Poetry in the meter of the oral tradition

Ryan Winn

“All music is poetry,” Louis V. Clark III stated. “I write in a musical manner. I hear drums in my head.”

I asked the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin tribal member to describe his craft in honor of April being Nation Poetry Month. Clark, a retired blue-collar worker who penned poems and stories throughout his life, began a second career as a published man of letters within the past decade.

“I’m very blessed,” Clark reflected, but that came after a lifetime of discrimination against him for being a Native American in an intolerant world. “I had to handle a lot of racism, but I kept writing. I did it for me. I put my feelings down on paper to cleanse myself.”

Clark, who spent 19 years coaching his six children through little league alongside his wife, Debbie, entered the publishing world covering sports stories for The Omro Herald. Then in 2010, he answered a call for poetry in a newspaper, which resulted in his meeting James Parins from the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas. Clark learned Parins was the grandson of former Green Bay Packers’ President Robert J. Parins, and the two men bonded over Clark’s work and stories about their shared alma mater, West De Pere High School.

In 2011, Sequoyah published Clark’s first chapbook, “Two Shoes,” which meant the poet had to promote his book in public events. Quick to use humor, Clark relayed, “The first thing I did was go out and purchase a suit jacket with elbow patches on it. I at least wanted to look the part.”

Clark needn’t have worried about the fragility of his success, as soon over a thousand copies of his book were in print and he was speaking regularly before audiences of all ages and walks of life. In 2012, he won an Oneida Nation Arts Program Fellowship. By 2014, Clark was in such demand that he was able to move his reading before the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Annual Convention in Green Bay to enable him to watch his son pitch for Lawrence University’s baseball team.

After the reading, Clark was asked to turn his remarks about his life’s story into the book “How to Be an Indian in the 21st Century,” which Wisconsin Historical Society Press published in 2017. The press took a chance on Clark, making his book the first poetry collection they’d published after more than a century and a half in the business. Their efforts were rewarded with a Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, which Clark both deserved and appreciated but still surprised him.

“I don’t write with some grandiose themes,” he said. “Stuff gets in my head and it has to get out.”

In 2019, Wisconsin Historical Society Press doubled down on Clark, publishing “Rebel Poet,” whose publicity included a National Public Radio interview and a public reading aired on PBS. Like his earlier work, the new book collects cathartic stories in verse that run the gamut of experiences. There’s power in his words, drawing empathy from his readers with every rhyming couplet or, as Clark puts it, “I meet life and I accept it.”

Thinking nationally, Clark noted that poetry is making a comeback in American society. “I think you saw it with the last inauguration,” recognizing how our country was taken with the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s performance of “The Hill We Climb.”

Still, for Clark, American poetry is a practice older than America. “I think Oneida elders put things to meter so they would remember the stories. In my own way, I’m perpetuating the oral tradition.”

For Clark, “Poetry is a gift from the Creator. It’s in my head and it goes to my hand.”

While Clark’s poetry describes volatility, he remembers his parents as loving providers despite their perchance for violence. He fondly recalled how calm came to the Clark household in the summer.

“During pow wow time, I could hear drums played at the Oneida ball diamond. We lived nearby, and I could hear them from my bed at night. There were no fights and I felt safe.” Clark continued, “I fell in love with the meter of those drums. It felt secure. Now I try to write to make myself feel secure.”

Yaw’ko, Louis, for sharing your time, talent, and musical verses.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit www.menominee.edu for more information about the school.