The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Clemens Starck Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

July 30, 2015


Clemens P. Starck was born in 1937 in Rochester, New York, and was raised in a small town outside of Rochester called Irondequoit. As a child growing up during World War II, Starck dreamed of becoming a pilot, and as a high school student he joined the Ground Observer Corps, for which he would often climb the tallest building in Rochester and watch for enemy aircraft. In 1954, near the end of his high school career, Starck went on student exchange to West Germany. In the fall of that year, he began his collegiate studies at Princeton University.

Starck discovered the classics while at Princeton, majoring in French literature and minoring in German. The summer following his freshman year, Starck took additional courses in French at Middlebury College and, while there, worked as a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He returned to Princeton that fall but dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, in part because he felt that he was more serious than were his fellow students.

After leaving Princeton, Starck moved back in with his parents and studied classical Greek on his own. During this time, he also worked as a night watchman on a construction site and, later, as a construction laborer. At the end of the summer, Starck hitchhiked down the east coast to Mobile, Alabama, where he procured his seaman's documents. From there, he moved to New Orleans in search of work on a ship but, unable to secure employment, wound up riding the freight trains west.

Starck eventually arrived in northeast Oregon and took a job as a hired hand on a cattle ranch in Grant County, Oregon. He stayed at the ranch for a year and a half, leaving in 1959 in favor of Middlebury, Vermont, where he intended to wait tables again at the Bread Loaf conference. Rather than offering him a position as a waiter, the conference's organizers gave Starck a scholarship to attend the meeting, and it was during this time that Starck came into contact with a poet who inspired him to start writing.

After the conference, Starck, by now twenty-one years old, moved back in to his parents' home in Rochester. He began writing in earnest, mostly poems, and hoping to eventually pen a novel. He later moved to New Jersey and New York - working in a concrete plant and for a trade weekly - and married his first wife. He also began sending his poetry to magazines and journals, but all he received in return was rejection slips.

In the early 1960s, Starck moved again, this time to Taos, New Mexico, where he had received a writing grant from a poetry foundation. He and his wife lived in New Mexico for about a year until, in 1963, she was accepted to graduate school at UC-Berkeley. Once arrived in the Bay Area, Starck was accepted into a carpentry apprenticeship program, and eventually began working as a carpenter. He also continued to write, his style now beginning to incorporate freer forms of verse. He likewise gave several public readings while in San Francisco, and was also published for the first time.

Starck and his wife divorced in 1967 and he subsequently left San Francisco, finally going to sea as a merchant seaman. When Starck returned stateside in 1969, he married his second wife, Barbara. The couple relocated to British Columbia, where Starck built custom homes, and where Barbara gave birth to their daughter, later to be followed by two adopted sons. The family returned to Oregon in 1976, where they purchased and renovated a house outside of Dallas, Oregon. After a hiatus of nine years, Starck also started writing again. His roots now in Oregon, Starck worked in commercial construction for ten years. Then, in 1986, he found employment with Oregon State University as a carpenter with the Physical Plant, now called Facilities Services. He remained at OSU for eighteen years.

In the early 1990s, Starck was giving a poetry reading at Willamette University when he was approached by a professor at the university. The professor asked if Starck would be willing to teach a creative writing course, and he accepted. Starck published his first book of poems, Journeyman's Wages, in 1995; he was fifty-seven years old at the time and had been writing for thirty-six years. The following year, Journeyman's Wages won the Oregon Book Award for Poetry as well as the William Stafford Memorial Award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. He published his next book, Studying Russian on Company Time in 1999.

Starck cut back to part-time at OSU in 2003 and retired from the university in 2005. He wrote two more books during this period, China Basin (2002), which was nominated for the Oregon Book Award, and Traveling Incognito (2003). Since his retirement, Starck has released a fourth book of poetry Rembrandt, Chainsaw, (2011) and has also recorded two CDs of his poetry set to music, Looking for Parts (2008) and Getting It Straight (2013).