(photo from Knoxville News Sentinel)
We invited Knoxville-based musician, writer and cultural activist RB Morris to talk with us about his newest book of poems, The Mockingbird Poems, released in 2013 and lately nominated for a Pushcart Prize. RB’s international fame as a musician and songwriter has been recognized by artists like John Prine, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. His song “That’s How Every Empire Falls” has been described as “perfectly-crafted” and has been covered by Marianne Faithfull. (RB sings the song in an informal solo performance in the video included after the interview.)
In addition to his impressive musical catalog, RB is a poet and playwright with five collections of poetry and the play The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony, a one-man play based on the life and work of Knoxville writer James Agee. RB talks of Agee’s presence and influence in the interview, but he doesn't mention that he was the guiding force in convincing the University of Tennessee and the City of Knoxville to establish the James Agee Park in the Fort Sanders neighborhood in 2005. RB and his wife Karly Stribling were married in that park.
RB's songs and poetry exhibit a wide-range of influences and are marked by a reverence for story. Writer Mike Gibson described him as “the All-American jukebox—but one with an added button set to ‘puree.’ He’s a hillbilly transcendental symbolist Dylan-folkie Beat-rocker, who picked through the leavings of the British Invasion and American post-psychedelia, filtered it all through the inspiration of James Agee and Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.”
From 2004-2008 RB served as the Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence at UT, and he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame in 2009.
Last year, he moved his family into his childhood home, back in northeast Knoxville where it all began.
STILL: Let us first begin with Knoxville, Tennessee. You grew up there, left and returned more than once or twice, but have now made a home there for the last 25 years or so. How has the place of your boyhood influenced your artistry? How does the geography and culture of Knoxville inspire (or infuriate) your artistic imagination?
RB MORRIS: Yes, Knoxville, Tennessee, the Bermuda Triangle of the Appalachians. I’ve traveled abroad and all over, and gotten myself fairly lost in the world, but so far I’ve always been pulled back to Knoxville and East Tennessee. My family was here, and for many years that was a big part of it, but I definitely feel a connection here, to the land and the people, to the history and the literary and musical heritage. And not just in town, but many special places out in the country and up in the mother mountains too. I’ve been involved to varying degrees in art scenes in bigger meccas, New York, San Francisco, LA, Nashville, London and Paris, but I’ve always liked the idea of doing your world-shaking from home. Part of this has been the ongoing unfulfilled promise of Knoxville, of claiming and declaring its cultural heritage and forging it anew in the world. I’m sure it’s mainly a romantic illusion, but it would appear Knoxville is always on the verge of being born, of coming into its own, and I’ve always wanted to push for more of that. I guess I’ve bought into that at times. But on a very personal level, my childhood was here. Most of my second childhood too. So, I have memories, I have years. I’ve lived long enough to see a lot go down, and a lot change. It’s all a part of me now.
Musically, Knoxville gave me a varied and well-rounded education, exposing me early on to gospel and mountain folk music, old and new country music and bluegrass. Having good radio stations, I was introduced to all the popular genres of American music growing up. This latter was fairly typical, but the former I discovered to be more unusual. What a lot of my contemporaries in the music scene acquired over time, I feel like I had ‘in the blood’ all along. I sang a lot in church as a young child, later in school choirs. I was raised next door to Judy Russell, the pianist for the local Sunday morning TV show, Mull’s Singing Convention, and her husband Ken Russell was a country music deejay at radio station WNOX, who used to give me records and talk to me about songwriting when I was no more than 9 or 10. The late great mandolin player, Red Rector, lived a couple of blocks away, a regular in the band on the other local TV show, The Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour that came on every morning before school. And I went to school and church with his kids, and played sports and music with them for years. This was the old Knoxville music scene of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and it was all around me in church and school, the neighborhood, local radio and television. It was never not there.
Literarily, Knoxville has given us incredible masters, James Agee, Cormac McCarthy, Nikki Giovanni, and a host of others. These individuals were not just gifted and celebrated hometown writers, but totally exceptional, groundbreaking, cutting edge artists that remain beacons to the rest of the world. Knoxville has a literary heritage like no where else. And this inspires and informs all of us. As we each find and shape our own story we have these local voices echoing in the great hall.
STILL: Tell us how you were first exposed to Knoxville’s native son, James Agee. Can you talk some about how your own work is connected to (or reflected by) Agee’s life and literary legacy?
RBM: I first heard of James Agee through my dad who worked at the L&N Railroad Station in downtown Knoxville. This was in the early 1960s when Hollywood came to town to film All The Way Home, the adaptation of Agee’s autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. He would come home from work with stories about how they were filming the actors in the train yard and up on the hill in the Fort Sanders neighborhood. He could watch it all from the big upstairs office windows where he worked. We actually went to the premier of the film here in town when I was in the 4th or 5th grade. It wasn’t until high school that I read the book. And then a little later I would hear older artists around town speak of Agee. Somewhere in there I read and was greatly moved by the Genevieve Moreau biography The Restless Journey of James Agee. I also read David Madden’s collection of memoirs, Remembering James Agee, which is just an amazing testament to the man and his work. Eventually I read most of Agee’s published work and got closer to him as an artist and person. I also recall, from early travels to New York and later in London and Paris, hearing people talk about James Agee, a certain reverence or stature given him in their general conversation, which always gave me pause to reconsider him and his work. At a writer’s conference in Boulder, Colorado in 1982 I overheard two people describing someone who they said was a "wild and talented writer, like James Agee," and they added, "but not as wild and not as talented Agee."
In 1982 Eric Sublett and I published an issue of the Hard Knoxville Review dedicated and themed around James Agee. I thought then that I had made my statement on him and began to move on, but a local theater person pulled me back in, suggesting I write a one-man play on Agee that he would produce. His theater project didn’t last but I continued to work on the one-man play I called The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony. The title was taken from an incident in Agee’s life when some anonymous person wrote the phrase on the door of where he was living in Brooklyn. A subsequent video production of the play proved to be a complex and time-consuming task that kept me chasing his ghost for a few more years. I ended up playing the role of Agee in the video and then some years later in dramatic productions of the play at UT and in New York. Again, I felt I had added what I could and was ready to move on. But Agee’s story continued to evolve, as his star continued to rise. Still to come was the previously undetailed relationship he had with Charlie Chaplin, both as a friend and collaborator, and the dug up treasure of the screenplay he wrote for Chaplin, bringing his little tramp character back in an apocalyptic setting. This was all beautifully researched and documented in John Wranovics’ book, Chaplin and Agee. Then, most recently, the revelation of finding Agee’s missing chapters and original introduction to A Death in the Family, which Michael Lofaro through UT Press has masterfully researched and edited in A Death in the Family, A Restoration of the Author’s Text. Because of this I’ve started yet another essay on Agee with an overview of that work in its various forms and adaptations.
While he always remains an inspiration, Agee’s influence comes into my writing more as a sensibility rather than a stylistic connection, a call to always pursue a further truth and clearer understanding of one’s subject. From Agee one learns a sacramental attention to humanity, and courage to stretch the language and make it adhere to reality.
So, I guess I have grown up with James Agee, and he has continued to grow and deepen as I have gotten older and changed myself. Of course, I’ve found much to identify with him, from being born in his neighborhood to his literary life. There’s a caution with an artist getting too close to any other artist and their work. But it’s also inevitable that this occurs. For a long time Agee was more of a lost son of Knoxville rather than a favorite son. Among local artists in particular, there was a need to bring him forth in the big picture. Thankfully, the university and the city government as well as local artists and other citizens began to do this. All the while others were beginning to do it in New York and Hollywood too.
While he always remains an inspiration, Agee’s influence comes into my writing more as a sensibility rather than a stylistic connection, a call to always pursue a further truth and clearer understanding of one’s subject. From Agee one learns a sacramental attention to humanity, and courage to stretch the language and make it adhere to reality. But I can also say he is an inspiration for trying to work in various mediums. His body of work represents the clearest example I know of the modern writer working in multiple mediums of the printed word. For a writer who was dead at age 45, Agee was a Pulitzer Prize winning fiction writer, a Yale Younger Poets Award winning poet, an Academy Award nominated screenplay writer, often referred to as the Father of New Journalism after his American classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, considered to have written the best piece of journalism Time magazine ever produced, "Victory: The Peace The Bomb," in his follow-up to the nuclear bombings of Japan, and during his lifetime was mainly known as America’s first great film critic. Not too shabby, and those are just some highlights.
STILL: Besides Agee, who are some other writers who have influenced you and why/how?
RBM: As a child I was inspired and influenced by Huck Finn, Tarzan, Ulysses, Davy Crockett—literary characters who I first saw on television or at a movie theater, an indirect connection to authors through a different medium. By the 4th grade it was Johnny Horton and Jerry Lee Lewis, then the Everly Brothers and Marty Robbins. It was music with all its emotion and power, but it was also the story in the song that I connected with, and the cool and culturally exotic way it could be told. First the heroes were in the stories, and then the heroes were telling the stories. By high school a wild and varied assortment had crossed my impressionistic radar, including lots of soul music, Dean Martin, the Beatles, Johnny Cash and Cool Hand Luke. But most significantly, around my junior year of high school, was Bob Dylan who hit like a hurricane at high tide for me. Just as I was starting to bloom he came rolling in, introduced to me by my older brother Chuck. By that time, 1966-67, Dylan had "gone electric" and “Like A Rolling Stone” had been blasting the radio, but it was his earlier breakthrough folk album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, that I first really heard. That’s the record that turned my head around and opened up my world. In time Chuck would also turn me on to Blake, Bukowski, Yates, Joyce, the Beats, and Rimbaud. And I was off and running.
Over the years, all of these early voices continue to talk to you and influence you, as others come into the conversation. Mainly though you take a turn into your own life and shed most of the early garments, and then shed some skin too. You come into your own voice and tell your own story. But to work for years in certain mediums like poetry and songwriting, you will fall within certain traditions, and your style and body of work will find easy familiarity with others. Nothing new under the sun, but the world keeps turning.
Musically, I like to think I carry some of that old Knoxville mix of genres in what I write and perform, a gospel and mountain sensibility that plays out in country storytelling, often in urban landscapes. I was brought into a more modern form of folk and rock music, a convergence of poetry and music, through Dylan, The Band, Leonard Cohen, John Prine, and Tom Waits. Studying the work of these and many other song-poets over the years brought me into an evolving poetic sense of what can be lyrically accomplished in a song. And part of that was to periodically bring poems into the live performance of music, something that had been done before, of course, but was a less explored and exploited medium.
In literature, there’s a certain reverence that I still carry from Agee, but a certain irreverence that I get from Bukowski and the Beats. In poetry, stylistically and philosophically, I feel as close to the reclusive Chinese poet Han-Shan, as say, Allen Ginsberg.
STILL: Many of your admirers first came to know you through music, as a singer and songwriter. But in addition to your musical catalog, you have now published five collections of poems, edited a literary magazine (Hard Knoxville Review), written and starred in a play, written for academic venues, and served as writer-in-residence for the UT Library. So, first, can you talk about how you wear all these hats simultaneously, and second, for you, what are the connections between all these art forms?
RBM: I don’t usually wear those hats simultaneously, but one thing leads to another naturally. I’m sure none of those hats fit very well, but the thread that’s held them together has been the story and the song. From there you can go anywhere, any medium. For me it’s just that inner voice hooking up with the music that rises from us all, and that wellspring ends up taking various shapes over time. A poem led to a play, a play led to a movie, and a movie led to the urban design of a park. Poetry wants music and music wants poetry, and all things that rise converge, someone said. I try to leave myself open and available and let the form take its own shape as much as it will. Of course you spend a lot of time trying to beat things into shape too.
If you have a love for any particular medium or form of art then you have an entry to it. By loving a form you will learn it, and throw in some hard work and discipline and practice if you want to get far in the creative process. To me the different mediums of the word are similar languages, and a story may feel more suited for a novel or short story than a song. And there are a lot of traditions and great variety within any particular medium, so it’s not always that big a jump to move from one to another.
STILL: What are some of the differences and challenges you face in trying to juggle all these different modes of artistic expression?
RBM: Mainly, I deal with songwriting and poetry, musical performances and readings, and recording songs and publishing poems. I’m not as active in other mediums, they only come into play periodically. Of course, I can recall when they would overlap at times, like my wife and I rushing back to Knoxville after playing a John Prine show in Charleston, South Carolina. Me driving through the night reciting the whole text of the Agee play over and over while she checked the script, trying to get back to town for a dress rehearsal and opening night’s performance that day. But, the real juggling act for me is making time for the creative process and booking and playing shows while being a daddy and daycare to a three year old. That’s enough juggling to leave you a little ragged and feeling like you’re running behind most of the time. Time constraints are always a challenge, and I wish I could bring more focus and attention to other mediums. I have projects and unfinished works that I intend to get back to always. You have to make choices as to what you will work on day to day. Sometimes those choices are influenced by what mediums are happening, what opportunities are available for pursuing certain mediums, and what’s paying.
My main livelihood is playing and singing songs I’ve written. Besides the creative process, it requires contacting music venues and scheduling performances. It’s a simple enough business arrangement (at least at my lowly position in the biz) with supply and demand at the heart of it. I basically get paid what I can pull through the door, sometimes a lot, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s a guarantee, but often not, just a head count at so much a head. It’s actually a pretty hard but honest way of life. I’m not an artist on the dole, not supported in any way by the government or academia; I have no corporate or otherwise sponsorship, no patron or sugar daddy. But the highways and byways are a glut of singer-songwriters and bands of all stripes, and the business thereof is long since an old but ever devolving rat race with new rats joining at ever increasing rates. It’s tough out there. And the model for music business has been turned upside down with all the new technology. I have at times felt like Kafka’s Hunger Artist dying off in a corner unnoticed by the trendy new world flashing by. I should write a song called "The New Paradigm Blues." But, as they say, it beats (_____). You fill in the blank.
But when you ask about the challenges involved with artistic expression, it makes me want to say that the main challenge is just to get to the work in the time you have. There was an interesting quote from poet Ron Houchin in this journal’s interview with him, where he said. “I’ve never understood what people mean when they say they wish they had more time to write and read. It’s your life and it’s going to be over before too long. Why are you waiting?” I say this too, and mainly to myself, just as a reminder to forge ahead, and as a way to keep perspective. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel what I think a lot of artists must feel . . . that everything in life will conspire against you as you continue to pursue the arts. I mean every bit of common sense will push you away from it, especially as you get older. Often, for the general public, the only explanation for any of it is fame and fortune. Why would one pursue the arts except for fame and fortune? If somehow fame and fortune have come to someone, then it’s as though there’s no reason to question their art or their pursuit of it; it’s just accepted. But if you’re "struggling," as they like to say, if you haven’t become rich and famous, questions are prominent and ever pressing, What are you doing, and Why do you keep doing it?
STILL: Your new collection of poems, The Mockingbird Poems, is dedicated “To the backyard.” We suspect, however, that the mockingbird in these poems is more than just the wildlife you might have seen in the backyard. Tell us a bit about the evolution of these poems.
RBM: I wrote the first Mockingbird poem shortly after Eric Sublett and I moved onto the World’s Fair site in Knoxville in 1984. His family opened the Sublett Gallery in one of the seven Victorian houses the city called the Artist Colony. We were the first business on the site after the World’s Fair was over. It was fenced off and basically dormant for two years before the city started doing anything with it, and the Artist Colony was their opening experiment. When we first walked through the house and out the back door there was a porch lined with holly trees. Mockingbirds love holly trees and they had a few nests there. The prickly leaves protect them and they feast on the red berries. I did a lot of gallery sitting, and I had a great opportunity to observe the bird life and especially the mockingbirds. That first poem just arrived one day, very plainly, not far from a child’s narrative:
Mockingbird played with his mate
They sang in the holly trees
And ate when they were hungry
Mockingbird held a red berry in his beak
He said, my Darling, this red berry
Is like the evening sun we sing to
Like your lovely eye unblinking in air
I would give it to you
But there are so many, get your own
And without another word
Mockingbird ate the berry
And began a song
A few more poems came along shortly, and there was a voice and there was a character. I would sometimes recite one at the gatherings and poetry readings happening at the time, and they seemed to work well in spoken-word presentation. Then I started mixing them into the music shows with RB and the Irregulars, and we recorded one on the Knoxville Sessions CD. I wrote a series of them around that time, maybe a couple dozen, before I more or less let it go. But a few of those initial poems, including the one we recorded, "Mockingbird and the Sun," I knew by heart and would sometimes go off on in certain situations hanging out with other writers, including songwriters like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle and Greg Brown.
So, a few of the poems stayed active, and periodically I would add one or two to the collection, because the voice was in me by then. The Mockingbird might make an appearance whenever. I adapted a piece, for instance, and performed it at the London Institute in Paris in 2009 at the Homage and Symposium for William Burroughs. Je suis! Je suis! sang Mockingbird. And his voice prevailed with the Euro-beaks. He now has friends in foreign trees . . . But, somewhere over the years I managed to misplace the old folder that was the main collection of the poems including a stack of hand written and manually typed notes and unfinished poems. I searched in vain a number of times for that folder with the thought of going back into the poems and expanding the work into a book. The amazing thing was when my little family moved our residence just over a year ago I found it. It had fallen in the back of an old file cabinet and I discovered it when we were pulling out all the drawers to move. It was a revelation to look back at poems I had forgotten and read through the notes and pages of loose stuff. There were set lists from gigs with a dozen poems integrated into a dozen songs. I knew there were still some missing poems but the bulk of the initial work was there.
What corresponded with finding this folder was moving back into the house where I was raised. My mother had just passed away, and in the process of dealing with her property, my wife and I bought the house from my brothers. I would never have thought it, but there I was hanging out in the old backyard where like a dream I had been so successfully disguised to myself as a child, and where I had first met old Mockingbird. Well, he was still there. We hooked back up and I started writing Mockingbird poems again. I worked off the map of the initial poems, the voice and character, and let it expand and take shape in all directions, becoming about three times longer than it was. It took about a year to call it a book and take it to press.
STILL: Of course, readers will have their own interpretations of who or what Mockingbird symbolizes in these poems. What were your intentions in drawing this bird into every poem?
RBM: Mockingbird draws himself into the picture, he draws the picture around him. He becomes the protagonist, the point of view, the focus, whether by squeaky wheel persistence or sly and cunning from the shadows. And he’s a real asshole sometimes. He’s full of himself and in constant explication and elucidation. But, he is a great artiste, and a notorious trickster just like Crow and Coyote and Magpie. So, the story follows him, and we wish to know how such a soul conducts himself in most any situation, every poem.
One could say Mockingbird symbolizes the Artist, but I would rather say Mockingbird symbolizes Mockingbird.
STILL: These poems cut a wide swath through our collective memories and histories; the poems mimic our notions of the Bible, modern poetry, American history, social and political structures, and music, of course. There doesn’t seem to be a subject or a concept that Mockingbird can’t handle with cunning alacrity. Talk about how you conceived such a far-reaching world of poems from the mockingbird’s point of view. Can you talk also about how you invented the mockingbird’s voice?
RBM: This was a book that wanted to be written. I’m surprised it hadn’t been already. Mockingbird has such a long and rich tradition in song and verse; he’s been knocking around the airwaves for centuries. He goes way back. He’s the songbird of songbirds, and the state bird of Tennessee and maybe half a dozen other states. He’s been dreamed upon, wished upon, conjured around and blessed and cursed with the best and worst. I thought he deserved a book, and he thought he deserved a book.
As a character, Mockingbird has a distinct personality. He carries himself like a prince, a definite air of self-importance. He’s sleek in line and posture, flashy and beautiful in his two-tone grey white coat. He’s partisan and opinionated and preaches at his neighbors. He mocks them. He’s pushy with other birds, very territorial, often divebombs cats and dogs and people if they get near his nest, or for whatever reason. That’s what it’s like hanging out with him. But his image, his great renown, is a singer of love songs, an enchanter of lanes and meadows, a messenger of love, and a blessing upon the world. He’s Cupid, he’s a dream weaver, a magical and exalted one, and not to be killed.
I think what I wanted to do was to go ahead and declare Mockingbird the ultimate Artist, God’s most molded one for the artist’s task of turning the mirror on the world, of giving back the reflection, the song, of having the good energy and strong attitude to do it and sustain it. He’s the dude. And once I declared him Artist the rest of the world began to take its shape. Crow is the great intellectual, he’s the thinking bird, the linguistics master, and traditionally at odds with the Artist. Mockingbird and the Crows, Mockingbird and Raven, old enemies. So, they all begin to take their roles in the old tale—the Sparrow, the Robin, the Bluejay, the Dodo—and make their version of the passion play. You know, they say birds may be descendants of the dinosaurs, and who knows who makes it out of this epoch.
The opening poem, “Genesis,” was discovered again in the lost folder; it was one from the initial series. So, somewhere early on the poems had the biblical seed, something of the legend. I continued that thread and let it unfold in somewhat of a chronological landscape. To go along with his rich tradition in song and verse, I wanted to give Mockingbird some mythos, something of a poetical mythology, a bird with a thousand faces, a hero with a thousand beaks. And as the story expanded in vignettes of poems, Mockingbird became involved in more and varied situations which appeared to me to build a storyline, a chronology and sort of evolution. That was when I decided to give the poems titles, which virtually none of them had. I didn’t think I would stick with this idea. I thought I would ultimately prefer to let them stay as a collection in their loose state, "the drawing board," so to speak, which can sometimes say more in its unfinished or unpolished way. But, the titles were so much fun, and I sometimes had two or more for a poem, that I gave titles to the entire collection. What I discovered was that the titles told the story of Mockingbird, that they were handy stepping stones for the long progression of the tale. Because of this I kept them and shaped them in that way.
As for the voice of Mockingbird, I don’t feel like I "invented" it. It’s just there out the window in the air, in your ear, and it has always been so. There have been a number of studies of mockingbirds and their songs, as well as the sounds they make. Lately they say mockingbirds imitate cell phones and cars and other urban noises. I became fascinated with them and their songs at an early age, and I like to say I’ve done a number of interviews with them over the years.
I did realize some years back that a lot of people don’t hear or see mockingbirds. When I was teaching at an alternative high school I would have a group of students come to the window and, being on a hill, look out over a few city blocks. I would ask them what all they saw in the general landscape. While they could tell me the make of each modern car coming up the road, which I couldn’t do, what they didn’t see or notice without prompting were trees. There was green foliage busting out between every house and building but this didn’t register with them. When I pointed out a big magnolia tree just across the street, none of them could name the type of tree it was. And, when I pointed to a robin walking around in the yard, no one knew what kind of bird it was, or for that matter, knew the name of any other bird or tree. I say this because it became a thing to take some of the boys who were budding lead guitarists outside and let them sit under a tree and listen to a mockingbird sing. At first they couldn’t hear the bird’s song at all in their general auditory intake. Then upon getting them to focus more they would notice it. And after a while they could begin to distinguish the notes and phrases of the birdsong. It was a revelation to them when they suddenly said "This is like jazz; he’s singing this phrase over and over and then doing variations on it before coming back to it like a chorus."
In some of the Mockingbird poems I begin to let him speak more in that manner, taking some of the sentiment of his personality and perspective and letting the words break up and repeat like musical phrases. This probably peaks with "Mockingbird and the Journalists." I tried to be merciful; I could have gotten lost in that jabberwocky and maybe not returned.
STILL: Have you attempted to set any of the Mockingbird poems to music?
RBM: I’ve only recorded the one poem I mentioned, which is called "Mockingbird" on the Knoxville Sessions CD, and "Mockingbird and the Sun" in the book. WDVX radio station has asked to use a live reading of one of the poems on their thumb drive for fundraising purposes. In live performances I have used musical accompaniment to the poems many times, always in an improvisational manner—originally with RB and the Irregulars, but through the years with various groups and combos including the Nashville band I performed and recorded with, as well as the Tim Lee Three, the Tennessee Shines bands, and even very recently at a show with Daniel Kimbro and Greg Horne. Over the years part of my general live show format has been to throw a poem or two into the mix of songs, and the Mockingbird poems have been regulars throughout.
STILL: Your wife, Karly Stribling, is a sculptor and visual artist and provided the gorgeous illustrations for The Mockingbird Poems. Did you two collaborate on the collection?
RBM: The Mockingbird Poems is a definite collaboration with Karly. As the poems were coming together we talked about her illustrating a book of them, and she began drawing a series of mockingbirds. The first one became the cover, and four other mockingbirds are used throughout the book. The illustrations are significant to the layout, specific to the progression of the storyline. Rather than have chapter titles or numbers separating sections of the book, there’s just a physical break of two pages, one blank and one with a mockingbird flying forward to the next section. This same flying bird appears in the table of contents separating the different sections. Then three other mockingbirds are scattered throughout the poems. All five mockingbird drawings are in the back of the book, each with its own page. So I felt like we gave this book its own graphic quality, a little bit different use of illustrations. Partially because of this I’ve come to call the book a field guide to mockingbirds.
As Karly was completing the drawings we began working with Aaron Russell on design. Using Karly’s first drawing he made an advertising flyer for the book. We liked his design so much we adapted it for the book cover. Then we decided to create a poster for each of her five drawings. I chose five poems from the book to go with the different drawings and Aaron designed the posters.
Karly Stribling's illustrations for The Mockingbird Poems (used with permission)
STILL: How do the poems in Mockingbird differ from your previous books of poems? Do you see your poetic work, in general, as having a particular worldview or ideology? If so, how would you describe it?
RBM: The voice in the Mockingbird poems is different than my previous books. You might say it’s more of a novelist’s voice, that objective all-knowing narrator; whereas in previous books my poems have generally been more personal with a more subjective voice, whether that’s making big public declarations or musing privately from inner sanctums. The Mockingbird Poems are in a place of their own.
I’m sure my poetry has some general worldview or ideology, but I don’t think I can articulate it, and I’m sure it changes and contradicts itself. Like most poets, songwriters, artists, I’m looking out at the world and looking in at myself and trying to relate, sometimes through that first-person "I" and sometimes through characters, like Mockingbird.
STILL: What are you reading right now?
RBM: A little paperback biography of Robert Mitchum by Mike Tomkies, which was given to me years ago by a friend I worked with in Nashville, around the time I recorded Mitchum’s, "Ballad of Thunder Road." I’m only now sitting down to a straight-through read of it. Mitchum’s story is unbelievable, nothing close to it in Hollywood today.
The Mad Farmer Poems by Wendell Berry. I had only read a few of them before, usually posted on walls and refrigerators. I bought it in Louisville, Kentucky, at Carmichael’s Bookstore next to Heine Brothers Coffee Shop, one of my very favorite bookstores in one of my very favorite cities.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Belano, which I’ve started a few times, but feels as though it needs to be read in one sitting or maybe two. I’ve enjoyed other books of his.
Burning the Midnight Oil by Phil Cousineau, late night pieces, poems and snatches of prose, often the last read of the night.
And, Buddhism for Dudes by Gerry Stribling, my father-in-law, who just brought the book in the house. He’s had it out as an e-Book for a while and just now had it printed and bound. An excellent and humorous read, getting good reviews.
STILL: What literary or musical projects are in the works for you?
RBM: I’m sure I would jinx them if I said much about them, but there’s generally something percolating. I have new songs, and some older unrecorded songs too, that kind of belong together. I need to get in the studio. And I’ve been warming up to putting out a 'live’ CD, which I’ve never really done and have a backlog to consider. There are a number of record projects that I hope to get to, some with specific producers. Poetry is more of an open question at the moment, having just put out a new book. But I have a few collections that I gradually add to, that are still coming into focus. A lot of what I have been writing lately is prose, though I’m not sure exactly what it is.
God Made a Hillbilly
When God handed out the endless attributes
On the ladder of love and go get it
He gave some the ability to fly
Of those He gave some the ability to sing
Of those He gave some dominion
Over the air and earth
Of those He made Mockingbird
In my image I have reckoned, said God
I reckon so, said Mockingbird
from The Mockingbird Poems by R.B. Morris (Rich Mountain Bound, 2013). Illustrations by Karly Stribling. Used with permission.