Interview with Featured Poet
[Town Creek Poetry]: Many, and in some sense all, of your poems focus on some aspect of nature. How do you feel about the term “nature poetry” and the label “nature poet”?
[Christopher Martin]: My short answer is that I don’t care much for either. In my experience, the term “nature poetry” and the corresponding label “nature poet” are either used dismissively—almost derisively—or else restrictively, which is probably the more common of the two usages.
Those who dismiss or deride what they call “nature poetry” seem to do so out of a sense of superiority, supposing themselves to possess a more realistic view of the world than, say, the kind of view Mary Oliver might have in a canoe. And that’s a line I’ve actually come across more than once in various forms, by the way. “It’s not Mary Oliver in her canoe,” some hip reviewer will write as a compliment to a given poetry collection’s homage to disjunction and dystopia, though of course such a statement is more of a snide commentary on Oliver’s work (and that of other “nature poets”) than it is a compliment to whatever collection is the subject of the review. Granted, a lot of the criticisms of “nature poetry” are justified. But criticism and insult are two different things.
I think there are many more people, though, who use the term “nature poetry” restrictively, intending no harm but perhaps causing a little, as any unjust restriction is bound to do. There is, of course, some validity in categorization. But to say that a given poem in which natural imagery figures prominently can only be, or that it has to be, categorized as “nature poetry” is misleading.
[TCP]: Is there a specific poem that comes to mind that exemplifies what you’re talking about here—a poem that, despite its use of natural imagery, might not be best labeled as a “nature poem”?
[CM]: One of my favorite poems and the one that comes immediately to mind is Janisse Ray’s “Slave Canal,” from her collection A House of Branches (Wind Publications, 2010). In this poem, the narrator, along with some unnamed company, is out canoeing a limestone-bordered canal dug by slaves to connect the Wacissa and Aucilla Rivers in north Florida. Or maybe she’s kayaking, as the craft, though it obviously ain’t a speedboat, is never specified. But let’s just say she’s in a canoe as a tribute to Mary Oliver. Now, I know there are a lot of people who would call this a “nature poem” simply because it chronicles alligators, “plops of turtles,” a water moccasin, various trees, “bog frogs [sounding] perpetual evening,” and, of course, because it involves a narrator sitting in a non-motorized vessel doing some reflecting and paying attention to the world. But the poem is more rooted in the narrator’s grappling with the legacy of slavery and with her intimation of a living history (“The dead, hundreds strong, row us / forward”) and with her desire to express her thanks to the slaves who dug the canal filled with water that “lilts in sorrow” than it is to romanticize any aspect of the natural world. “This is not a tribute / for the fidelity of their deaths, / for terrible love and impossible labor,” Ray writes in conclusion. “This is our thanks. // Because the earth has accepted that long scar. / Because the water has pardoned its division. / Because we have not forgotten.”
You see, if this were just a “nature poem,” that last line—“we have not forgotten”—would make absolutely no sense. Imagine a self-styled nature poet awkwardly paddling a slave canal—not knowing it was a canal built by slaves, and perhaps not even knowing it was a canal, thinking it a natural waterway—and trying, for example, to wax poetic about those singing bog frogs, leaving the poem at that. Not only would such a poem be bad, it would be deficient, insincere, and ultimately, disrespectful.
Ray’s poem is indeed part of a book that many have called—and that Ray herself has called—a collection of “nature poetry.” And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that term in and of itself. As mentioned, categorization has its uses. The problem arises, however, in the lazy assumption that any poem that contains a natural image or that is set outdoors must therefore be a nature poem and only that, and that the purpose of “nature poetry” is simply to romanticize or elegize natural objects. I think some of the philosophy behind the term “nature poetry” as Janisse Ray and some others use it, and as I now try to use it, is that nature is greater than our understanding of it and that nature encompasses and enriches and is the very substance of our humanity. It is only with such an understanding, I think, that using the term “nature poetry” is possible without being dismissive or restrictive. So, in the proper sense, “Slave Canal” is a nature poem, one of its functions being to get the reader to wrestle with the implications of the fact that the earth, that nature, “has accepted that long scar” of a canal dug by slaves but that we, by and large, still have not. But it’s not a nature poem simply because of the plopping turtles.
[TCP]: What you seem to be hoping for is not necessarily an elimination of the term “nature poetry,” but a deeper understanding of the term and its implications—particularly its human implications—that would preclude its use as a mere label. To that end, you mentioned there being a philosophy behind the term. Can you speak more to that?
[CM]: Wendell Berry has a good essay on American nature poetry called “A Secular Pilgrimage,” from his collection A Continuous Harmony (Shoemaker & Hoard, 1970). In the essay, he sets out to establish the poetic lineage of some of his contemporaries like Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and A.R. Ammons., while simultaneously describing what this contemporary “nature poetry” is all about and where it might lead.
Berry doesn’t seem to have much of a quarrel with the term “nature poetry,” but, then, this essay is one of his earliest, and at the time, the term might not have been applied quite so dismissively or restrictively as it is today. I don’t know. Whatever the case, he does admit at the start that the term has its problems. He writes:
‘Nature poetry’ is a clumsy term, and it presents immediate difficulties, for there is a sense in which most poetry is nature poetry; most poets, even those least interested in nature, have found in the natural world an abundant stock of symbols and metaphors. But I will use the term here to refer only to those poets who seem to me to have turned to the natural world, not as a source of imagery, but as subject and inspiration—as Marvell and Wordsworth and Thoreau (in his prose) turned to it.
He goes on to clarify his intent, and the following passages, I think, are the most useful to answering this question because they bring up some of the things that have contributed to “nature poetry” being used as a label, whether naively or derisively:
The nature poets of our own time characteristically approach their subject with an openness of spirit and imagination, allowing the meaning and the movement of the poem to suggest themselves out of the facts. Their art has an implicit and essential humility, a reluctance to impose on things as they are, a willingness to relate to the world as student and servant, a wish to be included in the natural order rather than to ‘conquer nature,’ a wish to discover the natural form rather than to create new forms that would be exclusively human. To create is to involve oneself as fully, as consciously and imaginatively, as possible in the creation, to be immersed in the world.
The poetry of this century, like the world in this century, has suffered from the schism in the modern consciousness. It has been turned back on itself, fragmented, obscured in its sense of its function. Like all other human pursuits, it has had to suffer, and in some sense enact, the modern crisis: the failure of the past to teach us to deal with the failure of the present or to envision and prepare for a desirable future.
It would make sense, for example, that if a contemporary nature poet is one who is reluctant “to impose on things as they are,” such reluctance is not going to be very fashionable in a world where a willingness—an enthusiasm, even—to impose on things as they are is practically a requirement for success.
To go back to what Berry said about “nature poetry” being a “clumsy term,” and this gets more to the philosophy in question: The word “nature” covers a broad spectrum, to say the least. It is simply a fact to say that everything that exists comes from nature in some respect. That being the case, a nature poem—and now I’m talking about what I consider to be the proper use of the term—cannot imply separation, even if acknowledging the oneness of things seems absurd at first.
Meg Kearney has a good poem about this very topic, appropriately titled “Nature Poetry,” in her collection Home by Now (Four Way Books, 2009). For context, it’s dedicated to her teacher, William Matthews, the “Bill” of the first line. This is roughly the first three-fourths:
Bill hated the separation implied by the term. “What’s this?”
I admire this poem a great deal. Like Ray’s “Slave Canal,” it makes me feel less alone in my frustrations with the implicit separation in the term “nature poetry.” It establishes the fact that the works of humans are rightly seen as part of the natural order. This isn’t to say, of course, that there’s no distinction to be made between good work and bad work, nourishing work and destructive work. But I do think the generally unacknowledged fact that humans are a part of nature is more on the side of the good and nourishing than of the bad and destructive. If we understand ourselves as being part of nature, we won’t be so quick to destroy it—which means, in turn, that we won’t be so quick to destroy each other.
[TCP]: Do you see poetry as part of the natural order?
The only thing I’d add to Kearney’s poem is this, though she certainly implies it: You don’t need to look to a New York skyscraper and ask what it is on an elemental level to see that the separation of humanity and nature is a myth. Just look at your own hand. The human body is the best antidote I know to the current disease of separation that’s infecting poetry and just about everything else. Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” and various sections of “Song of Myself” might, therefore, be some of the best nature poetry we have, though I’ve never seen these poems cited as a nature poems at all. If anyone refers to Whitman’s poetry as nature poetry, it’s usually in respect to his lines about animals and plants—the thirty-first and thirty-second sections of “Song of Myself” are the main ones that come to mind. His lines about the human body need to be in that conversation, too.
All I’ve said does not represent the best or most complete statement that could be given regarding the philosophy behind the term “nature poetry,” of course In a previous Town Creek interview, for example, Jack Butler gave a much better answer than I’ve given here. But what it all comes down to is that humans are a part of nature. And I’m convinced that no good—agriculturally, politically, poetically, or what have you—can come or has come from the hubris of seeing ourselves as separate.
[CM]: This goes back, in part, to what I’ve said about “nature poetry.” Supposing “nature poetry” were a genre (and I obviously don’t think it’s properly viewed as such), then “bird poetry” would be one of its subgenres—probably its biggest, or at least one of its biggest. For that reason, pretty much all I’ve said about “nature poetry” would apply here.
I would only add that if it’s a cliché to put a bird in a poem, then poetry itself is a cliché. Those who are against putting natural things like birds into poems because it has been done many times before fail to realize that they’re not the first to encounter poetry, whether as readers or writers. I see no difference, no separation, between that which informs poetry and that which informs life. If I ever get tired of “bird poetry,” it means I’ve also gotten tired of birds. Just because a poem contains a bird or any other connection to nature is no reason to dismiss or restrict it. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad bird poems out there, but they should be judged on their own terms.
I think today’s bad bird poems are a product of seeing birds romantically, primarily as symbols—as things less real, less important, than human constructs. There’s this age-old tendency to associate the wings and flight of birds with abstract things like hope and freedom, just as there’s a tendency to associate the songs and physical attributes of certain birds with beauty and perfection. Of course, these associations are going to creep into the poems of anyone who writes a lot about birds, but I think focusing exclusively on such associations—praising the bluebird and hummingbird while ignoring (or demonizing) the buzzard and the starling, for example—is not going to lead to very authentic poems. The romantic, symbolic trope might have worked before, but I think its time has for the most part come and gone. But to me that doesn’t mean birds should be off-limits in poetry.
Judsom Mitcham has a wonderful poem that touches on this subject called “Preface to an Omnibus Review,” from his collection This April Day (Anhinga, 2003). I was at a reading of his in Decatur back in September, and before he read this poem, he gave a little of its background. He was talking about how he was a largely self-taught poet, in the sense of not being a formally trained poet, and that when he began taking his poetry seriously, he would read poems the various contemporary reviews and journals were publishing, as well as what editors and other luminaries were saying about poetry, to get a sense of how to go about the whole thing. (I might not be recalling this story exactly right, but that’s the gist.) Anyway, he came across an article or editor’s note or whatever it was in one of those reviews that said something to the effect that there were “too many men writing poems about birds.” Upon reading that, the idea came to Mitcham—being a man who writes poems about birds—to write a tongue-in-cheek poem about things that should not appear in fashionable poetry. The pertinent lines of this poem—a poem full of advice, including “Do not write poems about poetry,” “Please, no more elegies for your father,” “If there’s something you believe in, have the decency / to keep it to yourself,” “no old Baptist hymns in your poetry,” “no catalogs, no dogs”—are these: “Go easy on the birds and the trees.” Now, remember that the poem is tongue-in-cheek; Mitcham said he’s gotten a lot of flak from folks taking it too literally. With that in mind, I think what Mitcham says, particularly since he’s the poet laureate of Georgia—and especially since his poetry resonates with common people and is not confined to an ivory tower—is quite meaningful. You’ve got to be your own poet, and if that means you write poetry about dogs or Baptist hymns or birds in a time that the powers-that-be could care less about such things, then that’s what it means, whether it wins you the approval of the literati or not. And in most cases I don’t guess it will.
[TCP]: Your first chapbook, A Conference of Birds, is dedicated to your wife, Deana, and your two children. It also contains a line of dedication for your grandfather: “…and to Papa Freeman, who taught me to love the birds.” Each of the fifteen poems in the book references birds in some manner, and ten of those fifteen concern the three family members of your dedication. Can you speak a bit on the relationship between these three people and your fascination with birds?
[CM]: Fair warning that this will be a long answer, but here goes: As little as four years ago, there were only a handful of birds that I could identify and whose names I knew, mostly because they were the obvious ones I remembered from childhood—birds like blue jays, crows, mockingbirds, robins, cardinals, bluebirds, blue herons, wild turkeys, hummingbirds. And I knew raptors like hawks and owls, though species were lost on me; I went almost twenty-seven years of my life, for example, thinking every hawk I saw was a red-tailed, every owl I heard a great-horned. A list of common birds that I could not identify prior to three or four years ago would fill a couple pages, but here are a few: chickadees, wrens, titmice, nuthatches, grackles, flickers, sparrows, towhees, catbirds, finches, blackbirds, flycatchers, juncos, kingfishers, kinglets, swallows, waxwings, warblers.
I’ve had an interest in birds and other creatures since I was a child, and I don’t want to downplay that. The fondness I had for communing with the natural world back then certainly plays a part in the fondness I have for it now. But, as such things go, much of that lied dormant throughout high school and my early twenties. Not completely dormant—it was awake enough that some of the people who knew me best took me for something of a nature boy, but it was drowsy nonetheless.
When it comes to birds, a few things changed that led me where I am now. Probably the first is that, by a fortunate alignment of circumstance and geography, I began spending more time with my maternal grandfather—the “Papa Freeman” of my dedication.
I was close to Papa when I was a child because we lived near each other in Lawrenceville, in the suburbs northeast of Atlanta, and so we got to see each other often. He would take me fishing and on walks through the woods, and he was the one who taught me to ride a bike by taking my training wheels off and letting me fall. This closeness would fade, though, and I wouldn’t reconnect with him on anything more than a superficial level until I was about twenty-three.
I inherited my naturalist bent from Papa. I mentioned the fishing, which we did a good bit; he was the one who taught me the names and habits of the different kinds we caught—bream, bass, crappie, catfish. He also once gave my sisters and me a baby squirrel that he’d found abandoned and that we raised. If I was born to have a great love for the outdoors, for the kinds of things Hopkins catalogs in “Pied Beauty,” Papa helped that love along. When it comes to birds, there’s not really one specific moment I remember, but my time spent with Papa, from childhood to now, is practically defined by sitting on the porch and watching the birds at the feeder in his yard. As with the fish, he taught me the physical and behavioral differences between certain species of birds early on. Moreover, he taught me of their sanctity. Fortunately some of that stuck.
My grandparents moved from Gwinnett County when I was about ten or so, out to the country in Social Circle—well east of metro Atlanta, still piedmont but beginning to show the signs of coastal plain—to get away from the suburbs that had only become suburbs in their lifetimes, though I’d known those same suburbs all my life. My sisters and I still got to see them, of course, but it became less and less often.
When I was about thirteen, though, my parents began the process for their divorce. My sisters and I moved, with our mom, to our grandparents’ house in Social Circle for a year or so. That time is the bleakest in my memory, and for now I won’t go into detail about it. Maybe one day. But suffice it to say, as it relates to this conversation, that if I learned to love the outdoors in my early childhood, then I learned to turn to the outdoors for solace—to let the outdoors love me back—in my adolescent years.
After a time living at my grandparents’ house, my mom moved with my sisters and me into a rented house even farther into the country, on the outskirts of a town called Shady Dale in neighboring, though not really nearby, Jasper County (Social Circle is in Newton). But we weren’t there for long before we were moving in with our dad to an apartment half a world away in Kennesaw, Georgia, where he’d gotten a new job and something of a new start. Back to the Atlanta suburbs, though northwest rather than northeast. That move practically ended contact with my grandfather as I’d known it, relegating most of our contact to holidays, though it’s not as though the Papa Freeman of that time was the Papa Freeman I had known as a little boy, anyway.
So there I was in Kennesaw, with a new, unromantic outlook on life, and Papa was in Social Circle, and that’s how it was for years. Like I said, I’d see him on holidays, but that was about it. Flash forward from the time I moved to Kennesaw, when I was about fourteen, to the time I met a young woman named Deana Norris, when I was twenty-one (she was twenty-three then). I was young and stupid and so it took me a couple years and about 500 miles on the Appalachian Trail to even begin to realize she was the biggest blessing that had ever touched my life, but fortunately I realized it before she got rid of me. We’ve now been together for about eight years, married for four, and have two children.
Deana was born and raised in Washington County, Georgia, right on the fall line, very much in the country. When we first started dating, she was living in Augusta. From Kennesaw, to get to either of those two places—Washington County or Augusta—you pretty much have to take I-20, and as it would happen, I-20 passes right by Social Circle, where my grandparents live. So when Deana and I would drive back and forth to see each other, or when we would make the trips together, we would stop and visit my grandparents.
It didn’t take long at all for Papa to welcome Deana as one of his own; by our second visit, if not by the end of our first, Papa was referring to Deana as his “country girl” and telling me that if I didn’t ask her to marry me, he would ask for me. It was also during these visits that I began to realize that Papa had lightened up a great deal. Though a stranger would probably still see him as gruff—and that’s accurate, to an extent—there are now several soft spots in his gruffness. I think the adoption of my little brother from an orphanage in Russia by my mom and stepfather brought about many of those soft spots, because it gave Papa a young grandson again. And I imagine the settling of old age has had something to do with it, too; I don’t know. But I do know the Papa I know now is much tenderer than the Papa I knew in my adolescence, and we have again made a connection to each other—similar, though in some sense deeper, than the connection we had when I was a child. It’s deeper, I think, because the connection I have with him now includes the knowledge of history and scars, knowledge I simply did not have fishing beside him as a little boy.
Deana and I still visit with our two children, usually while passing back and forth between metro Atlanta and Washington County, where Deana’s parents still live. Papa and I talk about pretty much everything on these visits, but one of the subjects we’ve talked about most is birds. When Deana and I first started visiting, before we were married and before our children came along, it’s almost as though Papa and I picked up where we had left of many years before, just sitting on the porch or under a shade tree, watching the birds at the feeder. But in those early visits, it was clear that any ability I once had as a naturalist—and, as a child, I had a lot—had gotten rusty. Those were the days that I couldn’t tell a white-breasted nuthatch from a hairy-chested nutscratcher. It was frustrating not knowing which bird was which, not having the vocabulary—and I might even say the language—to add anything of substance to those conversations.
Wanting to expand my language and knowledge and to be able to talk intelligently with Papa about something he cared so much about (and that I cared about, too), I bought my first field guide. I didn’t even know to get the Peterson’s (which I still don’t have); I just got what happened to be on sale at the bookstore. It served its purpose, though, and before too long I was keeping up with Papa in our conversations. There are times we’ll be sitting on the porch now and he’ll ask me a question about a bird, something he doesn’t know, and usually I’m able to answer it. I can tell it pleases him, and it pleases me as well. I’m no professional birder, not by any stretch, and I probably wouldn’t call myself a birder at all. I’ve got to get better at identifying bird songs, and I’ve got to get better at identifying particular species—I have trouble with the various warbler species, for example. But I can hold my own with Papa on the porch, and if that’s the best I’m ever able to do, that’s good enough.
Fatherhood is another thing that brought out my fascination with birds. When I realized I was going to be a father, something happened in me that made me more attentive, more reverent, more settled. I began to believe in the possibilities of joy. I began to believe that I belonged in my own skin. And I began to believe that I belonged in my place and in the world. In the years leading up to the birth of my first child, I had been harried and depressed, and, without Deana, I don’t know what might have happened. She’s saved me, too. That said, I don’t quite want to ascribe my salvation to her and our children, because that is not their burden to bear. But the effect has been something close to salvation, and to try to distinguish it from salvation might indeed be splitting hairs. All is not easy, of course, not close to it, but Deana and my children have cleared my vision, given me a ground. As for the birds, it seemed only natural, given all I’ve said, to hang a bird feeder by the window close to the due date of our first child. It was just a small gesture—a practice, really—of belonging, the kind of belonging I hoped to enact with my son. Before too long, with the help of the field guide I’d bought to keep up with my grandfather, I was familiar with every bird that came to our yard.
[TCP]: How did this fascination with birds—a fascination that seems to have extended well beyond your first chapbook—come to inform your poetry?
[CM]: Roughly at the overlap of reuniting with my grandfather and realizing I was going to be a father, my poetry became an expression of abiding gratitude: for Deana, for our children, for birds, for rivers, for trees, for the world, for the people in it, for the essence—call it God or what you will—behind it all. As an expression of gratitude, my poetry became more and more concrete (from the Latin for “to grow together,” to go back to Meg Kearney), which I think made it better. If I’ve disproportionately expressed my gratitude for birds, I suppose it’s because I still have a feeder by the window, which is beside the supper table, which also serves as my writing desk.
Poetry, for me, is an instinct—a deeply human and therefore a deeply natural act, as I’ve said. In its humanness and in its nature, I believe that poetry is at its best when it approaches art by way of reality, and that’s the kind of poetry to which I strive. Insomuch as I’ve written about birds, I’ve written about reality. Again, if I’ve written about birds disproportionately, it’s only because I see them often while writing. (Though if that’s my logic, then I suppose I need to write more poems about dirty laundry piles or the toys and books my kids have strewn all over the floor.)
[CM]: Becoming a father certainly created my writing life as I now know it. My first child—my son, Cannon—was born on Christmas morning in 2009, when I was twenty-seven, and though I was writing before he came along, his arrival corresponded with a marked improvement in my writing and a realization that writing was in some sense my vocation, along with an increased passion for and interest in the writing craft—all things that are probably correspondent themselves.
Before Cannon, I think it’s safe to say that my writing showed promise but that it wasn’t very good in its own right; it was only good insomuch as it showed that I might one day be capable of something good if I kept at it. This, of course, is true of the early work of most writers, and I’m grateful for the teachers I had in that time period who kept me going. (Sara Worley, Darren Crovitz, Faith Wallace, and Paul Bodamer, if you’re reading this, thank you.)
Probably the greatest flaw of the writing from that early stage—and there were many—is that it was too airy, too abstract. It was essentially me trying to imitate Thoreau in my prose and Dickinson in my poetry with the experience and talent of neither, and, while I was able to hit a few good chords here and there following that formula, it ultimately didn’t work, as it couldn’t have worked.
When I became a father, though, things got very concrete. You can’t sit beside a woman through her labor and come out of the experience clinging to abstraction. The same is true of the many months leading up to that labor. It’s not anything that any man I know can do, I’ll tell you that.
After Cannon was born, my wife, Deana, and I realized, as we’d slowly begun to realize in the previous months, that our lives were not our own—that they belonged to this tiny human being who depended on us for nothing less than survival, who needed us to feed him, change him, shelter him, and comfort him, often in the middle of the night. Here again, there is something about walking around sleep deprived and smelling like old breast milk from the spit-up soaked into your shirt that will ground your thoughts.
There were the joys, too—the very concrete joys like my son taking hold of my thumb for the first time, or when he finally started breastfeeding and bonding with Deana in that very special way. “I see the sleeping babe,” wrote Whitman, “nestling the breast of its mother, / The sleeping mother and babe—hush’d, I study them long and long.” And I did, too.
What Cannon woke in me was this predilection for the concrete at its fleshiest and milkiest, bloodiest and dirtiest, sleepiest and weariest, warmest and loveliest. He woke me to the beauty of “all things counter, original, spare, strange,” as Hopkins put it. And so, as my life became earthier, more elemental, my writing did the same.
There’s something else, too, and this goes back to what I said about my life not being my own now that I’m a father: I’ve always had an inclination toward worry and sadness, but when I found out that I was going to be a father, I had a complete awakening, a shift in vision, that made me realize I could no longer wallow in that dejection when it came, and it came often (and still does). While there was nothing I could do to make it disappear—and making it disappear outright probably wouldn’t prudent even if there was a way—I realized that wholeness and deep joy were things for which I would have to creatively struggle because I knew, with my son on the way, that I could no longer capitulate to despair, for my son’s sake as well as my own. I’d probably even say that, rather than making my worry and sadness disappear, fatherhood has made these things more acute because of a deep love that extends to someone in my guardianship, a bond like I’ve never known. As a father, I now have no choice but to wrestle angels, and writing is one form that wrestling takes.
Anyway, I took a number of steps to begin creatively struggling with worry and sadness, and one of them, as it relates to this question, was to begin taking my writing seriously, to look on it as a vocation rather than as some sort of hobby or a talent to leave undeveloped (or to bury in the ground, to coin a phrase). If I wanted my children to “advance confidently in the direction of their dreams,” I reasoned, then I had to learn how myself. So I began reading more widely, and I began writing with the aim of publication. And, with Deana’s support—incredible, sacrificial support—I resigned from the job I had in 2009 to be a stay-at-home dad and to enroll in a graduate writing program. I was accepted to both programs to which I applied, and I began the program at Kennesaw State in fall of 2010. I’ll be graduating in the spring. I’ve benefited from the program at great deal, learning much from wonderful professors and classmates, and I hope I’ve contributed some, as well. Had I not become a father, and had Deana not given me the gift of being able to take care of our children during the day and to write and take classes in the evenings, this is a path I likely wouldn’t be on. I owe all of it to Deana and to our children.
Now, you’ve probably noticed that I keep saying “children” but as yet have talked about only one child, Cannon, who will be three this December. He was the first and as such was the catalyst for all this; any talk about the renewal of my writing, as it relates to fatherhood, necessarily begins with him. But I’m also the proud daddy of a little girl: My daughter, Opal, was born last September. She just turned one, and, while she obviously didn’t have much to do with the beginning of my writing vocation simply because she wasn’t here when it began, she has nonetheless strengthened my understanding of life as a gift. Insomuch as my writing is an expression of gratitude for that gift, she has confirmed and increased my devotion to this vocation.
Fatherhood gave me a sense of vocation, I guess you could say, a sense that my life matters and that what I do with it has implications beyond myself. (I just realized I could have answered your question with that one sentence!)
[TCP]: How has fatherhood affected your writing time?
[CM]: That’s a good question. It seems that discourse about writing disproportionately favors aesthetics and philosophy, and to some extent the answers I’ve given thus far are evidence of that. What’s often missing in conversations about writing is the act of writing itself—writing as verb rather than noun.
To that end, I suppose I’ve said a lot that, without context, makes my situation easy to romanticize: I’m a stay-at-home dad who writes. One common assumption—which people have actually verbalized in various forms, directly or indirectly—is that I am able to write because I am a stay-at-home dad, the insinuation being that I’ve got an easy job (or no job), and thus have the time to write. This, of course, never comes from other stay-at-home parents—dads or moms—and I’d add that it hardly comes from involved parents, because parenting, genuine parenting, whether one gets to do it all day or whether one does it after coming home from a hard day’s work, is a demanding job. And it’s not as though parenting all of a sudden stops when one is away at work. Parenting keeps no regular hours.
That little rant aside, the truth is that my current situation—staying at home to take care of my almost three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter—allows for practically zero writing time between the hours of 7 AM, when my children start to stir (though sometimes they’ll go until 8:30), and 4:30 PM, when Deana gets home, not counting the work of scribbling thoughts here and there or formulating a piece of writing in my mind. (The exception is the two mornings a week that my son goes to preschool from 9 until 1, though if I do any writing then, it is usually with my daughter at my feet, and therefore not very focused.) It wasn’t always this way. Until my son turned one or so, he would take pretty consistent naps in the mornings and afternoons—two good naps a day—which gave me plenty of time to not only write but to keep the house in order. But that’s changed, of course, now that he’s almost three, with our one-year-old daughter shadowing his every move.
My “writing time” now is generally from 8 PM (when my son goes to bed) to midnight (when I go to bed). If I want to write or do anything writing-related (submit work, revise and edit manuscripts, read submissions for my online journal, etc.) before my children go to bed, then I pretty much have to leave the house because our house is quite small and my desk (the supper table) and office (the living room) are, obviously, public spaces. Usually I leave the house one night a week.
When working on major projects, sometimes I’ll leave as many as three nights a week, and those weeks can be difficult, especially on Deana. As suggested, just because our situation enables me to be the parent who stays home with our kids, it’s not as though she’s any less of a parent or does any less parenting work. There’s this myth about family dynamics in our culture that says one parent is supposed to be more of a parent than the other, and that myth really needs to be revealed for what it is. The burden of that myth has historically fallen on mothers (and it still does), and it won’t be rectified by indiscriminately falling on fathers as well. Both parents ought to do the work of parenting, because the work involved, while rewarding and extremely important, is incredibly difficult. (I’m speaking of two-parent households here, of course, but do not mean for my language to be exclusive; single parents have my utmost respect, a respect that isn’t usual enough in public discourse.)
Let me just say what I mean plainly by my little sermon above, which I didn’t intend to give: If Deana treated me like some sort of “househusband” or “Mr. Mom”—if, in other words, she treated me like so many working husbands have treated their “housewives” (a dynamic that seems to be on its last leg but is still unfortunately all too common)—there’s no way in hell I’d be able to do what I’m doing right now. The graduate writing degree I’m about to get, my chapbook, my various publications, and any other successes I’ve had or will have are all attributable to Deana—to her support and respect for my vocation, to her belief in me, and to all the work she does as a parent in addition to, not in spite of, the work she does as a teacher from 7 to 3 each day.
I hope what this answer expresses is a complete picture rather than a complaint, because parenting and writing are two things that are doggedly romanticized—all the more so when they’re put together. I obviously enjoy what I do very much and I find great purpose in it. One of the things that humbles me the most about literature, and confirms to me its necessity in times of doubt, is that much of the best of it has been written in some of the most unfavorable and desperate situations imaginable, compared to which my struggles in finding “writing time” with two young children are absolutely nothing and should not even be discussed in the same breath. All this to say, one of the lessons I have learned from fatherhood—from deeply involved fatherhood, and that I am extremely fortunate to have learned through fatherhood—is that if I wait for ideal writing times to come, if I wait for inspiration to strike before I ever put pen to paper or sit at the computer, then I won’t write much worth reading. So that’s another way fatherhood has affected my writing life—it’s taught me to write deliberately and laboriously, though, for all the reasons I’ve already given, no less carefully and gladly and passionately. Different writers learn this in different ways. I happened to learn it from my children, and for that I’m extremely grateful.
[TCP]: Your children appear quite often in your poetry. Indeed, take away your poems that feature your children and birds in some way, and you wouldn’t be left with many poems at all. We’ve talked about inspiration and we’ve talked about time, so how has fatherhood affected the content of your writing?
[CM]: My children have given me a great deal to write about, that’s for sure. Practically all my essays, with the exception of shorter ones I write on matters of social justice, are narratives centered upon moments with my children. In fact, one of my current projects is an essay collection, the working title of which is Native Moments: An Ecology of Fatherhood. But even the essays I write on social justice (see my blog at New Southerner, “Kairos and Crisis,” for some examples of those) have everything to do with my children, because it is my stubborn yet serious hope that they will grow up in a world—a country, a state, a community—that is a little kinder, a little more peaceful, a little more forgiving, a little more loving. And if I don’t at least try to contribute to that kind of world, then I’m not doing my job as a parent—or as an artist, either.
Pretty much the same is true of my poems: Most of them at least include my children even if they’re not about my children outright. Granted, I’m probably more of a poet than an essayist, at least in terms of volume (which is funny because I entered the program at Kennesaw State intending to focus exclusively on essays), so I have many more poems that are not about and that do not feature my children than I do essays that are not about and do not feature them. Even so, my children are my poetic wellspring, and all I write can be traced, in some way, back to them. Take the poems “Revelation on the Cherokee County Line” and “A Church Sign on Summers Street,” published here in Town Creek for the first time: Neither poem so much as mentions my children, but both, in their worries over authentic place (the former) and religious heritage (the latter), contain the worries I have for my children. Will they ever know a place, a home, that is not just as good or bad as anywhere? Will they ever know a religious heritage that is not largely one of hypocrisy and confusion? I do not know. I hope they will, and I am trying to make it so. But ultimately I do not know and cannot know. Thus my worry.
But, yes, most of my poems are narratives that spring from moments with my children. Some recent ones—also published here in Town Creek for the first time—are “The Wish to Sing with Primitive Baptists,” “Strolling the Dead Angle,” and “Resurrection in a Battlefield below Kennesaw Mountain.” Though the titles alone indicate that these poems are not only about my children, I wouldn’t have been able to write them were it not for my children.
I need to take a step back, though: I mentioned that fatherhood has given me a lot to write about, and, while true, such a statement needs qualification. To that end, allow me to turn again to Wendell Berry. This is from his essay “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” from Recollected Essays (Shoemaker and Hoard, 1980), in which he’s thinking back on the origins of his family farm in Kentucky:
There was a time, after I had left home and before I came back, when this place was my ‘subject matter.’ […] I was regarding it, in a way too easy for a writer, as a mirror in which I saw myself. There was obviously a sort of narcissism in that—and an inevitable superficiality, for only the surface can reflect.
In coming home and settling in this place, I began to live in my subject, and to learn that living in one’s subject is not at all the same as ‘having’ a subject. To live in the place that is one’s subject is to pass through the surface. The simplifications of distance and mere observation are thus destroyed. The obsessively regarded reflection is broken and dissolved. One sees that the mirror was a blinder; one can now begin to see where one is. One’s relation to one’s subject ceases to be merely emotional or esthetical, or even merely critical, and becomes problematical, practical, and responsible as well.
While Berry is talking about a place (that depends on human beings) and I am talking about human beings (that depend on a place), our thoughts on “subject matter” are the same, and Berry is my teacher in that regard.
My children, then, are not my “subject matter.” They do not exist for me. They do not exist to wake me up, to clear my vision, to make me joyful, to make me whole. Much less do they exist to “inspire” my writing. That they have done and continue to do these things is only attributable to grace, but it is not their final purpose. I accept it as gospel when Whitman asked “What good amid these, O me, O life?” and answered “That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” It fills me with awe and pride to know that Cannon and Opal are a part of this cosmic dance and that they have something of their own to give it, their own verses to contribute, and that they are not simply characters in their daddy’s verses.
They have enriched my life and my writing; there is no doubt about that. I count it as a blessing that they have been caught up with me and their mother in a kind of interplay, that they depend upon Deana and me and we upon them, and that all our verses, I hope, are adding to the chorus of the same song. But my poems are not their end. They are poems unto themselves and have their own poetry to give, whatever form it ultimately takes.
[CM]: I think the glaring omission in most talk about “sense of place” is an equal, though not necessarily opposite, sense—what might be called “sense of displacement.” For me, and for a lot of people, place and displacement come hand in hand. Displacement, of course, can be difficult and even painful to acknowledge. But failing to acknowledge it only leads to the objectification, and sometimes the exploitation, of the former sense, the sense of place. Go to pretty much any place that advertises “Southern charm,” for example, and most likely what you’ll experience there is the exploitation of the sense of place. The most charming Southern places I know are the ones that simply are, the ones that people allow to be part of a scarred history and topography without feeling the need to atone for those scars by promoting myths.
I am a displaced person with an abiding interest in and devotion to place. This includes places where I do not live but to which I feel deeply connected—places like the cow fields and marginal forests off the Fall Line Highway that surround the home where my wife was born and raised, or the marshes and dunes of Jekyll Island, or the rhododendron-veiled boulders atop Blood Mountain (all Georgia places). And it includes the place where I do live—Acworth, Georgia, in northwest Cobb County, situated roughly between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain in the Etowah River watershed, at a spot in the piedmont where the hills begin to show promise of the mountains that lie farther north. In a more general sense, it includes the northern suburbs of Atlanta. With the exception of a year or two, I’ve lived in these suburbs all my life, suburbs that encompass Acworth, Kennesaw, and Smyrna in Cobb County and Lawrenceville and Lilburn in Gwinnett County, all suburban towns that have held a line in my mailing address at one time or another.
There’s this prevailing sense in suburbia that it could be anywhere and that anywhere is in fact what it’s supposed to be, that it has no character of its own and must melt into the mass. For evidence of this, look no further than the scene that unfolds off the exit ramp you’d take from I-75 to get to my town: It’s practically the scene you’d see off any I-75 exit ramp from suburban Atlanta to Ohio. Granted, this might be more a function of the interstate system than of any suburban place, though it’s impossible to talk about the latter without talking about the former. If the conflation of anywhere and everywhere and here is a function of suburbanization, then suburbanization is a function of the interstate.
Because anywhere is an abstract goal that not everyone can reach even if they knew what it was, the suburbs make anywhere readily available to the point of anywhere becoming the norm. Thus the conflation of anywhere and here. Thus when words like “neighbor” and “community” are used in the suburbs, it’s generally as metaphors. Thus we have the same chain restaurants and big box stores at multiple locations within a five-mile radius, and often less. Thus we have vast highways built to take us back and forth to Atlanta because not nearly everyone can expect to work in this town, let alone at home. Thus we have mini-mansion neighborhoods situated right on the boundaries of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park that, at least superficially, do nothing but glorify a war that mostly poor men fought on ground that the affluent now romanticize and claim as their own.
Here’s a lighter way of putting it: My son loves lawnmowers—the riding kind, especially (he’s only moderately interested in my feeble push mower). He gets this love, I think, from the tractor rides he takes with his grandfather whenever we go to Washington County. Since lawnmowers are about the closest thing to tractors around here, he enjoys going to the Home Depot to sit on the lawnmowers they have on display, rows and rows of them. (Since he has ridden a tractor to feed cows many times, if you were to ask him if he likes riding the lawnmowers at Home Depot, he would be quick to tell you that he doesn’t ride the lawnmowers—he just sits on them.) He’s also done the same thing at Lowe’s. Now, the last time we were at Home Depot was about the time they’d put out their Halloween merchandise, and one of the things they had out was this life-sized, semi-robotic plastic witch, wart on her nose and cackling on a loop and everything. Cannon tends to be afraid of things like this. He’s deathly afraid of a battery-powered dancing rabbit my dad got him for Easter, for example. And since this witch, unlike the rabbit, was intended to frighten (and looked frightening even to me), he was all the more afraid of the witch. So earlier this week, he told Deana and me that he wanted to “go to Home Depot and see the lawnmowers,” which is a fairly common request. But then he revised his statement: “Wanna go see the lawnmowers at Lowe’s instead,” he said. “I don’t like that witch at Home Depot.” So, you see, even a two-year-old understands this concept of anywhere. Six one way, half dozen the other. All the same, only one less a witch.
I could go on a long time about my frustrations with suburbia. I haven’t even touched upon the fact that these suburbs, in a historical context, are not only a product of the interstate (and thus of militarization), but also of “white flight” and racial ignorance. The veiled racism (and sometimes the not-so-veiled racism) of this place is simply astounding and disheartening. And this requires me to say some things that I’m not quite prepared to say and that I don’t yet know how to say. But many things I’ve seen and heard around here bother me deeply in that regard. There’s also this cavalier attitude people around here have toward the poor, and there’s a pervasive country-club piety spilling from some of the many churches that compete for this place’s heart. But I’ll forgo the details for now, in some sense out of fear—which is pretty sorry but nonetheless true.
Keep in mind, though, that suburban Atlanta is my home, that it’s what I’ve known all my life, so I do not speak as a stranger or as one that has no stake in the wholeness this place could have and that does come through in glints at times, more often than outsiders are usually willing to credit.
As it relates to my poetry, all this negative energy has agitated me and spun and spiraled inside me, and so an outpouring of poetry was the natural—the wild, the willed, the uncontrollable—result. The metaphor, which is now a cliché and also falsely assumes that my poems are treasurable, is that of the oyster spitting pearls from disconcerting sand stuck in its shell. Poetry is my reaction to the agitation this place has given me over the years.
[TCP]: To that end, your poetry set in or informed by suburban places seems equally founded on grace and joy as it does on pathos and agitation. Your poems “The Wish to Sing with Primitive Baptists” and “There is Grace Dwelling at the Edges of Our Imposition,” among others published here in Town Creek, seem almost the antitheses to poems like “Revelation on the Cherokee County Line.” Can you speak to this apparent conflict in your work?
[CM]: Criticism of suburbia has become almost a convention, and so my desire to write about the little graces entrenched within suburban life has a lot to do with not wanting my writing to be conventional, I suppose. I don’t want to just look at one side of things, which would be stifling for any artist—let alone for anyone who’s actually trying to belong to a place, as an artist or otherwise. And, though I don’t know where my family will be in ten years, that we might now belong to this place is my sincere wish. All is not negative here. This place is my home, and so I love it. (“I don’t hate it…I don’t hate it…”) At any rate, I don’t have an entirely pessimistic attitude toward it or a fatalistic communion with its negativity. I’m a father of two young children so I couldn’t afford to if I wanted to. I am committed to this place, and I have gleaned much worth from it that I hope to return.
It was only when I realized and fully accepted that I am a suburban person that my writing—my poetry, especially—took on much complexity. You can’t be what you’re not. There’s some legitimacy to suburban shame—many of us don’t know how to fend for ourselves, how to know a place, how to distinguish ourselves from the mass, and so on—but creativity and shame are mutually exclusive, I’m afraid. We need more people claiming that suburban label and doing something to make it whole and meaningful, to not simply equate it with nihilism or fatalism or with insult.
God knows the suburban standard needs to be critiqued. Metro Atlanta needs to be critiqued. But the critique needs to come from love, from affection and devotion, and it needs to come more often from people who live here or who have deep connections here. That’s not to say that people who do not live here do not have rights to their opinions, that they cannot have intelligently formed, negative estimations of this place. It’s only to say that lasting change comes from within. I happen to believe that the first change around here needs to be one of the heart and of perception. People who live here need to know the beauty and the possibility of this place, something that can never happen if it’s true that a “sprawling monster” is all this place is, which is what some have called it and seem to think of it.
You mentioned my poem “The Wish to Sing with Primitive Baptists.” That’s one of the most internally conflicted poems I’ve ever written, and it’s also one of the most quintessentially suburban. On the one hand, you’ve got this very small church, just existing on the margins of suburbia, that’s home to a denomination with which I have very little common ground when it comes to theology—some, to be sure, but very, very little, to the point that I would not feel comfortable going there. Theological considerations aside, however, there are a lot of people around here who would look down their noses at a church like that. How many churches are there now in the suburbs that have “singings”? How many are there that proclaim, as this one does on its sign, to be “foot-washing” (a detail that didn’t make my poem)? It’s that kind of rarity, that authenticity, that draws me imaginatively and empathetically to a church like that. I for one am glad it’s there. In suburbia, though, it’s the last of its kind, almost to the point of being a relic, for this is the land of the mega-church and “contemporary worship.” But the brief thought I had of taking my son to that singing, despite the fact I would have no expectation of theological agreement, gave me a great deal of comfort.
[TCP]: Do you think that place-based poetry will ever come to be readily associated with the suburbs?
[CM]: It seems to me that one big thing missing from suburban Atlanta, aside from a sensible transit system not dominated by highways clogged with singly occupied cars, is a literary and artistic flourishing. When one talks about “sense of place,” it usually doesn’t have much to do with the suburbs, and I think that goes back to what I said about displacement early on. But I think there can be, that there is, a sense of place here, though it might be less obvious than elsewhere. You’ve got to work to find it. But it’s here, and it’s one thing to which I’m trying to tune my poetry and to which many other poets are, as well.
There’s not really a suburban literary “scene,” though, much less a tradition; there’s certainly not one connected to suburban Atlanta. There are of course some exciting things happening in Atlanta proper. And what’s going on in Decatur comes close to a suburban poetic flourishing, but Decatur is more city than suburb, more Atlanta than Kennesaw. And there are at least a couple places around here, for which I’m extremely grateful, where one can go to read and hear poetry, place-based poetry or otherwise. But that’s a different thing than an emergence of suburban place-based poetry. It’s encouraging, all the same, to know that things are coalescing nearby, and that, historically, other suburban writers have shown the sense of place that often lies hidden in the suburbs. Paterson by William Carlos Williams is the masterpiece that comes to mind. And, for what it’s worth, I think the Concord Transcendentalists were suburban writers, though nineteenth-century suburban Boston and twenty-first-century suburban Atlanta are different animals, to say the least, though the connection is there.
Whether there will ever be a literary movement that arises from this place and works to salvage it from the void of the mass, I don’t know. But I do think there is room for one. For my part, I’ll keep lifting that old board that Randall Jarrell talked about as a simile for the South—plain and smooth enough on top, but wet and alive underneath—and see what’s there. It might actually turn out that Jarrell’s comparison is more applicable to the suburban South than other Southern areas, simply because the surface of suburbia is meant to be perceived as plain and smooth, is meant to conceal all that creeps and crawls beneath.
There are stories here, though, stories that exist apart from anyone’s willingness to learn them or tell them. I’m still learning what they are. My poetry in that regard represents my apprenticeship to this place. And poetry is only one way of knowing. It’s ultimately that reciprocal knowledge, that kinship, that I’m after with any suburban poem I write. Take Kennesaw Mountain, right in the middle of the suburbs, just a few miles south of where I live: If I could ever truly know one battlefield in that place, or one place there that held a special meaning to the Cherokee, one path there that a runaway slave walked, or the name and story of the unknown Union soldier buried at the foot of Confederate earthworks there, then that would be something.
[CM]: Gahneesah is a word that I only recently learned. It’s the Anglicized form of the Cherokee name for Kennesaw Mountain that means “burial ground” or “cemetery”; I’ve also encountered the translation as “place of the dead,” which would broaden the word’s meaning and implications somewhat. In turn, the town of Kennesaw, which was named Big Shanty until after the Civil War, is named after the mountain.
Though I’ve lived within a ten-mile radius of Kennesaw Mountain for over half my life, it was only in 2010 that I learned the origins of its name. (I want to say I came across it years ago, but if I did, I don’t remember the specifics, and I certainly wouldn’t have ascribed any spiritual significance to the name back then.) In my first semester in the graduate writing program at Kennesaw State, I took an introductory class with Dr. Laura Dabundo, in which we read Elyssa East’s Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. East, though writing about a Massachusetts landscape, is originally from Cobb County, and toward the end of the book, she writes about her time in Cobb and her connection to Kennesaw Mountain, comparing and contrasting its topography to the physical and spiritual topography of Dogtown. It’s at this point that East reveals Kennesaw’s etymology.
The origin of the name really interested me, but at the time I didn’t attribute much personal significance to it, and I wouldn’t until a couple semesters later in summer 2011, when I met Dr. David King in a class he was teaching on Thomas Merton. At one point during the Merton course, when I was just getting to know Dr. King, our class was talking about the role of place in Merton’s work, which led to a conversation on the suburban homogenization and its attendant apathy that characterizes, at least in part, our place within the greater Kennesaw area. At a lull in the conversation, Dr. King leaned forward in his chair, and in a serious, slow tone, he asked, “Do any of you know what Kennesaw means?” Some intangible connection struck me then. Up to that point I had known what Kennesaw meant in my head but, until Dr. King asked that question, the meaning of this word that I struggled with and hesitantly associated with home had not yet revealed itself in my heart. “Gahneesah,” I muttered. “It’s Cherokee, right? Place of the Dead.” Dr. King looked at me a little quizzically, surprised but reserved in his surprise, just as I had been reserved in my surprise at his question. “Yes,” he said. “Place of the Dead. Place of the Dead, or Burial Ground.” He told me that I was the only student in all his years of teaching at Kennesaw State who knew what the word Kennesaw meant. It was at that moment, I think—our mutual appreciation of Merton aside—that we realized we were on similar paths with similar spirits. I think we recognized in each other—or at least I recognized in him—some familiarity, a kindred temperament that leads us to both wrestle with and try to belong to this marginalized, dead place of Kennesaw, Georgia, this area surrounding and including a mountain the Cherokee knew as “Burial Ground.”
[TCP]: Can you describe how this Gahneesah landscape, and particularly the history of this landscape and its lore, works for your poetry?
[CM]: In “A Secular Pilgrimage,” the essay I mentioned earlier regarding “nature poetry,” Wendell Berry references ancient Oriental poetry’s “sense that the poem does not create the poetry but is the revelation of a poetry.” I like that idea. I hope my poems that are preoccupied with Kennesaw and Gahneesah reveal the poetry that’s already here. Thoreau called this “the poem of creation,” and in a sense that’s what I’m talking about.
Kennesaw Mountain, at about 2,000 feet, is the tallest of several monandocks (from the Algonquin for “lonely mountains”) in this area that were left behind after the erosion of a massive mountain chain formed hundreds of millions of years ago during the Alleghanian Orogeny. It’s essentially a solitary ridge consisting of three summits: Big Kennesaw, Little Kennesaw, and Pigeon Hill. Today, because of its historical significance as a scene of a major battle of the Atlanta Campaign of the Civil War, the mountain has been preserved within the 2,900-acre Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, which stretches from the town of Kennesaw in the north at the busy intersection of Old Highway 41 and Stilesboro Road southward to the even busier Powder Springs Road in Marietta, situated in the middle of Cobb County about fifteen miles north of Atlanta.
But one does not have to look far at all to see what happens to places around here not officially proclaimed to have historical significance. Many of these places—including some of the smaller monandocks around Kennesaw Mountain, and all of them once Cherokee land—have been or are being razed and covered with concrete to make way for any number of modern advancements: state highways and interstates, strip malls and munitions factories, mini-mansion subdivisions and airstrips, chemical plants and quarries, fast food chains and big box stores, and on and on. I do not necessarily mean to inject a moral tone into such truths—or at least not a condescending one, given that I am a participant, if only a small and passive one, in this place’s destruction. I drive these roads often and eat fast food and shop at big box stores from time to time and always depend on the power and utility companies among other things, which is to say that I am as thoroughly entrenched in suburban life and its attendant myths of progress as just about anyone else around here. And sometimes I feel the fact that I’m aware of my entrenchment makes it worse. It is a kind of burden: not one that is relieved by poetry, but one that necessitates it.
For these reasons and more, when it comes to my understanding of this place—and therefore to my poetry—I have somewhat stretched the boundaries of what the Cherokee knew as Gahneesah to include most of suburban Cobb County northwest of Smyrna at the Chattahoochee River (which was roughly Sherman’s next objective after Kennesaw Mountain), and the southern portions of Cherokee and Bartow Counties just north of here, both of which contain places significant to the Civil War in general and the Atlanta Campaign that preceded the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain specifically. I believe that the Cherokee name for Kennesaw Mountain is still significant—beyond significant—to the mountain itself and to the areas surrounding it, as this suburban landscape is its own kind of Place of the Dead.
As I said in general about the suburbs, all is not negative here, but there is much to be reckoned with. One of the many valuable things I’ve picked up from David King in our discussions about Kennesaw is that a dead place bears not only elements of finality, sadness, and decay, but also of nourishment, rebirth, and resurrection. And so through my poetry I also try to honor this place’s heritage and its possibility.
It wasn’t long after the Merton course that the idea came to me to begin writing a series of poems about Kennesaw Mountain and its environs. Because Dr. King was so influential in the germination of this idea, and because I knew he had written some wonderful poems about the area already, I approached him about co-authoring a Gahneesah chapbook with me, which he enthusiastically agreed to do. I actually took an independent study with him for that purpose this past spring, so that’s where all this started. We’re about ready to start seeking publication for our chapbook (if any publishers are listening), which is exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. And I’ve written enough Kennesaw/Gahneesah poems by now to center a full-length collection around them, the working title of which is Starting from Kennesaw. I’m still writing “Gahneesah poems,” in fact, and am beginning to realize that this is certainly not a semester’s work, and might not even be a year’s work, but could very well become a life’s work.
My friend and mentor Thomas Rain Crowe, who published my Birds chapbook, suggested the Starting from Kennesaw title after he’d reviewed the first draft of this collection, which is still in the works, to place it in the lineage of Whitman’s “Starting from Paumanok” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Starting from San Francisco, which also owes a debt to Whitman. I’d used a few lines from “Paumanok” as an epigraph for a section of the manuscript, and when Thomas saw that and suggested the title, it seemed quite natural, if not downright obvious. I mention this to get to those lines from “Starting from Paumanok”: “Prophetic spirit of materials shifting and flickering around me, / Living beings, identities now doubtless near us in the air that we know not of, / Contact daily and hourly that will not release me…” These lines are on my mind often, and they take on richer meanings the closer I am to Kennesaw Mountain. It is a contact that will not release me, and so my response is to try as best as I can to express it in my poetry.
I should say at this point that I am no historian, certainly no expert on Cherokee culture, much less on Cherokee language. Any knowledge I have about Kennesaw Mountain and its name might best be called an intimation. There are, to be sure, many reliable sources that confirm that Kennesaw comes from Gahneesah which means “burial ground.” I already mentioned Elyssa East’s book, and the website for Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, run by the National Park Service, is another. That said, in all my searching I have never been able to find out why the Cherokee called the mountain “burial ground.” That’s really the next thing I’d like to learn. But what this space of unknowing has allowed is room for imagination. Because my knowledge of this place is not entirely empirical (if it’s empirical at all), because this place is not my object, I have been able to approach it with reverence, in the spirit of communion. And because of this, I have been able to see myself as part of Gahneesah’s story—which, from a purely analytical view, would seem absurd. But in the spiritual view—and I mean no separation from the physical in using that phrase—knowing that I live in Burial Ground has meant everything. Where better, as Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer puts it, to “practice resurrection”?
[TCP]: You’ve talked about Wendell Berry a good bit in this interview, mostly in reference to his prose, and you just cited a line from his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” What has Berry’s work, particularly his poetry, meant to you?
[CM]: Berry is probably my favorite all-around writer—in terms of the interconnectedness of his poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—and I find myself referencing him the most in my own writing, with the possible exception of Thomas Merton, though this interview has obviously favored Berry.
Berry’s Mad Farmer poems—particularly “Manifesto”—woke me up to the possibilities of contemporary poetry. Berry might in fact be the first contemporary poet I widely read. Now, it feels strange referring to him as a “contemporary” poet, because it’s plain that his body of work will prove to be timeless, so by “contemporary” I simply mean a writer who is still writing.
I could go on for a long time about Berry, but suffice it to say he’s the poet who got me really interested in place-based poetry, and he’s the poet who got me to see the worth of trying to belong to my place here in suburban Atlanta.
Fortunately, I found Berry three or four years after I found Thoreau, and since I’d already tried to mimic Thoreau by going out on the Appalachian Trail to “front only the essential facts of life”—and thereby learning the hard lesson that such mimicry was largely futile—I saw no need to respond to Berry by trying to become a rural farmer. Not that such a response, for a small number of people, could not be or indeed has not been valid. But I recognized early on, given my experience with Thoreau, that such a literal reading would not work for me. What I gathered from Berry, rather, was an appreciation for my home place, a desire to know it as fully as possible and to give myself to it however I could. Now, as someone who then did not have a “home place” and was moving back and forth between apartments and rentals on an almost yearly basis, that was a difficult lesson, but nonetheless necessary.
Berry has a poem called “Stay Home” in his Collected Poems (North Point Press, 1984) that (literally) brings this point home. This is the second stanza:
I will be standing in the woods
I realize now, having read Walden four or five times, that it’s a message Thoreau was trying to impart, too, which I wasn’t ready for at twenty-one. (Though I was ready for a lot of other things Thoreau had to say.) Whatever the case, all this to say that Berry got me to see my place in the Atlanta suburbs—a maligned place, an almost placeless place, a place that’s often the brunt of scorn—as a place nonetheless imbued with worth, a place where I might try to take a stand.
To mention only two other poems, consider “To a Siberian Woodsman” and “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union”: If there are any poems I could snap my fingers and make part of the national conversation, especially given the nastiness of this election cycle, those poems would be two of them. Berry is an absolute treasure, and it’s a shame more people don’t know his work.
[TCP]: When did you start reading poetry, and whose work spoke to you the most early on?
[CM]: Childhood reading aside, I started reading seriously in about 2003 or so, when I was about twenty or twenty-one. By “seriously,” I simply mean apart from school, to cultivate my own mind and not for any grade or degree. Childlike reading, as it were. Not that schoolwork and personal cultivation are mutually exclusive, but the fact is that serious reading led me away from school for a while, which is a story I hear often and is an experience not peculiar to me.
Back then, I was mostly reading the essays of Martin Luther King, which led me to the essays of Thoreau. King is the only writer with whom I recall having a real connection in my high school years; the only serious and deeply involved study I remember doing in high school was on the Civil Rights Movement for my AP US History class—a study that became a term paper that earned me an 80 if I recall correctly (and it might have been a 78 now that I think of it).
I guess that’s why I went back to King when I took up reading on my own, because I didn’t know where else to go (and I take that to be a good thing). Aside from books I bought as a child, the first book I bought of my own accord was a thick collection of King’s essays, sermons, and speeches called A Testament of Hope. And, like I said, King led me to Thoreau—first to “Civil Disobedience,” and from there to pretty much everything Thoreau had written aside from the massive Journals, though I got them in pieces. For a year or more, King and Thoreau represented the bulk of my reading, if not all of it. And by the time I’d made it through Walden the second time, Thoreau had become my favorite writer, and still is, though there’s not much sense trying to parse out whether he or King had a greater impact on me.
I mention this because, though I don’t like his poetry all that much now, Thoreau was the first poet I deeply read apart from school. I read his poetry then because it carried his authorship, and at the time I wanted nothing more than to read everything he’d written. I now know that his great poetic accomplishment was his prose—Walden and his Journals specifically, and I’d probably include “Walking” and “Life without Principle” and The Maine Woods and his many natural history essays, to say nothing of “Civil Disobedience” and the John Brown essays—though that’s not a distinction I would’ve been able to make back then. But for better or worse, it was Thoreau who got me interested in poetry.
Fortunately, it didn’t require a great deal of effort for me to realize that some of Thoreau’s contemporaries were poets, and so I turned to them—to two, in particular, because, though I liked his essays well enough, I didn’t care very much for Emerson’s poetry (it seemed to me a lot like Thoreau’s, only lacking Thoreau’s name on the byline), and I knew I liked Thoreau’s poetry less than I did his prose. So, not to take an unnecessary shot at Thoreau or Emerson, Emily Dickinson was the first bona fide poet I read, and she’s the poet I most tried to imitate in my early attempts at writing my own poetry.
Then there was Walt Whitman, whose cadences King had prepared me for, I think. I read Leaves of Grass for the first time near the end of a two-month hike on the Appalachian Trail, in the late spring of 2005. Though I don’t think I realized it then, that book more than any other initiated my lifelong devotion to poetry and, as I mentioned in an earlier question, it’s something like a Bible to me. If forced to choose, I might say that it’s more of a necessary book to me, now, than Walden is. It’s the only book that comes close, at any rate, though ultimately deciding between the two would be like trying to decide between Cannon and Opal on a much less dramatic level. I think in an earlier Town Creek interview Jesse Graves said something similar when talking about Whitman and Dickinson—something to the effect that he prefers Whitman but trying to decide which poet was better would be a fool’s errand. And so it is with Walden and Leaves—and hell, let’s throw Dickinson’s collected poetry and the collected works of King in the same conversation for good measure. A fool’s errand, indeed. One of the beautiful things about poetry—which I mean in the broadest sense of poetic writing, or revealed poetry—is that it does not subscribe to the hierarchies of human structures.
[TCP]: What other canonical poets do you admire aside from Whitman and Dickinson? Who are your favorite three, if you were forced to choose?
[CM]: Well, from Dickinson and Whitman, I turned to Langston Hughes, William Butler Yeats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, more or less in that order, and they remain three of my favorites. So, if forced to go with three, I’d probably go with them.
To me, there’s not much out there that rivals the simple beauty of poems like “In Time of Silver Rain,” “Harlem Night Song,” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I’m also beginning to realize that some of the more political poetry of Hughes—poems like “Bible Belt” and “Georgia Dusk”—have come to inform if not haunt some of my own work. Whether my poetry has earned that inspiration yet, I don’t know, but all the same, it’s inspiration I need. Whenever I publicly read my poem “Lamentation by the Towaliga River,” for example—which was originally published as “September 21, 2011” and is a protest poem over the execution of Troy Davis—I read “Georgia Dusk” not only to introduce the poem but to shield me in my reading of it. The author of Hebrews talks about a “great cloud of witnesses,” and Hughes is a part of mine, there’s no doubt about that. I also recently heard someone read his “Life is Fine” at an open mic. Man, that’s a good poem.
“The Stolen Child” may well be my favorite rhyming poem. As with Hughes, I can’t say enough of what Yeats has meant to me. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” What Yeats has done is allowed me to bring that too often repressed sense of conviction into my poetry, as in “The Second Coming,” but to do so in a manner that does not forget the childlike joys of the “leafy island / Where flapping herons wake / The drowsy water-rats” where there are hidden “faery vats / Full of berries / And of reddest
cherries.” I’ll tell you the truth: Whenever I read “The Stolen Child”—and I just did to make sure I had that quote right—I get chill bumps. The immediate temptation is to say that those chill bumps are a different variety than the kind I get when I read “The Second Coming” (to speak only of two of Yeats’s most popular poems), but upon reflection, they’re the same. Seek for slumbering trout or seek the reasons for the indignation of the desert birds: Whatever you do, seek something.
Hopkins. I realize this interview is with an admirer of Hopkins, so I won’t say too much. If anyone reading this has never read Hopkins, though, I would recommend it. My friend Paul Bodamer is the one who led me to him—I guess it was in 2006 or 2007 or so. And even though it’s only been about five years, I’d say if you were to take the best five of his poems—which in my opinion would be “Pied Beauty,” “God’s Grandeur,” “In the Valley of the Elwy,” “Inversnaid,” and “As kingfishers catch fire”—that would be about all the poetry I need. In terms of poetic concentration, I like Hopkins the best. If I had said ten or twenty poems, for example, or an entire life’s work of poetry, then he would still rate highly, but not so highly as Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, or Hughes. But more than any other poet I know, Hopkins extracts the most meaning, the most juice (“What is all this juice and all this joy?”), from poems at the molecular level, the level of the word. His poems to me are like verbs unto themselves.
Byron Herbert Reece would be my fourth, my wildcard, though he’s not part of the canon yet. He died in 1958, and was at the height of his career in 1950 or so—the time of the Beats. And matters of time period aside, his poetry still hasn’t quite found the appreciation it deserves outside of Georgia and the South. In many respects, he’s the Yeats of the north Georgia mountains. His poetry belongs in the company of canonical writers, though. It seems only a matter of time.
[TCP]: Who is your favorite contemporary poet and why?
[CM]: That’s a tough question, and a lot of it depends on the definition of “contemporary.” Wendell Berry, as mentioned, is technically a contemporary poet. So are poets like Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder. Going by the technical definition, it would probably be a tie between Oliver and Berry. I’d sit with Mary Oliver in her canoe any day, whether it’s fashionable or not.
But if I may, I’d like to compress the definition of “contemporary” somewhat to refer to poets who are the heirs of such luminaries as Oliver and Berry, and who may be younger, sometimes by a generation or more.
By that definition, my favorite contemporary poet is Janisse Ray. She’s a Georgia poet, and, while her poetry is more of the coastal plain than of the piedmont where I live, she nonetheless roots her poetry in places and in images with which I’m familiar. But it goes beyond familiarity, of course. Her poetry is like that of Hopkins in that it sears the reader with familiarity, and so whether or not I’d ever seen Georgia’s coastal plain, her work would permit me to see it, as the poetry of Hopkins does with the Welsh landscape.
And she is equally talented in writing nonfiction; the relationship of her poetry to her nonfiction is closer to the relationship in Berry’s work than it is to the relationship in Thoreau’s, for example. There are parts of her nonfiction masterpiece, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, that read in effect like prose-poems. In fact, I found her poetry by way of her prose, as is the case with other poets I admire like John Lane, Thomas Rain Crowe, and Erik Reece, to name only three. Janisse is a wonderful, wonderful writer. For anyone familiar with her prose, her collection A House of Branches is the essential poetic accompaniment.
David Bottoms is perhaps the poet to whom I’ve been returning the most often in the last month or so, if for no other reason than he has some great Kennesaw Mountain poems of his own: “Fog on Kennesaw” and “Walking a Battlefield: A Love Story” are the two that come to mind. More than any other poet, I’m perhaps best able to connect with the landscape that Bottoms references because by and large he’s a poet of the Georgia piedmont. A lot of his poems, for example, are about Lake Allatoona—a lake I see almost every day. I found him later than Ray, though, at the recommendation of my teacher David King, who I’ve talked about already (and who was a student of Bottoms).
Natasha Trethewey is another that comes to mind. Her poems in Native Guard are quite moving, and part of my interest in her poetry goes back to all I’ve said about Gahneesah, in that her art is devoted to untold legacies of the Civil War. Ship Island has been to her what Kennesaw Mountain is becoming to me, and so I found her at the right time. As with the work of Bottoms, I haven’t known her work as long as I’ve known Ray’s, but the comparatively little time I have known it has been fruitful.
Ray, Bottoms, and Trethewey all have very diverse poetic voices, but they’re all deeply Southern and rooted in place, and I suppose Southern, place-based poets are the ones I lean on the most, if for no other reason than I share a sense of their collective heritage and landscape. I can’t quite put into words why Ray is my favorite over these two and other poets I like but haven’t really talked about as much as I should have. I suppose it goes back to that Hopkins-like penchant she has for combining narrative with transcendent flame, flame like “the stove” of a ribbon snake’s heart, the “millions of orange candles” in migrating monarchs, the “glowing wakes of Lucifer’s bloom,” “pears in a meteor shower,” and the “blue power” of a kingfisher. As kingfishers catch fire, indeed.
There are too many good poets out there to name, and I’ve left out too many. I’ve only begun getting to know the work of some of them. There are too many good poets out there to know, as a matter of fact, and I take that to be a very good thing.There are more fine poets in the world than the powers-that-be would have us believe. We might just be all right after all.
[CM]: I found the work of Reece by accident, which seems a fairly common thing among his admirers today, at least those not from his region.
My favorite mountain in the north Georgia Blue Ridge is Blood Mountain, and it’s probably only second to Kennesaw in terms of what it has meant in my life, if I were to start rattling off specific mountains. I think in many ways my interest in Blood prepared me for a greater interest, for more of a vested interest, in Kennesaw, given that Kennesaw is part of my “true country,” to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase.
I’ve been interested in Blood Mountain nearly all my life. I remember my dad telling me the story about how the mountain got its name, of a battle between the Creeks and the Cherokees for fishing rights in the nearby Nottely River and its tributary creeks, a battle so violent the mountain ran red with blood thereafter. If you want a place emblazoned on a boy’s psyche, there to remain, tell him a story like that.
I’ve hiked the mountain I don’t know how many times. Blood is one of Georgia’s highest peaks—about three-hundred feet shy of nearby Brasstown Bald, the highest—and is the highest mountain on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. With the AT traversing it as such, and with U.S. 129 slithering around its eastern slopes, Blood is also one of the most popular peaks in Georgia, yet somehow not trampled beyond measure—a fragile wildness endures in black bear and whitetail deer and bobcat, in granite, in trillium and rhododendron. And let us not forget: It exists, and for a mountain to merely exist these days in the eastern United States is at least some testament to its wildness.
The stories and slopes of Blood have haunted me—have called me home—since childhood, and they have haunted me all the more since 2008, when I found Byron Herbert Reece, a poet and farmer who worked a small piece of bottomland on Wolf Creek in Choestoe, just at the base of Blood Mountain.
My usual route to the top of Blood begins off the highway at Neel’s Gap (or Walasi-Yi Gap—Cherokee for “Place of the Frog”—which Reece believed and I believe to be the proper name for the place). From there, the Byron Herbert Reece Trail rises sharply just shy of a mile, from a thicket of laurel and rhododendron up to wooded slopes of oak and white pine, where it joins the Appalachian Trail at Flatrock Gap. From Flatrock, the AT climbs a mile and a half and gains a thousand feet to Blood’s peak.
I once had no clue who Byron Herbert Reece was. But one day in 2008 I decided, since I’d hiked his namesake trail so many times on my way up to Blood, that I needed to know more about him. What I found interested me, so that led to a library search, and I walked away from the stacks with a book called Fable in the Blood: The Selected Poems of Byron Herbert Reece, edited by Jim Clark.
Later that year, I lost an uncle, Mike Martin, to suicide. This was obviously a difficult time, and I found great comfort in Reece’s poetry—especially in poems like “In the Far Dark Woods Go Roving” and “In Absence”—though it was an odd comfort, because Reece had died by his own hand, too. In addition to all this, at my uncle’s funeral, I was reacquainted with my great-great aunt, Allie Rose Buice. She had known me as a child, but it had been over twenty-five years since we’d seen each other. But Deana and I talked with her and my uncle, Royce Buice, like no time had passed at all. I learned in these conversations that Allie Rose was from Union County, and, given my timely discovery of Reece, I knew that Reece, also from Union, would’ve been about her age had he still been living. So I asked her if she knew him, and as it would turn out, they were neighbors in Choestoe, and she had been close to him and his family. It was then that Reece’s poetry became something of an obsession to me.
It is a mystery that I have not unraveled and likely never will, but every fall, I begin to feel haunted by Reece again. Fall is when Reece was born, it’s when my uncle died, and it’s also the season that I feel closer to the rhythms of the world, more in tune with my thoughts. So it’s fitting and quite meaningful for me to have the essay published in your fall issue. Allie Rose and Royce both passed away this year—Allie Rose in April and Royce just the other day. I owe so much of my appreciation for Reece to them, so the essay is in their memory. One of the things Allie Rose told me about Reece is that “he sure wrote some pretty words,” and I don’t suppose there’s a better way to say it. His poetry has been a blessing in many ways, a blessing that I’ve not entirely divined and that I doubt I ever will. I’m forever indebted to him.
Return to Fall 2012 Table of Contents