Clarence Major is a teacher, fiction writer, essayist, poet and painter.
Actually, you shouldn't even try to put him in a category. As soon as you do so, he will volunteer the fact that he is working on something completely different from his last project.
He is an essayist who writes poetry and a novelist who writes other people's memoirs. He is a painter and the cover art of his latest book of poetry, "Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958-1998" (Copper Canyon Press) is one of his own paintings also titled "Configurations."
"I went through all of my books of poetry with the advantage of time and distance and selected the poems I thought were the best," said Major, explaining how he chose the poems to include.
"I was looking for continuity, too. I left out some good poems that didn't fit the arrangement," he said.
Students at UC Davis consider him mainly a fiction writer. His 1996 novel, "Dirty Bird Blues," was about a musician from the South Side of Chicago.
"I work mostly with fiction writers," Major said, sitting in his English department office on campus. "But poetry is my first love. Poetry is the tool that sharpens language, that polishes speech to its finest. Fiction doesn't have to be like poetry, but it helps if the language is fresh and sharp.
"I came to poetry when I was a young kid, the same with painting. I grew up among religious relatives in Chicago. The Bible is full of poetry and I grew up with a sense of rhythmic language all around me. Also, my mother read to us (he has two sisters) when we were kids. Her taste was not what I would endorse today but she shared with us and gave us the sense of the possibilities of language."
Major said he was not pushed to be a writer and never had the idea he could make a living at writing. But it was an idea that wouldn't go away.
"I was stubborn," he said. "And there were tough years in my 20s and 30s when I was living in New York City, teaching part time and trying to make a breakthrough as a writer. I still have not arrived, but I congratulate myself that I can make a living and get a job.
"I once asked a famous poet in his 60s what the secret to his success was and he said he just stuck to it. I think success is the ability to concentrate and focus and stay focused for hours at a time. It takes discipline to sit down and write a 300- or 500-page book. It can be both intense and boring at times."
Major himself will be the subject of a book next year. "Clarence Major: A Post-Modernist Artist," a critical study of his work as an artist, is being compiled by Professor Bernard Bell at Penn State. This book will combine 30-40 of his paintings with essays about his work.
"I don't have enough time to paint," said Major. "But when I do paint I try to paint what I feel about what I see rather than what I see. I work in oils and in acrylics and watercolor.
"Lately I would rather paint or write poetry than start another novel," he said. "The pleasure of creating anything is in the process but there's something to be said for a short duration. It's nerve-wracking to have the process stretch out for two or three years when a painting or poem need only take two or three days."
When Major isn't painting or writing poetry he is finishing a memoir of his mother. Titled "Inez," Major says he hopes to have it finished by the end of the summer.
"My mother is 80 years old and still lives in Chicago," he said. "Her story is so dramatic, just like the history of this country. She was born in 1919 and has seen the country move from the horse and buggy days to the Space Age."
Oh, yes, and he also has a book of essays coming out, probably in 2001. Titled "Afterthoughts: Essays and Criticism," it will include short pieces and book reviews written over the years. Major lived in France and Italy from roughly 1981 to 1985 and some of the work included in the collection will be from that period.
He remembers the year 1985 as being one of the most fruitful of his career. He and his wife, Pam, were living in Venice.
"I didn't have to teach, I had the whole year off," he said. "I finished three books and hundreds of drawings." Later, he wrote a whole book of poems about Venice, "Surfaces and Masks." Eighteen poems from that period are included in "Configurations."
He spent 12 years at University of Colorado, Boulder, before moving to Davis in 1989.
He and Pam have been married for nearly 20 years. One of his most recent poems in "Configurations" is dedicated to Pam and recalls their travels in Europe together. It's called "On Aging."
He may be growing older, but he continues to be amazingly prolific.
To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
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