Devil’s Lake


Interview with Maurice Manning

Q: Can you talk about the process of writing The Common Man? Did you have specific goals with it that were different than your previous books?

The process of writing was one that evolved and took time for me to discover and be able to articulate. It took about 2-3 years of working in a particular mode before I realized that the tale was the thing that I was really interested in, and especially how we love to tell tales in an oral sense, and to translate the oral storytelling mode to the page, hopefully without losing any of the qualities of the oral version.

Even though all the poems in The Common Man are narratives, I’ve tried to keep them suspended so that there really isn’t a firm ending—again, to suggest that continuousness—as if it’s a stream that’s flowing on and on.

And then, I had to find a viable form to tell tales, and the four-beat tetrameter line seemed to be more efficient than, say, the more standard pentameter line. I knew I wanted a particular rhythm through the whole book, and a four-beat line seemed to address that, and for me, the tetrameter kind of captures and propels the emergence of a narrative. After looking around at old ballads, folk songs, and mountain songs, couplets seemed to be an efficient way to plot the development of a narrative, to both move it forward then give it some pause. For me, with anything I’ve written, I’m interested in continuity and continuousness. Even though all the poems in The Common Man are narratives, I’ve tried to keep them suspended so that there really isn’t a firm ending—again, to suggest that continuousness—as if it’s a stream that’s flowing on and on.

In relation to the previous work that I’ve done, I think of my first three books as a kind of trilogy, each one digging into a particular experience of a protagonist in a particular place over time, and it so happens that the place, for me, is Kentucky. I think of the first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, as a mid- to late 20th century coming-of-age experience of a particular individual named Lawrence Booth, and that book is personal and dramatic in that regard. The next book, A Companion for Owls, is all in the voice of Daniel Boone, who was one of the early settlers of Kentucky. Although he has faults, he is an idealized historical figure encountering the place of Kentucky in its primeval state, and in doing so, he witnesses its transformation into a "fallen place" (in an Old Testament sort of sense). And then the third book, Bucolics, doesn’t specify the place. It is an agrarian place, and the unnamed protagonist has a fundamental and essential spiritual connection to it and the obligations he has in maintaining it as a steward of creation. I wanted that book not to reference any sort of modern or industrial aspect of human life. I wanted it to be a portrait of one person working with his hands and basic hand tools, and how that work creates and maintains his relationship to (what he views) as the created world, and by extension, to the creator.

In The Common Man I think I was conscious of now trying to populate this place of Kentucky. Yes, there are characters in the first book, but Lawrence Booth is absolutely the central character, same with Daniel Boone and the protagonist in Bucolics. I think with The Common Man I wanted to spread out a little bit and not work with such an isolated perspective. There is a voice that narrates the poems, but he has neighbors, people stop by, and he’s aware of the history of his place. He’s aware of the daily goings-on. It’s more of a social endeavor. And I think that’s what storytelling is—at least historically—before people could read and before we had books. The primary way of spreading the news was to tell it through a group of people, and a friend’s mission with the news or a story was a social event, whether people were gathered in the tavern or the street corner or the front porch. So I wanted there to be a sense of community that the poems in the book consciously came from. Yes, there are probably some poems in the book that are contemplative and the speaker is alone, but it is almost always referring to other people and neighbors. He’s responding to the fact that he is part of a community, and I think if there’s any sort of larger motive with that, it is to imply the suggestion that we pay more attention to our community, and that we come together to recognize common ground, literally our common ground—the land that we live on—and also the more figurative senses of common ground.

Q: So, you’ve given some background for your different books. Has your writing process itself changed from book to book, or stayed consistent? Do you have a particular routine?

I think my process is consistent. I have to spend time reading other things and just living life, especially being out in the woods and working here at the farm as much as possible. Whether it’s reading or planting kale, I think of it all as a kind of outward engagement, and from all of that mingling together, usually a set of ideas or conflicts emerge, and, intuitively at first, I start writing poems that are an attempt to address those ideas and conflicts and open them up and try to understand them more deeply. It always takes a lot of time to find the form, voice, and perspective; it usually requires writing a fair number of poems before getting to the "right" poem, where I’ve sort of established the basic design for what will eventually be expanded and more intricately assembled. Usually I have to have, you know, ten to twenty poems that seem to be built on that arrived-at design, and then I can have a sense of how to write more poems and expand the whole. Sometimes I’ll pick up a book of poetry and it’s the collected poems of so-and-so, and it seems as if the organization of the book is just additive, "now here’s one, and here’s another, and here’s another and another." And some of the book is just that: a one-plus-one totality at the end of the book—which is perfectly fine—but for whatever reason, I can’t do that. I can’t write an individual poem and not want to write another poem that is related to it. So eventually, when I’m in the midst of working on a book, I want its expansion to be geometric as opposed to additive. I want it to exist in a three-dimensional spatial relationship with all the other poems in the book.

Q: When did you start feeling like poetry was something you wanted to pursue seriously?

I think it started very young, surprisingly. It’s actually not something that I recognized myself until just a few years ago. When I was about eight or nine, my grandparents gave me a little cassette tape recorder for Christmas, just a basic lo-fi model, nothing fancy or technical about it. I would put batteries and a cassette in it and walk out in the woods, and I would just make up stories. They were often some kind of adventure: some sort of danger, struggling to find a cave where a bear was living, or something to do with mountaineers (I was always interested in the pioneers and mountain men, fur-trappers, that sort of stuff), and I’d make up these sort of romantic adventures in the woods, and I’d make up different voices, and sometimes there were two characters or something like that and another character would be met along the way, and I’d do that until the cassette was full. Then, that night, I would go home and play the cassette back. I’d listen to it over and over and over, not because I was interested in my own voice, I don’t think, but I was interested in listening to a story, and I was fascinated that it was my voice telling the story. And I did that for a number of years, probably three years or so, until I guess I out-grew it, but I’ve recently looked back on that and realized that while I wasn’t writing things down, I was doing the sorts of thing a writer does; it’s something you do in isolation, something you invent as you go, something with a specific voice and pace and rhythm. And then the repetition of listening to it at night, I think, was a kind of obsessive habit that writers fall into. So, I’d say I’ve realized that that was obviously a foundational moment for me.

At some point I realized I didn’t think anybody still wrote poetry, because all the poets were dead, and I had never met anybody who was a poet.

Then when I got to junior high something shifted, I’m not sure what, but I started writing poems, not very diligently, but at that point I became fascinated with poetry and what you can do with a line and rhyme and rhythm and how the poem is a marvelous little place to organize all of those features. I enjoyed that a poem was a little world of its own, usually on one page. And then I guess I continued that sort of thing in high school, but it was always a strange sort of thing I did; I didn’t think about it very much, it was just an instinct. It also felt like it was something that I needed to keep private. It wasn’t something I ever talked about with my friends or my parents, just something to occupy myself, and I certainly enjoyed it, but I didn’t know anybody else who did it, so it was one of those things where I wasn’t sure if I should show it off or be ashamed that I had this weird habit.

Another little revelation I’ve had in the last couple of years is that I never encountered anything in my English classes in high school that helped me make a connection between what I was doing on my own and what we were reading in school. The schooling that I had growing up was not terribly rigorous when it came to literature—to be honest we didn’t read much, and sometimes I wonder what in the world we did, and what we did read was generally presented to us as a formula: you know, what is Hamlet’s tragic flaw, and that’s just the textbook version of literature. It always seemed rigid and dry to me. The whole point of studying literature when I was in school was to memorize terms, arrive at the textbook version of comprehension, and obviously all of that is important at some level, but it didn’t inspire me very much.

When I got to college I got to seriously study literature from the inside out, and that was revelatory for me. I absolutely fell in love, but these were hardcore literature classes; we didn’t have creative writing courses (at the time at least). I was still writing my poems on the side, not knowing what to do with them, just enjoying it. At some point I realized I didn’t think anybody still wrote poetry, because all the poets we read were dead, and I had never met anybody who was a poet. I just didn’t think people did it anymore, sort of like how people don’t plow their fields with mules or cook over a fire anymore. It really seemed that remote or sort of done-with for me, so that further encouraged me to just tuck it away and keep it to myself.

Then one day, I think I was a junior in college, I was taking a poetry course where all we did was just read poems and talk about them. Our textbook began with Chaucer and went up to, say, Robert Frost, but one day, we read a separate book, a collection of poems by Denise Levertov, called Candles in Babylon. I didn’t realize it, but that was a contemporary book of poetry, and the week we read it, this little wire-haired woman was sitting in the class. This was a small class of about 10 people, and here was this other woman who was obviously not a student, and it turned out to be Denise Levertov. I went to a Quaker college, and our professor was very involved in Quaker causes internationally, and so was Denise Levertov, and they had somehow become acquaintances. She was coming to work with him that week for some kind of human justice movement, and he just asked her to come to class one day. That was the first time I had seen a living poet. It was the first time that I knew there was such a creature. And that really inspired me. It’s not to say Levertov’s poetry inspired me necessarily, but to hear her talk and articulate how she worked and why and all of that suddenly made me feel like there’s at least another person in the world who thinks this way and looks at the world this way.

I became fascinated with poetry and what you can do with a line and rhyme and rhythm and how the poem is a marvelous little place to organize all those features. I enjoyed that a poem was a little world of its own …

After college I went back home and wanted to dedicate myself to reading the things I knew I’d missed in college. Even though I’d taken literature classes, I wanted to learn about the writers we didn’t cover in class, so I did. I really sat down at that point and started reading and writing regularly, with considerable focus and discipline. A couple of years out, I missed the more formal setting of studying literature in the classroom, so I thought I needed to go to graduate school, so I went to the University of Kentucky to get my master’s in English, not Creative Writing, because, frankly I didn’t know such a thing existed.

Somewhere during my time at UK I heard about this thing called Creative Writing, and there were some writers on the faculty that I got to know, and I immediately felt a kinship, but unfortunately the master’s program that I was in was the study of literature, which was heavily influenced by critical theory and this highly technical way of talking about literature, that, as far as I could tell, killed the soul of literature and just sort of turned the book into a Petri dish: just a little science study.

And I knew that that’s not how writers worked, that the process of writing, while it has formal aspects, is very organic. The critical theory stuff had the effect of eliminating the organic qualities of a book of literature, and just turned the study of literature into a pseudo-science, and I’m afraid I think that’s still the case. So I sort of ran into a dead-end there—I felt the university setting was not going to allow me to pursue literature with real passion and devotion, so I completed the master’s degree and worked and did various things for several years, but all the while I was reading and writing on my own, and very happily so, and one day I was at work and I just realized that I was carrying around little pieces of paper in my pockets and sneaking moments to read and write at work. I realized that I just needed to be doing this more, so I decided to apply for MFA programs. I’d heard about them by that point, I had no idea if I could get in. I was only aware at that point that I liked to make things. My plan was to apply to MFA programs and if I didn’t get into one of them, I would apprentice myself to a carpenter. I wanted to learn a real hands-on skill, and I’ve always been interested in carpentry and had some basic abilities with that. There was just something deeply satisfying with just making something with your hands. I thought if I wasn’t able to do that through poetry, then I’d do it with wood. Fortunately, I got into a creative writing program and that was absolutely the right thing to do; I had a wonderful experience at the University of Alabama. I feel like I was doing the right thing at the right time with the right people, and it sort of set the course for everything after that.

Q: What do you feel is the purpose of poetry in society? Why is poetry important? What are the responsibilities of a poet?

I think a poem is just a means to capture something that can’t be expressed in any other way. It’s usually a complex of ideas and questions and feelings and revelations. A poem is just an ancient device, if you will, for holding a combination of all of those things together in a dynamic way. It’s like you can take a frame and put it around something, and that thing suddenly becomes different because it’s got a frame around it, it’s singled out; it’s uniquely identified.

We need the little bitty things that we see in the poem; we need a simile in the world, we need metaphor, we need imagery, we need the rhythm of words, we need the sound of words. Those are the microunits of how we relate to each other …

I often find it frustrating that we need to defend the value of any art, but that is the age in which we live; we’ve got dingbat politicians and people on talk radio and TV who feel perfectly entitled to put down and devalue imaginative expression, and I find that, if you really think about it, that’s pretty disturbing. It’s an argument for a police state at its worst. I don’t think any of the politicians who want to cut funding in the arts and want students to learn only math and science in school because that supports technology and industry are arguing for a police state, but if we got rid of all the arts we wouldn’t have a culture. We’d be robots. We need the little bitty things that we see in the poem; we need a simile in the world, we need metaphor, we need imagery, we need the rhythm of words, we need the sound of words. Those are the microunits of how we relate to each other—how we communicate something vital to each other—and it’s really a shame that we’ve got people who don’t value teaching young people how to use them with facility. I was at a gathering a few nights ago here in Kentucky in our county and I was one of three people on a panel and we were all talking about the role of the arts in rural sustainability, and I really found it to be an inspiring evening because we’ve got people all around us who are talented at one thing or another. It doesn’t have to be a high art or an art that you go to graduate school to learn, but we’ve got people here who make musical instruments with their hands, we’ve got people here who are potters. We’ve got people here who know how to fix things and build things, and to do any of that work requires a combination of practical skills and imagination.

We’ve got to get to the point where our society in general learns how to value the imagination. And that’s how we solve problems and improve our society. If you think about someone like Martin Luther King Jr., and the famous speeches he gave, yes, on one hand they are demands for social justice, but what made his speeches effective and persuasive was his ability to use metaphor and allegory and simile and imagery—all of the things we associate with poetry. His famous statement "I’ve been to the mountaintop," well, not really; he said that figuratively. He had to experience that through his imagination, and to vocalize that, he had to find a metaphor to say it. So I think we live every day—those of us who value social justice and racial equality—we live every day with the fruit of someone like Dr. King’s imagination. His imagination produced a series of famous and persuasive speeches, and that’s why people listen to them, you know? That’s what made his argument effective, and because of that, things happened in American society that were improvements. So I think defending the value of poetry in our society is about like being asked to defend the value of medicine, or food production, or clean water; we need all of these things, to allow our communities to function. It just so happens that poetry or other arts are perhaps mysterious to a lot of people, and a lot of people don’t recognize how valuable the arts are for the health of any community.

Q: Geography and experience are obviously important parts of your work. How important do you think these things are in the development of a poet?

I feel like every writer I know well enough to ask about these things can say very clearly that there are a set of fundamental factors and experiences that sort of made them who they are as a writer and as a person who sees the world through writing. I think writers in general are people who have some instincts, the first of which is to pay attention—a particular kind of attention—to the world around you, to the place you’re from, and I think writers, beyond simply paying attention, have to be curious. So not only do you know that you’re from this particular place, but you learn about what happened in that town before your time; you learn about the people in your town, you learn about the landscape and the geography, and the history, and I think you develop a way to experience your thoughts and your awareness of place in a way that is kind of objective. In that case, the writer is really in the position of being an observer, even though he/she is participating in his/her world; they are kind of standing on the edge, both observing it and having affection for it, even though this combination is filled with complexity.

I think I’ve encountered this sort of issue with my students over the years, many of whom are from a suburban place: a place that to them doesn’t seem like a real place, yet it is. Yeah, you may have grown up two streets behind the strip mall in a house that looks just like the house next door and the one next to that, and one’s experience might be based on our sort of consumer/suburban world, but that’s a reality nevertheless. I’ve struggled with this in working with my students through the years because a suburban experience was not my experience, so it’s difficult for me to relate to it, and therefore I find it difficult to be helpful with my students to find something vital to write about from it. The best I think I’ve been able to do is tell them, rather than apologize for coming from a suburban place, still try to learn more and more about that place. What was that place before it was suburbanized—there’s something there underneath the surface, I think, and you can learn about your own family, where your people are from. Maybe a young person grew up in a Chicago suburb because of his/her parents’ professions, but maybe before that one of those parents was from West Virginia and the other was from Iowa. Now that young person is automatically connected to those two places and can enrich his/her work by doing the legwork of finding out about those places, and his/her family history in those places. In my experience, I think the historical perspective is useful, and I think unfortunately a lot of young people grow up today without a very strong sense of history, whether cultural, personal, or familial—we’re unfortunately an in-the-moment kind of country these days.

Q: What are you reading these days?

Lately I’ve been reading the letters of Robert Frost.

Q: What kind of stuff are you working on now?

Well, I just finished a manuscript a few weeks ago, and that book is, I would say, something of an extension from The Common Man. I think of it more as of a portrait of the social realm of the village, but all of the poems in that book, called The Gone and the Going Away, begin with the article, "the," as if each poem is a poem but also a kind of object, in the sense of being a fact, and therefore kind of permanent. I think when I was working on The Common Man I realized that the world that I was writing about was passing away, if it wasn’t gone already, in that the old local characters I knew growing up and most of my older relatives are all gone, and the little town that I grew up in has changed—it has become sort of a modern place, and homogenous, and the character that it used to have is greatly diminished. I didn’t want to just sit around and be sad about that, so I began thinking consciously about a small town, or a village, and I think The Gone and the Going Away offers a sort of elegy for the passing of a small town and at the same time, I hope, recreates an imaginary small town. I remember thinking, well, if all of these old-timers who mattered to me as a younger person…if all of them are gone, then rather than lamenting their absence, perhaps I can fill that absence with an imaginary town, and an imaginary set of characters, and be content with that, or try to be. We’ll see how that goes; I sent it to my editor the other day. And then the newest stuff I’m working on, poems I’m not yet sure how to characterize, I think they are deeper and darker meditations on concepts and ideas we associate with high-level, sophisticated thinking. I’m exploring how those ideas occur in small, rural places that we don’t normally associate with that level of sophistication.

MAURICE MANNING was born and raised in Kentucky, and often writes about the land and culture of his home. Maurice Manning’s first book of poems, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001) was chosen by poet and judge W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. His subsequent books include 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 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Manning received a fellowship at the Fine Art Work Center in Provincetown and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He divides his time between Bloomington, Indiana, where he teaches at Indiana University, and a farm in Kentucky.