Some Wolf in Cold Mountain Review: An Interview with R.T. Smith
This past fall, R.T. Smith returned to his graduate school alma mater here at Appalachian State University for an eight-week teaching residency as the Rivers-Coffey Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing. Currently writer-in-residence in the Department of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where he serves as editor of the literary journal Shenandoah, Smith earned an M.A. in English at ASU in 1976 and founded Cold Mountain Review with fellow student Donald Secreast in 1973. On an afternoon in October, Smith sat down to talk with me about CMR’s founding vision.
Kathryn Kirkpatrick: Since 1974 Cold Mountain Review has had many manifestations, and I’m wondering what seems most valuable from that early vision to bring forward into the present.
R.T. Smith: When we named it we were thinking about Gary Snyder. We were not thinking about the academy at all. We were thinking about outlaw work, you know? Out there on the margins of things. And I think that it was very important from the beginning that there be an element of Appalachian regional identity to it and Appalachian State University. I mean, one of the things that is really eminent that I had forgotten about is how many faculty members have work in those first 3 or 4 issues. Probably 10. We also solicited work from people who were widely known in the state. I think the second or third issue has Betty Adcock poems. You know, she only had one book at that point, but Cold Mountain Review brought Betty up here for a reading and got the money to do that – weaseled it somehow or another out of the lectures committee.
You know, Susan Bartels before she was even Susan Ludvigson. So that was an important component. And also, having student input – student work. I probably wouldn’t go for it so much now, but I liked the improvisational look of this patchwork thing that we did by using the student printing services equipment at night. Using waxers to have it photo-ready. I had done that with a newspaper when I was an undergraduate working for the campus newspaper at UNCC, but I don’t have a really good eye for making all those things look good on that blue gridded paper and seeing, “Is this all even?” and so forth. So a lot of what looks like it’s really retro was just my poor hand-eye coordination and sense of “I can read it, that’s close enough for folk music.” And on we go to the next one because Don Secreast and Joanne Eskridge and I stayed up late many a night trying to just figure out how to make it work. “No, no that page needs to be over here if you’re going to fold it into 16 different pages, if it’s going to be a full signature.” We just improvised and sometimes it was wrong. Today, of course, on Shenandoah, I have all these students proof-reading, proof-reading, proof-reading, and then I’ve got the both friendly and hostile communities out there, quick to tell me if there’s a typo. But back then, you know, it was set in stone.
KK: So, when you talk about “outlaw work,” do you think when a journal gets professionalized that quality is lost?
RTS: Depends on the editor. One of the things I’ve maintained as part of the mission for Shenandoah for the 20 years I’ve been there is “serious mischief.” Every once in a while we will print something that is outside the range of my particular taste. Or we’ll print something that we dared some poet to “write a poem about this.” We’ve printed a couple things under people’s pseudonyms. They say, “I wrote this, but I don’t really want my name on it.” So we say, OK, we’ll make up something. We get the phonebook and open it and pick two different names. But I think the primary ingredient of serious mischief is now conducted on our blog. I read the book and went to see the movie about Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and wrote a review of it. When I was getting ready to teach a course in the literature of the American West, I went to Wal-mart and bought one of these cheap, one of these really hastily, not even written, but typed Westerns and read it and reviewed it seriously as if it were somehow or another an entry into the literary sweepstakes. I keep the mischief element in there. Bill Ward and some friend of his wrote an old sequence of humorous poems called “Higgeldy Piggeldy” to go in one of the issues, written specifically for us. That was in there to start with. Also, some of the people who were associated with the magazine like Vic and Doug Moose, they’re tricksters. They’re still tricksters. Vic is an extreme sports advocate – he was an art major – but he’s an iceberg climber now.
Don Secreast is still working, a sort of high-octane wit. I think that the group that came together to do that had a strong streak of trickster in them. It’s not the magazine that they did it for and not the magazine that made them do it. They’ve been doing it all their lives. When Chuck Frazier and I persuaded John Trimpy, who was our advisor, that we were reading a whole series of brand new, young Mexican dramatists, and that when we finished sorting through them – because we can both read Spanish – we would make some recommendations of who he ought to read. This was completely fabricated. I couldn’t name a Mexican play, much less a Mexican playwright, but John was out telling other people about it. It was the seventies. There had to be some sort of counterforce to John Travolta, to the Bee Gees and all that. And it seemed like the mountains were where it should happen. “Great things are done when men in mountains meet, that is not done by jostling in the street.” Blake. You know that’s in my other essay. I don’t know if it was a great thing, but it was a really cool thing.
KK: That quality reminds me of Edward Abbey. He had a lot of that trickster energy, he and his cohorts. I would say it’s an energy more tolerated in men than in women.
RTS: I think that’s probably true, though we’re beginning to see more and more female comedians who are really bold now. Maybe that dynamic is changing in some important ways. And besides, when we lost Robin Williams, there was a lot of room left at the top. I thought, “We’re not only doing something a little bit innovative and a little bit mischievous here, but we’re activists too.” To tell people that the written word, the word written with literary intent, is as important as the soccer game – and ASU had a great soccer team back then, we had an All-American soccer player – you know, that’s subversive. I mean imagine if you tried to somehow or another delay the football game this Saturday for a poem.
KK: Your description of reading submissions at Winkler’s Creek (in the 35 year anniversary issue of CMR) is magical. It’s as if the water and the land are part of the process. You’ve already partly answered this, but what do you see as a journal’s relation to its immediate environment? You seem to suggest that the mischief of the mountains is in CMR and vice versa.
RTS: Yeah, I see the same thing in Shenandoah, but I would say that it’s a different personality. There’s still a little bit of gentile Virginia every once in a while. I will even solicit. It used to be Henry Taylor, but I don’t think he writes poetry anymore. But I still look for things that have some of that antebellum phenomenon. Shenandoah – it’s the great valley of the Confederacy– Jackson, born here but buried there. I would like to see all of the confederate battle flags that are anywhere extant put on private properties or in museums. You know, it’s not like I’m an un-reconstructed rebel, because I’m grown up. I was that way when I was a kid because I was raised in Georgia, and, you know, we didn’t know about the race part of the Civil War. We knew about the Cavalier part. But Virginia’s history is very much a part of Shenandoah, and we review books that are–I mean I’m looking at a book right now that I’m probably going to review next month, that is a history about all the displacement of people in the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains around in order to make public park property. And we think, you know “what a great thing it is to have all this public land and so forth,” but as Ron Rash’s novel, Serena, points out, it’s not a two-sided fight. It’s a three- or four-sided fight and even the timber companies have a legitimate argument, but theirs never really persuades me. It’s a little bit strange for me now to come up here and see the commercial development because I began to come to Boone as the place to sort of recover from two weeks in the Linville Gorge. It was camping and canoeing and fishing that brought me out to this place to start with. And when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, I applied other places, but when it came time to decide where to go, I thought “I want to live in Boone.” I didn’t care that there was no graduate creative writing class. I’d just learn about poetry, and probably run into somebody. And I did. And who I ran into was John Foster West, and there wasn’t anybody more mountainy than John. He was from Wilkesboro, but boy howdy, he was like the ultimate Appalachian satyr.
KK: What a good description!
RTS: And untamable and there was no way that the university could absorb him entirely. And I think he encouraged me because I’m not originally a highlander. I’m a cracker. My family comes from down in Georgia, both sides of it. And I saw in him this sense of regional identity. You know, he’d say, “It’s hot as hell’s handles out there.” And Irish potatoes were ‘arsh-taters’. The music of mountain language was poured into my ears in one side, and Doc and Merle Watson were pouring into the other side. I knew Merle fairly well and had been to Doc’s house a few times. And I was smitten with Doc Watson in undergraduate school. The idea that I could go to a place to school where – I mean when I came here I learned to clog. Come up here and hear a concert and hear Doc say “getting ready to play a tune, something along the line of – well, Merle, better not make a mistake, because up here, they’ll know.” And you know, I thought, that’s what it means to be indigenous. Even though I was an outsider, Don was from Lenoir, Chuck Frazier’s from Franklin. You know, they’re pretty much Appalachian people. So I thought, I’ll just parasite off of them for a while until I learn enough to raise my voice in a semi-authoritative, but not hubristic way. And you know, we also had a center of gravity to help us navigate and that was Appalachian Journal. I didn’t want us to try to replicate Appalachian Journal in any way. But I didn’t want us to ignore it either because it was like the big dog in the yard. There’s so many Appalachian poets like George Scarborough. You know, George was brought up here by Appalachian Journal. And the last few years of his life, George and I became good friends. And we would arrange to go to the southern festival of the book and meet there. I grew to truly love George, and I liked reading Appalachian Journal’s articles.
I remember Tom McGowen telling me about mad stones at a party at a literary festival in the eastern part of the state. I thought it was like the Mexican dramatists coming back at us. I started to research, and I thought “He wasn’t drunk, he’s just odd!” But all that stuff is true. Then later on when I met Robert Morgan, we had this long conversation about mad stones, and I said, “You know, there was a time when I didn’t believe in them.” And he said, “Well you’re not from around here.” That was one of the places where the students and the faculty came in. If you were editing a magazine, anybody who had whatever it was a postage stamp cost back then could get your attention. But, using students, some of whom were locals, involving faculty members, who at least had lived here for quite a while, helped us.
Where I belonged, I think, was writing poems on the side. I mean, I’ve demonstrated apparently that I didn’t really miss too much not having workshops. I’ve never taken a creative writing class. I may have been born yesterday, but I’ve been paying real hard attention ever since. I’ve been listening to people who were in writing workshops, and I’ve learned sort of second hand, and I don’t have to pay the tuition. But you can see from the imagery on the cover of the first [issue of CMR] – it’s an ink wash, but they’re called “Cold Mountain Shapes” by Shelton Wilder, who was in the art department. One of my poems that’s in an early issue is about burying–I think it’s entitled something like “Burying a Strange Dog in January.” It had been tied to a tree and died there. But you really don’t want to bury a dog in January unless you’ve got a jack-hammer. And also you need to be thinking a dog-shaped hole because once I got a hole dug, the dog didn’t–it was a cookie cut. So I had to put it over the hole and jump up and down on it until its bones broke and it went in. And you know, that was the kind of experience that I was remembering then and writing about and it seeped in. A lot of things seeped in, a lot of things were really imported. I didn’t know very much about Appalachian literature at the time.
There was a faculty member on my orals committee who had been in graduate school at Auburn. And he was recommending that I should try to get a job–an instructorship down in Auburn when I left here. And his wife loved Auburn. So they were just always trying to sell it to me. But I loved Boone, and they didn’t like it here. And after I moved to Auburn, I didn’t like it there. I’m not an azalea and beach volleyball and War Eagle football kind of guy. I realized that when I was talking to him one time, and I said, “Ya’ll haven’t got enough wolf in you.” I wanted there to be some wolf in the Cold Mountain Review, and that’s why I didn’t solicit any more from university professor poets than I did. Because I wanted some people like–David Childers is in a couple of issues. I just had some contact with him the other day. His first album was called “Godzilla, He Done Got Out.” And he’s got poems too, and I wanted that sort of mix. I guess if I were starting a magazine today–young enough to be starting a magazine today–I would be looking to the music community to contribute some lyrics to it. Because that’s where my head would be. But back then, it really wasn’t much. My idea of a good song was a Child Ballad that had been imported from England, being sung up here with silver daggers in it and so forth.
KK: It isn’t always the case that the local is valued. In Boone, the local food growing movement has risen up. There are presses now, Press 53 in Winston-Salem and Jacar Press in Durham, and they’re really nurturing the poetry/fiction community in the state. But a lot of people equate local and regional with lesser.
RTS: Well, but Dubliners felt that way about James Joyce.
KK: Yes, exactly. What would you see as the relationship between the local and the global in a literary journal?
RTS: Well everybody is from somewhere, and they’re local there. But “no man is a prophet in his own country.” Because your neighbors have seen you do really stupid things, you couldn’t be wise, you couldn’t be ingenious. When I was in graduate school here, one of the people who was brought in to read was John Barth. And I can’t think of very many people who would be less local to the mountains of North Carolina than John Barth. On the other hand, another writer who was brought in was Jonathan Williams. Jonathan Williams didn’t come from up here, but he certainly adopted and adapted. Those guys could have been wearing the same $700 suit. I learned very quickly from Barth–I was absolutely knocked over by his reading, stunned by him, and I was absolutely resistant to Jonathan Williams. We didn’t like each other at all. We got in a big argument out at the Dunlap’s house the first night he was here. It took us years to make a truce. Before he died we’d eventually become good friends. Both of us knew and were at a party in Davidson at the same time with W.S. Merwin. And Merwin said, “I hear you two quarrel.” And I don’t remember what Jonathan said, but I said, “Yeah! And rightly so!” And he said, “Stop it.”
KK: And you did?
RTS: Well, it was Merwin, you know? And I mean Merwin was one of the three or four contemporary poets I was reading who made me think I wanted to write. And then the deal was closed when I went to hear James Dickey give a reading. I had Dickey and Merwin and Plath and two or three other people in my mind. All very visceral writers. So I think you can walk right by the diamond on the ground looking for the ones up in the sky that you’re never going to get anyway.
KK: And similarly with audience. One of the things that Kevin Watson says to the writers at Press 53 is, “Look at the readers all around you.” Why is it that people don’t value the readers in their own state or in their own communities? It’s the same devaluing of the local. You have to have a national reputation and a national reach before you are really considered to be a serious writer.
RTS: My books just sit on the bookshelves in Lexington. I’ve been there twenty years. They sit on the bookshelves in the university bookstore. Well, we don’t really have a university bookstore. We did away with it to have a university store, which has a bookshelf. It has more than one bookshelf, and it looks pretty and all that, but, boy, the selection is really, really narrow.
KK: I’ve been back with the Cold Mountain Poems by Gary Snyder and the hermit sage Han-Shan. The fierce grace and the serious mischief. Do you want to say anything more about that specific influence on Cold Mountain Review?
RTS: Well, until I came here, anything I had ever done to show an interest in the arts had made me a hermit in my family and community immediately. So I liked this idea, “It’s just you and me, moon.” I made a virtue of necessity. I mean my family doesn’t read my books. They tried at first and, as my brother-in-law put it so succinctly, “You know Rod, I’m just not a poetry guy.” But Han Shan, he also had a companion. And when I was here, I found two very serious poetry–well three– very serious poetry companions, but Joanne Eskridge was killed very quickly. It was mostly one on one. We didn’t sit in a group and exchange poems or anything like that. It was like “look at this,” or “listen to what I wrote two days ago.” And that was as formal as it got, but it probably saved me. It saved me from quitting. And if I’d quit, well what was I going to do? I mean I was a pretty good high-school teacher / basketball coach with the emphasis on basketball coach. Where would I be now? Well I’d be a principal at some – no, I’d be retired. But I would’ve ended up the principal at some junior high school in Catawba County.
R.T. Smith in Griffin, Georgia in the 1950s
The immersion in the natural world that Han Shan has, I mean that’s what brought me to the mountains to start with before poetry interested me at all. I would think people were talking about poultry. And the idea of being outside the community and upstream from them, so you make the poems into little boats and put them in the water so they go down into the town. I was just drawn to the idea that writing was not separate from the world of work. And it runs through Snyder’s poems, through Han Shan’s poems that, you know, you have to know about the ax. Surely if you need a new ax-handle, the model is in your hand. That’s all through Thoreau as well. That’s one of the pleasures of teaching him, because separating the intellectual, contemplative kind of writing life from the physical, you know, building, making things, doesn’t happen. He cuts down the trees. He builds a house with some of them. And he makes pencils with the other. And that always seemed to me a valuable thing. That’s why every opportunity I’ve had, which has been all but a very few years of my life since I left here, I’ve lived in the country. I’ve had a wood stove. I’ve done gardening and had animals and that sort of thing. And right now we don’t even have a dog. [Since this interview, Smith has acquired a blue-tick hound.] And it breaks my heart. But I’m afraid that a dog could really hurt me if it jerked the wrong way on a leash and I twisted my hips wrong. I’d have to have my replacements replaced.
KK: Yes, so that’s when you get the dog you can pick up with your own hands–a small dog.
RT: Those aren’t dogs. I mean, I think if a child can’t ride it, it’s not a dog. It’s a cat, maybe. I don’t know if I would have gravitated to the Cold Mountain Poems in Burton Watson’s translation or somebody else like that. But I was so on board with Gary Snyder’s overall ecological obsession, really, and commitment. He liked both solitude and community. He would go up there on the fire tower and be there for the summer and hardly see anybody. And then come back down and be running around with Ginsberg and Corso and Michael McClure and Kerouac, the whole gang of them. I got interested in Gary Snyder through Dharma Bums before I was even interested in poetry. And as a spirit he was absolutely inspiring.
There was a furniture store on the way to Banner Elk that rented out the basement, and that’s where I was living. And there was a hill right behind it. So I could sit out on the ground in the mornings and look across a valley and, you know, read Gary Snyder. And I was really committed to making very beautiful pen-ink drawings to go with all the poems. I said, “I need to get myself a whole bunch of those black magic markers with different widths of tip.” That helped, but they still weren’t beautiful. But I was really trying to participate with the poems, instead of just reading them and learning them by heart, which I also did. Those are long gone from my mind and replaced by “Dover Beach” and “Heaven of Animals” and “Traveling Through the Dark,” but I probably had about twenty of them by heart. Before I ever learned Emily Dickinson, I’d learned a lot of Gary Snyder translations and would inflict them on people at the drop of a hat.
KK: Do you think he’s gotten the attention paid that his work warrants? He’s had a vast influence, which is maybe more important.
RTS: I mean he’s got a Pulitzer Prize. But, you know, who wants too much of that anyway? He has had a lot of influence, like influence on me. I don’t write like Gary Snyder at all, but a lot of the things I write about are things he would see and he would write about. He would just sort of go around this way and I would go around that way, and we’d sort of meet at the period at the end. I think that he is underappreciated because everybody who gets put in some club and identified with that–in the long run that’s not going to help anybody’s reputation. And being a “Beat,” you know, hardly anybody reads Corso anymore. I think he’s one of our very funniest poets. And since Ginsberg died, I don’t hear much about Ginsberg. His name does not come into the conversation when people start talking about anti-establishment, stream of thought, associational poetry. Instead, they come back to Ashbury. I think the thing that sort of sealed the deal for me on Ginsberg, that I would never forget and never stop thinking about, as important as “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation,” was something somebody told me. When Ginsberg was on his death-bed somebody asked him, “How do you feel?” And he said, “While I had expected to be terrified, I’m exhilarated.” And I thought, “Give me some of what he’s drinking.”
KK: You may have seen John Felstiner’s book Can Poetry Save the Earth? He argues that the sheer attentiveness required to read and write poetry is a significant capacity our culture needs in order to engage effectively with the ecological crisis. He says “attention to detail is a species of love.”
RTS: I think Pound said something like, “Absolute attention is a form of prayer.”
KK: So I’m wondering how you feel about the role of poetry–the role that poetry can play, does play, even ought to play–in our current end-times scenario.
RTS: We’re such a fragmented mess. It’s just really hard to say. One side bar that I feel like needs to be said here is that an awful lot of people I know who are radicals and activists about increasing the presence of poetry are doing it by calling things poetry that I don’t call poetry— video poems, for example. You know, there are online magazines that have video poetry categories in their table of contents. And my students and I look at them together and we kind of blink and say, “That was really interesting, but it’s not exactly ‘April is the cruelest month’.” Too much technology, for one thing. I mean one of the things I love about poetry is that there’s just this and this. And that’s all I really need. To record it is a slightly different thing, but still the technology is very low. And though I can’t make a pencil, I think I can find a way to make certain kinds of soft rocks make marks on larger rocks. I can make that happen. All the intervening things go on in making these films that are called video poetry.
The poetry slam has never interested me at all. Everybody who likes them likes them better if there’s drinking. The ingredient that gets lost is the meditative ingredient, which can be present in even the most raucous poem on the page. I mean it doesn’t have to stay on the page. You can learn it. You can go say it to people. But the poem in some essential manifestation is a form of your dialogue with the vast unknown and it’s a secret in part and your very special prescription when you’re reading it. Joe [Joseph Bathanti] was telling me that students here sometimes look askance at him and say, “Well you know you’re a page poet. You’re a paper poet.” God help me, that’s what I want to be. I’m also, even with my damaged apparatus, a voice poet. I say the poems, the lines, as or before I write them. So there’s something else in what Donald Hall calls “milk tongue.” Before I’m the page poet, in the process, I’m something else. And I make a distinction between process, the product, and the production. The process is making it, and I don’t really need a piece of paper for that because I can remember a decent amount in my head before I write it down. The product is the written poem. And the production is the reading of it to people. But when the poem is done and I’m happy with it, that’s the open-the-bottle-of- champagne moment. Publication or reading or a prize and all that, that’s what fools see. It’s fun, but it has nothing to do with making poems. It’s the side of me that used to like a birthday cake on my birthday. Now days I just want bread. I just want bread every day instead. I think a lot of the stuff that I don’t like is much more effective as activism than the stuff that I do like. Because if you think the stuff that you do like is in part a secret, that’s kind of limiting your placard-bearing impulse. It’s a secret that should be told, but it’s still a secret.
KK: But there is also the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who said that for him a poem needs to be “strong enough to help.” He had that idea that the craft–and Paula Meehan has this too–that the craft has got to be very strong and that helps the poem to help. So in the Irish tradition, at least, they don’t make that distinction.
RTS: You’ve just shifted ground on me a little, because if you asked me that same question and said “in Ireland,” my answer would be entirely different. I remember being over there when the Easter Accord was signed and on that Saturday that poem by Michael Longley called “Cease Fire” was published in The Irish Times: “I kiss the hand of Achilles, the killer of my son.” People were talking about it, arguing about it, praising it and so forth, in the pubs at lunch that day. Here, we’re just so fragmented. You know, somebody asked Yeats early on, “What can you tell us about the young Irish poets?” He answered: “Only that we are too many.” That’s us. We’re too many. We’ve done out-reproduced ourselves. I feel like I can make some cultural critiques. Maybe what I can say is that an awful lot of Appalachian writers, to go to a smaller community, have made useful contributions to the conversation about what’s to be done about the land and the air. And the water, God knows. A friend of mine, Philip Belcher, just told me – do you know about whirling disease?
RTS: It’s a disease that trout get, some kind of a parasite, and it throws off their navigation and they swim in circles. If they swim in circles, they can’t feed. If they can’t feed, they die. If people catch them and eat them, it does nothing to them. It has no impact that anybody can tell on people, so it’s not that it’s something that’s happening to the fish that’s going to be passed on to people, but the trout fishing industry, which does an awful lot towards sustaining of wetlands and water courses, is suffering millions of dollars of loss, and has been in Colorado and Idaho for a long time. It has been found now not just in the Appalachians, but in the last six months it’s been found here in the Watauga River. And of all the things that I’ve heard and seen since I got here in the last couple weeks – and there have been a lot that have piqued my imagination–the one that I feel like I have to write a serious poem about is this. This poem shouldn’t be about mischief, it should have great gravity about it. I’m going to try in the next couple weeks to get a friend of mine down from Asheville who’s a very big trout fisherman. I want to see. He said he can find out where on the Watauga River it has been spotted because usually it’s someplace where there’s a big trout pool. One of the things that is horrible to me about it is that fishermen spread it. They go into the water, where fish have had this, have died, and the parasites have left the body, and when they come out, they don’t clean their equipment and their boots before they go into some other water.
KK: I’m thinking now of your essay, “Under the Sign of the Fish” in the 35 year anniversary issue of Cold Mountain Review. There is a pre-modern sense of the fish as being a kind of a totem or a companion spirit, and it sounds like that’s what you’re connecting with in this trout project. You know at a very deep level you’re connected with those fish. For me that would be the poem that would make a kind of activist impact because it’s coming organically from very deep, and you couldn’t just write about any subject in that way. I think we get called by the kinship sense we have with a particular creature to do that work.
RTS: Two of my favorite poets, who did that a lot – one of them is still doing it — are John Engels and Brendan Galvin. John was a serious fisherman. I think Brendan is a kind of curator, the commitment to being able to distinguish between birds, to recognize them, to know their habits, and to understand that when we’re understanding birds, we’re understanding people. If I had to choose between not seeing my own poems again and not seeing Brendan’s, I’d choose to let mine go. And it’s not just the birds, it’s fish and other animals and it’s people too, very much in our animal capacity. And vegetables – he has the great funny poem called “The Potato Has His Say.” I mean, he’s an animist. That’s exactly what he is. I’m too much of an ironist to be an animist, but Brendon is an activist without ever intending it. And he’s the one who’s always saying to me “you ought to read this book,” and it’s usually not a poetry book. One of the reasons I’m hoping to retire soon is that one thing he’s told me I really must do is not a short commitment. The University of Nebraska Press has a set that is the entire collection of all the texts that were produced on the Lewis and Clark expedition. And it’s a bookshelf. Brendan has read it all. And when he finished, he had written a couple poems about Lewis and Clark, and I said, “you ought to write a series,” because he writes those book length series, and he said, “I’m really not going to. I’ve sort of had my say about that, and I’m just in awe.” I mean “The Corps of Discovery.” What a fantastic name. If the Catholic Church had called themselves “The Corps of Discovery” I’d join, but they’re the corps of concealment, so I’m not buying in. Barry Lopez said about some majestic natural sight, but I can imagine Brendan saying it: “Sometimes the only proper response to the sublime is awe, not analysis.” I think that Lopez has said that several times, and he’s said that in the book that made me fall in love with his work, which was the wolf book, Of Men and Wolves.
KK: In Can Poetry Save the Earth, Felstiner starts with the Bible and he ends with Gary Snyder. He includes Blake, the Wordsworths, Clare, Hardy, Hopkins, Williams, Jeffers, Moore, Levertov, Bishop, Hughes, and Kumin, finally ending with Snyder. How would you go forward from Snyder with that list? And I’m wondering whether you’d associate yourself with anything called “eco poetry?” Do you think there’s harm in that?
RTS: Whatever would really be my better self, you know, would be the self that would stop everything else to write the whirling disease poem instead of writing about the funny guy who makes the chain-saw bears that I talked with today. Another thing I’m working on is a poem about Emily Bronte, which I never thought I would write. I just got a new interest in her. The carpenter who made her coffin said it was only fourteen inches wide. Small coffin–smallest coffin for an adult that he ever made. I was reminded of Rosetti saying, “Wuthering Heights was like a book set in hell with English names.” You know, that’s a very literary interest, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not going to save us. I could drop all those and say, “I’m not doing anything else until I write the whirling disease poem.” And I’m probably not going to do that because the others are further along and that fish poem is in the gestation stage just as the disease is. There’s fieldwork to be done before the word work gets done. I’ve been telling my students lately that “there’s the word-thoroughbred and the word-mule, and the word mule has got to work first. And it’s got to be out there and see and put this plain language to it first.”
KK: There is an informing perspective that any writer has that you can find in almost any poem. Maybe the frame for eco-poetry needs to be quite broad.
RTS: I think that the thing that gets in the way of my being that kind of poet really is my distinctly southern and gothic imagination and its refusal to go to sleep in front of the fire. I’ve been trying to chronicle the beastly habits of my fellow southerners and myself for a long time, especially in matters of religion and historical revision and so forth. Even when I think about my newest manuscript – there’s several Civil War poems in the biggest section of the book
(Summoning Shades, forthcoming from Mercer University Press). There’s a trilogy – actually a tetralogy — three poems about Mary Lincoln and one about her seamstress. Together they’re twenty pages. And the ecological awareness in that book is minimal. When I say it, I almost want to say, “to my shame,” but you’ve got to ride the horse that’s going.
KK: I guess I just feel that any sensitive writer who’s aware is writing about our ecological moment, whether or not you’re writing about it directly. It’s odd because we look out the window and climate crisis doesn’t seem to be here. But it’s still there. It’s always in the background. Even if its in other people’s foregrounds. Don’t you think that everything written now is really written in that context? We can look at it or not. You know? That’s what I mean by a wide frame. Even if you’re writing to have some relief from the knowledge of it. I just wonder if it’s possible not to respond.
RTS: Well, I do think it’s a question of emphasis. Emphasis and intent. I think that if somebody thinks about the growing – you know, what is born, begotten, and dies – very much, it will seep into their work. And how hard you have to look to find the moisture in the poem can vary. I would like to think that it keeps coming up enough in my poems that are not explicitly about the environment that when one found a poem about Alexander Wilson’s shooting and then trying to paint and then ending up accidentally killing an ivory bill woodpecker, one would say, “Well of course he would write this.” That’s not a judgment I’m in a position to make. I can think, “of course I would write it but…” Oh! I just realized there is, of course, right at the center of my new manuscript, there is a five-part poem rather than five separate poems about a man who served, when he was young, as Audubon’s apprentice.
KJK: There you go.
RTS: There you go. I forget about that poem sometimes, been so long since I wrote it.
KJK: But it’s at the center of the manuscript.
RTS: Yeah, it’s right in there. It’s right in the middle.
KJK: I think any kind of critic or scholar that’s critically attuned or versed in eco-criticism would see that. And that would be the approach I would take if I wrote about your poems. I mean I’m sure I would find all these threads that you’re talking about.
RTS: Some of it’s just lint.
KJK: I was going to read from Gary Snyder’s translations of the Cold Mountain poems, some gatherings of lines, and ask you to respond after I finish. This is from poem 5: “Like wind in a hidden pine, listen close, the sound gets better.”
RTS: Well, that really reminds me of a Basho poem: “A butterfly lands on the side of a bell in the temple. All morning long, vibrations.”
KJK: “Men ask the way to Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain, there’s no through trail.”
RTS: Yeah, it’s kind of “if you have to ask…” It’s the Buddha in nature. Or, “if I meet the Buddha on the road, what should I do? Kill him.”
KJK: Yes, and I’m taking it that’s what you mean by “serious mischief.” I hope we can take that idea forward in the journal, that unapologetically spiritual element, this present, this now.
RTS: You don’t have to be all serious-faced when you approach mystery. Without the mischievous side activated, mystery is too scary. The mystery, you know, not mysteries. God had to have a sense of humor. To quit that soon, with so much left undone. I told my students last week that a writer has got to be observing and inventing, observing and inventing. And I said, “Unlike God, you don’t have to stop after 6 days.”
KJK: “In my first thirty years of life, I roamed hundreds and thousands of miles.”
RTS: “But then I return to the same place and know it for the first time.” Eliot.
KJK: OK, what should I have asked you?
RTS: I don’t know. I’m pretty whipped. I got the whirling disease. I would just add that there’s nothing that I see that Cold Mountain Review and all I would hope for it, wish for it, that can’t be done online. There’s nothing prohibitive about its new cyberspace existence. And it offers opportunities to – if you all can find another way to do it, as I haven’t been able to yet – effectively and with some ease make audio of some of the work. That’s my response to people who say, “You’re a page poet.” Not necessarily, you know? Here, push this button. Click on that. And I’m not going to try to trick you with my voice and my facial expressions and my gymnastic contortions into thinking that the poem has said or done more than it has. But I am going to try to use my voice to guide you to hear what it has done, and if there’s fakery in it, you’ll know. But when it’s a whole sort of a circus act, where the poem leaves off and the exhibition begins is hard to tell sometimes. I’ve never seen a poem that was composed to be a performance poem written down on the page that I thought was a finished poem, that I felt was even a poem that was aware of its own possibilities and interested in them. And I quit looking a long time ago, I’ll admit, when that alternative Norton came out, the postmodern poetry anthology. The guy who edited it is a performance poet. And he does include some people like Ashbury, but, you know, I’ve got to find Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop in there. I read as much of it as I could stand, which back then was more than it would be today. My tolerance level was higher because I thought I had more time. From the very start I’ve written fiction and poetry together, but mostly poetry. Two or three times I’ve thought, “If this is what poetry is going to be, I’m back to the short story.” But when Ashbery and Fred Chappell were named co-winners of the Bollingen prize, I thought, “Ok, my father’s house is a big mansion. There’s going to be room for what I want poetry to be.”
KK: It takes a certain kind of confidence. You can read a lot of poems that you’re not moved by. You might admire them, or you might think they’re kind of interesting, or you might be left completely cold. And I think at a certain point, there’s this turn, where you decide, “I’m reading the stuff that I feel something about.”
RTS: Yeah, I mean, if all of us lived forever and our eyes worked the whole time, then why not read it all? But when my eyes begin to get tired, if I’m not reading something I’m really getting a lot of out of emotionally, viscerally, and intellectually, I’m done for the night. I would rather, I don’t know, re-brick the patio, stack the firewood, read Robert Penn Warren’s “Story of Deep Delight.”