Nearly every morning, you can find Clyde A. Wray sitting at the Magnolia Café. Typing away in the far left corner by the window, Once engaged in conversation, you will find that Wray has a warm, personable demeanour and a clear, deep voice— one which he has been told many times could “make a telephone book sound interesting.”
Today, he has with him a copy of Jimmy’s Blues, a book of poetry by writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. “Right now, I seem to be in a period where I’m focused on issues of black and white,” says Wray, “simply because of all of the crap that’s gone on lately. But these periods change. I can come down here in the morning and not have a thing to write, but I get one word down, and I can go with that and see where it goes.”
Wray is a poet, playwright, director, producer, and performer, who says that he takes on each new creative venture “because somebody else suggested it”.
Every writer does, however, start somewhere. For Wray, it began at Saint Emma Military High School. “I started with love letters,” he explains, “I went to an all-boys school, and across the road there was an all-girls school. And, of course, the boys would find a little girl, and the girls would find a little boy, and they would want to write to each other, you know? I was the letter writer. I would write all their letters for them.”
A native of New York City, the poet has seemingly been through it all, having worked an endless stream of jobs across the country, from commercial shrimper to paramedic. It was only after a two-year stint in Vietnam, which landed him in a VA hospital with a “bad case of PTSD,” that he was first prompted to seriously pursue writing.
Wray says, “I wrote a little poem for my daughter, while I was in the hospital. I wanted somebody to read it, so I sort of surreptitiously slipped it under the door, so that one of the social workers would see it. She read it. So, again, I wrote one and slipped it under the door, and this time, she told me, ‘y’know, you should keep doing this.’ And that was like floodgates opening up.”
That encouragement was all that he needed to pursue writing full time. It was not however, always an easy path to follow. He would often struggle to make ends meet, and at one point found himself homeless. The poet spent his nights sleeping in a dumpster— which he jokingly said that he made sure he at least “kept clean.”
For Wray, his art was always the priority. He elaborates, “I would sometimes find myself in a position where I would have a dollar, and the decision came down to either getting something to eat, and having something printed, and the decision was always getting it printed.”
But, gradually, his situation began to improve. He began publishing his work, taking some university classes and experimenting in new forms of writing, always, he re-stated, “on the suggestions of others.” Soon his writing began to take him across North America, from Washington to Los Angeles and finally into the Maritimes. He said that he was working on a show in Halifax when he met a dancer, who would eventually become his wife.
Wray asserts that people are no different no matter where he goes. He said that the people of Saint John have an unjustified negative opinion of their city, and that people will take advantage of opportunities if you provide them.
“When I had my first show here at the Arts Centre, I cannot tell you how many people told me the people of Saint John wouldn’t come out, and I just said well, I’m doing it anyway. In the end, we had to squeeze more and more chairs into that little theatre. If you expose people to the arts, they will come out.”