Interview: Maurice Manning

Maurice Manning lives both in and apart from the world. On one hand, he is actively engaged with his own farm and is a vocal environmentalist and activist. He is a respected writer and teacher in local, regional, and national writing communities. On the other hand, he eschews any type of social media and can only bear to look at the news “just long enough to know what is going on.” As a poet he is passionate about using language as a way to articulate and assign meaning to experiences, and yet he often isolates himself from worldly concerns while writing. Even his office on the busy campus of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, is located in a small tract house that sits on the edge of campus, away from the main buildings and gathering spots of campus life.

Manning’s first book of poems, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions (2001), was chosen by W.S. Merwin for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. His other collections are A Companion for Owls: Being the Commonplace Book of D. Boone, Lone Hunter, Back Woodsman, & c. (2004), Bucolics (2007), The Common Man (2010)—a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize—and The Gone and the Going Away (2013). In late 2016, his sixth collection of poems, One Man’s Dark, was published by Copper Canyon Press.

Manning serves as professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Transylvania and lives with his wife and daughter on twenty wooded acres in a 165-year-old farmhouse in Washington County, Kentucky, about fifteen miles from the city of Danville, Kentucky, where he was raised. A Guggenheim Fellow, Pulitzer finalist, and winner of many other prizes and fellowships, Manning also teaches regularly in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and at the annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

He talked with his friend and fellow poet Marianne Worthington in that Transylvania office on a sunny afternoon in mid-September about his latest book of poems, the importance of craft in poetry, and the role of the artist in society.

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MARIANNE WORTHINGTON: One Man’s Dark has been summarized as “elegant pastorals” that combine the “corporeal and the spiritual.” Likewise, another critic said the collection “emphasizes human beings’ dependence on both nature and the divine, and thus the book is filled with poignant descriptions of nature’s beauty… as well as with explicit references to God…” Were these ideas what you had in mind while you were writing the poems?

MAURICE MANNING: When I was working on the poems, my thinking was to work from a recurrent set of images. All of that was intentional on my part, and there’s a motion to that because it is repetitive. And the writing style of this book is dense and repetitive in a way that a blackberry bramble is dense and stuck together. Or, in our region of the country when you look out at the hills, it’s hard to tell when one hill ends and another begins. That sense of inter-connection, of inter-weaving, there’s a motion and flow to that as well; there’s a continuity in the landscape. I feel like this book is attempting to get hold of that, and I wanted the writing to parallel that.

MW: And what about the notion of the dream motif that also recurs throughout One Man’s Dark?

MM: Actually, I would find myself writing many of the poems in my sleep. It’s been rare when I’ve had an experience like that.

MW: Could you remember the poems when you woke up?

MM: Yes. I could remember lines. I could remember images. Certainly rhythms. And there was a point where, in the several years that I was working on the poems, it didn’t matter to me to make a distinction between reality, memory, or dream. They all seemed to be flowing in and out of each other in a way that parallels what I was just saying about the landscape and the whole process of nature. We might be able to experience nature in its small parts but that’s not what nature is. Nature is all of it, all at once, all the time. Usually for the purposes of some kind of art, we take a part of nature and focus on that. A poem of any kind isn’t going to grab hold of it all. I was trying to at least imply the challenge of confronting the whole of nature and that it’s the kind of challenge that makes you erase distinctions between memory, reality, and dream, to erase distinctions between the present and past. There’s an effort to find the language to describe that kind of picture. My interest in that was most explicit. I was conscious of the effort.

MW: Could you talk about what the reviewers found in your poems that they’ve labeled as religious or spiritual dimensions?

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MM: My only foundation was going to church every Sunday morning—an experience I had growing up. That just introduced the terms available for me to talk about spiritual encounter, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I’m perfectly happy to use the terms of conventional religion in poetry. I was thinking about this last night. I had a moment, and I was working on a poem. The poem was about wondering whether or not God has stopped both ering with the world. Whatever intervention God may have done in the past, according to our scriptures, well maybe God is done with that. What do we do then? I was thinking what if God has checked out? Our attention seems to be so claimed by other things these days that God’s response is to say, Alright, then, let’s see how you do. I’m not trying to be funny about this; it was a serious consideration. It’s also the kind of thing that doesn’t have an answer. You can’t verify it. For me, that’s what poetry does. It makes a connection between the thing that can possibly be witnessed or grasped or experienced and that thing that you see out in the world or beyond that is sort of the explanation or meaning of that experience. The poem for me is the means of going from one realm to the other, making that connection.

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MW: Isn’t that much like the definition of metaphor?

MM: It is. It is exactly, and that is why I think about metaphor all the time. It is a way to transfer significance from one domain to another, usually very different domains. And that is the practical value of a poem. And to go back to religious or spiritual matters, that’s what prayer is for me. Prayer is in a similar category.

MW: Is the writing of a poem like a prayer for you?

MM: I had this very conversation the other day with a graduate student I’m working with. This is a matter that I’ve thought about a lot. I don’t want to think that writing a poem is equivalent to prayer. I think that diminishes what prayer is and its purpose. I see the analogies between the two but I just don’t want to get myself in the little box of saying, oh, because I write poems I have a very rich and active prayer life. And it’s mainly because I want to realize the difference between the two and the different purposes of poetry and prayer. What I said to my student was: perhaps the poem that has a spiritual dimension to it is the effort the poet makes in preparation of prayer. Prayer would be a result of the poem, maybe, or a state of spiritual consciousness that the poem has made possible in some way. The prayer itself is beyond the poem or the writing of the poem. I’m still forming my thoughts about this, but some of my thinking is that poetry is too worldly, its concerns, its basis, and to me, prayer is willing to let go of worldliness. For instance, I enjoy going to the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, and just sitting in silence. I don’t have to think about anything. In some ways, I’m emptying my thoughts in that place. My soul is restored in that kind of experience, and it is a wordless encounter and even a soundless encounter.

MW: Perhaps these thoughts are related to how the reviewer summarized your poems as “elegant pastorals” that combine the “corporeal and the spiritual”?

MM: In the summer of 2009 I went to Somerset County in southwestern England to the little village of Nether Stowey which is where Coleridge and Wordsworth met. That’s where they took their famous walks, where they would walk all night long through the countryside or they’d walk forty miles a day and then they would write their now-famous poems. Coleridge’s poems “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” “The Nightingale,” and “Frost at Midnight” were written at this time. Wordsworth’s poem “Tinturn Abbey” was written during that time, based on a walk he and Dorothy took a little farther north of Nether Stowey. Anyway, my goal was to take those Coleridge and Wordsworth poems and use them as a map. Then to walk, as best I could, the walk that the poems generated. It was amazing how possible that was to do. I had a topographic map, too, and I had put together enough background that I could kind of figure out the places on the earth that Coleridge was exactly describing in a poem. Syncing all that up was really a powerful experience for me. And it really inspired a lot of One Man’s Dark. It clarified for me that it is possible to write directly about the landscape and that it is possible to trust that the landscape itself is generative of the poem. And that’s what I realized Coleridge, especially, was doing—that the landscape corresponded to the mind and the undulations of the mind and all that fed the spirit. I realized I was trying to do that with the Kentucky landscape. And in particular a patch of the Kentucky landscape that is always in my mind. It’s not just our farm in Washington County, although that is the center point, but it wanders down to Rockcastle and Pulaski Counties where my mother’s people are from, on over to Clay County where my dad’s people are from. It’s an amalgamated landscape for me out of necessity but I wanted to prove to myself that the poems could come by being present in this specific landscape.

Most of the poems in One Man’s Dark are in tetrameter, very much a walking meter, a purposeful and steady gait. That seemed suited to the scale of the landscape. That seemed suited to the idiom of our language around here. Very much a four-beat rhythm.

That’s something I learned from Seamus Heaney, from studying his poems. There was some point in his career where he found the line. He found the vessel best suited for his expression and his sense of language and his idiomatic inheritance. And it was, I would say, a line that’s flexible. It wasn’t Elizabethan, iambic pentameter, it was missing a foot now and then, or had an extra foot now and then, and that flexibility allows so much in his poetry. I have since realized that instinctively I paid attention to that sort of thing in other poets. It was an epiphany in Heaney’s work for me.

MW: Who are other poets who have influenced your work or other poets you are reading?

MM: R. S. Thomas, the Welsh minister, who does something similar to Heaney in that he is willing to be inconsistent (metrically) and not have all the edges polished. I go through phases, too, of recurring appreciations of different poets. I don’t think I’ll ever write a poem like Charles Wright or Brigit Pegeen Kelly or A. E. Stallings, but I enjoy studying their work. They are such gifted and agile poets. What I enjoy is how they use craft but also the idea of what is the big claim here? A poem can be topical, but what the poem is really saying can be way beyond its subject. I like that. You can see that the craft is what allows the poet to transcend the subject. Looking at the craft can get you to those deeper layers in a poem. It’s like looking at the genetic code of a poem, the basic building blocks.

MW: The notion of topicality in poetry seems pretty popular these days. Do you think you have an obligation as an artist to respond to current topical or political situations?

MM: For me, I am not so concerned with topical poems. I don’t know. It’s hard not to think about this without falling into a kind of cynicism. But there’s been injustice of one kind or another since Cain and Abel. While we rightly get upset and want to try and do something about the injustice around us these days, I found that stepping back from the immediate to see the long term is something that I value. For one, it has prevented me from being totally in despair. I think that one of the objects of poetry ought to be the possibility of offering hope or the possibility of offering humor, or a possibility of offering well, we’ll see about that—something that is capable of transforming the rage so that it becomes something else that is not life-killing. Something that is life-giving. I can’t claim to have achieved anything like that, but I will claim to be interested in trying.

If a poem is all reaction and anger on the page and there isn’t a simile and there isn’t a pattern and there isn’t some dynamic between the line and the syntax, no rhythm or anything pleasing to the ear, then the poem is just topical. But the elements of craft can keep a poem relevant even after the topic has passed out of popularity.

There is an intrinsic value in learning how to use the English language. To use the language to express complicated thoughts in lucid terms. We have in our culture at the moment a bunch of people who mangle the language. Maybe they do it on purpose, to obscure what they’re really saying. So I think poets have a role beyond trying to make pretty things. We writers, I believe, can set an example as being people that realize that language is a vehicle for thought and expression and a connection to meaning and purpose. And if the people in charge are deliberately misusing language, deliberately manipulating language with the intention of deceit, then as poets, we’ve got to use language better.

MW: In the last couple of years, you’ve seen your latest book of poems appear with a new publisher, but you’ve also had a big life change as well. Has the birth of your daughter changed how you think now as a writer?

MM: It’s totally expanded everything. I have a whole lot more to think about and a completely new dimension to feel bound to, as I’m sure every parent has realized. The meaning of your life suddenly changes and you can’t go back, and I’m glad. I have absolutely no resistance. It’s a wonderful transformative experience. Now that she is two years old, I can’t do any work at home when she’s awake. That’s not a complaint. That’s just a fact. I needed to work recently, and I had to go to the public library in Danville to get on top of everything.

MW: You’ve talked before about how you perceive your first three collections of poems as a type of trilogy “in the voices of three different characters who use their imagination as a way to mediate their immediate circumstances and their connections to the natural world.” Then the next three collections of poems you called a mythos of Kentucky, statements on community values and community storytelling. Are you still working in threes? Do you have other trilogies planned?

MM: I think I am probably done with that idea. There will always be some connections between my books, but the idea of playing looser is appealing to me. Those two trilogies were rather exhausting to me. My recent sabbatical project, even though it has some relation to an earlier book of mine, is a totally different thing. I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s still in process, but I really enjoyed going and getting a hold of something different with that. And then, I’m working with other new poems. I’ve been working on them through the summer. And then I’ve got two other manuscripts that are just sitting. They are the poems I’ve written in the last four or five years. There’s enough for two more books, and I’m hoping to make the opportunities to sit down and organize them into new collections.

Maurice Manning’s most recent books are The Gone and the Going Away, his fifth collection of poems, and The Rag-Picker’s Guide to Poetry, co-edited with Eleanor Wilner. A former Guggenheim fellow, Manning has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and is a member of The Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at Transylvania University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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