Hello and goodbye

Published April 15, 2007

Lisa Birnbaum started college in 1972 with a love of literature. One of her first friends was Kevin Clarke, a gay poet from New York's Greenwich Village with a gravelly voice and a boisterous outlook. The duo became a threesome when Birnbaum started dating Bruce Waite, a visual artist.

More than 30 years later, that friendship has resulted in The Movie of Us, Clarke's first book of poetry. See review, next page. The book falls into a sad, small club: It's a first book published after its author's death. Clarke died from heart failure in 2002.

The three met at Goddard College, a progressive liberal arts college in rural Vermont. Literature instructors included poet Louise Gluck and playwright David Mamet.

"It was a very crazy scene - lots of nudity and drug use," said Birnbaum, now an English professor at the University of Tampa. "But there were lots of really creative people - lots of actors and filmmakers and people creating art late into the night."

The three friends went their separate ways after college. Birnbaum went into academia while Waite devoted himself to the visual arts. Clarke worked on his poetry while paying the bills as a professional transcriptionist for magazines and films. A few of his poems were published in such journals as Paris Review and Yale Review.

The two men would visit each other regularly and surprise Birnbaum with laughing, late-night phone calls. They remembered Birnbaum's and Clarke's old nicknames - she was Mildred; he was Fitchie.

In 2002, Birnbaum got a call from Waite alone, and he was crying. "Our Fitchie is gone," he told her. At the memorial service in Boston, where Clarke had lived, they read his poems. His twin brother, Michael Klein, handed out poems dedicated to friends and family over the years. (Klein has a different last name from Clarke because they were raised by a stepfather; later in life Clarke began using his biological father's name.) They talked about the poetry manuscript the family found on Clarke's computer.

Birnbaum got a copy of the manuscript and took it to her colleagues at the University of Tampa, including her husband, Donald Morrill, who is a poetry editor for the university's literary journal, Tampa Review. Morrill edited the book, and Klein wrote an introduction.

Bringing the friendship full circle, Waite created artwork for the book. Though poetry is hardly a lucrative publishing niche, the family agreed that royalties would go to the Kevin Jeffery Clarke Poetry Publication Fund at the University of Tampa Press, to support the publication of other first books of poetry.

The process took several years, and only Birnbaum will witness the book's debut. One morning last year, she received another phone call, this time from Waite's girlfriend. The artist had gone for a walk, she said. She went to look for him and found him on the path, dead of heart failure.

This week, friends and family members of the two men are traveling to Tampa for a poetry reading, which is part of a writers' series at the University of Tampa. Klein will read his brother's poetry.

"Of course he was always a poet," Klein said. "But the world didn't know it very much. Now they do."

Angie Drobnic Holan is a Times news researcher. Contact her at (727) 893-8573 or aholan@sptimes.com.


Poetry reading

A reading of works by Kevin Jeffery Clarke and Barry Silesky will be at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Reeves Theater, Vaughn Center, University of Tampa, 401 W Kennedy Blvd.

On the Web

April is National Poetry Month. To find out more, go to www.poets.org.