Maurice Manning Discusses His Dark and Lively Valley, “Fog Town Holler”

Long-time Kentucky poet Maurice Manning will read with fellow poet Makalani Bandele Friday, May 24th for Speak Social at Java Brewing (1707 Bardstown Rd. Louisville, KY).

I recently contacted Maurice to talk about his fifth book of poetry, published last month, The Gone and the Going Away (2013 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Brandon Stettenbenz: As the narrator in your book (the unnamed observer of “Fog Town Holler” and its denizens) recollects/dreams tales which are generally raucous or silly, and at times sobering, we get a broad swath of earthy characters from a past gone if not far removed. Did you set out to capture some impression of historical charm or community tradition you see fading from Kentucky?

Maurice Manning:  It is always a process, of course.  As I was nearing the end of my last book, The Common Man, I realized that the world I was writing about was nearly gone.  I was thinking of a small Kentucky town, a community with its own integrity, history, and ties, a distinct place with distinctive people living in it.  Rather than bemoan the loss of our small communities in my next book, I decided to imagine a small community and fill it with imagined characters, perhaps to suggest what we have lost.

BS: I personally felt the themes of family, heritage, and belonging continuously reinforced throughout this book in passages such as, “And so, / I suffer and love it still, and drag / my father with me, knowing it came / from him, from being here…” Here we see the narrator tied explicitly through his heritage to the land. What connection, if any, does this book have with your own history or that of your kin?

MM:  The poem you quote is called “The Debt.”  It is a true poem.  My father grew up on a farm along the border of Clay County and Jackson County.  The landscape in my mind is a combination of that region of eastern Kentucky, the knobs outside of Danville where I grew up, and the farm where we live in Washington County.

BS: There’s something in “Fog Town Holler” of the mystic and mysterious natural world—the people there seem closer to their origins, closer to the earth, and whether skeptics, preachers, or spirit “slain” parishioners, perhaps closer or more curious about the nature of being (alive) and the spiritual nature of their living world. Could you discuss for us this reverence for everyday beauty and nature evident in these poems?

MM:  Well, I think you’ve put it as well as I can.  I admire people who are closer to the earth and closer to their origins.  Such people have roots and a history of being in one place.  I think belonging to a place is important—to feel known and claimed by the place.  Rather than us making a place our own, I prefer the notion of allowing a place to make us its own.  That puts us more properly I think in a subordinate position.

BS: That reverence is also evident no only in the character’s ruminations upon life and the land, but also in your rendering of the landscape:

“and fog / rising from the ribbon of river / unstrung and loose below the hills / which fetched up like a row of knee / poked into the rosy sky”

Imagery is the primary mode used to immerse a reader into a place and sometimes into the mind of role of the speaker. However, your living pictures of “Fog Town Holler”, like the candor of its people, are rendered using colloquial modes of speech. Please tell us about the importance of writing in this way, of this place.

MM:  I think the colloquial is something I can’t avoid, because my experience with language starts with listening to it.  I love the natural rhythms of our local talk, but a local language also has a role in what is observed or thought or expressed.  One of my duties is to point out that local language can be intelligent.

BS: This is certainly the funniest, most colorful elegy I’ve ever read. I would even venture to say that humor lures the reader into this half-dreamed, half-remembered holler by endearing them to the long-gone (but perhaps not lost) characters of this fading memory/place. Could you discuss the role of humor in this book?

MM:  I enjoy humor is the short answer.  In The Gone and the Going Away I think some of the humor is there to provide comic relief.  There are a number of heavy poems in the book as well.  Humor is also neighborly—my neighbors are always stopping by to share a tall tale or tell a little joke or share something funny.  I often think I’m writing to a neighbor.

BS: Speaking of sing-song, there are many short, funny poems throughout this book, interspersed between longer dream sequences which seem to skirt the border of fable and parable. Do these song-poems stem from a regional tradition?

MM:  The short poems are described by a friend of mine as “honky tanka”.  I call this a stanza, since there are a few poems in the book composed of several of these stanzas.  The stanza is 30 words: 5 words to the line and 6 lines.  Odd-numbered lines begin with an iambic foot and even-numbered lines begin with a trochaic foot.  I believe each stanza has three rhetorical moves.  The stanza is like a little math problem.  I like the description of “song-poem.”  This is a case where the form had a real role in generating the poem.  Once I wrote one of these I wanted to write another one.  And so forth.

BS: The longer, dream-like poems in this book seem to reach or search for some wisdom, lesson or knowledge perhaps once known and lost. Did you have traditional fables or Christian parables in mind when you wrote these pieces?

MM:  To some extent I would say a parable is a form I often think about.  In my own life I respond to what I call spiritual confirmation.  Some of the longer poems are attempts to seek such confirmation and to enter into all of the paradoxes that accompany any sense of faith.

BS: Oral traditions have always influenced and sustained literature and storytelling; poetry is no exception. In the aforementioned short poems, I noticed some exaltation declared in a Whitman-like candor: “O—I’ve been dizzy too!” I also see some imagist influence reminiscent of William Carlos Williams—the way he dealt intimate glimpses of his native Rutherford/Patterson, sharing his elation for the place by inviting the reader into the complex simplicities of his home and his neighbors. Please tell us a bit about the influence of both storytelling traditions and other poetic forms on your work.

MM:  Storytelling is the beginning for me.  I was lucky to have known my great-grandmothers and other elders who were wonderful storytellers.  The stories were informal and usually incomplete, because the occasion usually wasn’t an official story.  If my grandmother told me about the time she stayed with cousins in Paint Lick and a train derailed, I would have been fascinated by the fragment of the story, but I would also have known what my grandmother was thinking about years later.  Those kinds of stories don’t come from an overt desire to tell; instead I think they reveal what someone is wondering about.  That usually means the story doesn’t have a “lesson,” or even an end.  That sense of wonder and ambiguity suit poetry very well.  Beyond hearing stories in my head, I’ve been drawn to Wordsworth and Coleridge and their pioneering belief that landscape can be the genesis of the poem.

BS: Dear Readers, Carmichael’s Bookstore will be on hand Friday during Speak Social to sell The Gone and Going Away, and Maurice will no doubt be happy to speak with you about the book and sign copies.

Author’s Bio (taken from The Gone and the Going Away):

“Maurice Manning is the author of four previous books of poems. His most recent book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize and a Guiggenheim fellowship, he teaches at Transylvania University in Lexington, KY.”

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