Updated: Aug 5
By Guest Editor J. Khan:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café celebrates poetry from the globe and features unique poets of all ages. This week, we've invited a guest editor, Jemshed Khan—a renowned poet who has been featured on our site—to interview artist and poet Bruce McClain.
Bruce McClain was born in Port Chester, NY. After a near-fatal injury in childhood, Bruce was hospitalized and in a coma for several months. He had to relearn how to read and write. Bruce graduated from high school and received a scholarship from the Pratt-Phoenix School of Design in New York City. Mentor Martin S. Friedman was the first to discover Bruce's love for art and kept him focused. Murry Tinkleman and Jim Spanfeller also fed his passion. Bruce credits his family and teachers with nurturing his love of art and poetry.
Visit brucemcclainartworks.com to see his work and find out more about the artist.
As guest editor for the Flapper Press Poetry Café, I reached out to Bruce to talk to him about his passions, inspirations, and the connection between art and poetry.
Please meet Bruce McClain!
Jemshed Khan: Bruce, welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café. You travel the creative road as both a talented poet and an exceptional artist. What are your goals as a poet? As an artist?
Bruce McClain: My goal with writing poetry is to be heard. I endeavor to take the reader along on my life’s journey. This poetic side of me is like a composer. When I combine my poetry with my art, it becomes a symphony and takes on a special life. I feel that poetry gives the art breath and begins to talk to my audience. Since my goal is to give breath to my art, when I include poetry, this additional lifeline gives my work an even deeper purpose. Having said that, my art and my poetry can each stand alone.
With art, my goal is to produce creative works that express imaginative thought. Media recognition gives my artistry exposure for people to see, but I stay focused on what my expectation is. Media is temporary and, as Picasso said, "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working," otherwise, I will lose track of my goal. Like a good book, every page draws you into the story, and you become part of it. The language of art is wordless but not without felt experience. My purpose is to make the viewer [feel] something that will resonate with them;
The absence of words invites the viewer to take a closer look and ask, "What is the message?"
JK: Artists today often define themselves and their work on the basis of ethnicity, race, gender, ideology, etc. How do you view your work?
BM: I don't want people to see my art in the context of my race. I am an African American, but I am also free to explore the unlimitedness that my innate creativity allows without the mention or identification of color. The right to free expression is something one seizes, so it is my right to be revolutionary with my artistry absent the subject of ethnicity. At a recent art show, I gave at the Box Gallery, my theme was "Elder Leaf," focusing on an aspect of collective life, illustrating the experience of aging using nature as a metaphor. It is a universal subject that affects all people across the color spectrum.
JK: You don't sound like a person who graduated from high school with a third-grade literacy level, yet you did—and now you are a poet and artist. How did this happen?
BM: There's a saying, "Healing is an art. It takes time, it takes practice, it takes love." I was seriously injured when I was five years of age. I was not able to attend my first year of schooling. To say the least, it was a slow march to recovery. I clearly remember the day when I was finally able to come home from the hospital, I was greeted with much love. My sister Sally carried me on her back until I was able to walk again; my oldest brother, Walter, carried me on his shoulders chanting, "King, King, King,” down the stairs to the dinner table. Healing began the moment I entered my home. The injury impaired my learning ability throughout my school years.
Love played a large part in my healing—the artist and poet inside me was waiting in the wings of time. We took a slow march to recovery.
JK: Where does your inspiration come from? What motivates your work?
BM: I believe the essence of my inspiration is Divine influence. When I consider the masters of any creative works, I see something greater than us is at work; we're not alone. Inspiration can come from a variety of things: literature, history, war, music, drama, visions, dreams, etc.; but innovation without discipline and routine will prevent us from taking our inspiration to the finish line. Chaim Potok said, "Millions of people can draw. Art is whether there is a scream in you wanting to get out in a special way." It's the breath of inspiration upon me that motivates and gives me the momentum to create. That is the mystery of it all.
JK: The faces in your work seem to harbor an intimate fear, wisdom, hope, or pain. Does this relate to your life experiences?
BM: Yes, but throughout our lives we all experience moments of fear, pain, and winks of wisdom; we learn important life lessons, and we move with our lives. It's not the same for the elderly. When they encounter moments of fear and pain, you see it in their faces—a feeling of isolation and loss of hope, no longer feeling valued.
JK: What is your favorite medium?
BM: My favorite medium is graphite, it creates powerful images that you cannot achieve with color; It has character of its own. From the world of grayscale, one is drawn into a sphere of emotions, the variations of gray tones have a way of throwing light on one's mortality. We see our deepest feelings on display in the shadows of grayscale.
JK: How would you describe how your art and poetry relate to each other?
BM: My art and poetry walk hand in hand; collectively they speak to my imagination. Much of my combined work is ekphrastic. Together, the poem and art, they tell a story.
JK: Bruce, I would like to conclude our interview by asking you to share three of your original poems with their backstories as well as your artwork.
BM: I would be delighted to share. Thank you, Jemshed, for inviting me into the Flapper Press Poetry Café.
This poem is a summary of my fledgling years, those days of youth that seemed never ending. But now, in my twilight years, they're resigned to my mental scrapbook of memories. Inspiration for this poem also comes from my experience working at a nursing home as an Activities Director.
I have had many conversations with nursing-home residents about their lives. Some gladly shared their early childhood days, others mused with few spoken words. I saw in their eyes and facial expressions how their stories began unfurling. I heard how, in their youth, they soared like kites that never landed, how in their fertile childhood imaginations, make-believe was their reality.
I Am Yesterday
My yesterday's grow farther and further away from me.
I call but they have no ears, no voice, no eyes to see.
I am resigned to memories to keep me company.
I stand like a tree hollowed from slow rot. I lean when I walk,
even my legs cannot compete with the blow of wind. My head
hangs like a rusted bell who lost its ding.
When I think, I am yesterday, it is all I remember. No one listens.
Day and night are everlasting. The sun, the moon and stars return
to their places according to their times.
The mountains of the earth are where God first placed them, and
we all call them by their fame. But I am yesterday, resigned to
faded memories no one remembers but me.
"Remnant" is a reflection of a life already lived, witnessing the deterioration of a once-vigorous body thinly wrapped in frailty. The sounds of popping arthritic joints and the scent of an aging odor feels like betrayal. The use of metaphors, a wrinkled robe that hangs like an old soldier or a clock that breaks its silence, speaks of the nearness of one's finality. The bystander, in observing the bustle, is invigorated; he recalls the former days when his life was valued. He feels no fear, and in the mirror of his eyes, what he sees is the summit of a life lived.
I ran with the wind when I was a lad,
hence, now I am old
my feet fleet no more.
In my decline, memories I have had,
but I am grateful for my years, three score.
Nearby my rocker, my slippers neatly stay,
my wrinkled robe hangs.
like an old soldier.
The clock breaks its silence, another day.
My body scent is of an aging odor.
Though my strength dwindles, my will continues.
My steps are short
and my legs do quiver.
I'll make my way down to the Avenues -
yes, to eye the drift of human endeavor.
What is left of me - a blur - a hoary head?
The more I diminish - I dance with the dead.
This poem tells the story of an old sailor’s love for the sea, where he spent most of his life on a boat he called his lover and his muse. Once he labored against mammoth waves and the roar of rushing waters and the howling winds that sounded like voices rising from the deep. Now, his boat is mostly buried in sand, and he is diminished in strength. He fills the days of his life beside the relic that reminds him of his former days: the stern partially buried in the sands by the seashore, a relic indeed, but an object of affection, his beloved, his hymn.
Hymn for the Phantom Queen
The bow rests deep into the sands
of the shoreline, a relic given up
by the ocean's blue design.
The eternal soak and recede.
The old seadog jaunts to the beach,
to spend time with his muse. Quietly
he sits and listens to familiar voices,
his mind like a lantern illuminates his past.
Echoes of split timber and ripped sails -
the shipwreck of memories. Their weight
tires him. Once he fought giant waves and fish.
His boat now subdued in waves of sand, water
dissolves what remains - his ruptured muse,
he whispers a hymn to his phantom queen.
J. Khan lives and works in Kansas and Missouri. He has published in diverse magazines including Unlikely Stories, Rigorous, Rat's Ass Review, Chiron Review, Clockwise Cat, shufPoetry, Barzakh, pureSlush, Fifth Estate, I-70 Review, califragile, Coal City Review, San Pedro River Review, and Writers Resist. He has served as a guest editor for Glass: Poets Resist, was nominated for The Pushcart Prize XLIV, has completed a chapbook, and is mulling a book-length collection.