In late September, 2012, Still visited with poet Maurice Manning on his 20-acre farm in rural Washington County, Kentucky, about 15 miles from the city of Danville, Kentucky, where he was raised. Maurice had just started his new work as Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Transylvania University in Lexington. Previously, he had taught at DePauw University and Indiana University and is genuinely happy to have meaningful work in his home state. He spent the 2011-2012 academic year as a Guggenheim Fellow while continuing his work as a faculty member in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
Maurice’s first book of poems, Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions (2001), was chosen by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. His other collections are A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Lone Hunter, Back Woodsman, &c. (2004), Bucolics (2007), and The Common Man (2010), a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.
After walking part of his 20 wooded acres with his four dogs (Larry, Amos, Cap and Buddy) and gathering a crop of late tomatoes from the garden, we settled into our interview in the kitchen of his 160-year-old farmhouse. Only Larry and Cap had returned with us and took up their places under the kitchen table. Maurice remarked that Amos and Buddy always had bigger business to attend to in the woods and would find their ways home later. They did.
We began our conversation by asking Maurice to talk about his new, fifth collection of poems, forthcoming in the spring of 2013.
Maurice Manning: The new collection is called The Gone and the Going Away, and I think in some ways it is a response to what I was thinking and feeling when I was finishing up The Common Man. I’ve often said that when I was in the last year or so of working on The Common Man that I was basically getting depressed because I realized that so many of the local characters that I was writing about were dead and gone. Then I realized—partly a factor of my own age but also just larger cultural changes—that a lot of the world that I was writing about in The Common Man was gone—the decline of small towns and the increasing marginalization of rural Kentucky.
Still: When you say “response” to The Common Man, is that different than a “sequel” to The Common Man?
MM: I think that my first three books, in my mind, work as a trilogy. They are three perspectives on the same thing. And they’re in the voices of three different characters who use their imagination as a way to mediate their immediate circumstances and their connections to the natural world. Lawrence Booth is the personal, coming-of-age response to having grown up in small town Kentucky in a particular time with a particular set of cultural and familial circumstances. In A Companion for Owls, Daniel Boone would be the historical response, as one who came to Kentucky first. In that book I imagined Kentucky in sort of its primeval state. Boone was one of the few people who had that perspective and that experience. But he was also connected to larger matters of American history. In Bucolics, I thought about the landscape of Kentucky when I was writing that book, and even though the book doesn’t specify Kentucky, the landscape is rural and southern, and I wanted that to be the perspective of someone from beyond conventional, historical time, from someone who is having a solitary experience with the natural world. And through that, an encounter with the creator of the natural world.
Still: So if your first three books are a trilogy on encounters with the natural world, then The Common Man and The Gone and the Going Away might be . . .
MM: . . . two-thirds of the next trilogy. And I’ve got a new batch of poems that is getting pretty close to being done, and I’m not yet settled on a title for it, but when I was finishing The Common Man I realized that so much of the world that I was writing about was in decline. The sense of storytelling that I feel like I inherited and the people I inherited that from are gone. Our age is so different now that I don’t know that we have family storytellers like we once did.
Still: How do The Common Man, The Gone and the Going Away and your next collection work as a trilogy?
MM: In The Common Man I think the perspective is more social in that the speaker of that book has neighbors, and those neighbors happen by. It’s very conversational among the speaker and the visitor. I think The Gone and the Going Away is a slightly larger social community. And characters are named, whereas in The Common Man the characters are not named. There’s a dog named Murdock in The Common Man. The dog gets named. But in The Gone and The Going Away I wanted to name characters as if the book is a community of people interacting. The Common Man is more interpersonal, and The Gone and the Going Away is more a cast of characters. And then this new batch of poems is a cast of characters but they’re more mythological. For instance, there’s a character in that group of poems named Sylvanius Shade and a character named Mr. Key.
Still: Do these characters actually speak these poems or are they referenced in the poems?
MM: No, they’re referenced as being part of the mythological past of this community that’s represented in the poems.
Still: This trilogy then, The Common Man, The Gone and the Going Away and the untitled collection, you’re thinking of that being a kind of statement on community values and storytelling, a mythos of Kentucky?
MM: Yes, exactly.
Still: We’ve talked a bit already about who your narrators are in your poems, but we’d like to know who these narrators in your poems are talking to. Do you, as some poets advise, think about or imagine a listener or a reader when you are writing poems?
MM: I think a lot about drama and of a kind of theatrical setting. So I try to imagine writing a poem that could be performed on a stage with a set. So there would be a real, physical person there and there would be a real, physical landscape or a room in a particular kind of house, so that the audience has something to see. The person on stage is often doing something that requires movement and gesture and facial expression and a physical rhythm in addition to whatever ruminations are going on. It’s in 3-D. For me, the poems that I like reading and enjoy working on myself are three-dimensional. Even when I’m working on a poem I like to imagine being inside the poem, living inside the world of the poem in a three-dimensional sort of way.
Still: Well, obviously, you are behind the speakers in your poems, but are you also attempting to create a character or several characters in your poems?
MM: That’s one of the hardest questions, and I never feel satisfied with how I answer it. I think the one book that’s most on its own with these matters is Lawrence Booth because it’s written in third person. When I was working on that book in graduate school, I had been writing those poems in first person. One day, I just thought, “what if I put these poems in third person?” And that made the whole book more accessible to me and put it all at enough of a distance that I could think broadly. With Lawrence Booth, the voice of that book is not really Lawrence Booth’s, but it’s all his perspective so that the narrator is looking right through Booth’s eye. So it’s sort of dramatic. When I shifted the voice from first to third person is when I really started seeing the connection to dramatic writing as opposed to the personal poem.
Still: Did that free you up from some of the burdens you were feeling related to autobiographical writing?
MM: Yes. So much of Lawrence Booth is autobiographical material that I felt embarrassed writing about it in first person. And then, A Companion for Owls was in first person but in the imagined voice of a historical figure. And then, Bucolics, well, at one point when I was working on that book, I thought, “now this is my voice.” But now that I look back on it, I think, “well, no, that’s not so much my voice after all.” Then when I was working on The Common Man I thought, “OK, now, this is my voice.”
Still: Does that mean that you are still searching for your voice?
MM: I don’t know. I know that’s been one of the larger processes of writing for me. I think fiction writers are off this hook on “finding your voice.” Nobody questions Herman Melville writing in the voice of a character named Ishmael. In novels written in first person, in the voice of a character, nobody says to the novelist, “is this your voice?” It’s just understood that fiction requires the writer to imagine voices other than his or her own. Writing in different voices is an issue for me as a poet. Am I writing in what feels like wholly my own voice? I would say I have moved toward that. And I’m glad to have moved toward that. But I also think that if you’re writing in your “own” voice, you tend to write with a great deal of seriousness and earnestness and gravity. If you’re not feeling obliged to be wholly yourself on the page, for me, it’s allowed a greater range of imagination and some humor and more variety. I’ve enjoyed that, and I think that the poems I’m writing now do feel much more like the voice in my mind.
Still: You mean the latest poems in what is now an untitled collection?
Still: Did you actually envision these six collections as trilogies?
MM: No I didn’t. When I first started working on Bucolics I realized that those first three books have something in common and are linked in particular ways. I think in working on The Gone and The Going Away, toward the end of that, I was seeing its kinship with The Common Man. And this newer book I’m currently working on, I see now that it’s a kindred spirit to these other two books. But no, I didn’t sit down and map out a plan that the next three books are going to be X, Y, and Z.
Still: Could you talk a bit about how you came to poetry? Maybe we can start by asking about your education and work history when you left undergraduate school?
MM: After I graduated from Earlham College, I came back to Danville and briefly worked for the Christian Appalachian Project teaching GED-training and adult literacy. I only did that for about six months, because it was so emotionally exhausting. So many of my students needed a place to live and food and healthcare more than they needed a GED. Even though that was a short-term job, I had so many experiences working that job that left indelible marks on me. At that same time I was reading what I wanted to read. I read Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly that I still think is one of the most moving books about the South and race and poverty. It spoke to me about my own experience very clearly and my familial history and the social world that I was part of in Danville growing up. At the same time, I’m teaching these desperately poor people how to read and realizing that for these people, things have not changed since before the Depression. I think our society in the last 50 years has wanted to get rid of those kinds of people. It’s a kind of “Poor, country people, we don’t know what to do with them,” attitude. The experience of working with the Christian Appalachian Project and reading Campbell and other writings on the civil-rights era really informed my moral, political and even poetic views. When we forget people who are at the lowest rung of the ladder, when we neglect them and pretend they don’t exist . . . I don’t see how we can do that. But we do. A poor person living in the country today, I don’t know how they can see themselves as a citizen of this county because the country doesn’t see them.
Still: What happened after your tenure with Christian Appalachian Project?
MM: Eventually I went to University of Kentucky for two and a half years for a master’s degree in English. I really didn’t quite know what I was doing there. I just wanted to get back to thinking and talking about literature, but at the time, English Departments were enamored of literary theory, so there was a lot more talk about theory than about actual literature. I found that profoundly disappointing. I certainly had wonderful professors at UK. Wendell Berry and John Shawcross, for instance, were talking about literature in their courses, and I connected with them and enjoyed the privilege of studying with them.
Then I worked at Kentucky Educational Television for four and a half years. Since I’d never owned a television, I found it hilarious that I was working for a television station. I worked in the education division and got an insider’s perspective on education in Kentucky. That was interesting, and sometimes a little disappointing. It made me have a lot of sympathy for teachers. I valued this time because I was on my own with reading and writing. I wasn’t taking classes or around people involved in writing. I lived outside of Lexington in the country and enjoyed going to work, then coming home to read what I wanted to read. I was also writing regularly. I don’t think I knew at all what I was doing, but I knew it was what I wanted to be doing. In some ways I was teaching myself to be devoted to reading and writing and to put it first.
By then, I’d heard about MFA programs. I didn’t really know about them when I was at UK. I decided that I really wanted to join an MFA program and totally devote myself to poetry and to study it intensely for what turned out to be three years. At that same time, I had also taught myself some basic, simple building skills—carpentry stuff. I thought that was similar to writing a poem. It satisfied similar impulses. I told myself I would apply to MFA programs and if I didn’t get in, then I would apprentice myself to a carpenter. It’s probably good I got into an MFA program (University of Alabama) because I don’t know if I would have succeeded in running my own carpentry business.
Still: Let’s talk a little about poetic craft. You’ve said before that you tend to create “characters who are oriented by nature to idiosyncratic forms of expression.” Can you expand on what that means for you?
MM: Well, poetry itself is an idiosyncratic form of expression, isn’t it? The things we notice as features of that idiosyncrasy are voice and rhythm of that voice, tones of that voice, pauses of that voice. I would say that’s been a pleasure to me in writing. I’ve had a desire to wonder what I could get away with in saying in a poem. Not to shock. But to test what a poem can hold. What can I push into this poem and make it stay and have a place? Poetry is idiosyncratic in ways that perhaps prose is not. The line in poetry, for instance, measures a lot. It restrains things. It dispenses things. Things that have to do with emotion, thought, rhythm, physical qualities of language—all of that has to be in a line. And then you’ve got to do more of the same in the next line. At the end of several lines, hopefully, you’ve got something that holds together and is a full expression.
Still: Would you say the line is, for you, one of the major shaping tools of the poem?
MM: Yes, I would. And it’s become much more important for me through the years. I look at Lawrence Booth now, and I sometimes cringe because I’ll think, “that’s a real sloppy line.” I guess I’m a little forgiving since it was my first book, but I also realize that I was thinking more about action and statement in that book than I was about line. I was thinking some about form. There are some sonnet-like poems in that book. So you have to think about the line at the basic level to be able to write a sonnet. But I’ve learned through the years that the line is a really interesting and complex feature of a poem, and I take a great deal of pleasure in writing a different kind of line. I’d say in A Companion for Owls, a lot of that book is in blank verse, partly because the diction of 18th century English was formal diction. It was iambic and oratorical. I wanted my version of Daniel Boone to be a smart and sophisticated man. And so I let him speak in blank verse, in very formal verse. Then when I began working on Bucolics I learned something about emjambment. The way Bucolics is organized, it begins in this kind of rough rhythm with very emjambed lines, and then it moves toward a smooth tetrameter. That is intentional. It shows that the shepherd character is coming into greater harmony with his relationship to Boss.
Still: And greater harmony with himself maybe, as a thinker and talker?
MM: Yes. His interior is more organized and balanced. His whole vision of the world is unified by the end of the book. In The Common Man I found that I liked that four-beat line very well, and I kept that feature throughout that book, mostly. One of the things that I think is perhaps awkward about pentameter is it’s hard to write spare poems in pentameter because to get that fifth foot in there, you’ve got to put in an adjective or an adverb or some kind of modifier. I’ve become increasingly interested in minimal modification. Then in The Gone and the Going Away, some of the longer poems are in tetrameter but it’s a lot less fluid than in The Common Man. In The Gone and the Going Away there’s a lot of spondees and double beats, still four beats to the line for some of the poems, but I allowed myself a little more improvisation with the meter which I really enjoyed.
And then there’s also a bunch of short poems in The Gone and the Going Away that I used a little stanza for. It’s more of a mathematical configuration then a metrical configuration. The short poems are 30 words long, six lines, five words to each line. The odd-numbered lines start off with an iambic foot and proceed until you hit the fifth word and then it stops. There’s an interrupted foot at the end of those lines. The even-numbered lines start off with a trochaic foot. Lord only knows why I fell into that pattern.
Still: Have you named this form?
MM: Yes, it has a name, but I can’t take credit for it. A friend of mine named Brooks Haxton, a poet I know from Warren Wilson, he calls them “honky tanka.” Isn’t that perfect? Because many of the short poems in The Gone and the Going Away are little country outbursts.
Still: We wanted to end by asking you to elaborate on a couple of lines from poems in The Common Man. The first comes from “A Prayer to God My God in a Time of Desolation” and the line is: “. . . who bent my heart from the beginning / to creatures with four legs, or wings.” Why do animals figure so prominently in your work?
MM: The observation that quote provides is pretty personal. For a variety of reasons I love many people and feel very dear toward many people and have genuine human sympathy. But for various times in my life I have not trusted people, especially while growing up. My mother’s father was a very violent man and crazy. My parents had a crazy, violent, chaotic marriage. Various other family member were maybe not violent or deranged, but extremely passive—sort of the opposite. Early on, I saw a lot of mean things and angry things and violent things. In fact, I was just thinking the other day that learning to trust other people has been a hard thing for me. And I do trust people, but I would say that when I was younger, it was much easier to trust a dog than some of the people in my life. I’ve always had an affinity for animals and birds and wild things, and I’ve never been afraid of animals and birds and wild creatures. They have always seemed warm and not deceptive, you know? I just had a very different reception and connection with animals than I did with people.
Still: The second line comes from “Ars Poetica Shaggy and Brown”: “You reckon I could ever run out / of stories in my heart to tell?” Do you reckon you will run out of stories to tell?
MM: I hope I don’t. I’ve been reading a number of contemporary books of poetry here lately. Many of them happen to be by senior American poets, people in their 80s who are vital and fresh of voice and clear in their minds. It’s amazing and inspiring. It gives us hope.
If you look at words on a page as a little system of things that move apart and come together, breathe and pause, and sing and are silent, I think the real parallel is the natural world. To see the little system of a little stream and how over years this stream has made this course and worn this rock this way, and the bank is in proportion to the width of the stream and trees grow over the stream at this angle, you know you can see the micro-features of nature as little systems and then you see how they’re connected to other systems. It’s really this whole living pattern, and we can’t even comprehend it and its totality. It’s a wholly, living, eternal pattern. I like to think of writing poetry in that way, too.
Maurice's pack of farm dogs: (Clockwise from bottom right) Cap, Buddy, Larry & Amos