ROB MERRITT | Diversity as the spice of life: a conversation with Western North Carolina poet Thomas Rain Crowe
TRC | During the 1970s, I was living in San Francisco, where I was hanging out with the Beats--Ferlinghetti, Hirschman, Kaufman, McClure, DiPrima, Everson, Micheline, Norse, Ginsberg (when he was in town), Brautigan, Bukowski (when he was in town), Meltzer, and others--and living, breathing, eating (and drinking) poetry twenty-four hours a day. It was an incredible, intensive, living experience, not unlike Paris in the 20s, or Moscow and St. Petersburg following the Bolshevik Revolution. These guys (the Beats) were totally available to us in those years. The whole fascination with the Beat movement had faded away by the 70s and the Beats weren’t getting a lot of time in the press; and then us young guys showed up in San Francisco and started doing things--organizing readings, resurrecting the oldBeatitude magazine, organizing protest actions and events....and involving the older and more famous 50s gang, and it became like a real family/community that gave them an audience, again, and gave us an audience at the same time. It was a great collaboration for a number of years, and a lot of us younger guys (or “Baby Beats” as we were labeled) got a real education that we couldn’t have paid for or gotten anywhere else.
RM | You had a name, a phrase, referring to these years in San Francisco. What did you call it? The “university of” what?
TRC | “The university of the streets,” which was a phrase coined by Neeli Cherkovski (who was Bukowski’s secretary for a number of years before coming to S.F.), inspired by Jack Hirschman’s use of the word “street” as a social-literary place-name. He often used the word “street” metaphorically in conversation and in his work--in phrases like “street-hearts” (parodying the endearing phrase “sweet-heart”) and so on.
I was lucky, in that I was there at the right time, when this all just happened to be coming together. This “education,” this “university” that was going on in the bars, cafes, flats and stages in the streets of North Beach. This is where I got my true literary education. This would have been impossible to replicate in a university setting, then, as it would be now. Unlike most students, these days, who don’t even know why they are in school, we knew exactly why we were in North Beach, near City Lights Bookstore, and what we hoped to get from that experience. And were working hard to do so.
RM | The best poetry, I suppose, sounds good as well as looks good on the page; but how do you get both at the same time--something that sounds good and looks good on the page?
TRC | This is, probably, what most of us are striving for, ideally. The Beats were really the ones who turned me on to the idea that poetry could be written in normal everyday speech. It was the first poetry I was ever introduced to that was in a language that I understood, that I could relate to. In our secondary and college education systems in this country, literature is taught ass-backwards, I believe--with all the old stuff being shoved down the throats of young people, who are quickly alienated and therefore end up hating even the word “poetry.” I remember thinking to myself after reading Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, “hey, this is cool, man! I can do this. I may not be able to write like Chaucer, but I sure as hell can write like Ferlinghetti!”
Coming from the mountains, here in the Southern Appalachians, the oral tradition is a big thing--and includes the dialect of Southern Mountain Speech. Growing up, my native language was Southern Mountain Speech, as Jim Wayne Miller and Cratis Williams have called it. Where Jim Wayne and I connected was on this whole issue of the dialect, and how it’s denegraded and looked down upon and frowned upon by outsiders--or “furriners,” as we would call them. The farther north I moved with my family, later on, the more I had to refine my use of the mountain language. By the time I got to Virginia, I was speaking a whole new language....
A BEATNIK WANDERS INTO APPALACHIAAND LEARNS THE LANGUAGE OF THE EARTH AND SKY
Climbing cold streams’ wet weave of root
& rock a warm murmur breathes beneath
a pool of song where water and wilt shine
on green tendrils moist with deep moss
Dig the dance of vine
climbing circle of stone.
Dig the blue bloom of rose
cut to caress torrents of rotting soil.
Dig the ripe wave of evening that touches flame
& breaks blood’s slow boil of mulch & rain.
Walking green trees’ coppered limbs of stairs
& canopy a thrush of whistles rises in
a swoon of sunlight when thunder claps and
color arcs in clouds’ turbid mood of limber logs
Dig the skiff of snow that preeks soft
near the rabbit’s lair.
Dig the Big Eyed Bird in swag or hollow
of locust and locked wood.
Dig the heave of new ground and the golden comb
of honey with winter rye.
Dig the dogtick and the rowan tree.
Dig the sky!
RM | I’ve noticed recently much more of an emphasis on poetry as spoken word, opposed to poetry as something that is only written. I know that not only do you do public readings, but you also give public performances with your poetry & music band, The Boatrockers. I’d like to know--does it seem more valuable for you to hear a poem spoken than to read it? Or are they two entirely different experiences?
TRC | For me, there’s not a lot of separation between the voice and the written or printed word. And I think that probably has to do with two things. When I was young, my first experience with language and with poetry, in particular, came from my mother, who, at bedtime, would always sing to me, recite poetry, or read. And a lot of what she read, sang, or spoke was from the Celtic traditions--mainly stories or poems from Scotland, which is the land of my ancestors. Robert Louis Stevenson comes to mind as one of my favorite writers as a child. The combination of my mother’s speaking/singing and, then, my own ability as I became old enough to read, myself. Oftentimes, these were books like The Childcraft Books or A Child’s Garden of Verses that had illustrations with the poems. My mother would recite these poems and stories to me, as she knew them by heart. So, I was literally getting a visual experience and an oral thing at the same time. I’m convinced that these years were really what informed my own ear and my own voice, later on, in my own work. Later, still, my connection with the Celtic countries and their perception that there is no separation between music, poetry, storytelling, and even dance. They see it as parts of a single tradition....the Bardic tradition. A tradition that’s thousands of years old and that incorporates storytelling, singing, and musicianship, simultaneously, in terms of performance.
RM | Can you give the Nantahala Review readers some ideas of where they might go, whom they might listen to, to get an experience of the Bardic tradition?
TRC | Two people come, immediately, to mind: Dylan Thomas and Robin Williamson. Dylan Thomas may be one of the greatest Celtic/bardic writers who has ever lived--which may seem like a strange statement to those that know of Thomas, who was Welsh, from Wales, but who wrote in English. In his English language poetry, there’s more of a lyric line than in any other poet that I know of--maybe even more so than Shakespeare! As a lyric poet, a bard, he’s very musical. His poetry may be more “Celtic” than any Celtic-language poet in the twentieth century. It’s true that I can’t speak any of the Celtic languages--Scots Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton--but, at least in translation, I don’t get nearly the sense of lyric voice in most of the Welsh lyric poets that I get from Dylan Thomas, who is, ironically, as I say, writing in English! So, the musicality of his voice and his influence on me is huge, really. I’m always comparing myself to Dylan Thomas--not in the sense that I’m as good as Dylan Thomas, or that I’m writing the same kind of poetry, but I’ve always looked up to him as the standard to which I aspire.
Robin Williamson is a true contemporary bard, a troubador. Some people might know him from the 1960s, when he was a member of The Incredible String Band. Robin is from Wales and has taken the whole Bardic Tradition, quite literally, on the road. He tours all over Europe, the U.S., and the world, performing old Celtic ballads, poetry and song, while playing literally dozens of instruments. For the most part, he performs rhyming poetry set to music--which IS the bardic way of doing things, and from whence I have gotten my inspiration to put non-rhyming, un-sung poetry to music with my band The Boatrockers.
And, there are others who have worked and are working with spoken word and music who have influenced my work in this genre in one way or another. Among these influences are people like rock & roll artist Jim Morrison of the Doors, and his album An American Prayer; Laurie Anderson, the performance artist; Native American (Lakota) poet-activist John Trudell; and more recently Muskogee/Creek poet Joy Harjo and her band Poetic Justice. In my mind these artists are the cream of the crop in this genre. But we mustn’t forget people (poets) like Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth, who came before, and who worked with jazz ensembles, performing their poems to large audiences during the 1950s and early 1960s.
RM | Do you think that you try, when you write the poem on the page, to reproduce or indicate what it sounds like? In other words, if you didn’t think that it was going to be read out loud. would it appear any differently on the page when you write it?
TRC | I don’t think so, because of the way that I write. I’ve got this lyric thing going on from childhood and from growing up here in the western North Carolina mountains related to Southern Mountain Speech. Then there’s the way that I write, which is spontaneous--almost stream of consciousness in a way that’s similar to how the Surrealist writers in Paris, back in the earlier part of the 20th century, perceived an ultimate creative process, which meant writing from the unconscious in an uncensored voice. I don’t write strictly that way--trying, instead, to stay grounded--while allowing myself to be totally spontaneous and uncensored. In this process, there’s no preconceived notion of trying to be lyrical or trying to be non-lyrical or trying to be academic or non-academic. It’s all just happening in the moment. Of the moment. I literally, I suppose, write from a feeling, or more precisely, a rhythm. A few words may be enough to create a rhythm, and I start with that rhythm and try to let whatever it is that follows be participatory in that spontaneous beat. The Beatnik poem that I just read to you was written in this way.
RM | I guess I was wondering if you’re writing a “non-oral” kind of poem, whether it would appear different on the page. Would the lines break differently on the page, say, than from something you were writing that you considered to be lyric?
TRC | Yes and no. The line and page breaks can happen--so lyric and non-lyric poems can look differently--but this happens organically. Since I’m not rational about the way I write, I don’t write anything in a pre-conceived way. Even the freelance and non-fiction things that I do. It all just comes. I’ve learned to trust a spontaneous process. This has to do with childhood, again, and the magical qualities of what can appear on the page. It’s always astonished me: what comes out of my head. When I was younger, it was like magic. Words coming from somewhere else. I love that process and that experience, and I don’t want to mess with that, because I think if I were to change that process, it would change the way that I feel about writing in general--which would mean that I probably wouldn’t do it. The process would become more like work than fun. And although I do make my living, such as it is, from the written word, and work hard at that, writing the way that I do is still fun for me. And I don’t want to change that.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to find editors who allow me to write the way that I do. Each poem, each article, each review, has its own voice. In this sense, I couldn’t tell you what it is that I do. Couldn’t stick a label on it. There is no inner censoring device or control factor. Each piece is a unique experience based on something I’m involved in, or something that’s around me, or something that comes out of who-knows-where, and it’s got its own voice and I don’t want to mess with that. I don’t want every poem to sound and look alike, which is the case with so many poets these days. In fact, I don’t want to have “a voice.” I don’t want to be limited in this way. Taking risks is what writing/living is all about for me.
RM | This would seem to go against the current of contemporary mind, since a lot of teachers of writing will say that you need to find your own voice and stick to that.
TRC | I think that’s fine, if that’s what you want to do, and especially if you can find a strong voice. But, after a while, I find that most writers--especially poets--who operate from that perspective, keep writing the same poem over and over and over again. I don’t want to point fingers, necessarily, but Allen Ginsberg, whom I knew and admired, is the best example of this that I can think of. He wrote four good poems and a song in his life, as far as I am concerned (Howl, Kaddish, Plutonian Ode, Wichita Vortex Sutra and TheBallad of the Skeletons). And I like his Bixby Canyon Ocean Path Breeze--a Gary Snyder-like poem, but one that is not to be considered one of his great ones. The hundreds of other poems that he published in his lifetime, were, really, the same poem, in the same voice, and not all that interesting. And maybe that’s what he was here to do--write four good poems and a song. As for me, I like to think that it’s maybe better being a bit more open to the myriad “voices” that are out there. I am giving myself the opportunity to be more of a vehicle for whatever it is that poetry is. In fact, I don’t even want to try to define what it is that the “it” is!
RM | Do you think this vehicle is something that’s inside you, coming out, or something outside of you, coming in?
TRC | It’s both, I think. The “it” has to be something that’s part of me, because it’s coming through me. It has to go through me to emerge as written or spoken language, so those influences, which are myself, are there. But, at the same time, I’m metaphysically naive enough to think that there’s something else going on that maybe we can’t see or don’t understand. This isn’t new-age mumbo-jumbo. I’m simply saying that there are writers such as the west-coast surrealist poet/novelist Ken Wainio, who are open and willing to allow themselves to be a perfect vehicle for the unknown, the unseen world. And that’s exciting to me. However, I don’t, necessarily, want to get caught or stuck in that place. I like to think that I have my feet on the ground as I allow a poem to come through me. I try to stay conscious. This grounding may have something to do with the fact that I have Virgo, or other earth signs, in three of my astrological “houses.” [laughs]
RM | So, how do you make yourself open to that process? Is it a meditative thing, or is it just a “river” you jump into?
TRC | Neither, really. I think I was born that way. I haven’t tried to be the way that I am. I haven’t tried to be a poet. I haven’t tried to do anything with my life. I’ve just sort of been, if you know what I mean, and allowed.... I’ve followed my impulses, and the idea of taking risks was never something to be feared. I just go where I’m drawn. The things that I’m drawn to most strongly to are what I follow and where I go. And maybe I’ve been lucky, in the sense that I’ve been able to survive doing this. I’ve worked hard at living this way, however--in the sense that I’ve worked a lot of different jobs which took a lot of my time and energy--just to make money enough to survive. But the work and job part always seemed secondary to the idea of allowing msyself to be free. And where this idea, this obsession of freedom came from, I’m not really sure. It could have come from growing up in Graham County, in Robbinsville, living amongst Irish-American, Appalachian and Indian people. Or maybe it could have come from somewhere else--I really don’t know. But it has always been important for me, consciously, to be a free person. And, for me, being a free person means just following your bliss. Joseph Campbell says it perfectly: “follow your bliss.” This is a pretty straight-forward process. You see something that turns you on, and you explore it.
RM | It’s amazing how hard that is to do, somehow, for most people.
TRC | It seems to be. People are always expressing those same sentiments to me regarding how I have lived my life. I lived four years out in the woods by myself, at one point, basically surviving on what I could grow and being self-sufficient. And I meet people all the time who just look at me kind of funny, and ask: “How could you do that!?” In reality, it was very easy to do. I just did it! For me, being a poet is all about being free, following my bliss, and just doing it.
RM | I want to go deeper into the writing process and talk a bit about technique. Do you revise a lot? I know most people do. But from what you just said, I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to revise too much.
TRC | No, I revise very little. Very little. My process is about letting it happen. When I’m writing, I really have no idea of what it is, rationally, that I’m doing. I’m just letting it happen. When I’m finished writing, I read what I’ve written once, just to see what it is I’ve done. And then I put it away. Sometimes I won’t look at that poem or piece again for a year. But usually it may be several weeks, or a couple of months--especially if it’s something that is time-sensitive or has a deadline. Kerouac said often, “first thought, best thought,” and that concept has stuck in my head all these years. It’s true, that I’m part of that tradition, the Beat tradition, but organically, that’s really just the way that I work best. I’ve found that you can revise the heart and soul out of a poem if you’re not careful, and I have seen this done often by my more academic friends. It’s about the process for me--it’s not so much the results. I’m not as concerned about “the perfect poem.” I do want what I put out into the public to be as good as I can get it, so there are changes and revisions from time to time, but even when I’m writing book reviews, essays, or articles for the newspaper....it’s always a spontaneous process. I don’t sit down and write for three hours every day as part of a strict regimen. I just start with something--an idea, a concept, a rhythm--and go with it, until I’m through. Until I have nothing else to say. And sometimes there are revisions, etc--especially with the prose. But that’s easy. The hard part is getting started. I’ve always said that “getting started” is the hardest part of writing. The rest, even the re-writing, is pure gravy.
RM | Since you mentioned it, I want to ask you about your news writing. Last week, in reading some of your material, I was struck by an essay that you wrote mostly made up of quotations from a young Appalachian farmer, whose family had been tobacco farmers--I guess Burley tobacco farmers--for many generations, and who was exploring a lot of new ways to farm. He was an incredibly insightful man, and seemed to really personify the dilemma that a lot of Appalachian people find themselves in now, as the American economy changes and we are moving away from being able to make a living in more traditional ways. I’m wondering how you got that out of him. It was very well said and very well written.
TRC | You’re talking about William Shelton from over in Swain County, N.C. He’s a unique individual and he’s articulate, and he’s very smart! He likes to talk. So it wasn’t hard to get answers to my questions, or to get a good story out of him. He’s a talker....
Our relationship over the years has become a kind of friendship. At a certain point, early on, we recognized that we could talk to each other on a certain level about certain subjects. He had some things that he wanted to say about farming and the state of things in this country, and he trusted me to represent his ideas honestly and correctly. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the various problems of small farmers, globalization, GATT and NAFTA and the current economy.... I wanted this piece to be in his voice and not in my voice, primarily because he is such a good speaker and can articulate, as you point out, this subject matter equally as well as I could have written it down myself, from an objective perspective. And so I took a lot of notes, and tried to remember as much of it as I could. When I had written my copy, I gave it to him to look at, to make sure that I hadn’t misquoted him and that I had all my information right (names, dates, and this kind of thing). So, this is the process we went through. And the final result was almost interview-like. I’d rather have people tell their own story, in their own words, in their own voice. And I’ve done a lot of articles for papers and magazines in just this way.
RM | Can I infer from what you’ve said, that the Appalachian tradition of story-telling is still alive in the region where you live, and in the people who are trying to deal with the problems, here....the globalization and the damage to the environment and the other different challenges?
TRC | I never really thought of the William Shelton piece as being something that would be seen as indicative of the Appalachian oral tradition, but since you’ve mentioned it, I guess it really is. William comes from a long line of storytellers. His father is an amazing storyteller, and brilliant. And William has inherited these traits from his father. And I should mention, here, that the reason William went back to his farm over in Whittier was because he came across the poems and essays of Wendell Berry when he was in college at the University of Tennessee. Wendell Berry’s work changed his mind and his life! After reading essays in The Unsettling of America, William resolved to leave school and go back to his family farm and try to make a go of it, even against all the odds. An amazing story, this. And an almost astonishing leap-of-faith and act-of-will.
And, yes, the story-telling tradition is alive and well in the Southern Appalachians, as indicated by the number of story-telling festivals and events that happen here and over the mountains in Tennessee each year. And apart from that, just in the everyday conversation of people, locally, the oral tradition continues, and with flair.
TRC | The thing that drew me into writing in the first place was the poetry, and my mother’s reading to me at night. But then as I grew older and began to read myself, I can remember thinking “boy, wouldn’t it be really cool to be able to do that. Now, that would be something worth trying to do in a lifetime. If I could write like that, I really would have done something. To write like Robert Louis Stevenson!” And that thought started it for me. And then there was an incident early in my life....I was taken to a home--I think it was in Cub Scouts--and in the home there was a mother giving us all Kool-Aid, and we were doing Cub Scout things. And then she trots out her son, who was a member of this Cub Scout troop, and says, “My son is a poet.” Well, that got my attention, because poets, to me, were people like Robert Louis Stevenson, James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field and the likes--great writers. As I listened to this guy read his poems, I remember thinking: “shit, I can do better than that!” (I learned to curse at an early age--growing up in Milltown over in Robbinsville. In fact, I remember when it was that I heard my first curse word, and who it was that spoke it.) I probably couldn’t have written anything better at the time, but I thought to myself that I could, if I really wanted to.
Those were my first conscious beginnings. It was loving the stuff, the magic and all that, and then thinking “well, wouldn’t it be great to be able to do that. Wouldn’t you really have accomplished something,” and then the incident with this kid. That was my launch pad. I’ve often wondered what ever became of that young “Cub Scout poet”--whether he ever went on to do anything as a writer.
RM | I’m interested in hearing a little more about the state of mind you experience when writing. Can you elaborate?
TRC | Let me put it this way--the “zone” that you hear athletes speak of, well, it’s the same for poets and writers. Having been both an athlete and a writer in this lifetime, I’ve experienced this phenomenon from both sides, so I can talk with some certainty about this. But while athletics is primarily competitive, poetry isn’t competitive at all. Yet, it is, in a certain sense. Let me explain.... This whole thing with Poetry Slams, to me, on one level, is an anathema, because it’s all about competition, and poetry, finally, isn’t about being competitive. I think that the Poetry Slams have been a very good thing for poetry in general, in that they’ve brought a large, new audience to poetry. I should say, here, that there are performance “poets” who are incredible at what they do, and I enjoy listening to them and watching them perform, but I don’t like the context of the competition--the scoring, the “grading,” because, to me, it’s antithetical to what the real process is all about. If anything, poetry is all about unification and bringing people together, rather than distinguishing only their theatrical, and often unpoetic, personalities.
Having said that, on the other hand, let me say this.......Having spent a good deal of time around other writers, I can say that when you get around other poets, there is sort of an unspoken and silent competition that’s always going on. Just like in any sport, it can be a positive thing--much as it is for athletes who use this tact to try to raise the level of their abilities--by hanging around people who are better than they are. And I experienced this in California being around younger poets who were better than I was, and particularly the older poets, who were people whose work I had long admired. Being in a close proximity to these guys only made me a better poet. I know, from listening to the Beats talk with each other, during those years, that there was an incredible competition between those guys. There still is. They’re very competitive. I mean....when they got together, all they would talk about was how many poems they had published, what big publishing houses had taken their work, and how much money they were making. It was disgusting, really. But what I didn’t understand at the time was--that it was all about being “competitive” in a positive way. These guys were the best of friends, and they weren’t going at each other’s throats from a totally egoistic place, but were actually using this “one-up-manship” rap to kick each other up a notch. They were always helping each other in other kinds of ways--such as introducing each other to publishers and finding each other grant money, places to live, jobs.... They were always helping each other. And I experienced a lot of that with the poets of my own generation in San Francisco--always hanging around the younger poets who were friends, or whom I was working with. There was always a competition, but it was a friendly competition. And I believe we all grew from that, and continue to--those of us who are still in contact with one another.
RM | I like what you’re saying about learning from others. In that way, even a dead poet can challenge and teach you.
TRC | Absolutely! While I try to think of writing and publishing as being a romantic, ego-less process, there is, in fact, a lot of ego involved in being creative. Of all the people whom I’ve met in this lifetime, none are more egotistical than artists. And poets may be the worst of that lot. This was a huge shock to me! I always thought of poets as being these world-wise sages. And when I finally met a few poets and had a chance to hang around them a good bit, I found them to be the most petty, egomaniacal assholes you can imagine. That doesn’t mean that I stopped admiring their work or stopped hanging out with them--oh, no--but it was a blow to my romantic view of the world and the poet’s place in that world.
RM | I can understand this, in the sense that you’re putting yourself ‘out there’ and you have to be able to take criticism and all the rest that comes with writing and publishing.
TRC | The “ego” part is part of this competitive thing, too, you know. When somebody else writes a better poem than you’ve ever written, or your best buddy comes out with a great poem, you feel like you’ve been left in the dust, and it forces you to step up and try to write an even better poem.
RM | I have a friend from college and we still send one another things....we’re always sending one another things that we really, deep down, want the other one to be a little jealous of. Don’t you think this sort of exchange is healthy for a writer?
TRC | Yes, I think it is. Unless, of course, one or the other of you is doing it just to make the other feel inferior. But I think between friends this sort of “friendly fire” is a real good thing; a real important thing. That friendly competition or whatever you want to call it, is part of the whole dynamic between writers. When I talk to young people, who may aspire to be writers someday, about being a poet or a writer and following that path, I tell them, “go where there are other people like you, other writers and artists.” I think when you are young, you need to be around other people who are like-minded and trying to do similar kinds of things. But the competition never stops. Friends of mine, whom I’m still in contact with from those San Francisco days, we’re still doing it. It’s still going on. But we all understand what it is, so it’s not a negative thing.
RM | I’m guessing if you hadn’t gone to San Francisco, you’d probably just be farming or driving a tractor-trailer rig?
TRC | It’s hard to say, but you may be right.
RM | Around where I live, if someone wants to be a writer, there are no role models. How has this worked for you? One thing that the Internet can do is provide a “community.” We have a little community (on the Internet). The same people show up in this over the years. If you take a three-year span, you’d probably see some of the same people. In this sense, there’s a community that you build up around publications or around a certain group of people. And I guess we have some hopes that Nantahala might do that for this reason, because we’re hoping that some of our students will see work by people like you and connect to it and feel like there is a community for them.
TRC | That’s it. Before I went to the west coast in 1973, I hadn’t really spent any time with other poets or artists--so I didn’t know who I was in the context of having had the experience of bumping up against other writers. Now, however, my literary family and community continues to be the San Francisco poets that I made friends with during the 1970s. That’s my real community. I haven’t seen some of those people for twenty years, but I’ve been in touch with them all the time, and the distance doesn’t seem to make any difference. It would be nice to see them more often, but they’re living in California, Italy, Greece, Alaska, or god knows where-- But that is my community, and I’m always feeding off that community, psychically. Even when I don’t hear from them, that often, they’re always there. And, when we do make contact, it’s almost like we’re still there--together in the bars and in the streets of San Francisco. I’m sitting out here, now, in the middle of nowhere, in terms of any real artistic community that I can bounce off of. There’s really nobody here that I interact with on that level. There are a lot of people who write that I come into contact with, but they’re not part of what I consider my community. We don’t have the same kind of connection that I have with the San Francisco/Beatitude group from earlier on. This, I know, might sound a little elitist, and I have been publicly accused of this sort of thing, and I admit that it’s true, and I’m not one bit ashamed to say it. But that’s just the way it is. As much as we’d like to be, we can’t all be bosom-buddies--or even have the same interests or beliefsystems. It’s a diverse world. There are many kinds of people. And as the saying goes: it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round.
RM | Can you say a little more about diversity, and maybe what you learned about bio-regionalism on the west coast during the 1970s, and how that might have applied to some of your creative work?
TRC | I’ve been often accused of being “spread out”--doing a lot of different things in totally different and unrelated areas and not really having a focusedoeuvre, or voice. The point, here, is that my interests take me to distant and diverse places. Various and unrelated things catch my eye, my attention, and I’m off....and one thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another. Consequently, my writing and my travel life have taken me to a lot of different places. Also, it has been brought to my attention, of late, that most of my work is place-oriented. That my books are place books. They’re about a particular place, and the people and the landscape in that place. And it’s true. I’ve noticed, recently, that all my published books really are that way. And the books that I’m working on, now, are all that way. I tend to go to a place and become enamored or become involved with that place and it’s people, and my writing naturally comes out of that excitement. But probably the true answer to the question of why I’m so spread-out is that I have a short attention span. [laughs]
On a more philosophical, and yet experiential, level, by being involved in the foundational days of the Bioregional Movement, working with and around people like Peter Berg of Planet Drum, Lee Swenson of Simple Living, poet Gary Snyder, and others, what I learned was that diversity is a sustaining concept throughout all of nature--and, in fact, the universe. It is, in the end, diversity which allows for the quality of life of all living things, as well as allowing everything to survive and to evolve and to continue. Once the idea or the fact of monoglot or monoculture takes root, everything starts becoming like everything else around it--the gene pool is lessened, and the quality of life is compromised. Diversity, for me, is essential in a philosophical and, as well, practical way. It’s essential to the natural world, meaning it’s also essential to the human world. I think it’s a wonderful thing that we have different cultures, and different peoples, different races, different belief systems. Otherwise, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Life would be fairly dull, don’t you think, if we were all the same color and there was only one variety of tree and one kind of salamander, and one way to think of or worship God? In this kind of mono-world, our imaginations, which are essentially fueled by the natural world and the diversity and mystery of the Universe, would go flat, dry. Entropy would set in. We would cease to evolve.
RM | Even more than the excitement, isn’t this a matter of survival?
TRC | I think so. I think there is a lot of scholarship and study that supports the idea that diversity is necessary for the continuation of species and for the environment in general with regards to sustainability. My life has, in a conscious way, been embraced by diversity in terms of the subjects that I attach myself to or become involved in. I not only enjoy diversity, but I seek diversity. So, it would be natural, I suppose, that it would show up in my writing, as well.
While we’re on the subject, “carrying capacity” is another aspect of all this, you know. The explosion of monoculture that we’re experiencing now in this country and that is spreading across the planet, is the result of our lack of awareness or consciousness about carrying capacity. There’s really not much awareness of consciousness about the subject of overpopulation among most people, and, so, we’ve got real problems! We’re over-developed and we’ve over-farmed our land, and on and on....All this boils down to better management of our natural resources and being educated to make everyone stewards of places as opposed of being users of place.
RM | Does this ecological paradigm apply, somehow, also to the artistic world? Do you envision a monoculture invading the world of poetry and literature?
TRC | Don’t get me started!.... [laughs] What your question brings to mind, immediately, is the whole institutionalization of literature and poetry. This is mainly a result, I feel, of the expanding academic presence of MFA programs in the country--where, quite literally, you can pay a few thousand dollars and spend a year or two, studying either at home or in low-residency classrooms “learning to be a writer.” Let me say, right up front, that I don’t believe that you can teach someone to write. No more than you can teach someone to become a painter, or a musician. You can teach people to appreciate the arts and the creative world, but you can’t teach someone to be an artist--no more than you can teach someone to think. These are inherent abilities that one is born with. Either you’ve got “it,” or you don’t. And no collection of academic degrees, or no amount of money can buy these sorts of skills. One learns to write from writing, from living. From wanting to write. From having to write. But, with regard to the MFA programs and their adverse effects on the world of writers....the popularity of these MFA programs is growing, and they are pouring out hundreds, if not thousands, of card-carrying literati, every year. There may, in fact, be some very good writers coming out of these programs. But the point is that there are too many writers for the market to support, so you’ve got thousands of people vying for very few publication openings. So, you see, it’s a “carrying capacity” problem, again. Too many cars and not enough drivers, if you catch my metaphor. There are too few publishers that have survived in our non-literary culture to support that kind of an overpopulated market. There are too many writers. It’s too easy to become a so-called writer. Don’t people in America, today, have anything else to do but become writers? Why anybody would want to become a writer, consciously, in the first place, I can’t imagine. It defies all logic.
RM | What was your reason for doing it? For becoming a poet/writer?
TRC | I don’t have a “reason,” which is the whole point! In a rational-logical way, if you look at my life, my becoming a poet in the first place defies all logic. That a Southern mountain-boy, from a conservative, lower-middle-class family, who was a ’jock’ [an athlete], would become a poet. What are the odds? My father is still in a state of shock, I think, from what I’ve done with my life. My life just happened. And I let it. I became interested, early on, in poetry and literature, and it has taken over my life. I haven’t planned this, or conspired to bring this about, or gone to school to learn it, I’ve just “followed my bliss,” as Joseph Campbell says; and this has led me, here, today, to this piece of woodlands on John’s Creek in Jackson County and this sawmill shack I helped to build, and where we’re holding our conversation for the fall issue of Nantahala Review.
RM | What kind of advice might you give a young person who wanted to be a writer?
TRC | The best one-liner as a response to that question, I think, comes from Rilke--in his “Letter To a Young Poet.” He says in his letter to an aspiring young poet who has sought him out, that if you can live without writing, if you can go a day or a week without writing, or if you can conceive of your life without writing being a major part of it, then you have no business being a writer. I would agree with this sentiment, and think that it’s a pretty good yardstick. If writing is an organic part of you, if it’s like an arm or a leg, then keep at it. Do whatever you have to do. Just keep at it, and write. The effort, the repetition will all plateau out for you at some point. And you’ll learn what you need to know by writing. And reading! But if your decision to be a writer is a logical one--one that is motivated by notions of a “career” or one that’s unconnected to your heart and soul--to decide to be a writer is probably a big mistake. We don’t need any more writers, and we certainly don’t need any more mediocre academic poets. And the problem is that there are so many mediocre writers coming out of these MFA programs, that the good writers--the people who really have something to say and can say it well--can’t find publishers. And I could give you a long list of people I know, personally, who are having a very hard time finding publishers for their work, and these are people who need to be heard! In this paradigm, the culture suffers, because it doesn’t have access to these poets who can’t find publishers. If you don’t believe what I’m saying, just look around at the state of affairs we find ourselves living in American, today. One could make an argument that we are in this predicament because there are no moral leaders in our midst, but also because, one, we live in a quasi-illiterate culture, and two, we don’t have access to our best poets.
RM | I think it’s so important how you make that connection between the world of ecology and the environment and the artistic process!
TRC | After a clear-cut, what comes back, in a diverse and deciduous forest, like this one where I live, is mostly locust and poplar. And they crowd out everything else. There is no room for anything else to grow. Yes, there are uses for poplar and locust wood, but in a very limited way. Especially poplar. A very soft wood, there’s not a lot you can do with poplar wood--it doesn’t benefit the world all that much, by itself. Locust is good for making fences. It’s a good hardwood. It burns well if you heat with wood, like I do, but to only have locust and poplars? What a compromised world we’d live in, if we were limited in living only off these two kinds of wood. The same sort of logic applies to the creative world and that of the artists in our midst.
RM | Clear-cutting--that’s sort of what the culture’s doing. Cutting down anything that’s different, and making everything the same.
TRC | Right! You got it! One language, one kind of cuisine, one political philosophy, one God....If the Republicans had it their way, there’d be a one-party system. Everything: only one. I think the healthy way is to embrace the idea that “small is beautiful, and diversity is necessary.” Those are two axioms that have spoken to me in terms of my own experience living here in the western North Carolina woods for a number (25) of years now, and being around the Cherokee people and mountain people whom I’ve come to know. It just makes sense to believe and live in this way.
I don’t mean the window,
I mean the helicopters overhead,
the buzz on the phone,
and the police at the door.
The sky is falling
from the atoms they have taken
from the air.
The trees cut to build temples
The brown water no longer
fit for fish.
When freedom is just another word
for what we have lost.
When peace is another brand
When the national animal is no longer an eagle,
but a sheep.
The Republicans are coming.
The Republicans are coming....
Coming to put us away
in the funny farm that’s not so funny.
In the nuthouse.
In the terrorist jail.
On my conspiratorial horse,
I am Paul Revere passing Dachau on the train.
And the Republicans are coming.
The Republicans are coming....
The Germans are hip to White House tricks.
They punched the bully in the nose.
They cite Bukowski and Chomsky
as the philosophers of the age,
instead of Wolfowitz and Bush.
And Dachau is empty
just waiting to be filled up with
the American rich.
Let’s put them all on the Autobahn
On top of the Zugspitze
On the bottom of Starnberg Lake
with mad Ludwig.
In the middle of Munich
In the throne room of Neuschwanstein
Everything you see is not what it seems.
This is a bad dream.
And everyone is asleep.
Democracy is fascism
Politicians are speaking out
of the sides of their mouths.
TV is a frontal lobotomy.
Hollywood is a new religion.
Caesar has risen from the ashes....
The Emperor has new clothes,
and it’s all the rage.
It’s a new world order.
It’s an old world cage.
Munich to Pfaffenhofen
RM | I guess there is something of an emphasis on multiculturalism in academia, but one doesn’t come away from that experience feeling like it’s really all that sincere.
TRC | I think that it’s absolutely necessary that we teach, or at least introduce young people to other peoples, other cultures, other creative processes and other realities than their own. I think it’s absolutely necessary!
RM | But once you look at the reality in America, the commercialism, that’s totally going the other way.
TRC | Yes. You can carry that line of thought all the way to the bank--into the heart of globalization and the economy. Basically, what’s happening in this country and in the developing countries, as the result of GATT and NAFTA and general corporate greed, is that the little guy is losing the battle--when there shouldn’t even be a battle! The family farm, here, in rural western North Carolina, is disappearing, like it is everywhere across the country. And I think that’s a real loss--not only culturally, but I think in terms of the actual health of people and the country in general. I think we’ll probably end up paying for these oversights down the road somewhere. It’s sad. The whole thing is sad. And we’ve probably not seen the worst of it, yet--the disappearance of this country’s sustaining values. Of which poetry and the arts are two.
THE SAW-MILL SHACK
I have come to this land,
how many years.
Alone, and for many months,
I have built this saw-mill shack.
Stone stacked and mortared on stone,
logs laid and joyned in joints,
rough oak boards nailed to beams and rafters
with 9” spikes.
Eat lunch each day listening to
rushing stream running over rocks,
through rhododendron, off Doubletop Mountain.
Sound of grouse wings drumming in the woods --
With roof on, windows in,
and woodstove sitting in the hearth,
I stand outside gazing at what
these hands have done.
An old chimney, still standing and covered in vines,
now a place to live.
Tired from labor and a body
too old for work.
Lay another flat, smooth stone into the outyard wall.
Rob Merritt has a B.A. and MA. in English from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. He has taught at Virginia Tech, the University of Kentucky, and, since 1990, at Bluefield College. His primary scholarly interest is modern poetry. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. IntervieworiginallypublishedinNantahalaReview # Issue 2:2. Pageillustrated withworks ofNelson de Paula(Brazil), guest artist of this editionofARC.