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Poet David Clewell Tackles The Atomic Age

New book, "Almost Nothing To Be Scared Of," uses iconic Cold War image for its cover

Poet David Clewell in his Webster University office. photo by Jeni Fehr (click for larger version)

July 27, 2016
David Clewell, who served as Poet Laureate for Missouri from 2010 to 2012, has established himself as an atomic age bard. He's embraced this new role with his latest book of poems, "Almost Nothing to Be Scared Of."

The cover of his book features an iconic photo of swimming pools sold in the 1950s that could double as nuclear bomb fallout shelters. The Cold War image captured by famous German photographer Max Scheler was not so easy to track down to use for the book.

"My wife, Patricia, and I located it as a part of Scheler's estate in Europe and only at the 11th hour before the book went to press," said Clewell. "It's kitsch. It's nostalgia, but it's still real atomic age. And the genie has never really been put back in the bottle.

"We still have a North Korean dictator trying to get nuclear missiles to fly," said Clewell. "The nuclear age – it's still here. The tongue-in-cheek title of my book is that there are still a lot of scary things going on, but the message is you cannot be so scared by it all that you become immobilized."

Evidence that we still live in the shadow of an atomic age is in the news every day. Witness President Barack Obama's May trip to the memorial at Hiroshima. Witness a ghost writer for a U.S. presidential candidate, Donald Trump, warning he is too dangerous to have access to nuclear launch codes.

Clewell takes on much more than the paranoia of a protracted atomic age in his poetry. His subjects include assassination plots, flying saucers, conspiracy theorists, cryptographers and those who wear tinfoil hats to protect against government surveillance.

(click for larger version)

In his latest poetic space odyssey, Clewell draws on the wisdom of the Amazing Criswell in explaining why you are partaking in his poetry of the weird: "You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here."

And Clewell delivers with such lengthy forays as, "Greetings from Roswell, New Mexico: Home of the Historic 1947 Flying Saucer Crash" or with his classic, "When I Called the National Security Agency to Complain About Indiscriminate Collection of Private Citizens' Telephone Records, I Was Put on Hold for a Suspiciously Long Time."

State Poet Laureate

In 2010 when he became state poet laureate, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon noted that Clewell "has a unique perspective on contemporary American life and the characters and ideas that loom large in our recent history."

Clewell hit the road to give readings all over the Show-Me State. He had plenty of works to read as he is author of seven poetry collections. His work has appeared in over 50 journals and magazines, including Harper's, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, The Georgia Review, Ontario Review, New Letters and Yankee.

"Being a poet laureate was really just about doing a lot more of what I already was doing," said Clewell. "It was an honor, but it took time away from my writing. Fortunately, Webster University gave me leave time to write and to read around the state."

As an English professor at Webster University, Clewell teaches courses on 19th- and 20th-century literature, as well as his poetry workshops and literature seminars.

"What I really liked about being a poet laureate was the range of my experiences all over Missouri," said Clewell. "I had a reading at the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, at small rural schools in the Bootheel, at a winery outside Warrensburg, and a reading in the rotunda of the state capitol in Jefferson City."

In Jefferson City, Clewell gave his own unique account of a Missouri natural disaster entitled, "Sonata for Tornado in EF-5 (Major) May 22, 2011, 5:41-6:13 p.m." His poem recalls those who hid in the walk-in refrigerator at a Joplin Gas-N-Go during the storm that took more than 160 lives.

Clewell writes: "And they can't see how much of the city is currently up in the air: street signs, trash cans, window panes, WELCOME mats and floorboards. Whole families unceremoniously blown out of their living rooms.

"In the cooler, they're actually sweating it out, praying and crying and holding one another, wondering why these few minutes seem more than even an overblown lifetime."

Clewell said he often takes considerable poetic license writing about actual events. Not so with the Joplin tornado, because the event was so fantastic, there was little need for hyperbole, embellishment or exaggeration.

Ordinary Annoyances

Lest one steer clear of Clewell's work because it seems too bizarre, too "out there," too phantasmagorical, it must be noted that Clewell does devote plenty of words to ordinary annoyances that bug us all.

His epic work on everyday annoyance might be: "Since So Many People Don't Seem to Know What No Soliciting Means, I Tried to Spell It Out More Fully on My Front Door."

A brief excerpt on how Clewell spells it out: "No Saving-the-whales, No Feeding-the-Children, No Organic Milk Home Delivery, No Running-for-Office-and-I-Need-Your-Vote, No Walking-for-the-Cure-and-I-Need More-Sponsors, No..."

Clewell sounds like a real crank – humorous, yes – but still exceptionally cranky. He admits as much. He actually has a "No Solicitation" sign on the front door of his Webster Groves home. He complains it is not always effective.

Clewell is irked by advisories such as "Do Not Overinflate;" and he is ready to read the riot act against common wisdom such as: fame is fleeting or the efficacy of give-and-take.

Nevertheless, Clewell does have a soft side. He writes affectionately of certain characters in his life, folks like Uncle Bud or a grade school crush whom he has given the pseudonym of Debby Fuller.

"One time I was giving a reading where I mentioned Debby Fuller," recalled Clewell. "I guess I should not be surprised I attracted a private-eye type who came up and volunteered to help me track down where Debby Fuller is now. I told him that if I really wanted to find her, I could probably use Facebook."

Except that Clewell hates Facebook. – and he would never use it for anything. In his poem, "Social Media and Me," he declares: "I prefer real life, where actual friends don't ask to be..." Clewell insists he would only consider using Facebook if he could go on an "unfriending rampage."

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