A Conversation with Mark Vogel
Mark Vogel and I met thirty-two years ago, a week before we started teaching in Appalachian’s Department of English. Immediately a connection formed, and we shared similar tastes in fiction, poetry, and music, quickly becoming friends who helped each other survive in the bewildering academic world. Some fifteen years ago Mark started sending me his poetry, typically accompanied by a photograph or two. Waking up to his visual and written imagery became a ritual, and I somehow felt cheated if I didn’t find a poem and photo to help jumpstart my day. Below Mark speaks eloquently about his poetry and photography and the intellectual and aesthetic stimulation he receives from the natural world and from everyday human encounters that we too often take for granted.
BD: You were the featured poet in our 2008 Spring issue of Cold Mountain Review. Since then, you’ve published hundreds of poems and have at least three manuscripts ready for publication. But you had an interest in poetry long before the last ten or fifteen years. Your dissertation in the 1980s focused on using poetry in the classroom. Countless scholarly articles followed. Can you talk a little about the evolution of your poetry, and how you transitioned from a scholar to a poet?
MV: I always have been a teacher first, both of writing and literature—first in eighth grade, then in high school, later in community college, then three decades here at ASU. Poetry has long been a valuable tool for teaching writing, language, and literature. With poetry you can infuse multiple voices very quickly into a curriculum and help when class resources are limited (like in most public schools). Instead of just talking about one author, you can introduce six different authors in a class session. I, of course, love novels and short stories too, but when pressed for time, shorter pieces of writing can seamlessly be added to juxtapose authors from different times or from different cultures. Instead of reading a novel by Louise Erdrich, you can introduce students to her work through a poem. Multiple poems by different authors can also address a theme from multiple perspectives. Poetry too, often serves as a natural prompt for writing. If you want students to read and write, poetry is invaluable. If a poem addresses love or dogs or death or deep ecology, time is nearly always available for students to quickly respond, sometimes by writing their own poem. I love anything that feels like a natural prompt for writing. In a classroom, you try to get people to read widely enough to be exposed to multiple voices. If this reading is a daily habit, students gradually feel part of a larger literary culture.
BD: And this philosophy evolved out of your dissertation research?
MV: Maybe it came first from daily teaching, but my ethnographic dissertation involving poetry surely refined my thinking. I worked with a 9th grade teacher frustrated with poetry, who often taught her favorite poems. When the students invariably hated her choices, she felt like committing suicide. When she asked for my help, I picked out 400 plus poems that were accessible to ninth grade students, then asked her to pick poems she was comfortable with. We flooded the curriculum with those hundred or more poems over a semester, in and around what she normally taught—grammar, short stories, writing assignments like narrative essays and a research paper. We found students had no problem with all those poems, reading people like Dorianne Laux, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda, Theodore Rilke, Stephen Dobyns, and many others, old and new. I sat in with students, every day over a semester, interviewed them, collected their writing and other assignments, seeing what happens when students are exposed to multiple strange cultures and many voices. The curriculum was enriched, and students readily accepted poetry as a potent form of communication. Much good writing too came from this. Poetry proved to be a nice way to “explode” a curriculum and add spontaneity.
Poetry is authentic speech, with linguistically tight, vivid language that comes in unique forms. With strong, individual voices, a poem can be the best example of language use in a particular culture. Students read first, then respond in conversation, then write a poem or short piece related to that prompt. Poetry can also be used to study how form and structure works in a piece of writing, and how syntax and grammar and sharp word choice heighten communication.
As a teacher of writing who feels it is crucial to write alongside students, this practice led to my poetry writing habit, especially working with practicing teachers in the Appalachian Writing Project where the goal was to make teachers feel like writers, while they became more proficient in the teaching of writing. Because we published a book of the teachers’ best writing each year, my work was included alongside theirs. Over a decade or more I published three dozen poems and several short stories in these Voices from the Mountains books. Before this time, I had written much, but largely stored my efforts away in file cabinets.
BD: So that was in the 1990s?
MV: Yes. Before then I mostly wrote academic pieces, some on poetry, like the nine columns in the English Journal entitled Modern Poetry in the Classroom. But still, I didn’t try to publish much, because I didn’t think I was allowed to be a poet, stupidly thinking only those gifted with a “good enough” poetic sensibility could be a poet. Now I can see how misguided that thinking is. Once Robert Morgan, the poet and novelist, ate at our house and asked to see my eight-year-old son, Jack’s, early poetic efforts. When Morgan praised Jack’s work, I remember feeling a certain jealously, wishing I had been given permission to be a poet as a young kid. Since then, I have sought to make students feel like poets or short story writers as early as possible.
BD: Let’s return to your own poetry. I’m sure you remember years ago when Charles Wright gave a poetry reading on Appalachian’s campus. During the Q&A that followed, someone asked him if he travelled for inspiration. Wright answered that he had enough to write about in his own backyard. When I read your work, I often think of Wright’s remark, and how it applies to your own poetry. You seem to find inspiration as soon as you step off your back porch. In one poem you called that discovery “God's quiet garden.”
MV: In the act of initially writing a poem, and then also in returning to it, either in rewriting, or simply in reading it, you must breathe it in again, almost as a meditative act, a focus that involves the full body immersed in an environment. Creating a poem asks for a unique form of reading where you stare at it, and absorb it, feel it as a living construct. Much like stepping outside into a world larger than yourself—say, your intimate local “backyard” that contains all the universe if you look close enough. I have always thrived in the outdoors, growing up on the Mississippi River, with a family eager to camp, hike, and fish, and with a grandfather who was a farmer. Though we lived in town, the University farm was directly behind our home. This appreciation for the natural environment was a key reason I came to Appalachian. Today I am blessed to live on ten acres in the back end of a Blue Ridge holler—rewarded often with wild beebalm, trillium, native azaleas, or Turk’s cap lilies popping up without my help. A poem helps me understand a multi-layered environment, and answer questions—like why, exactly, am I fascinated with salamanders? A poem reveals a brain making sense of what at the moment is intriguing, because you see the world differently when you actively “read” what you are immersed in.
BD: This “nature” poetry has a way of turning the seemingly mundane—“a salamander in black moist dirt,” for example—into something metaphysical or more profound. It often conveys a distinct, mystical quality, doesn’t it, beyond an object's mere physicality. Are you conscious of this connection when you compose—blending the natural with the symbolic?
MV: I don't think I purposefully search for the symbolic, yet I’m aware, say, that salamanders represent a healthy environment, and that much exists beyond us, often unnoticed by humans. I guess, too, I believe in deep ecology, where each organism and creature is of nearly equal importance as human beings, in a world that has existed before we got here, and (hopefully) will exist long after we are gone—if we don’t destroy it first. Here, too in the mountains, a certain timelessness exists, cut off from speeding interstates, which still fascinates me. My neighbors speak of the history of “my” land, which used to “belong” to their relatives, not in terms of dwellings, but in portraits of fields and creeks and woods and ridgelines. I know the knoll where deer sleep, and where the wild azaleas thrive—and the stinging nettles too. A poem, which often requires “multiple visits,” is one way to explore, even when not outside. Maybe what you call metaphysical is really just this layered look at a subject—this attempt to get to the essence.
BD: Again, your backyard poems about your garden or your donkey or ducks or chickens?
MV: I resist the attempt to simply map my world, as if I am important enough to document every move. Yet, living in this remote rural landscape means learning about the plants and animals here. Much of this discovery is delight in the beauty, but also hard truths, like facing common shocking mortality seen as we share our world with poultry and larger animals. “Red Rooster Gone” is a poem about when a hawk swooped down and killed a bantam rooster right before me. “Dead Horse in the Barn” deals with burying a horse carcass in the frigid depths of winter. “Killing Mabel” is about a pot-bellied pig kicked by a horse, then found paralyzed in the pasture. About visiting my Appalachian neighbor, on a Sunday morning, to ask him to bring his gun and shoot my pig. (The vet was not available and the pig was suffering.) The poem evolved into a look at neighborly bonding. When you inhabit land with animals, dramas arrive, including the delight in seeing fourteen new ducklings, or the mystery of chickens nesting on fertilized eggs. Most all those “backyard” poems explore a mystery—I just keep reworking until enough answers are revealed. In the background is nearly always an unstated question: “Why the hell are you focusing on your dumb pig and your time with your neighbor Sam?”
BD: You mention poetry speaking “to everybody’s life.” There really is something universal about this poetry. On the one hand, it focuses on “tiny steps” and how “quiet ticks and chiggers/move in soundless rough beauty.” Yet these poems often transcend borders, falling somewhere in a wilder, wider world. In one poem you write, “10,000 maggots/for what reason/for whom?” Or, “crows launch slow motion/from the tallest oaks/shading the sacred Creek.” Is the universality the connection with nature that we all share? Do lots of people share questions about maggots and what the hell they’re for? Or, who can’t relate to the crows launching slow motion toward the sacred creek? Maybe the universal is returning to “God’s quiet garden”?
MV: I can’t explain what a reader sees as metaphysical or universal. Yet, I know I want more than the photographic surface. I want the whole. A poem often begins with a vivid image; where it feels necessary to just capture the scene. Like, those salamanders that are in the little creek that runs by my house, and the fun picking up a rock and seeing a secret world I didn't know was there. In the maggot poem, a dead Holstein dairy cow placed in a deep ravine by farmers is found by kids wandering in the pasture. Initially they see the maggots and feel the horror of death. The question became how to make sense of this? In any poem the first job is to paint the scene succinctly, with vivid language, and capture the emotional resonance—in this case the humor in seeing maggot horror. Then to arrange that language so the reading flows. In that poem the cow was placed smack dab on a little grotto us kids saw as sacred. Somehow that too had to be conveyed. So literally in the pushing to show all—some of that “metaphysics” or “universality” appears. I think that virtually any work of art that succeeds gives a sense of the “universal”—a sense of a living whole that a reader or viewer recognizes.
In the process of discovery, you may think you know what to say about a topic, but if it's going to be good writing, you find yourself breaking through and learning something new. That’s really the reason to write or paint or take photographs, to achieve that addictive thrill of a piece working—not to become well known, or published.
In the first decade of writing poems, I often needed an epiphany at the end, like, “Oh my God, and then the door opened, and I saw the awesome answer revealed.” But that quickly becomes tiresome, for life is not often about tacking on a contrived end, a breathless eye-opening ‘answer.” Still, I constantly ask, “Why the hell are you writing about this subject? What is here of worth?” Once Leon Lewis, our colleague and friend who I inflicted poems on, said: “I don’t see the poem in this draft.” And that comment got to the heart of the whole thing. I’m always asking, “Where's the fucking poem?” Within the space on the page, hopefully, after playing with imagery, syntax, structure, white space, a poem will emerge. Sometimes only after changing the title. Sometimes you must rip out cottony lines or drastically cut and paste. Or throw half of it away. Sometimes you need a last line that adds perspective. And sometimes nothing works and remains hidden in a folder until the next attempt.
BD: Above you fretted about destroying nature through climate change. Elsewhere you’ve written how your poems also “attack all of life.” A lot of your poetry does accentuate the bad with the good. Sometimes there's a clash with nature instead of an appreciative observation or reverence. In “Carp Love” you write: “we throw our catch back into the chocolate murky pesticides/and sewage and swirls of detergent, and oil.” Some of your poems strike me as overtly political. Or is the above line merely something that came back from an observation when you were small?
MV: I think overtly political implies “fix it” and apply a solution. I resist the didactic, even though I'm very political. Of course, I am horrified at the pollution and destruction of the earth, but I don’t feel that preaching solves much. Yet at the same time, if you look at the Mississippi River context in the poem “Carp Love,” you can't look away from what you know. You can still love a scene, even if ugliness is mixed in. During my lifetime, St. Louis dumped much largely untreated sewage into the Mississippi River, and downstream we pulled water out of the river to drink (after we treated it), as did Memphis, Tennessee, and other river towns. You can't help but know if you've lived in the great Midwest that the Missouri flows into the Mississippi and the Ohio flows into the Mississippi—and that we’re all affected by the bulk of that water, that the runoff from thousands of farms inundated with pesticides flows into the river. You can go down to New Orleans and see the dead zone caused by us humans. So yeah, I'm aware, and yet, at the same time, I love the uncontrollably wild Mississippi River and its big muddy tributaries. I love the ugliness that is part of the river, like the huge inedible rough fish that thrive within. Not at all like the beautiful trout and crystal-clear streams around here where so many headwaters originate. I love the murkiness where you don’t know what lies underneath.
Though I rarely simultaneously write multiple poems on a single subject, over time I notice subjects that I have addressed multiple times, like the essential role of the Mississippi River. My dad told stories about when the ice floes formed, and he and friends walked across—how dangerous that was, with whirlpools and strange currents and massive logs and barges. About people water skiing on the river, where you can’t just fall off your skis and float in peace. Feeling that great river in my blood and knowing what a beast it is, means I can’t avoid the politics of living in a corrupted and human-manipulated world.
BD: Let’s shift from individual poems to your manuscripts. When I read the first two, I'm struck by a sense of place. Obviously, we see this idea in the manuscript titles, Becoming Appalachian and Further West. Many of the poems in Becoming Appalachian are the “outdoor” poems mentioned above. The Further West poems are equally focused on family portraits, however; on growing up in mid-sized towns like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where you're from. Do you see this distinction in your first two manuscripts—that each manuscript is arranged according to region?
MV: Originally, collecting poems in manuscripts, I mixed them up on purpose. Then, seeking a greater sense of unity, I put together poems that originated in the Appalachian region. And together all the Further West poems with a strong Midwestern feel, because I lived in Cape Girardeau, Columbia, and Kansas City, Missouri, and in Ottumwa, Iowa—all those staunch, flatland Big River places. I also wanted poems that pushed on, since those growing up west of the Mississippi are most oriented toward land even further west. From a young age I looked to Denver or San Francisco or Seattle—as far west as possible.
Yes, both Becoming Appalachian and Further West are tied to region. Some poems are connected by concrete names and description, and some, psychically—by feel. The third manuscript, A Kingdom with Its Own Rules is a spillover, mixing it all, and not tied to a sense of land and region, even though some poems could easily belong in the other two manuscripts. In arranging all three manuscripts, I looked at nearly every piece I had written in the last 15 years, and in the process, rewrote many poems. I resisted a chronological approach, preferring the sense that time can be mixed up, that the past lives in the present. I see too a mixing of forms and structure in each of the books.
BD: Even though you’ve lived in Boone as long as you did in Missouri, the Further West poems seem to cover a wider time span. You even go back to the roots of the Vogel family in Germany and Austria, with your grandparents coming to the States and settling. Stated another way, your poems travel west of Appalachia but then move east of North Carolina into Europe, thus covering more territory.
MV: Yes, one of the patterns is a sense of family history. I wrote a number of poems that stole family stories and made sense of the great migration to Southeast Missouri, from both sides of my family—my father’s family from Germany and my mother’s family from Austria. These poems came in spurts, mixed around poems on many other topics. My mother's family were farmers, teachers, ministers; my dad’s side were small-time businessmen. Both families first settled in Pocahontas, a tiny town north of Cape Girardeau with a strong Lutheran German-Austrian connection. When my mom and dad were in their 70’s, they went to Austria where relatives still had pictures of the Missouri farm on their wall. My mother translated letters from Missouri settlers to the homeland in both Germany and Austria, and both of my grandmothers spoke German, usually when they didn't want us kids to understand what they needed to say.
I like writing poems where I feel I have some unique knowledge to share, and virtually every immigrant poem speaks to all readers. Living around many rooted family members and hearing their stories, I feel I have witnessed the end of an era and the start of the new. Though none of us kids grew up feeling like immigrants, or lived through the Great Depression, we knew well that Mother once wore feed sack dresses, and that Great Grandfather never learned to speak English, even after living in this country for decades. I sought to freeze stories about those hard-working, largely unheralded pioneers. When I was ten, I remember my grandpa crying out from the next room, “Take me, Lord!” before he died, right there in the fucking bed. I wrote to make sense of that faith he had, which us kids somehow lost. To provide portraits of the many old relatives who lived in and around that region—so different from where I am now, where no family member lives within 600 miles, and to show how us kids evolved from such unified roots.
Because my mother lived to be 95, at least ten poems deal with her aging and preparing to die. Returning to Missouri to see my mother (and aunts and uncles and cousins), I pored through family genealogy, read history, labeled family photos in order to retell those stories. Eventually those poems clarified how I both love and despise that homeland, which my siblings and I have moved away from.
BD: Finally, I see a connection between the range of your poetic imagery (and the subject matter of many of your poems) and your photography, which I have viewed even longer than your poems. Do you notice a direct link to your photography?
MV: I think each of us need habits that help make us look close at a complex world. This can come in many forms: gardening, jewelry making, writing, painting, photography, and more. Cultivating a habit (or habits) can help us breathe, insisting we play with form, keep us questioning and discovering. Sometimes these habits provide products that can function as gifts we can give to others, while also teaching us how our brains work. The art emerges when we bring together the intellect with the intuitive and subjective. When it works, a new whole emerges. I have long loved photography, both my own and others, how a good photo shocks and freezes what once was. The stark undeniable details often reveal how the world has shifted since the initial shutter snap. The frozen image allows us to see what we often miss in the active present. I love too working with a photograph, seeing shifts in color saturation, in light and dark, in cropping and zooming to create something new. I love too the act of searching for photographic “topics” when my son and I wander outside, asking each other “where is the picture?” I see many similarities to writing a poem. For initially many poems simply seek to capture a language snapshot. I can point to multiple poems where both a photograph and a poem speak to the same scene. One poem shows a six-foot black snake crossing two yellow center lines on a summer black-top road. The photograph of that scene is framed in my house. The beautiful contrast between the very black, very alive snake and the road and the yellow lines is wonderful. The best family portraits too capture the essence of the individual, like my grandfather sitting on an Adirondack chair in his Sunday white shirt reading a Bible. The black and white photo reveals both his farmer tan and his deep faith.
Both photography and crafting a poem allow for gentle revisions, for slight adjustments, for pruning and editing, for both are capable of surprising. When I stumble on an ancient poem (or an ancient photo) I often am amazed at the efforts. Yet, (for me), a poem is privileged because it lives in language, and a poem is “read” and not “merely” viewed. The act of revising gives linguistic insights and allows the creator to steal from multiple sources, and to glue together disparate elements. More play is available with form. A photo expedition is limited by what can be captured, whereas a poem can borrow from other cultures, and from experiences deep in the past. Photographic images of say, my grandfather, are limited to what I can unearth. As a lifetime reader I appreciate too reading my own work—and thus joining all the other reading I have devoured.
Still, completed poems or photos feel like gifts, larger than the maker, as strange products of a living process. Kind of like a self-less teacher endlessly fine-tuning, seeing how each change, each addition, expands learning, trying to create a whole that lasts. With each habit the process and the act of doing are all—more important than publication or acclaim—pushing a daily moving that is crucial.