To witness the mind of Vasa Clarke, William & Mary law student— and, as of today, author of eighteen published works of poetry— is a fascinating experience.
He looks the part of the poet, and he talks without using his tongue, rendering a British flavor to his quiet, meandering speech. Any moment he is liable to lash out in passionate defense of some little-known philosopher…or to fall silent, simply stirring his tea until he has reached some internal, unfathomable conclusion.
For over an hour and a half, I listened. Perhaps, I shall never quite understand. The man is an encyclopedia conjured to life, blessed by some jolly god with the gift of speaking only in beautiful verse.
Before the interview began, he warned me that his voice may not carry onto the tape recorder. “If you can’t hear me, then make up stuff that sounds interesting,” he said.
If only I were that good.
DHR: You go to law school now, I understand?
VC: Yes. Law school wanted me to go there; except for UVA, which said ‘No, thank you,’ and Georgetown, which said, ‘Hell, no,’ but that’s how life goes, I suppose.
DHR: What do you want to do with a law degree?
VC: I have a different answer to that question every day that I’m asked. Today I’ll say admiralty law. The federal court system has legal jurisdiction over any claims arising on the high seas involving Americans. So—
Waitress: Excuse me. Our grilled florentine is a little different today, because we’re out of spinach. Is there anything we can substitute?
I’ve never had strong opinions about food. Except for bananas foster. Bananas. Rum. Sugar. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever had.
Waitress: I’ll be right back with more coffee.
Back to the high seas. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say something different. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say environmental law.
DHR: You have a British affect to your voice.
I suppose the obvious question is how that happened.
Well, when I was in middle school, I had a metal bar put in my mouth to try and adjust my jaw, and my speech pattern began to change. And then, after listening to too much Irish music and listening to too much British television….
You might as well write down that I had a traumatic brain injury, and it got stuck that way. That’s a much more interesting story.
One of the things that keeps coming to mind is: what if a major part of my personality is actually due to a tumor or some sort of change that I’ve never noticed? If you did find out that some part of your personality was due to some physical change in the structure of your brain, would you even bother getting it fixed? Because at that point, you would be you.
I wish I had worn my seersucker to this interview. When I put on my seersucker, I feel different. More confident.
DHR: Do you find it difficult to make time to write poetry while being a law student?
VC: I don’t think so. I always have a certain small amount of free time, and even when I don’t, I write things down on the margins of my paper and sort it out later.
The only time that I have trouble writing is when I am exuberantly happy.
I suppose if I were tremendously not-happy, that would be difficult as well. Emotional extremes are the only things I really think affect writing. All other times, it comes and it goes.
DHR: Have you found that your pursuit of law has enhanced your poetry?
VC: [Long pause]. No.
DHR: Do you think your writing of poetry has enhanced your education?
VC: Sometimes I write about things that I pick up, and I have learned, but honestly I don’t think it has much to do with the things that I’m educated in. I write about things that come to mind, and I guess it could be anything.
Ask me about which poets I think are important.
DHR: What poets do you think are important?
VC: Anthony Burgess.
A lot of people who I have talked with about poetry might be surprised to hear that, because I am relentless in stanning for W. H. Auden on other occasions. Him and Philip Larkin and E. A. Robinson. These are all very good poets who wrote very good poems.
Anthony Burgess is different because he wasn’t. He was, in many ways, a complete amateur.
Anthony Burgess is not Ernest Hemingway. Most people know him only for Clockwork Orange. He also wrote other books, the most notable being this series about this guy named Enderby. Enderby is a poet, and he’s not a very good poet. Poems show up throughout the series, supposedly written by Enderby, and of course they’re actually written by Burgess himself.
When he was a kid, he wrote poetry, until he realized he wasn’t good enough to get many of them published, then he started including them in these light novels that he wrote. After he died, someone collected all of his poems into a book called Revolutionary Sonnets and Other Poems. It’s a very good book— well, its not very good, it’s mediocre at best— and the only reason I know it exists is because I wrote the Wikipedia article for it.
Anthony Burgess’s Wikipedia page had a list of all of the books he had written, and all of the books had their own pages, except for this one. It was like that for years, and I just couldn’t stand to see it sitting empty, so I found the book, went to the library, and wrote the article. And it hasn’t been deleted yet, so I guess I did something right.
When you read his poetry, you can see him trying. You get the feeling that everything that he did was something he consciously had to strive to do. Poetry may not have come naturally to him. You can see other poets in his work, structures that he borrowed—and you can also see things that nobody else would have ever done, because he was so outside of the formal tradition.
He translated a number of sonnets by Giuseppe Belli. This guy had written sonnets of stories from the Old and New Testament in very vulgar Italian, and Burgess translated them into very vulgar English, a Lancashire dialect, in order to make the equivalence. Just think of that!
My train of thought has been derailed. What was I talking about?
Burgess. Poetry. Parallel English. Old and New Testament.
Oh, yeah. Well, that was just a really minor thing he did. Incredibly unimportant to the rest of the stuff he did.
He wrote five sonnets called the Revolutionary Sonnets attributed to Enderby in the books. They aren’t very cohesive, because he’s not very good at saying things.
DHR: So…why do you consider him the most important poet?
VC: Because he reminds me of myself.
He was reading W.H. Auden when he was in college, and making these amateurish poems, and he went through this not expecting to get famous doing that. It was just a part of what he did. He is an everyman.
One more thing about Burgess. When he was relatively young, somewhere in his ’20s, he was diagnosed with what he thought was a terminal illness. He decided right then to just drop everything and write full-time, because he had nothing better to do. Then he ended up doing quite well for himself, and even better, the illness he was diagnosed with went away.
It always struck me that it was just that small catalyst, and then….
I’m not really a good conversationalist. I’m more like a faucet. You just turn me on and it just comes out and out and out until you drown.
DHR: I’m having the time of my life right now.
Now, about your poetry. I’ve read it all—
VC: I’ve hidden a few, and there are a few more that hopefully will never see the light of day ever again.
DHR: Well, I’ve read what you sent me. It’s really good.
VC: Some of it’s shit.
DHR: My favorite is Thoughts on a Career.
VC: That poem took me the least amount of time to write, and it’s the one that I’m most proud of. It came naturally.
DHR: I’ve noticed some things in your poetry—five poems on Chinese philosophy, and one poem that seemed to be about Jesus Christ.
VC: You’re going to ask me about my spiritual beliefs, I assume?
DHR: Do you believe in God?
VC: I do not.
I believe most firmly in one thing. To spread the most happiness and cause the least suffering to the most people. The rest is nice, but that’s the important bit.
Although, of course, there is one exception that I have. In the early-mid 1900s, in what was then the British mandate of Palestine, there was a man named Yisreol Ber Odesser. He was Jewish, and he was required to keep a fast on a certain date, and he failed. Afterward, he was incredibly distressed, and his friends couldn’t comfort him.
According to his own testimony, he later came upon this drawer and found a note written to him by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov offering words of comfort. The funny thing is that Nachman of Breslov had been dead for 100 years. The note said, in essence, that everything would be fine, and he shouldn’t worry so much, and in order to show it, he would give him a prayer to say in times of distress. The prayer is “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman.”
DHR: What does it mean?
It’s a cross-stitch sort of thing, with a lot of wordplay. This event would have died an obscure death if had not been for a number of young people who came to him and started their own movement. If you go to some places in Tel-Aviv, you’ll see vans full of these people blasting techno music and having impromptu dance parties with passers-by. Those are the Na Nachs, who trace their lineage from him.
The reason why they do all this is because they think it’s important to bring happiness to people. And if they’re doing that, they can’t be entirely wrong.
If at this moment I were struck from a bolt from the blue and I decided I would no longer be the godless heathen that I am, I think I would join up with them.
DHR: So you write about the Way, the Tao, God— but you don’t believe in them.
VC: They say to write about things you know. I read about these things, and I remember them. Even if it’s not something that speaks to me, it might speak to other people.
If, upon my death, I discovered that I was mistaken, and I lived my life denying something that was in fact true, I shall be greatly embarrassed, though I would at least hope an understanding Being would see that it was an honest mistake.
We are talking about something that I haven’t nailed down yet in my head. That’s one thing I really don’t like— when people talk about things they don’t know, but want to seem like an expert, to appear knowledgeable.
Has anyone ever called you a know-it-all?
DHR: All the time.
VC: I’m sure they’re all wrong. I’ve heard it about myself quite often, too. I wouldn’t mind so much if people used it to mean someone who actually knows things. Knowing things isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to shame people for.
DHR: When you are called a know-it-all, does it offend you?
VC: It depends on the person, and their sense of judgement.
Do you believe in free will?
VC: I hope so.
DHR: Why do you hope so?
VC: That is an interesting question. I will let that percolate in the back of my head now, and will get back to you later. I suppose the question will answer itself at some point.
DHR: Do you see a separation between the soul and the flesh?
VC: What is the soul?
DHR: I don’t know.
VC: Neither do I.
DHR: Do you believe it could exist?
VC: There are many things I don’t know about that definitely do exist.
DHR: [Laughs]. Okay, we’ll get back to the poetry now.
Why do you write in iambic pentameter?
VC: Because it is beautiful.
The sonnet started as an Italian structure for Petrarch, then was used in English by Shakespeare. English is fortunate in that it has the right words and sentences for this type of speech.
It’s natural. Of course, you don’t see people speaking in iambic pentameter as a matter of habit. But when it is written down, the long and short stresses— it is something that just fits the groove of the brain.
On top of that, there’s the fact that it is a conscious limitation. There are people who write very good poems that have little structure, that have a more improvisational feel. Some of it is very good. But I have this deep fear that if I take a stab at that, I will write something completely meaningless—something that looks profound, but it isn’t. I need something to anchor me.
It takes a certain amount of effort to find new words, new phrases— and after all that time and effort, it’s kind of hard for it not to mean something.
DHR: You fear that if you abandon the anchor, you will write something that looks profound, but isn’t.
VC: Something fake.
I don’t want to be fake.
Of course, there are exceptions. For example, most denominations of Shi’a Islam allow for you to disguise yourself in order to remain alive. If you are persecuted, then you are permitted to outwardly apostatize in order to preserve your life.
DHR: Do you believe in moral good?
VC: I suppose so. There is always a right and a wrong. Always.
The right is whatever causes the most happiness and the least suffering. Of course, it might be hard to figure out which one is which.
DHR: Where does justice fall into that definition of morality? As in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas?
VC: A lot of people struggle to find a solution. One solution is that the idea of Omelas— or of the utility monster, a similar problem— is fictional. Another solution is that there is a glaring issue, but it’s the best answer we have.
DHR: Would you walk away from Omelas?
VC: I don’t know. I don’t know.
I was thinking about this problem recently. Not that this is what I do in my free time, this is sheer coincidence. But if you were to stay in Omelas, do you increase the suffering of the child?
The story of Omelas is a not-so-subtle analogy for ordinary life. Society exists because other people are suffering. There are people who made the clothes we wear, who grow the food we eat, who may not be very happy, who certainly are not politically represented.
I can’t point to a single answer. At some point, you just have to do the best you can. Of course, it’s impossible to know if I’m doing the best that I can. It could be that everything I say is absolute balderdash.
DHR: Do you believe that human life has inherent meaning?
DHR: The moment of birth until the moment of death.
VC: I should think every life has meaning.
I’m pretty sure I do.
I’m a little terrified to give an answer to that question, because I feel like the next question is going to be, “Well, how much meaning? Do some people have more meaning than others?”
DHR: No, the follow-up would be if anything or anyone has meaning, since it will all pass away—the heavens and the earth will pass away.
You quote the Bible quite often.
Did I tell you I was baptized Episcopalian?
I’ve been back to the old church-yard once, to see if my grandparents’ graves were still there. The whole place looked completely different. Part of it was that I was much younger, but I could have sworn that the shape of the building had changed, too.
Another thing— the graveyard was much smaller, and now they’d expanded it. There were many new stones, shiny new marble, with people whose names I almost remembered. The yard had almost doubled in size. Just more people being put in the ground, every day….
I am rambling again.
DHR: You speak poetically.
VC: There is a Harry Potter fan-fiction in which Hermione realizes that Harry speaks as though he is in a book, and she thinks to herself that people who are in books like Harry Potter must speak like they are in a book.
DHR: Do you think you’ve read enough literature that you—
DHR: Alright, Vasa, I have to get back to this. You said you hope free will exists. Why do you hope that it does? It’s impossible to know for sure, obviously, but why do you hope that it does?
VC: Because the alternative is terrifying.
There is a poem by Philip Larkin. The title is This Be the Verse. I’ll just recite the last stanza.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
In the last of the Lemony Snicket books, Count Olaf recites that. I think that’s how I stumbled across it.
If at any point, you are raising children, and you want to throw them into the deep end of culture and morality, give them those books.
DHR: In the absence of free will— I don’t know if it matters whether you control it or not, as long as you accept the reality of each new situation. You’re along for the ride either way.
VC: I can’t change it. It’s not like I can force the universe into being one way or the other.
DHR: Exactly. So for that reason, why do you say that you fear it?
VC: Well, it’s like death.
It’s nothing you can avoid, it’s always at the back of your mind, and it’s something all people grapple with at some point.
But just because it’s something that’s inevitable, that’s always there— you don’t have to get used to it, you don’t have to get complacent with it. It’s just something to keep around.
DHR: But not confronted directly?
VC: Well, of course, the Romans, whenever they had a triumph, they’d have someone stand behind the person who was being honored and whisper, “Remember, you will die.”
The Romans confronted that very directly. I don’t know if that’s the best way. They did some things that weren’t good as well.
The only reason people learn about the Romans is that Europe sort of put them on a pedestal after hundreds of years. Of course, the Greeks would say that the Roman Empire continued until 1453. And the Ottomans would have you believed that they were the rightful heirs. The Russians claimed that the Third Rome is in fact Moscow.
DHR: And of this Rome— in which we live— the most powerful empire in the history of the world?
VC: I won’t comment on that.
Actually, now that I think about it, there have been a number of Chinese civilizations. Just like Rome, and the Byzantines, and the Germans—all these empires following a similar tradition—the thing about China is that China has, for thousands and thousands of years, maintained its identity as China. There has always been a China.
This reminds me of something which is more interesting, which is the story of Yang Jisheng, who is my distant ancestor, through my mother. The story of how he came to die is very interesting.
After the Ming dynasty fell, the new overlords started looking for ways to get themselves into the good graces of the people. One of the things they did was to start granting honors to various deceased freedom fighters and dissidents. It was the Qing dynasty who really made this guy. They gave him all these posthumous titles and honored him with poetry.
Should I tell the beginning of the story as well?
DHR: Well, why is he important?
VC: Well, he’s my ancestor, so without him, there would be no me.
But part of the thing is that these stories are still being told because the stories are universal. This idea of someone speaking out in the face of an unjust regime is something generations of people identify with, even if they are completely different.
Yang Jisheng was a junior official, he was not someone who was tremendously important in his time. He wrote prolifically on the fact that he thought the emperor was being misled by his close advisors, who were telling him to do things that were evil. Naturally, his various advisors, including the chief minister of the court, did not approve of this, and so they arranged for his execution. They couldn’t do this legitimately, so they added his name to a death warrant meant for another, and the emperor, being a fool, signed it.
The reason why China has such a strong claim— the reason we are still reading about Yang Jisheng— is because you can take bits and pieces and identify it with yourself. You don’t have to take the whole thing, you can pick and choose.
Revolutionaries have always loved Yang Jisheng. The early Chinese Communist Party really adored him. And defenders of the orthodox will say, “He was one of us— he was seeking to restore what was true and noble about China.”
And so whoever you are, you can identify with the story. It’s malleable.
DHR: Universal utility— is that what you’ve been getting at this whole time?
VC: I have no idea what I’m talking about now. I’m just babbling.
Take the poems. Publish them.
Until we meet again.