#CrashawPrize The shortlist in profile: Caleb Klaces
Caleb was born in Birmingham in 1983. He has worked as an environmental sustainability consultant, a freelance writer and editor and a teaching assistant at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, he works for Zamyn [www.zamyn.org ], an independent analytical agency focussed on international development, based in London. His poetry has most recently appeared online in Granta and The Manchester Review, and is forthcoming in the print anthology Lung Jazz: Young Poets for Oxfam and Stand magazine.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
The book’s made up of five sections, mostly written separately – so there have been five beginnings, over the last few years, more if you include the many poems I thought might grow into sequences, or lead to others like themselves, but didn’t. The most recent beginning – of it as a book – came about a year ago. The parts change when put together, so there was lots of redrafting and moving about to get it to be something of a whole.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
I was living between Texas and the UK – studying and teaching in Austin during term time, then spending holidays with my girlfriend in London, Birmingham and Yorkshire, with a road trip across Texas and New Mexico in there too.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
The summer before last, I read in a footnote on a blog the title of a book that sounded intriguing. It was called Bookmen’s Bedlam: an Olio of Literary Oddities, written by Walter Hart Blumenthal and published in 1955. The next morning I cycled into campus, to the brutalist Perry-Castañeda Library (a building not designed to be seen from below but above – looking down you see that it’s shaped like Texas) and found a dusty copy of Bookmen’s Bedlam amongst rows of outdated encyclopedias. When I’d carried it across an eight-lane highway home, and read chapters on very small books, very large books, and books bound with human skin, I came across an account of the ‘discovery’ of the oldest known printed book – the Diamond Sutra – lifted by a British explorer from a monastic cave that had been sealed for centuries, in Western China. Having never been to China, I kept reading – making my way through the explorer Aurel Stein’s diaries of his trek across the desert, and of sweet-talking the hapless monk appointed to look after the cave, then inevitably going back online to look at tourists’ photographs of themselves in the painted Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, and then more books in the many sharp corners of the PCL. The Diamond Sutra is now kept in the British Library, where my girlfriend went to work every day while I was writing the book.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
About six months – from gathering together the poems to feeling like I had something that could be given a title of its own.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
My dad’s a writer and has always taken me seriously as one too.
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
I’d like to be writing an epic poem on Haile Selassie’s exile in Bath. The Emperor fled there after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.
Postcards of Stein’s Trip.
[After the British . . .]
After the British, the French and the Russian collectors,
more Russians made it to the Mogao caves,
emigrants sent there by Chinese bureaucrats
who didn’t know what else to do with them.
They had left together because they were unwanted
not because they were friends;
half had stopped talking to the other half,
who slept in the upper caves, in shifts.
In one cave a smiling statue is dressed in robes
painted with pictures of rooms
in which men sit cross-legged facing statues
dressed in men-in-rooms pattern,
the surface repeated, revealed,
inside itself and so on like gossip.
The emigrants wrote their names all over the statue,
carved genitals into its mouth
and cut out its eyes. “The kind of shit people do
to find out where they are”,
my friend would say after biting his wife
in his sleep. “In my dream I was in a house
with no walls”, he’d tell me, out getting his bearings,
in an open space, on his own.
He once woke under a desk
on the eighteenth floor of an empty office block.
The panicked guard sat him down
in front of the security tapes
and they had silently watched nothing happen
in silent grey rooms for an hour
by the time my friend saw himself
slip through the back door.
Nobody had ever seen the cave behind the water.
“Please don’t show it in your film”,
requested the elder tribesman. “We would rather not pry
where the swifts go. It is their place,
not ours”. The elder and the director shook hands.
They understood one another.
But how could he not still take a camera
through the falls, just once, to turn
on himself, to star in what wasn’t really there?
Discover more about Caleb Klaces
The Sun in a Box (Granta) [http://www.granta.com/new-writing/new-poet-caleb-klaces]
Towards Selection (Horizon Review) [http://www.saltpublishing.com/horizon/issues/06/text/Klaces_Caleb.htm]
As a Request for Permission (Clinic) [http://clinicpresents.com/2012/01/16/asarequestforpermissio/]
Painting over Aya Sofia (Poetry Foundation) [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/237718]
Language is Her Caravan (Poetry Foundation) [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/237720]
All Safe All Well (Flarestack Poets) [http://www.flarestackpoets.co.uk/page9.htm]
Letters from One Young Poet to Another (Granta) [http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/Letters-from-one-Young-Poet-to-Another]
Three Variations on Quotation (Notes from the Underground) [http://www.nftu.co.uk/2011/11/22/three-variations-on-the-theme-of-quotation/]
Three Poets and the World (The White Review) [http://www.thewhitereview.org/features/three-poets-and-the-world/]