grief, without asking it to transform. And the grief has transformed, yes, simply because my life has continued, but there was something critical in walking the whole length of it, without bypassing it or opening it before it opened itself. Eventually, the miscarriage revealed a new series of beliefs to me, around what I would categorize as the continuity of a human soul, and the way spaces between worlds can be porous and even traversable. And in that way, I was changed by the experience because that child, that being, is still real and present to me.

Rumpus: Your mother makes brief appearances throughout the book. We see her making fabric, cutting and hiding apples. Like an apparition, she comes in and out of scenes and doesn’t take up space in the speaker’s emotional life. Where does the impulse or wisdom to mother arise from in you? What does mothering mean to you?

Clark: There was a strong sense of reflection, as I wrote this book, on matrilineal inheritances and the way bodies pass through each other. It seems impossible to say where the impulse to mother came from, except that it felt like it was only half mine. The rest came from that child presenting so unexpectedly, which is to say that the impulse itself was never fully ignited until that pregnancy began. I think mothering is a complex balance of holding and releasing—loving another being in such a way that they are allowed to become themselves fully, loving another being in such a way that they are eventually strong and whole and big enough to leave.

Rumpus: What is distinctive about the lyrebird as a symbol? Why is this particular species at the heart of your book?

Clark: The lyrebird has an astonishing talent for capturing the sounds of the world and singing them back, in such a way that the mimicking is almost impossible to detect because the sounds are so true to life. This is how the male lyrebird attracts a mate—by capturing the sounds of the world around him and repeating them to her. Before the pregnancy even happened, I was struck by this quite deeply, and had the sense that a book would come out of it, though I couldn’t have told you how. And once the pregnancy occurred, I realized that what the lyrebird does for his mate is what I wanted to do for my child: I wanted to create a record of the world that played around us, during the course of that pregnancy, and I wanted the book to be a gift for that child, once they were older—something I could give to them and say, “here… this is what was happening while you were becoming. Before you arrived.”

Rumpus: Were there any ways in which John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” or his thinking on negative capability, informed Lyrebird? 

Clark: What an amazing question! No, and it’s time for me to admit I’ve never read “Ode to a Nightingale” in its entirety, though now it seems I need to.

Rumpus: In your current work, you’ve been writing on the subject of trauma. In particular one of your recent published essays looks at the role of ritual in coming home to yourself. How do ritual and writing intersect in your creative practice?

Clark: For me, ritual and writing derive from a very similar impulse—the impulse to call something into being through a series of symbols and gestures. In that way, writing always feels like a ritual of language, and ritual always feels like a wordless kind of writing. Both practices are the most potent ways I know to be embodied, to touch the world, and be touched by it in return.

Rumpus: How did your experiences of studying writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) expand your practice or your interest in writing across genres?

Clark: SAIC offered me something really valuable in that it expanded my notions of language and writing, often outside of words and off of the page altogether. The photography coursework I did there, and the book arts classes, shaped my writing as much, if not more, than the writing coursework.

Rumpus: For the past ten years, you’ve carried the same type of notebook with off-white covers and off-white pages every day. They capture not just the thoughts you’ve written in them, but the world written around them. How do ideas of the physical and material matter to you?

Clark: Ideas of the physical and material world matter so deeply to me. It’s strange that I became a writer, rather than a painter or photographer, because the tactile and the tangible and the imagistic are so critical to me. There is always something object-like that informs whatever I’m about to write—it’s always more a thing than a thought that drives me. A bird, a beach, a fruit tree—those are the places where the writing begins, and the place through which the meaning can enter freely.

Rumpus: So much of your work references and lives within the body. I’m curious to hear about your relationship to place and how you think about it in your work.

Clark: To me, place itself is a kind of body—a kind of unified entity with its own desires, preferences, ways of being. Certainly, I felt held by the bodies of the city I wrote inside of, the neighborhoods, the streets, and the home. And if a body is just the container I am housed in, I can be housed in several bodies at the same time. In that way, these different bodies became, for the time I lived within them, also mine.

Rumpus: Throughout this dialogue, you mentioned conversation twice. As taking place across a greater distance, and as a navigation of two voices. How important to you is the notion of conversation in your writing? What are the conversations that you’re seeking to renew, continue, or imagine?

Clark: Conversation seems to be at the heart of my writing, but it’s always a conversation with just one very specific person—a partner, a child, a past self. I find that the moment I open up a work to a sense of a “general reader,” all the air goes out of it. And the conversations I’m most interested in tend to stretch the limits of what is technically “possible”—they reach across time and distance in strange ways. To answer your question, I guess I am always seeking to write a sentence that stitches time shut, so I can get closer to touching what once was.

Photograph of Meredith Clark by Jenny Jimenez.

Shin Yu Pai is the author of several books including Ensō (Entre Rios Books, 2020), Aux Arcs (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003). From 2015 to 2017, she served as the fourth Poet Laureate of The City of Redmond, Washington. Her personal essays have appeared in CityArts, Tricycle, Seattle's Child, and YES! Magazine. She's been a Stranger Genius Award nominee in Literature and lives and works in Seattle. For more info, visit More from this author →