Rose McLarney Interview with John HoppenthalerRose, first let me say congratulations! Your next book of poetry, Its Day Being Gone, won the National Poetry Series award and will be published by Penguin in spring 2014. What can you tell us about the process? How did you learn of your book’s selection? What were/are your thoughts about this big step ahead?
Thank you. I so appreciated winning a contest in which submissions were judged anonymously because it let me be sure that it was the writing all on its own, regardless of any qualification or connection, that earned the attention.
I received the phone call letting me know I’d won while in line in the library, between teaching classes. I didn’t know what to do other than go on and lead my next workshop, which I’m sure I did distractedly. I was too surprised to say anything for the rest of the day, and that ended up being good practice because I had to wait many months before the official award announcement came out. In the meantime, I did collect myself to tell close friends—and buy some Scotch.
I try not to think of writing poetry as a part of a career with steps. I think of it as something I have a compulsion to do, which has beneficial professional side effects. Of course, I have a tenure track job now, and have found there’s nothing I want to do more than to keep teaching, so I have to be practical about continuing to publish, to a degree. But I’ve been strangely blessed by immunity to writer’s block--and by academia--so far. (Numerous writers I know who are of equal or greater talent still haven’t gotten their first books published and so can’t begin to apply for permanent jobs with benefits, in our unjust system which exploits adjuncts.)
Meanwhile, and unfairly I suppose, I’ve done everything career-wise utterly un-strategically and have survived. I was working in agriculture when I received a teaching fellowship. I hadn’t sent out my poems to any journals and had my first book accepted. I went on the academic market when I was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet, and found a job. The year I entered book contests, I lucked out. I say this not to brag—and I may well jinx myself—but because I find the seemingly increasing careerism of writers distressing. I have to believe that what success I’ve had comes, in part, from putting poetry first and living a life based enough around the things for which I authentically care that I can keep writing in this way that a sufficient number of people seem to want to read. And that other writers need not resign themselves entirely to lives spent networking and CV building in ways they resent.
Of course, this is not to say I’m not terribly grateful for providence. (There are other realms of life in which I have been markedly unlucky, so I do think writing is my avocation.) And I am even more grateful to people who have helped me. My point is to try to offer some encouragement. In no way do I pretend that making a living as a writer is easy and that I haven’t been scared and exhausted by it plenty of times, think struggling writers aren’t justified in trying any angle available, or advise laziness or passivity in regards to anything one undertakes. I try to be courteous and professional and ambitious in every way I can. In particular, I try to give as much as a teacher as possible, with the wish that that generosity will, abstractly, be my repayment for what I’ve received.
Your first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, was published by one of the fine small, independent presses we’re lucky to have, Four Way Books. I guess every poet on an independent or university press has the dream to step up to a major New York house, as you just have, yet the move comes with its own set of complications. There is added pressure to sell a lot of books, and the first run of books for a New York house is typically in hardcover, which makes it hard to sell a lot of copies to college kids at readings. There is also added scrutiny. Could you weigh in on these things? Have you thought about it at all?
Well, Four Way, though a nonprofit, is a New York house and handled my first book nicely (and changed the course of my life for the better by choosing to publish it).
But working with Penguin is an opportunity and has been nothing but a pleasure. My editor has made some astute suggestions but no substantial changes to the manuscript I submitted; they are getting the book to press remarkably quickly; and they purchased the rights to just the cover art I wanted. I’d think that any press that participates in a contest like the National Poetry Series has to do it with the best of intentions.
And anyone who is too concerned about sales would be misguided to become a poet. It’s sad that poetry doesn’t have a bigger market, and we poets should not cultivate obscurity and inaccessibility. But the upside of making a product that doesn’t make money is that you have to be moved by some other interest. (Also, a small note: It looks like the book is coming out in paperback only, according to Amazon, where it’s up for pre-sale.)
All that said—and I’ve already been too preachy about schmoozing—I’ll reiterate that I believe in hard work. I’ll make whatever meaningful efforts I can to promote the book. I love to give readings and teach classes and travel and try to reach out to nontraditional poetry audiences (and participate in thoughtful interviews).
As for scrutiny, I imagine the broader exposure this book could receive could result in some negative reviews, which I didn’t have to deal with when The Always Broken Plates of Mountains was published. (Maybe reviewers will think an award-winner ought to be edgier? But I just write with ideals such as endurance and compliments such as that my poems are “outside of time,” in mind, without any hope of being trendy. ) Also, even though they are a small press, Four Way was effective in distributing my first book and I would get emails from an old lady in Ohio or an artist in SoHo speaking well of the poems--great rewards. Broader exposure might also mean I get to exchange more of those kind messages.
Many Appalachian writers have found that, as a natural extension of being from the region, activism has necessarily become part of their language’s fiber. Barbara Kingsolver, Irene McKinney, Denise Giardina, Silas House, some of the Affrilachian Poets, all come immediately to mind, as does one of my favorites, Ann Pancake. In a 2011 interview in the American Literary Review, you say, “I’m still trying to figure out how to write responses to environmental degradation that are as valid as Rick Bass’s or Ann Pancake’s, among others’.” Have you begun to find a way to incorporate this particular impulse in your more recent work?
Fortunately, the area I’m from isn’t being destroyed by mountain top removal mining. But, because Western North Carolina’s geography has long made it difficult to exploit, we have natural areas that are just now facing their worst threats—and that there is still a chance to protect. Whether it’s cutting a mountain down (as is happening in other parts of Appalachia), or building a big vacation house on the top of one where no human-made thing belongs (like happens around my home), the arrogance is tremendous.
I confronted development in The Always Broken Plate of Mountains. In Its Day Being Gone, I’ve tried to reach farther and show the impact our energy consumption is having in other areas of the world, particularly Latin America, where hydroelectric damming is drowning out whole sections of the earth and indigenous cultures. Now that I spend the academic year in Oklahoma, I will certainly be writing about oil.
But, to be honest: There are other poets far more skilled in addressing environmental degradation. The poems I write, as much as they say what is wrong, end up admitting my complicity. As a poet, I’m too concerned with nuance and complication to speak with the certainty of an activist. After all, my students’ family members work in the oil industry. I drive through Oklahoma, the horizon all lined in agreeably nodding derricks, in my (though hybrid, half gas-powered) car. I remember men I’ve loved who left western North Carolina because, like me, they couldn’t find jobs there, and ended up fracking. And what I often enjoy most these days, living in a city for the first time, is wandering in art museums and staring up art deco architecture built by oil barons.
Right now, I am fascinated by a Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper out in the Oklahoma plains. Sure, it’s arrogant, standing up taller than anything else, yet not in the same way as an uninspired, vinyl mansion falling off a ridgeline. No, the skyscraper’s not a model of sustainability, and I don’t mean just because Wright’s buildings tend to leak. All the effort and material that went into this incredibly engineered, copper-covered spectacle could have built many more basic, affordable shelters. But that seems neither here nor there when something has been created that shows humans they can generate beauty. To take the analogy down a notch to safer territory, there’s no utilitarian reason to put a lattice top on a pie or give someone a pair of dangling earrings, yet to do so can still be a fine action. So can writing a lyric poem.
Maybe I do my due by teaching students and encouraging audiences to be perceptive and empathetic, since that’s what reading and writing are all about. (I don’t see how anyone could sincerely appreciate the arts and encounter the diverse characters they present, as well as see all that women and people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations have contributed, and go on doubting social equality.) Developing rigorous standards for your own words and giving complete attention to the expressions of others seem like good lessons in ethics.
The last poem in the sequence, “Glossing the Image,” seems to suggest a reimagining of Appalachia, not only for those from outside the region, those who have certain, stereotyped, negative ideas about the place, but by those who are themselves Appalachian. The last lines read, “On some negatives, / the photographer has penciled directions: Take off that shadow.” What do you see as Appalachia’s future, say, in the next 100 years? What role can/will literature play in how the region moves forward?
If the move towards homogenization continues, regional literature might be a way of preserving memories of an otherwise diluted culture. Meanwhile, if a breakdown of economic and transportation systems occurs within that time frame, regionalism will again have to become more pronounced and literature might be one of the sources from which we relearn our former self reliance. That’s all I’ll venture on that first subject.
My new collection is less definitively regional. When my mother looked at the cover she had one comment: “That’s not the kind of boats we have around here.” True, regions and their distinctive waters develop their distinctive boats, and that’s not the shape you see on the Little Tennessee. But, in my opinion, the image, “Jettison” by Anthony Goicolea, complements the poems themes of water and a shape shifting sort of magic, or at least the imaginativeness that fuels superstition. I’m alright with making some broader references now. The collection allows that I’ve been to and observed other notable places, at the same time that mourns that I’ve had to leave home.
Just about every one of my poems says I am thankful for coming from an area with such a strong heritage that never lets me imagine I am alone with my story. My style is more indebted to the subtlety of old mountains and the indirect way in which people from them speak than any literary influence. So, I’ll keep letting my carefully crafted poems do the tribute-paying.
However, I’ll use this prose as an occasion to say what can trouble me about regional writing. You know how it’s easier to lose your temper at the people you love most? Similarly, there’s nothing that frustrates me more than falsely folksy Southern writing that deals, even affectionately, in clichés. Poems prompted by or set in a particular locale need not be clannish or self-referential or suggest that any one place is inherently superior to another.
I’d be pleased if Appalachian culture evolves in such a way that locals remain aware of their distinctive origins while they continue to overcome the economic and social disadvantages that once restricted them. (And that people won’t, for instance, feel like they ought to unlearn their accents in the way I did so they’ll be perceived as literate.) At the same time, regional cultural riches aren’t reasons to be any less inclined to study the larger canon or foreign cultures. (I’m always working to catch up on the literary knowledge those who are more educated already have.)
The quote—“Take off that shadow”—really was a photographer’s pragmatic direction written on a photo I looked at in an archive. I’m better able to deal in details like that than to imagine whole futures. Still, that’s worthwhile isn’t it? To take the mark a past person left and make it into a metaphor? (Though, notice I don’t say “elevate” it to metaphor.) Whether you’re talking about art or sustainability, reusing materials, giving them evolving meanings, has got to be good practice.
What the Snake Says
So inelegant, your arms and legs,
that wrapped around the one you loved.
It seems they still pretend to.
At least, it doesn’t look like limbs help much,
seeing you scrabble up proud mountains, thrash
through old brush.
That’s what the snake says, gliding over the ground
or climbing an oak with the same sleek movement,
nothing attached, her body a clean line.
When the snake loves, she comes together
in a breeding ball, a writhing knot
of snakes wrapped around each other,
in which she cannot imagine she is distinctive,
then slides off to her solitary life. She can even leave
behind her own skin when she tires of it,
stockings strewn in the weeds.
apart like that, and maybe you can take pleasure
from the something new
this life is always slipping away to.
Be like the rattlers that boy sold to circuses.
He’d store a snake in ice.
Her blood would slow, and she’d stiffen,
but she’d survive his cold.
When the handler pulled the snake from the box
under the bright tent, the spotlight,
and the audience’s rapt eyes,
she was ready to soften,
quick to undulate again,
slithering through the warmth
of a man’s tough, tattooed hands.
When there were backwoods, when a person was
badly cut and bleeding, it used to be
the bloodstopper would come. She’d focus on the wound,
and chant a Bible verse, a secret charm,
or only the command, Stop, blood, stop.
And it would be stopped, by her will. Who today
would call that woman’s way of fixing her eyes on another
a perceptive art? We do not have to keep things back now,
but break the tradition of holding in,
the grace of people closing up where they’re weak.
We draw them out, the reddest admissions.
How to See
Smile like a crescent moon, a hook
that can haul a man in.
Be a shadow
dragging from the hand you hold.
Wait at your one window, loyal
with your lamp.
Say there is nothing unspoiled--others’ shine,
distant cities, dampen every horizon’s hem.
Gather close into what bright circle
a candle gives.
Let any wind be a snuffing blow.
If unaccustomed to arising at night
in houses with no electricity, still feel, expectant,
along walls for light switches.
Or, even when there is
a switch to reach for, must you move through
houses that could be lit, leaving them dark?
The Treatment Was Frogs, or, The Tradition Was Honey
There are many old treatments for each trouble.
It could be the butter was witched, cursed
by an ill-wisher so the cream would not gather.
A woman might have stabbed knives or pokers,
hot from the fire, into cream to drive out evil,
and believed the touch of the tools she used
would show on the skin of the witch,
welts and gashes marking him. That’s one tradition
you could keep alive; you could look for such signs
in the faces you see. But a woman could also
charm quarrelsome cream by dropping something
silver into the churn. The idea of a locket
enveloped in white, a gleaming sliver
sliding into a rich bath, might be what you carry on.
Then butter will thicken in its mold--whatever you make
your custom—as if it had always been set firm.
We give artifacts galleries, glass, locks,
handle them wearing white cotton gloves,
to protect them from change. Though already
they are corroded, discolored, cracked,
we believe our time can be stilled.
So we are at our best, making a great wish,
reassuring relics: The blows you withstood
were before our time. The damage
to be done, done in the past.
Only in museums do we now display
such hushed devotion, browsing crowds’
heads bowed towards the revered.
The historical man deserves our hearts;
his way of behaving has been determined.
(In the Woodland Period, we know
there was art, ceremony, cultivation.)
He will not disappoint. And us?
From the shape of an arrow, we learn
what was hunted. From the ax of exotic copper,
with whom there was trade. If conservators
are someday to consider the shards of our pots,
may they find, more than fractures, caresses
patterning our bodies of clay.
Glossing the Image
Archives collect old photos, evidence of endurance—women’s faces
stretched long as laundry hung out to dry but caught in the rain,
men with copperheads slung over their shoulders, hatchets in hand,
fields of tobacco filling every middle distance, acres of work always
between the subject and the shelter or church on the horizon. And now,
we seem to have agreed hardship is what’s historical. What’s assured
to be everlasting. Of all I see, what we’d likely say looks timeless
is the black and white view of cattle with snow along their spines,
scraping at drifts with hooves, working to uncover grass. Generations
have been seeing that same hungry scene. But can’t we change the constants,
choose different images? Aren’t there also beauty bush’s berries vibrant purple
just under the ice? Haven’t there always been? In those dusty folders,
there are photos of a woodcarver displaying shelves of shining toys he’s made,
giraffes as a man who has never left the county imagines such creatures.
And a gladiola farm, a family standing in the field won from mountains,
kept clear of rocks, arms full of glads. On some negatives,
the photographer has penciled directions: Take off that shadow.---------
photo credit: Travis Hall