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UK staff senator Clem Stambaugh harnesses his creative spark to write ‘universal’ poems

Matthew Mueller
UK staff senator and poet Clem Stambaugh poses for a portrait in the William T. Young Library on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. Stambaugh is currently serving in his 9th year as University Staff Senator for the College of Dentistry. Photo by Matthew Mueller.

Clem Stambaugh was invited by his friend, Buffy Lawson, to a picnic one day. Everybody at the picnic was assigned to express their creative outlet, and for Stambaugh, that was poetry. 

For the next two hours, Stambaugh wrote a 46-line poem called “The Ghosts of Gold,” which is both the title of his second book and the first poem that appears in it.

Stambaugh, a staff senator in the College of Dentistry at the University of Kentucky, writes poems in his free time and published “The Ghosts of Gold” in September of this year.

Stambaugh only began sharing his poems in 2018, but has been writing secretly for years, he said. Stambaugh once told his friend, Mark Stevens, that he had written poetry in private, and Stevens insisted he share them on social media. 

After getting great feedback on different social media platforms, Stevens helped Stambaugh find the publishing company Big Small Town Books, and his first book, “In Black and Light,” was published in 2020. Big Small Town Books went out of business soon after, but this time around, Stambaugh worked with Stevens’ own company, MAS Communications, to publish “The Ghosts of Gold.”

Stambaugh’s second collection is composed of 50 poems that are all centered on the theme of loss.

“As I began writing more of these poems, I began to realize that I was talking about loss. Loss is universal, and we all feel that, and I realized that I kept seeing that again and again, and so these 50 poems are really talking about different kinds of loss: loss of self, loss of love, loss of creativity, maybe your mind,” Stambaugh explained. 

Stambaugh said he does not write these poems from his own experience, but he instead creates stories in his mind. His first book, “In Black and Light,” was primarily written from observation, which he said differs from “The Ghosts of Gold.”

“I used to observe people a lot, and then I realized that was kind of creepy, so this book is more internal dialogue with myself. The first (book) was more observational, like seeing a couple walking down the street and the way they were just interacting together,” Stambaugh said. 

Stambaugh said he tries to leave himself out of the poems, but as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he publishes his books under that category. 

“I put my poetry under ‘LGBTQ’ because I’m gay. I’ve had friends actually say to me, ‘Clem, I like your poems, but I’m not sure I want a whole book of gay poems.’ You’re not getting the book (of) gay poems; you’re getting a book of poetry written by a gay guy. My words are for everyone. My poems are universal,” Stambaugh said. 

Where Stambaugh does not leave himself out of the poetry, however, is in the pop art he creates. 

To advertise his poetry, Stambaugh combines photos and images with his poems to make them come to life. A lot of the time, Stambaugh will use photos of himself. 

Along with his pop art, Stambaugh’s face is also featured on the cover of his newest book. Stambaugh explained that he wanted the cover to look like a historic piece of art, and it morphed into something even better. 

“With the front (cover), I wanted (it) to look like a 200-year-old oil painting … And (Mark said) ‘I think we’ve sort of given this impression that maybe you are the ghost,’” Stambaugh said. 

The book’s title is reflected not only on the cover with Stambaugh but also in the poems, he said, which motivated his choice to title the collection “The Ghosts of Gold” instead of the singular “The Ghost of Gold.” 

“I named the book (Ghosts) as opposed to ‘Ghost’ because I (realized) that these poems were the ghosts of gold, which the whole idea is how easy it is to lose something so precious to us and you don’t even know how substantial the loss is,” Stambaugh said. 

UK staff senator and poet Clem Stambaugh poses for a portrait in the William T. Young Library on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. Stambaugh is currently serving in his 9th year as University Staff Senator for the College of Dentistry. Photo by Matthew Mueller.

Although the book of poems is not a novel where words fill the page, writing it takes time. Stambaugh said the first poem in the book only took two hours, but usually that is not the case. 

“It may take five to 10 hours for a piece to come together. There are some pieces that simply never come together. Sometimes I’ll take them apart again like a word puzzle and see if this fits in this,” Stambaugh said. 

Even though this may seem daunting to a non-poet, Stambaugh finds value in a clean slate and said that he does not sit down and write for 10 hours straight. 

“There are titles of poems that have been living in my brain forever. My favorite thing in the world is a fresh Word document with nothing on it; that for me and a glass of wine that is nirvana,” Stambaugh said. 

Stambaugh works in a type of poetry called free verse. This type of poetry, he said, means he is not chained down to a certain amount of lines, syllables or rhymes in his poems. Within free verse, Stambaugh said he focuses a lot on lyrical poetry. 

“Lyrical poetry is focusing more on relationships and emotions and love and tragedy and that kind of thing,” Stambaugh said.

As a lyrical poet, Stambaugh said he takes inspiration from singer-songwriters much more often than poets. He also said that he wants to be his own poet instead of a copying of someone else. 

“I don’t read a lot of poems by poets because I don’t want to be influenced. I don’t want that to be stuck in my head when I sit in front of that blank screen,” Stambaugh said. 

Stambaugh’s newest book has been out since mid-September and has been on and off the Amazon Kindle charts since its release. He and Stevens also shared that they are bringing a deluxe edition of the collection to Barnes & Noble, which will feature a new cover, poems and images. 

While Stambaugh’s work as part of UK’s College of Dentistry may not correspond to his lyrical poetry, the hobby he once kept secret has developed into a successful creative outlet.

“I think it’s so important whether you’re 20 or 50, don’t ever let your creativity stop … You have to harness whatever creative spark that’s inside you, and you have to go for it and make yourself vulnerable, really just put it out there and see what happens,” Stambaugh said.

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  • C

    Caylin KohlstrukFeb 19, 2024 at 8:31 am

    I love it!! Such an amazing writer!

    • C

      Clem W StambaughFeb 20, 2024 at 6:30 am

      My sincerest thanks, Caylin. Look for my next collection – Hisses Like Whispers: The Dark Poetry of Clem Stambaugh – coming soon from MAS Communications.