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INTERVIEW: Robert Morgan— The Tarheel Wordsmith

morgan

Robert Morgan is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently Terroir. He has also published eight volumes of fiction, including Gap Creek, a New York Times bestseller, and three books of nonfiction. A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2010, the year that a special issue of Southern Quarterly, edited by Jesse Graves, was devoted to essays about his work.


William Wright: Even though you have written eight books of fiction with a ninth forthcoming in the fall of 2013, The Road From Gap Creek, you’ve stated in the past that poetry remains your favorite genre in which to write. Can you speak to why this is the case?

Robert Morgan: For me poetry has been the essential verbal art. No one has ever found a language or a culture that did not include poetry. Poetry is about the cadence of sentences and the textures of words and phrases. Poetry is about repetition, heartbeat and pulse and breath, the rhythm of walking. Through poetry, we engage with the sound of words, with language at its most elemental and complex levels. Poetry seems born in our blood and bone and in the synapses of our brains. The truth is we don’t know exactly how poetry works, but we recognize it when we experience it. As Yeats famously said, no one can refute “The Song of Sixpence.” Once you hear poetry you remember it, and want to say it. Poetry must be in our DNA, and we find it like a treasure buried in our everyday speech, waiting to be rediscovered and said. Poetry is a privilege and a legacy; it connects us to all people and all times. It can be both celebration and lament, for those who have gone before, for the passing of the seasons, for the discovery of the things we had forgotten that we know.



W. W.: Though you started out in college to be a fiction writer, your early books were all poetry collections. You still often identify as a poet specifically, as opposed to a writer—why is this?

R.M.: Yes, my first publications as an undergraduate were short stories. But something happened to me in the summer and fall of 1964, as I began my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill. I started to become aware of words in a new, intimate way. I was fascinated by matching words to things, to emotions, to experience. One day I was working on the loading dock at the GE plant near Hendersonville, North Carolina–a summer job before returning to school–and after a powerful thunderstorm the sun broke through the clouds with a great shaft of light that seemed to be bracing the sky. I wrote a little haiku-like verse about that, and I knew those words had an authenticity of a new kind for me, however modest. It was a small step, but satisfying because it seemed both real and with imaginative reach toward the unexpected.

When I returned to Chapel Hill I kept writing lines and little poems. I was fascinated by compression and economy of language, with implicit metaphors found in the natural world, and with the way words can evoke surprise. I loved translations of Greek epigrams, and Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Two important things happened to me that fall of 1964. I fell in with a group of students, all from the Northeast, who had gone to the finest prep schools in New England and been kicked out for various reasons. They had come to Chapel Hill to be beatniks and poets. They knew far more about poetry than I did. They could talk about metaphor and line breaks, French poetry, and William Butler Yeats. Every day we met and talked about poetry, read poetry aloud, lived and breathed poetry. I read Robert Lowell and Robert Bly, James Wright and Gary Snyder. Because my friends were so much more sophisticated than me, I was reluctant to show them the poems I was trying to write. But the best poet among them, Dudley Carroll, insisted that I show him some of my stuff. One day I gave him a sheaf of the things I’d done, with little confidence in their reception. That night around 2:00 am there was a knock on my door. Dudley and his friend Tim Perkins stood there holding my poems. Dudley said my work was so good, so exciting, he had to come tell me. I don’t think any review, any award, any honor I’ve ever received since has been more thrilling than that. Dudley’s praise gave me a new confidence—an energy—that reinforced the momentum already building in me. I wrote a few more short stories, but my real concentration from then on was poetry.

Another definitive experience that fall occurred while I was reading T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” I read those flowing lines aloud again and again and suddenly I saw that lines of poetry were made up of firm sentences broken into increments that formed patterns. That may seem an obvious insight, but to me it was a revelation. I had wondered what a line of poetry was and I saw that lines were just fragments of the perceptual energy of sentences. I incorporated that insight into my own writing and never looked back.

 

W. W.: Your Northeastern college friends served as catalysts to your confidence in writing, but you have said several times many of the finest contemporary poets are associated with the American South. How so?

R.M.: I know that many of the contemporary poets I read and reread most live in the South or write about the South. As someone who grew up in the Appalachian South, I am probably biased. But I believe that Southern poetry is cut from the same cloth as Southern fiction. Southern poets write about history, about family, about the natural world, about work and struggle. They use the arts of storytelling, the oral tradition, and some of the Gothic tendencies of the fiction writers. Both white and African-American poets of the region incorporate a good deal of our vexed history in their work.

Eudora Welty was once asked why there are so many great writers from Mississippi. After a pause she said, “Perhaps we have more to explain.” I suspect her insight applies to the whole region. We have a tradition of frontier humor, of comedy and Gothic spectacle. But our legacy also includes tragedy, cruel human imperfection, as well as a passionate quest for spirituality.



W. W.: Much of your fiction is narrated by women characters and focuses on women’s lives, yet few women appear in your poems. Do you have any explanation for that difference?

R.M.: To tell the truth, I am mystified by this discrepancy myself. My greatest breakthrough as fiction writer occurred in the spring of 1989, when I discovered that I could write fiction in the voice of a woman character. That was when I wrote The Mountains Won’t Remember Us. I found that fiction is not about me and my experience and opinions, but about my characters, their voices, their world. Since then most of my novels have been narrated by women characters, and I have been surprised and pleased by the response to my fiction by women readers. I can only speculate on why so few women appear in my poems. For one thing, many of my poems are about natural process, about trees, about time, about tools and instruments. There are not all that many men in the poems either. But a number of my poems have been about my father, grandfather, uncles. It has been said that there is only one plot in fiction: nothing is what it seems. Fiction is rarely heroic in a poetic sense. Fiction is about struggles and intimacy, conflicts of loyalty. One of my teachers used to say poetry is about the heights and fiction about the morass.

Perhaps I unconsciously seek out the heroic in poetry, connecting the humble and everyday with the larger and more lasting, the temporary with the universal, connecting the moment with the everlasting, the near with the far. That is what I call the “reach” in poetry: To see the large in the small, the infinite in the finite, the earthly with the heavenly, the ordinary with the eternal. In his great essay “The Poet” Emerson says, “The ideal shall be real to thee.”

But the most honest answer to your question is I don’t know why I am privileged to write about women characters in fiction but do so rarely in poetry. Perhaps we just write what we are given to write.



W. W.: More than one reviewer has compared your poetry to the work of William Blake. How does that comparison strike you?

R.M.: Of course I am flattered and humbled to be compared to one of our greatest poets, and one of my favorites. I was astonished when a critic first made that comparison.

I like to think there is something elemental and dramatic in my poems that may echo some of the drama, the struggle, the contraries, the surprise, in Blake’s short poems. I don’t know his larger, prophetic poems all that well. Both Blake and myself are deeply influenced by hymns and the language of the King James Bible. And, like him, I aspire to evoke the natural as a way of seeing beyond the natural. I love rhyme and meter, as he did.



W. W.: If you had to pick one book that influenced you most as a poet what would you choose?

R.M.: There are so many books that have influenced me over the years that I could get lost in the list. It would be easy to say The Bible, which was read to me every day when I was a kid. Those cadences of the King James Version still ring in my head. And in school we had to memorize poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Sidney Lanier, Wordsworth, and Bryant, and recite them in front of the class. The first book I ever bought with my own money was Doctor Zhivago and I loved the poems at the end of that novel. When my sister Evangeline came home from college after her first year she brought her English text, and in that anthology I read Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and Wallace Stevens’s “Domination of Black.” But if I had to pick only one volume it would be Robert Payne’s paperback, The White Pony, an anthology of Chinese poems in translation from Confucius to Mao. Those poems had a profound effect on me in college. Their compression and concreteness, the surface simplicity with subtle depths, the color and Taoist irony, the implicitness and wisdom, gave me exciting ideas about the nature and possibilities of poetry. I still love the poems and go back to read them in that and other translations from time to time.



W. W.: Your childhood was spent on a small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Are there advantages to a writer to come from such a background? Disadvantages?

R.M.: A reporter who once interviewed me on the farm asked me how I could ever have made it to Cornell University from such a humble place. I told him I understood the gist of his question, since we were poor and my parents didn’t have a lot of formal education. But in fact I had some distinct advantages for a future writer. My parents, my grandpa, my uncles and neighbors were all great storytellers. They would sit by the fire, or on the porch in summer, and tell yarn after yarn, tale after tale, about the old days, about the Confederate War, about panthers trying to come down chimneys, about maddogs, giant rattlesnakes, bears, ghosts, outlaws, floods, corrupt preachers, witches, babies marked in the womb. When I began writing later I wondered what I had to write about. And little by little I discovered I had this enormous hoard of stories and voices to draw on and choose from. But equally important to me, perhaps, was the freedom I had as a kid to roam in the woods and pastures, and along the creeks and rivers. I climbed trees on the mountaintop, and found arrowheads and pieces of Native American pottery in the bottomlands. I felt a close connection to the Native Americans who had lived there on the square mile of land my great-great-grandfather, Daniel Pace, had bought in 1838. I built ponds on the pasture branch and played cowboys and outlaws with my cousins in the gullies of the lower pasture. We dug caves in the walls of the gullies. We used boards to sled down the mountainside on leaves and pine needles.

Besides readings from the Bible and singing hymns, I was exposed every week to dynamic preaching. Those preachers could take a verse from the Bible and spin an hour’s sermon from it.

The disadvantages of such a rural background are probably obvious. I never traveled farther than Asheville or Greenville, South Carolina. I was not exposed to diverse cultures. And I felt a little afraid of the larger world out there. Watching the big tourist Cadillacs on the highway in summer I felt my poverty and difference. Until I was almost nine, my family did not have a car or truck. We had to depend on others to take us to town or to the doctor, or carry our produce to the market in summer. We didn’t have television. We got our first telephone when I was about ten. I felt a little alien, even in the Green River community. In compensation, the larger world was all new to me. It was there to be discovered. I had never seen a movie in a movie theater until I went away to college at the age of sixteen. Believe it or not, the first movie I ever saw in a theater was La Dolce Vita at the Peachtree Theater near Georgia Tech, Fall 1961. Freeways, fine clothes, educated people, affluent people, restaurants, big libraries, concerts, were all new to me. I was learning fast, and hopefully still learning. The world out here still astonishes me.

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Robert Morgan (far left), North Carolina

W. W.: Why did you choose a French word, terroir, as the title of your most recent book of poems?

R.M.: I like to pick titles that get attention. Perhaps the best title I’ve ever used for a book of poems is Sigodlin, one word with an unusual texture and sound. Terroir is a French word literally meaning soil, but used by food writers and wine experts to denote the unique quality of a particular vintage or dish, the combination of properties—of soil, sun, rain, cultivation, climate—that make a specific harvest. Terroir is closely tied to a sense of place, a specific place, and specific time. For my poems it seemed a relevant term. The fact that the word looks almost like “terror” is interesting too, for we know that terror is an important component of the sublime. I like the combination of the earthiness, the local, and the exotic and refined in the word terroir. And in the title poem, I connect the concept of terroir with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s term “inscape.” Hopkins was very interested in the specific, the individual, the unique, as opposed to categories, types, definitions. He believed he had found confirmation of his idea of inscape in John Duns Scotus’s concept of “thisness”—haecceitas in Latin—in contrast with the Thomist and Aristotelian quidditas or “whatness.” So it seemed to me that Hopkins’s inscape was very close to what we mean by terroir.

Inscape is the celebration of the individual fact. As Hopkins says, “I have often felt ... that nothing is so pregnant and straightforward to the truth as simple yes and is.” It is communion with naked being. Thoreau once said that “prayer is the contemplation of facts from the highest point of view.”


W. W.: Did your experience as a poet help you as a fiction writer?

R.M.: I’m not sure I would ever have been able to write prose fiction if I had not spent those years from 1964 to 1980 working primarily on poetry. It was writing poetry that taught me about economy, precision, compression of language. It was poetry that taught me to listen to words and phrases and sentences. Writing poetry gave me the confidence to try to write prose. As I said before, poetry is the essential verbal art. All other writing derives from it. What poetry did not do was teach me to think like a storyteller. For that I had to go back to the voices and narratives of my childhood, especially the women of my childhood, who relished telling of terrible things, scandals, awful storms, the pains of childbirth, the stubbornness of men, snake bites, things that happened a long time ago.

When I began writing stories again in the 1980s, I promised myself I would not write “poetic” prose with pretty description. I would strip language down to the essential to dramatize, create dynamic action, and reveal character. I would try to grab the attention of the reader in the first paragraph and not let go until the last sentence. Stories always have to have a surprise. If they just go where you expect they are not satisfying stories. Stories are usually about people in trouble, often with serious conflicts within themselves. Stories are about struggle. Hardest for me was to write dialogue, for good dialogue has to reveal character and move the story forward. I found I could usually cut away about two-thirds of the dialogue I had written, keeping only the lines that were absolutely significant.



W. W.: What is it about Southern Appalachia, and indeed the South in general, that has inspired so many good writers in the past two decades?

R.M.: The old joke is that when asked why there are so many good writers from the South, the Southern writer answers, “Because there ain’t nothing else to do down here.” And as Eudora Welty said, perhaps we have a lot more to explain, about our history, about our contradictory selves. But I believe a culture and region going through rapid change inspire writers. In Shakespeare’s time insular England was exploding into a world power, absorbing the Renaissance, exploring the New World. In Hawthorne’s time traditional New England was disappearing into the industrial age, and he again and again tried to recapture and reveal the Puritan past. So many Southern writers of our time have struggled both to understand the past and the extraordinary changes in our region, affected not only by industrialization, then the loss of those industrial jobs overseas, but the mass immigration of Hispanics, and now Asians, and the millions of retirees, the gated communities, the loss of agriculture, the homogenization of culture in general. I grew up in a culture where all the men did physical work, and hunted in the fall. Now few under the age of sixty will take a rifle and wait in the cold woods for a deer.

My feeling is that the uncertainty about who we are and where we are going stimulates the urge to capture a sense of the past, and to portray the dramatic changes around us. Writing is a way to connect with others, to reassure ourselves we are not alone. And of course we have the great legacy of Southern writing, of Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Warren, etc., to draw on also. When I was a student, I felt my teachers, Guy Owen at NC State, Jessie Rehder at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Fred Chappell at UNC-Greensboro, expected me to be a writer. I have always been afraid of letting them down.


W. W.: Do you have any thoughts about how electronic publishing might affect writing in the future?

R.M.: Well, I have never been a doomsayer. When I was in college “the death of the novel” was discussed all the time. The feeling then seemed to be that the novel was an obsolete literary form. Now fifty years later we’ve had a golden age of fiction writing. When people talk about the end of publishing and reading, it ain’t necessarily so. What is changing is the way many people read. My impression is that because e-books can be downloaded so easily, anywhere, any time, people may actually be reading more, at least more fiction and nonfiction. But that doesn’t mean that printed books will go away any time soon. Older readers like myself still like to buy books, to hold books and read them, turning pages, and put them on the shelf to read again from time to time. But we seniors are going to have to get used to the idea that a lot of magazines and books will be available primarily online or in digital form. It’s mostly a matter of habit, what we are used to. Some of us are lazy about changing our habits. Good writing will always be good writing, whether read on paper or parchment or a clay tablet or computer screen. And for poetry it’s still the sound of the words that is most important. 

 

W. W.: In all your writing, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, there has always been a special awareness of history and place. What might have inspired those interests?


R.M.: Though my dad had only gone to the sixth grade, he loved to read history and talk about history. He subscribed to the The National Geographic Magazine and had a surprising grasp of American history and world history, as well as geography. So even though I grew up on a small farm in the mountains, I was exposed to discussions from my earliest memory of figures such as George Washington and Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Napoleon, and the World Wars, even Romans such as Julius Caesar and Cicero. History is storytelling, and my dad was a great storyteller. His knowledge of the Bible could make the stories of David and the Apostle Paul come alive for an eager listener.

Also, his knowledge of the history of the Southern mountains and the Cherokee Indians inspired me. I knew the Indians had lived and hunted right where we lived. My great-grandpa Pace’s black hair and dark skin were explained by saying that the family had “Italian Blood.” But that great-grandpa was a well-known herb doctor, and he took his children when they were gravely ill to an Indian doctor in South Carolina. He was invited to Washington, D. C. by the Bureau of Indian Affairs around 1900 to give a deposition on the Treaty of Hopewell, between the government and the Cherokees. He was almost certainly part Indian, though the family would never admit it. As I grew older, I loved to read both novels and biographies. I read lives of Bismarck and Lincoln, Jack London, and George Washington Goethals, the engineer who built the Panama Canal.

In the 11
th grade I had a wonderful teacher of American History named Elizabeth Rogers. She made history vivid by describing places she had visited such as Valley Forge and the Gettysburg battlefield.

I suspect it was my intimacy with the ground where I grew up that gave me a special sense of place. Until I was sixteen that was the only place I really knew, the streams and gullies, the fields and pine thickets, the riverbank, the mountaintops, and the pits dug by ancestors looking for zircons.

 


W. W.: What advice do you give to young fiction writers? To young poets?

R.M.: Since everyone learns to write in their own way it’s hard to give general advice that is useful. Like any art, writing is only learned in the act of doing it, not from any theory or textbook. A good creative writing teacher is more a coach than a teacher in the usual sense of the term. A writer learns to write the way an athlete learns a sport, by doing it and doing it. There is only one word of advice that applies to all aspiring writers: Persistence. Those who succeed at any art are those who try and try and try again. Many of the most talented students I have taught over the years have never developed as writers. They were gifted, but the lacked the fire in the belly, the drive, the demon, that would sustain them and enable them to grow in the craft, whatever the setbacks and rejections. Others who have seemed initially less promising have had the tenacity--maybe the madness--that compelled them to keep writing and rewriting until things clicked.

My advice for young poets is pretty much the same as for fiction writers, and I usually say that poets learn a lot from writing prose that can be applied to verse writing, including critical prose. It is no accident that most of the best writing about poetry has been done by the poets themselves. And a class in geology or history or a foreign language may be of more use to a poet than another writing workshop. Everything a poet knows will find a way into what he or she writes. Most important, learn to listen to language, read poetry aloud and feel it on the tongue.

Read whatever you write aloud. The ear is the best editor and critic.

 


REVIEWED: Morgan's Terroir

terroir

Terroir, loosely translated from the French as “a sense of place,” is a peculiar title for Robert Morgan’s fourteenth poetry collection, but aside from the obvious correlation to Morgan’s dedication to nature and landscape, the word is an apt label, as it implies more than just place or nature poetry. Indeed, in the book’s title poem, Morgan acknowledges the phenomenon of terroir, a kind of land-borne epiphany:

 

            That quality that seems unique,

            as thriving from a special spot

            of soil, air flow and light specific,

            and also frost and winter sleep,

            conditions of a particular year,

            as every instance comes just once

            with a mix of mineral and grease. . .

 

But Morgan goes deeper than the literal definition. After pairing the concept of terroir with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “inscape”—the distinctive essence of a thing, or the “individuation” of something—Morgan describes how it feels:

 

                        a hint of fear or pain, the sting

                        and shiver of revulsion with

                        the savor of the earth and sun,

                        of this once, not returning, sung

                        for this one ear, on this one tongue.

 

The “fear or pain” paired with the “savor” illuminates the mystery at the heart of Morgan’s poetry: There is such clarity of vision in these poems that they must be relished; simultaneously, the poems’ pure language belies an eerie and complicated depth in which the natural and man-made objects in Morgan’s imagination speak themselves, endowed as they are with an alien and beautiful sentience.

Even forces naturally undetectable to human senses shine in this book, as in “Background Radiation”:

                        In…the beginning was light that gave birth to

                        dark energy and fluctuations in

                        the very fabric of space-time recessing

                        and decaying. But once the sun is gone, all

                        the other stars wink on, wink on, and show

                        the strange and far topology of night,

                        geometry of sky and darker ridge.

 

In this poem, as in others, Morgan grounds his cosmic vision with landscape elements. His treatment of the galactic—the immeasurably vast—is sharpened by the “darker ridge” he perceives in the distance, but his speaker embodies part of the “dark energy,” the “fluctuations.”

Morgan’s attention to the delicate and ephemeral is treated with the same dynamism, the same energy that suffuses the entire book. “Dew,” for example, reflects the poet’s understanding of the life force that inhabits even the most transitory:

 

                        …you don’t know when it came except

                        at dusk the grass is suddenly wet,

                        a visitation from the air,

                        precipitant from spirit world

                        of whitest incarnation or

                        reverse transfiguration, herald

                        of river, swamp, and ocean breath

                        sent heavenward, released to earth…

 

Here, dew exists as scattered and ghostly visitations, and the plants in the poem “Fern Glade” transfigure into language-makers themselves: “green feathers long as plumes on peacocks write/in pools of sunlight,” and “what they scribble must be dank as earth/with ink of roots and alphabet of worms.” The words “syllables,” “illuminated,” and “scriptorium” help to reinforce the sense of a nonhuman, wholly botanical monasticism, a sacrosanct poetry written in a language translatable only through the poet’s witness.

Nature is a vatic force throughout Terroir, especially in “Prophet,” one of the most beautiful pieces in the collection:

 

                        The weathered trunk of bristlecone

                        that twists in ancient whirlwind torque

                        on highest ridge of continent

                        and leans in the prevailing roar

                        is reaching for the distant plains,

                        a relic of momentous war,

                        persisting since the glacier.

                        Now it’s outlived all things that grow

                        upon the planet. See, it holds

                        out like a torch of sparkling green

                        the needles on one withered arm

                        to pass on to the next eon,

                        a word still spoken from the root

                        of knotty elder burning heart,

                        the history that is also prophet.

 

In a way that recalls Hopkins’s famous words from “God’s Grandeur”—“nature is never spent”—here Morgan’s narrator sees beyond humanity’s future; this view, although expansive and distant, comforts, as it anticipates that new life will pass “to the next eon,” and that the “burning heart,” the legacy of organic existence, is already foreseeable via the outstretched “arm” of an ancient tree.

Storytelling lies at the crux of many of these poems, different portrayals of a history closer to our own. In “Apple Howling,” for example, Morgan brings us back to the poetry and vegetative myths of his ancestors:

 

                        Way back in Anglo-Saxon times,

                        the young men of the countryside

                        would gather New Year’s Day in groves

                        of apple trees to shout a rhyme

                        and blast a horn and rap the trunks

                        with sticks, saluting dormant trees

                        in what was called a wassailing.

                        The tribute to the orchard begged

                        the trees to bring a richer yield,

                        a harvest weighing boughs of gold…

 

Like many of the other poems in Terroir, “Apple Howling” acknowledges history and place while reminding readers of the universal and immutable forces that orbit these motifs. The poems are at once expansive and infinitesimal in their considerations, inhalations of context followed by powerful exhalations of imagery, sonic vibrancy, and metaphor.

“Smells of a Closet” reveals Morgan’s ability to sublimate even the most mundane of olfactory imagery—the dusty and dank smell of closets—into epiphanic, literally astronomical considerations:

 

                        At first you notice chemicals, the soaps,      

                        detergents stored, and maybe kerosene,

                        and under those the scent of mothballs, mold,

                        old rubber of galoshes burned by age.

                        Behind the obvious smells rise fumes of wood

                        dried out for centuries, the resin cured

                        by many winters, stillness, locked in core

                        of amber of the heartwood honey. But

                        the farthest back of all, like smells from first

                        beginnings of the world, come whispering airs

                        that rose from crash and flash of the first fire

                        when darkness wept the stars and time began.

 

Morgan remains one of our keenest poets of lucidity and attention and makes sacred the peripheral, the often unsung. He stares deeply into that which we rarely consider, as all good poets do. However, the sheer intensity of his attention elucidates and distills, and everything he contemplates—poison oak, wind on a hill, ironweed, even squirt guns and milk shakes—brims with life, with a pulse. All the while, the poetry remains a “music of stillness”: attuned, entrancing, wise.

 

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