The Kentucky Stage
Maurice Manning speaks slowly. He’s intent on clarity. If it’s possible to be searching and precise at the same time, he is. Manning lives on 20 acres of farmland in Kentucky. He keeps a picture of the great bluegrass musician Roscoe Holcomb on his refrigerator, and often finds himself working through poems while doing farm chores or walking in the woods near his house. None of that will seem a surprise to readers familiar with his work.
Since Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, for which he earned a Yale Younger Poets nod in 2001, Manning has homed in on the lives of men and women in rural Kentucky. His next effort was A Companion for Owls, a collection that imagined a commonplace book by the legendary Daniel Boone, in verse. Bucolics was a series of takes on the pastoral poem: 78 untitled, unpunctuated poems, all addressed to “Boss.” He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize on the strength of 2010’s The Common Man, a collection that reached back to his childhood. His new collection, The Gone and the Going Away, faces a Kentucky in flux with a brave face and a healthy dose of humor. The Poetry Foundation recently spoke with Manning by telephone, after one of his standard days of teaching and farm chores. A condensed version of that conversation follows.
You were on a panel of writers recently discussing the question “What is Southern?” What’s your perspective?
That was an interesting conversation. People on the panel had widely different perspectives. My thought was, we still have people who have a long time living in the same place, and who live in a region that they have real roots in, family history, and they know that their grandparents lived here, and their great-grandparents lived over here, and that sort of thing. At least that’s my experience of Kentucky. And a sense that the past matters, I would say, is still detectable around here.
At the same time it seems like you’re reporting facts on the ground, things are changing there, in terms of your new poems.
That’s true. I felt a little awkward on the panel in Chattanooga because it was a particular kind of audience, a somewhat intimidating audience, because some people come to the conference wanting to have their previous impressions of the South confirmed. In some ways, if I had wanted to be morbid about things, I might have said, well, I think the things that have distinguished any region of the country are quickly fading away, and we’re all just kind of getting whitewashed into a monoculture. I think about this stuff, and then I stop myself from thinking much further about it because there’s something about it that makes me a little depressed. I think it’s ironic that in the last 15 or 20 years we’ve had the interest in multiculturalism and diversity, but at the same time we’re going through a real homogenization of our culture, from economics and technology. If every small town has a Walmart, then that small town is not terribly distinct from another one. And if everybody in the whole country is spending two hours in the evening fooling around on Facebook, well, that works in much the same way.
One thing I see consistently in your work is a sense of dignity granted to people who aren’t very well understood by the rest of America. It seems quite a few people take a dim view of life between the coasts for one reason or another. And I’ve never found much advantage to having a Southern accent in certain parts of the country.
[Laughs] My wife lived in New York for 15 years or so before we got married. After we got married, we went to New York to see some of her friends and her sister, and we were eating breakfast around the block from where her sister lives, and an acquaintance of theirs came in. This woman happens to be English, but she owns a restaurant nearby, and she saw my wife and said, “Oh, where have you been? I haven’t seen you.” And my wife said, “I got married and moved to Kentucky.” And this woman said [laughs], “Why would you want to be down there with all those rednecks?” And I’m sitting right there, and that very day a Kentucky writer named Silas House had an op-ed in the New York Times, talking about rural America. You know, I thought, I wish I had a copy of the paper in my hand.
How active are you in terms of farming now?
We’ve got 20 acres. We have fruit trees and berries and currently we have one hive of bees, which are doing better than they have in recent years. Just yesterday we noticed, we have a big locust tree up on the hill just as you go into the woods, and for several years now, wild bees have stayed in the hollow of this locust tree. Last fall, we noticed that they had left. I kept thinking, some hive of bees is going to come back. Just yesterday we noticed bees had returned to that locust tree. In addition to all that, we have three or four garden patches where we just raise all kinds of vegetables.
The way you handle nature in your work seems to set you apart, even from other poets who are noted for their treatment of the natural world. It’s at the heart of a lot of what you do, but your poems are very seldom just a hymn to nature.
I think, say, in The Common Man, and probably the first two books as well, I wanted Kentucky as sort of this stage for the human things that happen. Perhaps I was wanting to suggest that a particular kind of story involving particular people could only happen in this place. But I think with certain poems in The Gone and the Going Away, I’m a lot more consciously trying to claim that the natural setting is the source for the human imagination.
You mentioned Kentucky as a stage, and you’ve said in the past that you keep a theatrical setting in mind when writing. Have you thought about working in a genre other than poetry? I ask this also with an eye toward Robert Penn Warren, whom you’ve said you admire a great deal.
I’m glad you mentioned him, because I’ve spent a long time this past year thinking about him. When I was working on Lawrence Booth, that project had a long gestation, I would say at least 10 years.
Well, you weren’t as young as a lot of writing students, were you?
No, that’s right. Whenever I’ve had undergraduates who are champing at the bit to do an MFA program, I always say, why don’t you wait at least two years, graduate from college, go get yourself some kind of job and live in a crummy apartment and live a life for a while.
Now, when I was working on the first book, the basic material for that, in terms of narrative material, I knew that for a long time. How to get at it was the real sticking point. In my early 20s or so, I had tried a kind of fictional approach, prose, and that didn’t ever seem satisfying. When I got to Alabama [for graduate school], I found that I was writing Lawrence Booth poems in first person. That just wasn’t satisfactory either, and then one day I thought, “What if I put this in third person?” All of a sudden I could step back from the so-called action of the poems, and observe it and comment on it from a perspective that was farther away from the material. Over time as I was building the book, I began to think of it as happening on a stage, and I was offstage and could call on this character, and call another character to the stage and put them together, and “What’s going to happen in this scenario? What are they going to say? How are they going to respond?” Thinking in terms of drama put the material in a three-dimensional space, which helped me understand it more.
And you made that move to mask autobiographical content, is that right?
To what extent was that also a response to being told not to talk about yourself too much growing up, because that was rude? Or was this material that was too intense and personal to tackle head on?
I’d say both. You’re exactly right with the first observation. I can hear my mother admonishing me and my sister, “Stop thinking about yourself.” If we complained or groused about something, we were being selfish somehow.
It’s been said that you have a particularly Southern voice. Is that something you’re conscious of at all, hitting that particular note people will identify as Southern?
I don’t feel like I think of that too much. The whole topic of voice is a difficult one for me. It’s really an issue for poets more than for fiction writers. I think if somebody writes a novel and they’re writing through a character who lives in the 19th century in Boston, nobody questions the writer’s appropriation of that voice or invention of that voice. It’s just part of the fiction and it’s accepted. Poets are sort of expected to write in their own voice.
It’s a little strange to think that way if you consider something like Spoon River Anthology.
I don’t know where or why or how we got lost, but I think, if you go back to the early 20th century, there’s a lot of dramatic poems that are clearly not in the voice of the poet who wrote them.
You said recently in an interview that you didn’t meet a published poet until you went to college. That came up in an interview you did recently and it seemed to strike the interviewer as strange, but it tracked very closely with my experience and, I’m sure, with quite a few other people’s as well.
It’s particularly for people I know here in Kentucky who are writers. Most of them didn’t grow up in a home that was particularly literary, so many folks I know discovered their love for literature on their own or accidentally. It wasn’t handed to them through the tutelage or guidance of parents, or even their schooling. It was, for me, a very powerful experience to meet a living poet. It happened to be Denise Levertov.
That was quite a place to start.
Yeah, and for several years, by that point, I had been writing poems, but I thought, I’m doing something that’s an anachronism. All the poets are dead. That’s another reason why—several times a year I get to go to an elementary school or a high school, and it’s something I believe in doing because there’s got to be a handful of youngsters out there who have some kind of inclination to write, and to meet an adult who has a similar inclination.
You said at some point that “the ball is in our court to make a kind of poetry that’s more accessible to more people.” You couldn’t have said anything truer, but how do we start that shift? How do you get access to people who would be drawn to this new poetry?
Maybe I’ll go back to Spoon River and that era of American poetry. I often describe Spoon River and Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay, poets from the early 20th century, as populist in that they’re not trying, in their poetry, to demonstrate their intelligence as poets. Instead I think that type of populist poetry is a kind of regard for what it is to just be human, and to have imperfections and failings and desperation and joy and love.
Who do you see working in that vein today?
Well, you mentioned John Burnside. I love his poetry. This man is deceased, but a Welsh poet named R.S. Thomas—I don’t think he’s as well known in this country as he should be. His writing career spans much of the 20th century, and he’s writing about rural villages in Wales and the local people who live there, the highs and lows of their lives. I’m a little partial to this because I was on the committee this past year, but I really admire David Ferry’s book Bewilderment, which won the National Book Award. Obviously he’s versed in the classical world and who knows what else, but he can write the most down-to-earth, humane poems. He’s not ashamed of his intelligence or his education. He just has the ability to bore down through all of that and get at something that’s much closer to the ground.
How about Rodney Jones?
He’s one of my heroes. For sure. I’d add Betty Adcock’s poetry as well. She’s from East Texas, but she’s lived in North Carolina for a good while. She’s a wonderful poet. And Robert Morgan, I like—what I know of his poetry, I’ve always enjoyed. James Still, too, a Kentucky poet. I’m partial to him because I was lucky to get to know him, but his poems just knock me down. They’re so austere and plain. And just this spring, for a variety of reasons, I’ve been really focused on Robert Penn Warren. There are some of his poems that I just find arresting. He’s not quite contemporary, but he’s close enough for me.
I hope this isn’t one of those moments when your words come back to haunt you, but I came across an interview where you were asked what it’s like to be a poet today. You said, “Sad and sort of futile.”
[Laughs] Oh Lord.
Must have been the wrong day for that question. But it seems there’s some sort of weird purity to being a poet now.
That’s a nice way to put it. It can feel that way, for sure. In my day-to-day experience, living where we do, I feel pretty certain that not many of my neighbors are writing poetry. Yet my neighbors are exactly the kind of people, and the kind of lives, that I want to write about in poetry; the kind of language that I hear in my head, and the kind of life circumstance that I find most poignant and humane. In some ways, even though I’m probably one of the few people in my neck of the woods who’s writing poems, I feel like I live in a naturally poetic place. I say that in the sense that there’s a timeless poetic quality to life around here, for some people, that I feel lucky to recognize.
John McIntyre is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps. His writing has appeared in Brick Magazine, The American Scholar and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.