Brian Brodeur: From the first, your books have lamented the loss of the rapidly vanishing landscape, culture, and people of Appalachian Kentucky. These books function as acts of conservation, a way of keeping the stories of this rural community, often delivering narratives heard first- or second-hand. Could you comment on the role of storytelling in your poems?
Maurice Manning: First of all, Brian, I want to thank you for taking an interest in my work and for reading the poems so thoughtfully. I am grateful to you.
Storytelling is what people do, or used to do. It mattered to the continuity of culture. My own experience of culture has been rife with storytelling. I experienced it firsthand, largely from women in my family. But I’ve experienced it along the way from local women and men. Who’s who and how one is connected to this person or that must have some value and effect for the person trying to figure out who she or he is. It seems vital to one’s sense of self to realize that we are not isolated or singular, but are, in fact, people who belong to other people, and our sense of belonging to others must be a factor in how we know ourselves. Our families, through stories whether mundane or tragic or comic, tell us how we belong to them. Stories from our neighbors have a similar effect—these are my people and I belong to them and they deserve my loyalty. Loyalty is a big thing for me: I want to know my people and be loyal to them, because they have been loyal to me whether implicitly or directly. (Too many “-ly” adverbs in this response!) People love you despite your limitations, and you love them back for the same reasons.
But good stories are their own thing and wonderful for it. My grandmother told me once of being a young girl at a school for girls in London, Kentucky, around 1920. This was not a fancy school, but one founded by missionaries from the northeast so that women in the region had a chance for a basic education. There was a yellow fever outbreak and the girls were quarantined in their dorms. She told me that, one day, she looked out her window and saw a horse and buggy pull up. It carried away the body of a young woman wrapped in a quilt. The young man who drove the buggy was the girl’s sweetheart and they’d intended to marry. That’s a considerable heartbreak and it marked my grandmother’s life as a young girl, and she remembered it for many years and passed it on to me. Poetically, I like to think all of this matters, both in terms of human history and in art.
That’s the practical value of storytelling. What the poet does with it is a different matter.
BB: Speaking of what the poet does with stories, the majority of your poems take the form of unrhymed iambic tetrameter, particularly in Bucolics (2007), The Common Man (2010), The Gone and the Going Away (2013), and One Man’s Dark (2017). Given your interest in narrative, as well as folklore, one might interpret your choice of meter as a way of connecting your work to the ballad, rather than the more “heroic” meter of iambic pentameter. What is the appeal of tetrameter in your work?
MM: According to my ear, local people talk in either tetrameter, or some version that flirts with pentameter. But I tend to hear the shorter line, at least here in Kentucky. To respond to your question more fully, I would say that I tend to hear the four-beat line in common conversation. That seems to be the way we talk to each other. Once I realized that common four-beat rhythm I wanted to set it at play in my poems. And it does connect to the traditional rhythm of ballads, some of which are among my favorite songs. The four-beat rhythm also seems to match my casual walking pace and I do a good deal of walking. Regardless of the topic, I’ve wanted the line to have a natural and organic feel. And continuing to think about the line—to hear lines coming into place—is a fascinating and rewarding challenge and a source always for further learning. Since I’m so dependent on the tetrameter it often feels similar to the effort of becoming fluent in another language.
BB: Could you talk about how you acquired such a fluency? Your first two books, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001) and A Companion for Owls (2004), don’t lean as much on the four-beat line. Booth is composed largely of free-verse and Companion experiments with various line lengths and meters, including several poems in iambic pentameter. What happened between Companion and Bucolics that made you pivot?
MM: This is an excellent question. I should probably say the turn to tetrameter was a matter of accident and trial and error. With my first two books I was concerned more with story than with more intricate mechanics. I was fairly OK writing pentameter, which is the meter found most commonly in the first two books. But I was also learning, even though I probably didn’t realize what that was. It’s pretty easy to write a bad line of poetry, to have those words just sitting there as unanimated as wet socks hanging on a clothesline. And writing line after line of that sort gets a bit tiresome and uninspiring for the poet, to say nothing of the effects on a poor reader.
With Bucolics I consciously gave myself some “rules,” because I wanted my own process to be “harder,” to have more steps involved. I decided not to title individual poems and disallowed punctuation. I also told myself I couldn’t use the word “and.” It’s probably not something every reader would notice, but the poems eventually fall into regular tetrameter as the book goes, almost as a kind of current that eventually gets going. That developed somewhat organically, because I wanted the shepherd/speaker to arrive at greater intimacy with the character, Boss, perhaps as a kind of acceptance of their dynamic. I felt that as I was working on the book, and I realized after scanning my own lines that the flowing current effect was happening due to a somewhat natural-feeling tetrameter. I also noted that the four-beat rhythm went well with hands-on tasks, like planting or hoeing. That connection, I think, helped me to “hear” the poem that is happening in the world.
I’m sure it oversimplifies to say so, but over the nearly twenty years since I began working on Bucolics, I’ve noticed that pentameter can often feel like the rhythm of thought or contemplation—it’s got more mind in it and therefore often resorts to language of thought, rather than language of speech. The four-beat line as I hear it belongs more to the body, to action and gesture, and thus draws on language that’s more visceral—stub, poke, click, plink, pooch, flap. This kind of body language also has better sound effects than mind language, which is often a lot of Latin-derived or Romance-language words that tend to have softer consonant sounds and other features that dampen the sound of such words like: perform, motion, legion. I’m sorry I’ve rambled on so about this. It’s the sort of stuff I think about all the time—rhythm and sound and how they work together and how each can be fine-tuned and then fine-tuned some more. That’s the work I most enjoy and I never tire of doing it, because there is always so much to learn.
BB: You mentioned that in your first two books you were concerned with story over song. What were some of your narrative models for these books? Did you have any poets or fiction writers consciously in mind?
MM: My interest in narrative is pretty basic—it comes from loving to hear my older relatives tell stories when I was a child. And storytelling has a great tradition that has always fascinated me. It might also have to do with my interest in how setting can influence thought, language, phrase, observation, and contemplation. A good storyteller makes use of setting—and the specifics of a setting—and the setting becomes a compositional feature of the whole. One finds this in Robert Penn Warren’s “The Ballad of Billie Potts,” for example. It’s also a feature of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s narratives. I also think even a lyric poem implies some sort of narrative that may rest in the background somewhere. Early on I probably had an interest in character, but I was hesitant for the primary character in a poem always to be “me.” It seemed immodest to give a lot of attention to “me,” and to ask a reader to do the same. So, Lawrence Booth, even though it is a version of my own childhood and coming of age, is written from a third-person perspective. Stepping back allowed me to see the characters more fully and to get “myself” out of the way. A Companion for Owls is mostly first-person, but it’s in the persona of Daniel Boone, which put “myself” further out of the picture, or off of the stage.
Warren has always been important, and Frost, to a lesser extent. Warren’s Brother to Dragons is an amazing, deeply-probing book that few people talk about these days. He published the first version of it in about 1953. It’s a book-length poem that imagines an ethereal world where Thomas Jefferson is sort of on trial, and a character known as RPW is the interlocutor. Warren says it’s a “novel in verse,” but I think it’s more than that. It’s an investigation into the original sin of our country, slavery, the inescapable violence of our national character, and our tendency to move along without any regard for the consequences that reach out from our history to snag the present. I’m sure Brother to Dragons was in the back of my mind when I was working on A Companion for Owls. But here’s a strange and haunting overlap. Both titles come from Job 30: 29. Job is lamenting that he has been abandoned by God and says, “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.” Here’s a really strange thing, though. I got my title from a supposed autobiographical interview Boone gave to a wandering schoolteacher named John Filson in 1784. I got my title from Filson quoting Boone, who said that in the wilderness of Kentucky he’d often felt like “a companion for owls,” slightly misquoting the biblical allusion. I thought this was such a lonely image it would make a good title for the book. At the time I had no idea that Boone was referring to a passage in Job. Only after my book had been published did I learn that not only was the allusion to Job, but also that the same biblical verse was the source of Warren’s title, Brother to Dragons.
Not to put myself in Warren’s company, but I’ve found this connection to be rather profound. Warren’s book is about Jefferson—the elite plantation owner, highly educated, polished, hugely influential founding figure, and with few moral qualms about the matter, an owner of many slaves. My book is about Boone—the so-called noble savage. The rugged individual, the humble, tough, and brave one who lived with nature without any need to master it. Those are apparently conflicting ideas of what it means to be an American, and I like to think that split character in our origin has followed us to today. Not that I planned or could have foreseen any of this. It’s simply a coincidence.
BB: Your poems often incorporate apostrophe and direct address. In Bucolics, for example, the unnamed narrator addresses his creator as “Boss” throughout the book, sometimes asking for explanation, sometimes begging forgiveness, yet never really expecting a reply. Would you talk about the shifting role of the “you” in your poems?
MM: This is a vexing question, and it’s something I’ve always grappled with. Poems can be conversational, and such conversations can take many forms. But as the poet you can choose the voices—who is going to do the talking, and who will this person be talking to and why? Creating that dynamic is interesting and can lead to all sorts of imaginative situations. It might be similar to playwriting—creating voices that talk to each other, or not. That, I think, creates a somewhat different position for the reader, in which the reader is more akin to a listener. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “heard qualities” of a poem, the poem as an experience less to think about and more something to hear. Or maybe it’s worth thinking of a poem as an organization of sound, including pauses or interruptions.
In Bucolics I wanted to talk to Boss, and through the informality of the “talking” I hoped to create an intimacy between the shepherd-like speaker and Boss even though Boss is notably silent. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of reply. In The Gone and the Going Away I created a recurring unspeaking character named Roney Laswell. The speaker in those poems always has some doubt about Roney, some kind of wariness regarding what Roney is up to. That was just fun to do. I loved it in fact! But that also seems to be human nature, to have someone who isn’t quite sure what to make of his neighbors. The other side of this is that I, as a poet behind the scenes, have no obligation to be “myself” in a poem. A lot of this is just my imaginative instincts at play. A poem for me is rarely a confessional venue and is much more an imaginative one because I find it much more fun. I don’t want to write dire and hopeless poems. I want to enjoy the mysterious and sometimes outlandish process and effort of making them.
BB: Bucolics very consciously works within the pastoral tradition of Theocritus, Vergil, Hesiod, and others. Though less explicitly concerned with pastoral conventions, later books such as The Gone and the Going Away and One Man’s Dark depict country scenes and country people, often involving, like Frost, rural spaces largely abandoned by human beings. Yet you seem to avoid the kind of urban poet’s nostalgia for rural life that we find in earlier examples of this genre. How do you see your poems engaging with pastoral, particularly in terms of your storytelling impulse and themes of cultural and environmental preservation?
MM: The warm-up to this question pays me a compliment I don’t deserve! I did not consult Vergil or Theocritus when I was working on Bucolics. I can only say I write about the landscape where I live. It’s a particular landscape, rolling hills, dark patches in the woods that don’t get much direct sunlight, small streams and winding rivers. Plus there is a rich variety of flora and fauna. I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing birdsong, just by listening, and that is gratifying. I walk in the woods every day and soak it up. But the landscape of south-central Kentucky has people living and working in it (including me!), and there is an observable sense of history, to which my family is deeply bound.
For me, all of this is the kind of practical knowledge people used to have—how to prepare the ground and plant it in order to feed your family, how to take care of your property, how to recognize and understand the actual world around. It’s also true that things happen in the natural world that have meaning for us, if we’re paying attention. When working outdoors among others, it’s common to talk and tell a yarn or two to pass the time. After a day of work, it’s still common to sit on the porch with a neighbor and tell a tale. It is currently time around me for the season’s first cutting of hay. Of course, most of it’s done with tractors and big balers, but cutting hay still requires knowledge. The hay cannot be baled green because it will rot. The rule of thumb I’ve always heard is the cut hay should lay in the field for three hot days. Then it can be raked on the next day and baled after that. All of hay cutting is forethought—for feeding livestock months down the road. For me the pastoral is both idea and reality, scene and symbol, a kind of ethos and a practical, hands-on way of living in the world.
BB: Many of your poems take advantage of the tension between what might be called complementary opposites: meditation and complaint, praise and lamentation, humor and tragedy, story and song. Could you discuss poetry as a unifying art—not as a kind of resolver of contradictions, but as a means for the poet to bring these disparate, often opposing forces together to see how they interact?
MM: This is a wonderful question. I like your phrase “complementary opposites,” which might be like counterpoint in music, and it might be like different stitches in needlepoint or weaving. Mixing meditation and complaint, as I often do, is an effort to be real, first of all, since it seems to be a human trait to have mixed feelings. I also think the tools of writing very often accommodate such mixed feelings. A simile is composed of opposite elements, even though their pairing is intended to confer similarity. The same is true of metaphor. I’ve told my students in recent years that poetry strangely and wonderfully uses devices of precision to communicate mixed moods and ambiguity. So, for instance, we stand on the precision of the right words, crystal-clear imagery, solid meter, and arresting metaphors, but we might be using those surgical tools to get at something vague or opaque or strange, like love and grief, fleeting beauty, despair, or inexplicable wonder. To use a simile, it’s as if we’re using hand-tools to create something abstract. As much as we might prefer clarity in our rational lives, I actually enjoy ambiguity and find it always enriches the complicated experience of being human.
I’ve been reading and re-reading Charles Wright of late. He seems to be fond of writing poems that capture the kinds of tensions you describe. He’ll observe a landscape of great beauty and then crash it all with the notion that the beauty won’t last, or that the perceiver will die. I think his poems wrestle with that pang—we are capable of wonderful perception and can take in the beauties in the world and human experience, but we die and our sense of having had some sort of transcendent experience will both end and, in that end, won’t matter very much. I certainly see his point and admire how all of this plays out in his poems, but I don’t necessarily share his position. It’s too hard to tell—that’s where I come down.
I’ve been drawn to poets who put their metaphysical or philosophical or spiritual positions on the table, and I have greatly valued learning from them. Robert Penn Warren, a poetic hero of mine, was concerned with meaning, Truth, and Time. The Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, was concerned with whether human suffering and humiliation have any religious or spiritual value. Charles Wright seems to observe the dark absurdity of how humans have all of this insight and deep perception, but it doesn’t seem to have any lasting value or the ability to alter our fate. But I take something positive from each of them, and I will nearly quote them in order: passion, persistence through grief, and the will to create beauty as a response to the beauty in the world even if that world-beauty is either innate or inexplicable. My take-away from all of this—poetry is a record of the human experience to reach beyond what we can rationally know and make a few dots in the ether we cannot ever fully connect. That is our human lot, and poetry is the art we have to express it. For some of us, at least.
BB: We also have play. Though Wright in his poems can be melancholic or downright dour, he can also be very funny. A concise example of this sense of play can be found in the phrase Oblivion Banjo, the title of Wright’s “collected,” implying that an appropriate response to the void is to pluck its strings and sing. You share this quality with Wright. Not gallows humor as much as an inclination to bring both a tragic and comedic sensibility to bear on the subjects you write about. How do you manage this fusion of seriousness and play?
MM: Yes, we do, and I agree Charles Wright has some hilarious poems. I like to ponder goofy and outlandish things, which is something I’ve always done. I expect I’m also easily entertained. A couple of weeks ago a neighbor drove by as I was working in one of our gardens. He stopped and I asked how they were. He answered, “We’re going to a chicken swap!” Notice that’s a line of tetrameter! It was the best thing I heard all day. I prefer good-humored people, often people who are fully aware of their own comedic station in life. Humor is good for us, too. In the last year I’ve written a poem about a young man whose ambition is to teach a possum how to smoke a corncob pipe. And another one about “a gassy old poem-saying woman.”
In The Gone and the Going Away there’s a poem set in a small town called Tomcatville, Pop. 2. I like to imagine preposterous situations that the characters take seriously—unaware of the silly thing that’s going on. In these examples, I think I have a secret motive, which is to encourage people to lighten up and laugh now and then. I also don’t find much to admire in poetry that is relentlessly gloomy or mad or hopeless. What’s the point of passing those feelings onto someone else? Younger poets are often attracted to earnestness. I suppose we need the poems that seem earnest, but we surely also need poems that are goofy, ridiculous, witty, smart-alecky, irreverent, and so forth. The seriousness is always there. I enjoy weaving humor into the serious because it can surprise and be surprised—pleasantly surprised—as opposed to appalled or devastated. This seems to be something we need. But you know what? Some people don’t like to be surprised. And some people have stunted senses of humor. They seem unhappy folks to me.
BB: You mentioned Robert Penn Warren in reference to his principle subjects: meaning, truth, and time. Warren’s use of narrative seems central to these concerns, particularly in his masterful sequence Audubon: A Vision (1969), the final section of which contains the line: “Tell me a story of deep delight.” This book was instrumental in bringing narrative elements into lyric both in Warren’s own work and in the work of his “Southern Narrative” School admirers like James Dickey, Dave Smith, and David Bottoms. Do you see your work responding to this impulse and to these poets?
MM: I believe the line you quote is the last line of Audubon, which comes from the final section called, “Tell Me a Story.” Unfortunately, that section is often anthologized, so most readers are not familiar with the whole poem. My poetry friend Betty Adcock told me once that she thought Audubon was a more important poem than The Waste Land, and better written to boot. You are exactly correct to observe that Audubon deftly intertwines narrative event and setting with lyric reflection and meditation. It seems to me to be a more “honest” way to tell a story—as if the teller has to stop from time to time to realize or grasp that meaning of the story as it unfolds. If grasping that meaning is evasive, and often it is, then the gesture to pause, to stop the forward motion of the story is very believable to me, and I find such moves dramatically persuasive.
I expect I’ve recognized some sort of kinship with some of the other poets you mention, Dave Smith and David Bottoms. I would add Rodney Jones to the list. Dave Smith and Rodney Jones are also dear friends and because they’re a bit older, they’ve certainly taught me a thing or two both about poetry and friendship. I’m not familiar with the “Southern Narrative” school, and don’t imagine such a school actually exists, but I take your point and it’s useful to ponder. One thing I feel about the poets you reference in this question is they write about passionate subjects but not in impassioned ways. It’s a style of very effective contrast. Is that only southern? Certainly not, but it might be commonplace in the south, or it might be that the violence of history is so commonplace it is simply understood and therefore in its way unexceptional. Hence the passion is all around, like humidity, but its constant presence may dull the response. If that makes sense.
I worked on a dairy farm once. The farmer also had beef cattle, and he had a cow that had an abscess on her shoulder that needed to be lanced because it was infected. He enlisted me to help him with this. We got the cow in the barnyard and into the barn where the plan was to put her in a “head-catching gate.” That would immobilize her so the crude veterinary procedure could be performed. Unfortunately, she resisted going into the gate and the farmer resorted to beating the cow in the head with a piece of lumber. It was an incredibly violent moment that certainly seemed cruel to me, though I was young and not in a position to interrupt. The image of that poor cow in distress and pain has long haunted me. She died the next day and, when the farmer saw her, he said, “I swear, evertime I come out here—loss!” I cannot correct what happened, nor can I soften the anguish of the moment, nor could I condemn the farmer who only saw the cow as a source of his livelihood. I’ve simply had to live with it and let it become absorbed into other experience and just be part of the strange texture of life.
BB: In your most recent book, Railsplitter (2019), you adopt the voice of Abraham Lincoln, who speaks these poems posthumously, as if pacing a dimly lit stage in a black frockcoat and stovepipe hat. Can you discuss the challenges of ventriloquizing an historical figure in dramatic monologues that actually address hypothetical auditors, as you do in “The Audience” (“Who are you people, anyway?”)? How does this differ from, say, writing interior monologues?
MM: I don’t know what I have to say about writing interior monologues. Maybe I’ve done that, but I don’t know if I’ve done so consciously.
Writing in Lincoln’s imagined posthumous voice, though, was a great pleasure. Your observation that I imagined him in a frockcoat with a stovepipe hat occupying a dimly lit stage is spot on. It’s occurred to me that Railsplitter is a kind of drama, consciously noting that Lincoln loved literature and was shot in a theater by an actor, and I think I conceived it that way as I was writing the poems. It all accumulated, and I liked that effect. I feel like my basic research gave me a sense of the man, who was in my view, a heroic person aware of his shortcomings. He was a human being who realized and lived up to the challenges of his historical moment, but he was also aware of our human limits, especially his own. That doubled-reality is something I learned from reading his letters and speeches. He was a deeply humble person, fully aware of his humble beginnings, and also aware of the larger life his talents and pluck led him to. I think he was an exemplary person, one I favor, but one I tried my best to view objectively given the extraordinary circumstances of his historical moment. I think Robert Penn Warren has taught me that we have to live with both our historical moment and whatever that entails, and we also must live in our deeper knowledge of Time. No small task. I wanted to create a Lincoln who was aware of his own dark times, and who could anticipate the challenges of our own moment. I wanted him to speak honestly of our past and to offer an honest anticipation of our present. I expect I missed the mark, but it was a good challenge to try.
BB: You’ve written in the voices of many other characters—some historical (Daniel Boone), some fictional (the shepherd of Bucolics). Have you found it useful to place them in particular imagined scenes where they might speak their lines with greater ease, like your posthumous Lincoln on his darkened stage?
MM: This is also a good question, and it touches on a stickler-sort of issue I raise with my students. I want the poem to happen in a verifiable place, and a place whose “reality” is felt in the poem. I will often say to students when we read a poem: “The curtain has opened and what do you see on the stage?” The implication is the poem ought to show the reader something about where the poem is happening. And it need not be an elaborate notion of setting. A room will do, as will a tree branch. When I wrote Bucolics I had it in mind to make sure all of the poems happened outside, in a field, in a pasture, in the shade of a tree. Eventually, rendering a physical setting and landscape became features of the entire process of writing the book. In other words, setting is not generic or mere background, but a living element of the poem.
BB: “Activism” has become a buzzword among contemporary American poets. Yet, as you write in the “Notes” section of A Companion for Owls, “activism” can be an “impediment to . . . poetry” because “politics tends to depend on generalities and poetry requires specificity.” You own a twenty-acre farm in central Kentucky and, along with other Kentucky writers such as Wendell Berry and Anne Shelby, periodically demonstrate against mountaintop-removal mining in the region. You also write about such issues in your poems. Could you comment on the role of public and private subjects in your poetry? Do you write “political poems”?
MM: I don’t think poetry equals activism, but clearly there is a connection. This might go back a long time. I would say Robert Burns was an activist poet. He realized the exploitation of both humans and nature in his region of Scotland. It’s important to remember that the human relationship to Nature is not simply tied to beauty. It’s much more tied to dependence and economy. Humans are bound to Nature because it provides our subsistence, our profit, and our sense of purpose. This, it seems to me, is a big fundamental reality, that predates our modern capitalism, but profoundly underlies it. If we step back and truly see the world we live in, surely we must realize our human relation to this world is one of dependence or interdependence, and not a relation of dominance. The world doesn’t need us to exist. We must recognize this fact, if we expect to continue our existence and think it has any meaning we can grasp. That’s where we are at the moment, graspers for meaning and purpose. I am doubtful of the “political” poem, because I am increasingly doubtful of what we call “political.” The meaning of the term is fuzzy these days. Our lives must encounter moral quandaries that exist on moral ground and require morally upright action. But that, clearly, is not what has been happening for quite a while. Our politics is not a reserve of moral good. Even our tendency to fall into factions doesn’t seem to have much promise. Dark times, I’m afraid. The poet may write against the darkness and trumpet anger and rage, but probably should not expect to have many followers.
In 2017 my friend Erik Reece founded Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation. Our goal is not controversial at all: we plant hardwood trees on abandoned strip mine sites. So far we’ve planted thousands of trees. After one planting I was driving home and went by a cemetery and noticed a number of my ancestors were buried there—not more than a mile away. There is a full-circle effect to that experience, and I have savored it. Our tree planting feels good to do. We laugh and visit while we’re doing it. We’re not shouting at others.
BB: You also share with Wendell Berry storytelling as an extension of such conservationist efforts. Could you discuss the role of narrative, activism, and the management and protection of natural resources, particularly in an Appalachian context?
MM: The exploitation and desecration of Nature is world-wide, and we are living with the consequences. A few years ago, while trying to teach a literature class, I came up with a rather simplistic model to explain human civilization in its origins in various parts of the world. It was this: Land—People—Culture, perhaps with arrows pointing in both directions. To put it in very simple terms, one could observe that all cultures begin with Land, a place to be. The People then develop a relationship to the Land. Provided the relationship between Land and People is healthy and sustainable, the People are then able to make a Culture. But the Culture grows from the right relation People have to the Land. That Culture would include features like religion, poetry, government, stories and myths, law, skills, and knowledge to pass on to future generations that will preserve both the People and the Land. I wouldn’t want to speak for Wendell, but it may be that his fiction and poetry tell the stories of what we have lost, and thus imply what we may have to learn again.
I may be more of an optimist. I’d say I’m telling stories about what we used to know with the implication that the knowledge is still there if we put our hands to work and actually do something that proves the value of the knowledge, like growing one’s food, knowing the trees, knowing the birds, and using the local language we have that allows us to live practically with such knowledge and use it. My wife and I have a young daughter who will begin first grade this year. Being an older parent, I am mightily aware of time running out for me! I hope, though, that I will be able to pass along a few things to her, like a deep regard for the place where we live and the know-how to take care of it. I think that will prepare her to take care of herself and those around her. I want her to live with the knowledge that she comes from somewhere, a place with a history she belongs to, and people she belongs to. I want her to learn that belonging to the world and to each other is something we’re actually supposed to do. If we truly belong we’ll learn what we need to do to take care.
BB: You’re currently writing new poems and are in the process of sharing that work through a podcast you’re developing. Would you discuss your vision of this podcast, and how you see poetry fitting into this increasingly popular medium?
MM: I don’t mean this as a boast, but I have three books waiting to publish, but I am sitting on them for the moment. I see the books as inter-related, maybe a trilogy, so I’m really taking care with these. I want them to have lines of overlap and connection. The podcast idea just fell into place—and it’s not yet an official or publicly available thing. And I’m probably the last person to do this sort of thing since I am in the dark regarding our electronic gadgets. But working on this has been surprisingly fun. My friend Steve Cody and I recently recorded an episode in a very old church nearby called The Old Mud Meetinghouse. It’s called so because it’s walls are indeed made of mud. The acoustics of the sanctuary are absolutely wonderful, we got a lot of natural reverb. I read two poems and sang an old song and briefly talked about the place where we were recording. The podcast will be called The Grinnin Possum, if this ever comes into the world. It has been a lot of fun, and the idea of recording in a historic place or a specific geography has been something I can add in this medium that I couldn’t capture on the printed page.
For another episode I’m reading the poem with a waterfall showering in the background. In the last couple of years, I’ve become really interested in sound and the idea that the poem can be composed of sounds, rather than ideas. Or, better said, let the sounds make the ideas. Music is part of the podcast because I love old songs and can play a few instruments with passable ability, or so I think. The poems in the podcast are the most outlandish things I’ve ever written and come from the third-leg of this so-called trilogy. We’ll probably do five or seven episodes and see what happens. My aim is to give people something to listen to, the sound of the world alive, as I like to think of it.
Maurice Manning’s most recent book of poetry is Railsplitter.
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