Poet, teacher Claire Stancek talks power of words, ‘Mouths’

Claire stancek
Ariel Hayat/Senior Staff

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“I have a story that my mom likes to retell of me as a child,” says Claire Marie Stancek.

We’re at one of her favorite on-campus haunts — a bench in the thick of the London plane tree grove at the north foot of the Campanile. Here, the strange, knobby branches of the trees seem to hook into the rain-heavy clouds overhead — somehow, it feels like we’ve been transported to some foreign, apocalyptic incarnation of the campus, and the scenery is oddly perfectly fitting for our conversation.

“When we were going shopping, there was a board — a chalkboard — and it said ‘Welcome, friends,’ ” she continues. “It was really sweet, but I was a child  — I was probably 7 or 8 years old  — and I erased the ‘r’ so it said suddenly, ‘Welcome, fiends.’ ”

She pauses to think. It’s late afternoon — one of the off-times for foot traffic around the bell tower, and while the lack of noise is a little eerie, it’s peaceful.

“My mom likes to tell the story as an example of my young mischief and, sort of, cleverness — so it’s one of those stories that moms tell,” she said. “But I don’t know — I always kind of think of that story as one of the first moments where I started to more be a poet. Part of what’s so magical about poetry is the way in which words can become other words — suddenly transform into other words.”

As a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the English department, Stancek has a love for words that comes as no surprise. While hard at work on her dissertation, she has also managed to file for a master’s degree in creative writing just last semester, and this spring, she’s teaching the lower-division poetry creative writing workshop, English 43B. Despite the difficulty of juggling her various roles as a scholar, a teacher and poet, Stancek is several years deep in the process of writing a poetry manuscript, “Mouths.”

Taking on concepts of language, communication and the apocalypse, “Mouths” is a grand, ambitious project that grew out of UC Berkeley’s creative writing master’s program under the mentorship of professors Lyn Hejinian and Geoffrey G. O’Brien. When prompted to describe her work, Stancek looks contemplative — in all likelihood, with such a conceptually complex project, even the task of summarizing is difficult.

“I would say that it’s an ecocritical project,” Stancek says. “Its boldest ambition — which is also an impossible ambition — is to attempt to speak outside of human language and outside of human ways of thinking. But at the same time, it’s a project that’s always aware that this is impossible, because not only is it written in human language, but it’s written in English, which is something that I want to be really self-conscious about — English as a language of war and difference; English as a language that expands and takes over other smaller languages.”

When asked about the title of her manuscript, Stancek explains her fascination with language and communication and, by extension, the instrument most of us use most often to communicate — our mouths.

“I’m really interested in mouths,” Stancek says. “A lot of different things have mouths, right? Not just humans, but animals have mouths, insects have mouths — most things have mouths. Even trees have mouths, in a way, like the roots are like mouths. I’m interested in mouths as something both creative — as something that makes sounds — and destructive — as something that eats, something that devours.”

Stancek is clearly intrigued by destruction, and her interest makes itself known in her poetry — her manuscript is broken into three parts, the first of which she describes as “violently joyful” in its envisioning of a world in which humans are destroyed by seemingly harmless parts of nature. Following a similar vein, the third section explores systems that “create voids in the world — systems like war, or big systems like language.” This section she describes as “mournful.”

A glimmer of hope, however, shines in the second section, where the driving concept is the possibility of true communication. “(I) wants to really picture the possibility that it is actually possible to understand something else that isn’t ourselves,” she says. “What I was trying to do with my poems is to open up the speaking voice to other voices and to just completely act as a receptacle for other voices.”

“Most of the poems in this section are titled ‘after’ something,” Stancek says. “So, I have a poem like ‘after Virginia Woolf’ — and then other things that aren’t in the canon of Western literature at all, like Drake — I have a poem after Drake. I have a poem after Lena Dunham. I’m trying to really take these people seriously as poets and think of what it would be to speak after them. Whether or not ‘Girls’ is a poem is up for debate, but I want to creatively misread ‘Girls’ as a poem, you know?”

In this way, though “Mouths” is an atmospherically heavy and dark project overall, a certain lightheartedness threads itself into the verse. It’s an interesting combination — “Girls” and Drake plus the apocalyptic collapse of humanity — and we can see a similar set of qualities in Stancek herself. She’s soft-spoken, yet serious.

“She is unwilling to be frivolous or to regard anything as trivial — though she can be very witty, and she has an enormous capacity for delight,” wrote Stancek’s mentor Lyn Hejinian in an email to The Daily Californian.  “She is gloomy about the future, but her writing is unnervingly beautiful.”

And despite Stancek’s impressive artistic and academic brilliance, she’s humble about her accomplishments, likening her path to this interview to the moment when she, as a small child, first began to play with words.

“I think that I’ve always been enamored of words,” she says. “And I also grew up in a home full of books, so I was always reading. I was making little rhymes before I could write, and (poetry) was always really important (to me).”

She smiles, a little sheepishly, and says, “I guess I don’t see sitting on this bench as being so far from where I’ve been, even as a child erasing the ‘r’ from ‘friends,’ you know?”

 

Lindsay Choi writes profile pieces. Contact her at [email protected].