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Poet Maurice Manning, this semester’s visiting writer, will give a public reading of his work on March 14 and a public lecture on March 15 in Dow Rooms A&B. Steve Cody | Courtesy
Poet Maurice Manning, this semester’s vis­iting writer, will give a public reading of his work on March 14 and a public lecture on March 15 in Dow Rooms A&B. Steve Cody | Courtesy

This semester, the Vis­iting Writers Program will bring poet and English pro­fessor Maurice Manning to campus March 14 – 15. Manning is the author of mul­tiple col­lec­tions of poetry, including “Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions,” “Bucolics,” “The Common Man,” and “The Gone and the Going Away.” Manning has taught at DePauw Uni­versity and Indiana Uni­versity, and he is now a pro­fessor of English at Tran­syl­vania Uni­versity and on faculty in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College and the Sewanee Writing Con­ference. On Monday, he will deliver a public reading of his work at 8 p.m. in Dow Rooms A&B, and on Tuesday he will deliver a lecture entitled “Here Lies Andrew Baker: An Epitome on Figures of Speech.”

How has Robert Penn Warren influ­enced your writing?

With Robert Penn Warren, it’s a dif­ferent sit­u­ation for me because he was from Ken­tucky. With two excep­tions, many of his poems are implicitly set in Ken­tucky. A poem that I am par­tic­u­larly drawn to, “Tell Me a Story,” is at the end of his “Audubon: A Vision.” That whole thing is set in Ken­tucky and imagines John James Audubon roaming around Ken­tucky during the frontier days, finding amazing birds to paint. Warren is inter­esting to me because I just feel a kinship to him as a fellow Ken­tuckian and as someone who also writes about Ken­tucky as a subject and a source of lit­erary con­tem­plation. I rec­ognize Ken­tucky as a won­der­fully ambiguous place. It’s a little bit Southern and a little bit not Southern. It’s a little bit in-between — in-between geo­graph­i­cally, in-between cul­turally, in-between his­tor­i­cally. I tend to think of it as a small lens through which to examine the whole country.

Who else has been a major influence on your writing?

Writers have inspired me for dif­ferent reasons. For instance, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins from Vic­torian-era England is one of my all-time favorite poets because of his asso­ci­ation of the natural world with the spir­itual world. I agree with that obser­vation, so it’s natural for me to be drawn to a writer like Hopkins.

One of the things that has jumped out in my reading of your poetry is how con­ver­sa­tional your poems are. They all seem to have a very dis­tinct voice and someone to whom they’re being addressed. Is that some­thing that’s inten­tional? What role does this con­ver­sa­tional element have when you’re writing your poetry?

One indirect way of answering your question is to say that when I’m writing, I talk it out as I compose it. So it’s important for me to believe that a line of a poem is some­thing worth hearing, as dis­tinct from some­thing worth reading. Does that make sense? So when I’m writing a poem, I’m walking around the room saying the line out loud to hear how it sounds. If it doesn’t sound right then I change the line and fiddle with it until it sounds right.

When I was a very little boy, I was for­tunate to have a whole bunch of really old rel­a­tives around. They were great talkers and great sto­ry­tellers and my interest in the idea of a story came from hearing people tell family stories out loud. I think I just have this kind of ingrained impulse to treat lan­guage as some­thing that we listen to. There are all kinds of subtle fea­tures that you can put into the line of a poem that are purely auditory fea­tures. They don’t nec­es­sarily have any­thing to do with the meaning. They’re just little auditory effects that are a part of the English lan­guage. I like approaching and writing the line knowing that I’m going to be using

lan­guage as a kind of musical instrument, if that makes sense.

I feel like there is an unin­ten­tional poetry spoken all around us all the time. Around here, in the local ver­nacular, people will say a sen­tence in casual con­ver­sation. I’ll hear it and I’ll think, “Good Lord, that’s a line of iambic pen­tameter.” And that’s just amazing to me. Unless you know to listen for it, you just don’t hear it. There is a natural rhythm to the lan­guage that I grew up hearing and once I got a little more stu­dious about poetry, I could figure out that much of the way people talk has a poetic music in it.

Many of the poems con­sider the natural world. The speakers in the poems seem to be closer to the natural world than to other people. It’s some­thing they feel self-con­scious about. Where does that come from?

That is a really inter­esting obser­vation. I would not say that I had that in mind when I was working on those pieces, but it makes a lot of sense. I per­sonally feel much more sane and, in a way, loved in the natural world than I do in certain dimen­sions of the human world. Some of that goes way back to when I was a kid. I just wan­dered in the woods all the time, and I’m aware that that part of my childhood was just magical. It was a serious saving grace from some pretty unpleasant things that were going on in our household. My parents had a very uproarious mar­riage, and so being in the household wasn’t a lot of fun at times. I was able to just go outside and wander in the woods and follow creeks and things like that, often alone or with a single friend. It really taught me that there is a place in this world that is com­posed of peace and com­posed of calm and quiet and beauty — all of those things that we like about poetry.

There’s a lot of hes­i­tation that comes across through the speakers. There are many times when the speaker will say some­thing, stop, and then say it again. What’s behind that?

In that par­ticular book, I was con­scious that I wanted the poems to be overtly nar­rative. I wanted there to be a story told in each poem. The kind of hes­i­tation that you’re talking about — stopping the story from going forward, that sort of thing — that might be a way to indicate that when any of us is telling a story, we can some­times get carried away with it. We can some­times amaze our­selves. In telling the story, we can dis­cover a feature of the story that we hadn’t thought about pre­vi­ously, and we stop our­selves, and we think “Wow, here I am. I’ve wan­dered into this labyrinth telling this story that I thought was familiar to me and there’s some­thing right here in the middle of it that I didn’t know was here before.”

I love that about sitting down and writing a poem in general: you can get lost if you don’t try to write a poem with the end result in mind. It’s not a cal­cu­lated decision, it’s like taking a walk.  That’s how I like to write a poem. It’s very lib­er­ating.

I usually don’t sit down with an agenda for a poem. I want to take a couple of steps and see where it goes from there. Some­times, when you’re taking a walk, you can find yourself rather pleas­antly lost, out of your familiar context and you can go beyond where you’ve already been. That’s just important to me in terms of my expe­rience in writing poems. I want it to be a com­pletely lib­er­ating expe­rience.

Do you have moments during that free expe­rience, that walk, in which the writing can become frus­trating and you have to go up a steep hill along the way?

Yes, absolutely. As I often tell my stu­dents, learning how to write a poem is, in many ways, a lifetime task. Even if you’ve been doing it for 15 – 20 years, there will always be times when you realize, “There’s some­thing else I have to learn, some­thing in general, some tech­nical fea­tures.” For each person who is aspiring to be a poet, you have to learn some­thing about your own process too, all the time. You have to be aware, espe­cially as a young person starting out, that you have to give yourself some slack. You have to realize, “How I’m doing this now, at 20 years, is going to change. When I’m 40 years old, I’m not going to be doing it this way. I’ll encounter new methods, new prac­tices, new skills that I’ll learn to fold into my process.”

That’s how you grow in poetry, for sure, and probably many other things. Just because you feel really excited about a poem that you wrote when you were 20, you’ll feel really excited about a poem you wrote when you were 30, and you’ll put the two side-by-side, and it won’t even seem like the same writer. Writing is a very organic process, but, just to con­tinue the gar­dening metaphor, you can’t just throw seeds out on the ground and expect them to grow into some­thing that you’ll eat for the next six months. You have to tend it. Even though there is an organic quality, you have to be con­sciously taking care of things and all the fea­tures, and you get better at it.  

The title of your talk on Tuesday is “Here Lies Andrew Baker: An Epitome on Figures of Speech.” Tell me a little bit about the Andrew Baker in the title — how did you encounter him?

I had a great-great-grandfather’s grave in south­western Ken­tucky. Several years ago my mother and I and a cousin were tracking down old family ceme­teries in the woods and we found his grave. Whoever carved the epitaph on the grave spelled “h‑e-r‑e” incor­rectly. My interest in it for the pur­poses of the lecture is the use of fig­u­rative lan­guage, which we talk a lot about in poetry.

~ Com­piled by Amanda Tindall and Chris McCaffery