Mark Jarman, a poet from Tennessee, visited campus to deliver a lecture and a poetry reading on September 23 and 24. Jarman came to campus as a part of the Visiting Writers’ Program.
How long have you been teaching at Vanderbilt and what do you teach there?
I have taught there for 37 years. I teach creative writing and classes on modern poetry for undergraduate and graduates.
How long have you lived in Nashville?
Since 1983. I moved there to teach at Vanderbilt, and my wife also teaches there. She teaches classical singing in the music school. We settled down in Tennessee and raised both our daughters there.
Where did you live before you moved to Nashville?
Before I moved to Nashville, I taught at Murray State University in Western Kentucky. We lived there for three years and had come from Los Angeles, where we were born.
Do you think that California has any influence on your poetry?
A lot of my poetry is about growing up in California. My wife and I grew up in different parts of Los Angeles, so Southern California is what we think of as home, even though we haven’t lived there for 40 years. It has a big influence on my poetry.
Growing up in Southern California became a subject for me when I moved away, really. So the poems I started writing about it were poems of homesickness. But the other place that appears in my poetry and which I returned to often is Scotland, where my father served a church for a number of years when I was a boy. We went as a whole family when I was 6 and returned when I was 9. But I have returned many times.
So I have these two places that were the places that my poetry sort of hangs on. One is a linoleum factory town on the North Sea, and the other is balmy, palmy, southern California. And yet, I’ve spent most of my life living in the south.
And I write about the south, I actually love it — the landscape, people. There’s a sense in which I think of my poetry as reflecting the landscape: the natural world of that landscape and the spiritual meaning of that landscape.
How long have you written poetry?
I started writing when I was twelve and have been writing since. There are different senses of what the discipline of writing was. I was lucky to meet a high school teacher who got me to understand that this is an art, like practicing the violin. It needed to be practiced daily, it also needed to be a process of revision. He got me to take it seriously. So I’ve been writing since I was twelve, and when I was sixteen I realized this was something to take seriously.
I wrote my first poem when I was twelve and I enjoyed it. I wrote a really terrible ballad, I still know it. It’s so dreary. But it was a process that engaged me for several days, and I would look forward to going back and working on it. I loved the sound of it as it was emerging.
I was basically writing a poem in what we would call “hymn meter.” I am the son of a minister, so I grew up singing hymns and reading hymns, so what I think happened is that the meter and language of the hymn came into my mind. And I wrote something like that.
Also, my mother’s mother was a writer, and when I’d visit her in San Diego she’d always read to me what she had written. She wrote poems, and stories, and a novel once. And maybe all of these things came together.
Did you study poetry in college?
I went to the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1970 because at the time it was a really cool place. But when I got there, I realized it had a really loose academic structure, and I needed more structure. So I had a traditional English major. But there was a lot of writing going on among students and faculty, so I fell into the writing scene. So while being a traditional English major, I was also writing poetry and hanging out with the other poets.
How would you describe your style of poetry?
The first poems I wrote were all in very traditional meter because I was reading poets who wrote that way, from Robert Frost to the poet W.H. Auden. But as I got older and read more poetry, and learned more about poetry, I discovered that I wanted to write in more free verse. As I developed I discovered that my original interest in form and tradition and meter and rhyme didn’t mean that I had to exclude the kind of subjects I was writing, so I moved back to that. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can move easily between free-verse poems and poems in a traditional form.
When I went to graduate school, my wife and I went to Iowa City, Iowa, where I went to the writer’s workshop in the mid-1970s. From there, I had my first teaching job in Evansville, Indiana. And from there, we went to live in Italy for a year. I got a national endowment for the arts grant, and I had a friend who said I could live on that money in Italy, so we went. My wife studied singing and I wrote a book. Then when we came back, I taught for a year at UC Irvine, and from there we came to Murray, Kentucky. So that’s basically my travels.
Do you still write and publish poetry?
Yes, some of the poetry I’m sharing tonight I have written recently. And I have a little poem in the September issue of “The Atlantic.” Usually, I publish my poems in literary journals, but sometimes I’ll have a poem someplace more national or international like The Atlantic.