[TCP] Four of your poems are featured in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume III: Contemporary Appalachia. Can you speak to how identifying as an Appalachian has influenced your work?
[EJ] I’m not sure to what extent I identify as an Appalachian. I’m a southerner, Virginian on my father’s side, Georgian on my mother’s, and I have lived in southwest Virginia much, if not most, of my adult life. I’ve certainly spent more time in southwest Virginia than anywhere else. I know I get angry when I hear or see Appalachians satirized in the media. I think Appalachians have been victimized by big business—corporate America, particularly the coal industry. It’s depressing. A drive through the coalfields is Dante-esque. But more like the lower levels of Mount Purgatory than hell. Loretta Lyn is our Beatrice, I suppose. Either she or Mother Maybelle Carter. But despite Saints Loretta and Maybelle, living here can be maddening, especially the racism and general intolerance that characterize much of the political, social, and religious life in southern Appalachia, not to mention the snobbery of the local nibs and art mavens.
On that level, I guess my relationship to southwest Virginia is not terribly unlike Flannery O’Connor’s toward central Georgia and the deep rural South in general. That may sound pretentious. I certainly lack O’Connor’s genius, wit, and depth of understanding. However, I respond to her in part because her characters are often fools and visionaries simultaneously. But the close reader of O’Connor would probably suspect she held a deep affection for them, a sympathy for their troubles—the soul wounding poverty and desperate cosmic alienation—and often a frank admiration for their courage and forthrightness. (She reserves her deepest scorn for intellectuals.) I understand her characters, her imaginative constructs and conflicts, because the faults of her characters are often my faults as well, chiefly the ironic fault of finding fault in others. I believe that’s a symptom of pride. The sin of pride.
I was a Navy brat and served thirteen years myself on active duty, and I don’t know if I would have written or thought much differently if I had settled down in some other region. In some of my poems, the pastoral and descriptive elements and use of idiomatic speech might have been different, perhaps even the figuration. But my predispositions would likely have been the same. My opinions regarding the Deep South and Appalachia were pretty well established by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, if not before. In fact, I think I am much the same person as when I was twelve. My personality did not suddenly change once I settled down as an adult in southwest Virginia.
So with regard to Appalachia and my poetry, I am influenced by, or ironically attracted to, the fierce religiosity—always a good source for metaphors—the landscape and its devastation, the ironic figures of speech, and the self-deprecation. But I particularly admire the tendency toward honesty and pithy appraisal that characterizes many rural Appalachians.
[TCP] In this same vein, how do you feel contemporary Appalachian poets prove distinct from other poets writing today?
[EJ] Insofar as experiences, especially childhood experiences, may differ from poets of one region to poets of another region, yes, I would say Appalachian poets prove somewhat distinct. Hard to imagine Wendell Berry growing up and living in Los Angeles or, for that matter, Paris. Wendell Berry aint much like Robert Hass or Frank Bidart, to pick two poets at random. Why? Regional influence, maybe. But I think we make too much of this. Many poets from regions other than Appalachia share concerns similar to Berry’s.
Truth be told, Southern poetry, as distinct from the Southern fiction, is a fairly recent subgenre that really begins with the modernists—the Fugitives and other Southern poets influenced by New Criticism, i.e. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Narrative—story telling—was the Southern tradition in letters prior to the early twentieth century. And probably still is. That’s not to say Southern novelists, beginning with Mark Twain, are not capable of creating the lyrical moment, and in the larger sense, the lyrical vision. For example, the best of William Faulkner and James Wright compares to James Joyce. Didn’t Faulkner describe himself as a failed poet? Point is, prior to the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, the accomplished Southern poet was a rarity, to put it mildly. Who qualifies for the nineteenth-century Southern laurel? Poe and Lanier?
I think Mark Twain had it right. White Southerners have been addicted to a particularly banal variety of Romanticism. The condition lingers on, even today, and is lethal and insidious. It informed the justification for slavery, the serfdom of white tenant farmers, and the apartheid South of all too recent memory. And symptoms of that pernicious myth persist, albeit not so noticeably. Think of those god-awful knock-off Southern neoclassical McMansions in their gated dukedoms. What does that represent, signify? An aristocracy? Well, it’s faux aristocracy, which is even worse than genuine aristocracy. The idea of the romantic Appalachian poet is foolish: some Yeatsian character with windblown hair and Celtic mist in his eyes. A romantic stylization of the Appalachian poet as impoverished, road-weary mystic bard can lead to poetry characterized by sentimentality, treacly romanticism, or desperate forays in the avant-garde. Or all three.
Now that I have had my little rant, I will note that Appalachia has produced many fine poets and perhaps a couple of great ones. I see no reason why that should not continue. The significant Appalachian poets will continue to write well and write slant, counter to the false comfort of the prescribed narratives and tropes. And I am grateful a handful of journals, universities, colleges and other institutions promote the work of these Appalachian poets and bring them to a larger audience.
[TCP] Who has influenced your work? Who are your poetic forebears?
[EJ] The usual suspects—the sainted and safely dead. I’m not very discriminating. Just when I think it’s fair to dismiss a canonical poet, say Coleridge, I’ll reread him or her, usually in order to teach a class, and be knocked for a loop. I enjoy ancient lit and oral traditions—the Greeks, Hebrews, Anglo-Saxons, Native American trickster tales, and so on—the medieval poets. Of course the fifteenth and sixteenth-century poets, too. I even take pleasure in Milton, Dryden, and Pope. And A. E. Housman. Who reads Housman anymore? I’m not exactly fashionable, and I may be a bit odd in some of my favorites or preferences. I prefer Auden to Yeats, for example, Lowell to Ginsburg. I don’t care much for the Beats, but I confess that I recently reread some Ginsberg—Howl—and Kerouac—On the Road—and both shivered me timbers.
Short story writers and painters have probably been my most significant models, James Joyce’s Dubliners most of all. And for the Americans, Ernest Hemmingway’s In Our Time, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited and Other Stories—especially the title story—and J.D. Salinger’s, Nine Short Stories. That’s just a sampling. Of course, I read novels too, but regarding your question, short stories and lyric poems are cousins. As for painters, Masaccio, DaVinci, Breughel, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Homer, Hopper. I’ll stop there. The American poets I consistently return to are Dickinson, Stevens, Bishop and most of all, Frost. I’d include Eliot, but I can never decide if he’s American or British. I guess American, but he sure as hell tried hard to be British. So many others, Theodore Roethke, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell. I could go on and on.
Poets from the southern Appalachian region? Maurice Manning, Ellen Voigt, Fred Chappell, Charles Wright, Michael Chitwood, Ron Rash, to name a few. I should also list a few contemporary and near contemporary Southern poets outside the Appalachian region: Andrew Hudgins, Yusef Komunyakaa, T.R. Hummer, Dave Smith, Rodney Jones, Reginald Gibbons, James Dickey, and A.R. Ammons. I’m sure there are several others I’ve missed. In my immediate area, I enjoy Felecia Mitchell, Sam Rasnake, Mark Roberts, Bill Brown, James Owens—though he has moved away—and Adrian Blevins—who also has moved away. Good poets and committed poets, all of them. God, I sound like Tiny Tim.
I have found I can admire poets but fail horribly when I try to appropriate their voices. And believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve stopped fretting myself about it. I’ve retired from the agon, the poetry skirmishes—they don’t really qualify as wars. I don’t have an aesthetic axe to grind, not any more. Nor do I agonize over influence, probably because I am not talented or clever enough to be influenced. But I marvel at and delight in a wide range of contemporary American poets. But instead of being overtly influenced by them, I set them as qualitative standards because they have achieved a level of creative excellence. I struggle to reach that level. I want to live and work up to those standards.
My advisors at Warren Wilson certainly left the deepest mark on me: Dave Smith, Ellen Voigt, Reginald Gibbons, and Alan Williamson, chronologically over my two-year course of study. Three of them, Dave Smith, Ellen Voigt, and Reg Gibbons, are from the South, and Ellen Voigt is from Staunton, Virginia. I was fortunate—lucky—to have had the opportunity to study with them. I certainly benefitted. The experience changed me for the better as a writer and reader. My time at Warren Wilson was the most exciting and productive period in my writing life.
[TCP] Do you have any idiosyncratic habits or requirements during your writing sessions?
[EJ] Not really. I don’t have set times to write. I’m a parent and that’s my primary job. And it’s a time consuming job. I teach a full load. I haven’t time to sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper or screen. So I think about my poems a lot before I begin writing them. They’ll float around, like a partially developed photo print, in my head for a long time—weeks, months, sometimes years. I try to get a mental notion of the setting time, characters, back story, and a line or two, a phonic hook with a bit of the strange about it. Free writing just doesn’t work for me.
Once I get that line or two, then it begins. I’ll write the line or lines down on anything handy—or memorize them—get to my computer fast as I can, type and hit “save.” Sometimes the line never comes, but if I’m tired of waiting for the hook and know what I’m about—what I want to do—I just take the dive and sit at the keyboard with no phonic or syntactical key to sort of serve as propulsion and just have at it. Very rarely a couple of lines will pop into my head or pop out of my lips, no idea what the lines are about or where they’re headed. No matter what kicks the process off, the poems develop as I write them. Even when I have an initial idea of where it, the poem, should end up, invariably, it ends up somewhere else. I’ll think I’m headed for Asia and find myself on a mountain in Central America, staring at an ocean, speechless with a “wild surmise.” I think poetry should always encounter the mysterious. To cobble together snatches from Wallace Stevens and Robert Browning: the supreme fiction (poetry) should always exceed [our] grasp, or what the hell is an imagination for?
Once the actual writing process begins, I’m worthless for anything else, or at least until I’ve gone through three or four drafts. I worry the new poem like a dog gnaws a bone. Typically, I guess, I write at least ten drafts, often a lot more. I never get a poem right. Never. One of my problems is knowing when to jump ship, abandon the poem because it’s not going anywhere even a little bit interesting. I waste a lot of time working on worthless poems. But I think I’m getting better about that.
When I write, I need absolute quiet. No television, no outside conversations, no phone calls. No music. Not because I don’t like music. On the contrary, I love to listen to and play music. But I have to able to focus absolutely. Once the process is well under way, I lose track of time. I become obsessed, at least through the first two or three drafts.
I don’t love to write. Hell, I’ll look for ways to avoid writing. But once it begins, I can’t do much of anything else—except my parental duties—until the poem begins to take on a significant form. Then the process is deeply gratifying, almost a reason for being me, Edison. I work hard on my poems because I want them to take shape in someone’s mind, on someone lips. I want them to speak and be spoken. They are fictions, verbal windows through which, I hope, readers can imagine or see themselves and others. Even if I never achieve that for readers, the effort is important to me.
[TCP] What are you working on now, and do you have any projects planned for the future?
[EJ] Well, I would like to publish a collection, even just a chapbook, before I croak. I’m a little bit ashamed about wanting to publish a collection. Chalk it up to vanity, vanity of vanities. I’ve got about thirty poems, a plump chapbook, and a working title, Casual Disasters, but no takers.
I’ve had a big project in mind for years, a tightly orchestrated thematic collection, but I need time to do research. The central trope involves an area of scientific speculation, and I’m no scientist. So I need to bone-up.