Conspiratorial Voices

Local professor/writer David Clewell explains how he gave voice to Jack Ruby

Jack Ruby's America is David Clewell's eighth book of poems and the second in "an ongoing imagined history of modern American paranoia and conspiracy theory." That series is titled Breathing in the Twentieth Century, with puns on the Rolling Stones (who sucked in the '70s) and the Latin root of "conspiracy" -- conspirare, "to breathe together." Latin etymology and the Stones: Those are the perfect twin references for this unpretentious poet who is quite at ease in the present day but still does his homework.

Both Jack Ruby's America and its predecessor in this series, The Conspiracy Quartet, were published by Garlic Press, a brave little local imprint run by Peter Genovese, whom Clewell thanks for giving "a place of refuge to some of my most obstreperous white elephants." Clewell, who teaches literature and writing at Webster University, credits other folks as helping form a sort of local support system, including the poet and retired Wash. U. prof Don Finkel ("make-shift patron saint and Secretary of Defence-of-Long-Poems"); his wife, Patricia Clewell, who designed this book; and his young son, Ben, or "Benzilla," who is "still a tad too young to consider disowning his nutball father." Kevin Belford, a graceful local artist who has worked frequently for the RFT, supplied a dramatic painting for the cover.

For whatever shameful reasons, we tend to think less of local poets who publish locally, so be it said that Clewell can run with the big out-of-town dogs: His book Blessings in Disguise, for example, was published by Viking/Penguin and was a winner in the National Poetry Series.

Recently, Clewell spoke to the RFT about the gangster in his childhood, some of his compositional decisions in writing Jack Ruby's America and his growing sense of the poet's responsibility to tell history:

RFT: In your credits, you thank a small-time mobster who was on your paper route as a boy. Who was he? Was he a personal source for Ruby's voice?

Clewell: John Sandonato. His son was my best friend in first, second, third grade in New Brunswick, N.J. He was no Don kingpin, but he wasn't teeny-tiny, either. He ended up going down -- it's not a big story. He was gonna testify on a murder-by-arson but he got car-bombed out of the way. He's peripheral to this book, he was peripheral to my life, but that was my first taste, that was when I started to get the drift, when I began to try to piece suspicious things together.

I guess Ruby stands in for a few people I knew growing up, people who got pushed around. I picked up bits and pieces of him from certain people I grew up with, people on the cheap side who wanted to belong. What you need to confront as a writer are not necessarily the things that happened to you personally.

The monologues in this book are so powerful. Why did you even do any chapters in the third person?

I didn't want to presume that much; I didn't want Ruby to tell his own story as much as have his story told. I wanted to tell his story as if I were writing fiction, and you can't have him say half the things that he can be observed doing. I wanted to keep the monologues only for those times when I could really, really hear his voice in my head.

Why the title Jack Ruby's America?

Because Ruby was just this Jewish immigrant street kid who wanted to belong -- to be involved. He had siblings galore, scattered out to foster homes (though I don't go into that in the book). He hung on the cops, he was the sandwich deliverer, but he wanted to be where the action is. And he half expected that half of America would treat him as a hero for killing the guy who killed Camelot. He wanted to save Jackie the trauma of coming back to Dallas for the trial. He was trying to help this country, in a way. He wanted to belong in America.

You know, I'm coming around to the idea (and I never was really against it) that we need to get back to the poet's oldest job: telling history. Don't leave it to the shrinks or the so-called historians. Tell history, get it right. We need to get away from our navels, from our petty concerns, from that bad meal I ate last night. We need to have something we want to sing about. In too many poems, you find a birdcage with the finest metals, it's hung just right, in the right light, but there's no fucking bird!

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