Quantum Cowboys and Honky Tonk Heroes: A Conversation with Maurice Manning*

Maurice Manning is a native of Danville, Kentucky. He received an MFA in Poetry from the University of Alabama, and also holds degrees from Earlham College and the University of Kentucky. Manning’s work has appeared in The Green MountainsReview, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Sonora Review, and The New Yorker. His collection entitled Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions is the 2001 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. In the book’s forward, competition judge W. S. Merwin characterizes the visions as “the kind [that] alter as the kaleidoscope turns. They are made up of make-believe, hallucination, memory, fragments of reflected history and legend and fantasized hearsay, dramatized dream, images of wishes and of dread.” Maurice Manning currently teaches in the Writing Program at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.

Sycamore Review: What was the genesis of the Lawrence Booth poems?

Maurice Manning: I had thought of Lawrence Booth as a name for a character back many years ago, I think when I was even in college, probably, undergraduate, or just out of college. The name has an evocative significance for me, and so it’s one I’ve kept through the years. Technically, the name Lawrence Booth is a name that I made up from two people I used to work with, loading trucks at this grocery warehouse in my hometown. The real people that the name is derived from are complete polar opposite sorts of folks. A fair amount of the storyline in the book is material that I have thought about and wrestled with for a number of years too. I never had any sense of how to manage all of this.

My first semester [at Alabama] was rough, just because it was all so new to me. I learned pretty quickly that what had become my familiar way of writing a poem and the familiar kind of poem for me to write was just not that interesting. I also saw that I wasn’t the only one in that boat, that a lot of poems weren’t all that interesting. It sort of made me feel like “Shoot, I want to write a poem where there’s something happening; where there’s a real sense of action, and drama,” which I think allows for the poem to have an emotional life, rather than a cool, intellectual life. Poems can have both, but for me personally the poem I enjoy reading most and the poem I enjoy writing most is emotion-heavy. Not that I’m an advocate for sentimentality or anything like that; I just mean that the feeling is really there in it, and sincere, and that there’s something happening in the world of the poem that is creating that emotion, that is justifying that emotion. By my second semester things just started to change.

How much of Booth is a part of yourself? Where did he come from?

Some of the incidences referred to in the book are true. Some of them obviously could not at all ever be true. But I would say the emotion present in the poems that are fantastical is true, even if the plot referred to by those poems is impossible. I would add that the characters in the book are all composite characters. Mad Daddy is based on several different real people, and my imagined understanding of certain people who were real but that I never actually knew. Black Damon is a very strange composite for me. There’s one particular person Black Damon is largely based on, but then he’s also based on Andrew Marvell’s Damon the Mower, which was made up in the 1600’s, so…

In the foreword to Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions , W.S. Merwin writes about Black Damon’s “caricatured and parodied ‘End-man Minstrel’ language.” Is that what you had intended with the Dreadful Chapters , in which a significantly different diction directs the poem?

I did not intend those things to be in Black Damon’s voice. Mr. Merwin interpreted them in that way. I intended the whole thing to be in the voice of Booth thinking of himself in the third person. So the Dreadful Chapters, according to my intentions, were Booth thinking about himself, remembering the voice he might have used as a child. But I can’t expect everybody to see it that way, so that’s partly why I just left Mr. Merwin’s statement alone. I just thought, “Well, I don’t agree with this, but I can understand how someone could read it that way.”

There are several references to math and science in this collection: a line from “Ontology” refers to this specifically: “Booth’s conception of science: a game of lines and numbers/in which negatives count for more than they should.” The poem “Proof” uses the structure of a geometry solution, which seems to represent the order of the (mathematical) world. Did you plan for it to work as such an effective parallel—the chaos in Booth’s life set against the ordered format of the poem?

I think that’s in there to sort of symbolize some of Booth’s conflict in that the world is presented to him in rational terms, where math is a rational system. Especially the world as he receives it at school is presented to him in very rational, packaged terms, but his own experience contradicts that. Life is not rational. Life cannot be reduced to an orderly system. So I think he becomes suspicious of all that, that rationality. And I would say too that that may be one of the larger social comments the book is making—we live in a world powerfully governed by rationality. We’re forced to be more rational as we grow up.

The poem “Complaint” is set up like a legal document. What was the inspiration for using legal metaphor in the book and for the structure that particular poem?

I think I grew up in a place that blindly approved of lawyers. One of my best friends is a lawyer, so I do have approval for lawyers…some of them. To me it’s all a kind of class-type of…especially in a small town in the South, if you’re a lawyer, you’re a big cheese. My own experience tells me that just because one is a lawyer in a small town does not make one a morally upright person. In fact, it sort of gives one permission to be loose with lots of things.

Another poem, “A Condensed History of Beauty,” is structured on a timeline. It seems as if in the past ten years, especially in American art, there’s a tendency to want to play with chronology a bit. I’m interested in how you came to do that in your own work. One of the really devastating things about the book is that Booth has these moments, very few moments where things actually come into focus and make sense but then almost immediately go back to something else—it’s very sad, and so effective because of that structure. How and why did you decide to structure the order of the poems in the book the way that you did?

In terms of writing it I had to think of it in straight chronology: beginning, middle, and end. So that was okay as far as that goes. Putting it together, it seemed less interesting to use just the standard A to Z sort of design. So much of it, at least from my very personal involvement, so much of it is related to memory and, to borrow an old phrase, “the presentness of the past,” the weight, kind of the constant weight of the past. Chronology doesn’t matter that much. Because something that happened twenty years ago can be still as significant as something that happened yesterday, today. They carry the same emotional weight, if not more. I think I sort of the structure of the book as being cyclical. One of my professors described it as a hub and spokes on a wheel, which is a better visual description I think. Because things get revisited, themes get revisited.

Actually, that is interesting, too, in terms of the language of the Dreadful Chapters, or the epigraph from The Anatomy of Melancholy. Why did you decide to begin the book in that way?

Well, I thought that quote in particular is a peek behind the mask of the project— that it says “I will create myself in a particular way; a way that transcends my old self.” That was sort of my job working on this book. But I also think that all of the characters are melancholy in the book. There are moments of happiness, but they’re short lived.

When they do occur, though, they’re potent. The “red grain of creeping joy” line in “Shady Grove.”

Yeah, I think red is always good. Or revelatory. A lot of the book takes place in a black and white world. Nothing to do with race—black and white in sort of moral terms, but also black and white in terms of color. And the instances of color, where we get a color besides black or white, often indicates something supernatural.

I want to ask you about the character Red Dog as a totemic animal. When you look at a culture and its traditions, these sorts of anthropological issues can be applied. A lot of things about rural Southern life are profane: poverty, family disorder and chaos. Those things that rise above and are colorful, metaphorically, are the things that may mean the most to a child. I tend to view Red Dog in this way – as a sort of spiritual teacher or symbol of future possibilities for young Booth.

I wanted to create a character that creates this set of symbols and totems in order for him to find a way to negotiate the world. I have thought of the dog as a Christ-figure. Red Dog is a color different from the standard kind of binary color system that Booth lives in.

The presence of (if not) God itself, at least various minor gods show up not only in the Lawrence Booth poems, but also in some of your other work. Do you feel that this presence is important to your work as a writer? Why has that become such a touchstone for some of the work you’re doing?

Well, I think I’m interested in God because I have a hard time being comfortable being interested only in myself. That’s why I don’t really care for the confessional mode, at least the extent to which we’ve taken it, just because what is happening cosmologically in that mode is the poet makes him or herself the center of the universe, and he or she becomes the god. I know I sure as hell am not a god in real life. I’m not interested in thinking that, ever. And I feel like I just learn more and experience life in a deeper way when I’m able to stop thinking about myself, and think about what I am witness to, what is revealed to me all the time. Every day. And I feel compelled for some reason to make that experience public.

God is often perceived in Southern culture as—I hesitate to use the word, but—neighborly. There are a lot of physical descriptions of God, for example, in Gospel music and spirituals. Langston Hughes writes about this in the same way: God will touch you, He’ll come down and pick you up, He’ll roll up his sleeves and help you in the field. There’s an almost physical connection and interaction with God, and I wonder how much you think that is a part of the Southern perception of spirituality and whether it has influenced your work at all. That physicality seems to be at least a part of Booth’s experience of God.

Well, I think that’s Booth’s desire. Booth wants to see God. He wants to see God in the flesh, and that’s interesting in a lot of the work that I’ve been doing. It’s not possible, so it’s like an unresolved conflict.

But isn’t that why you could say that Booth, or anybody, would try to imagine God in some way?

Yeah, in general I agree with you. I would say in the South, partly because it is a—in many cases, a less educated culture—the tradition is there to think of God in very human terms. And I think that—and this is a big generalization—but I would say the South is a more emotional world than other parts of the country. The sense of loss is great in the South, the sense of doom is great in the South. More so than any other part of the country, I think, and the desire or want for redemption from all of that is stronger too. So that’s what I mean by more emotional—the pitch is steeper, and therefore the emotions are stronger. And because emotion is what we share with people, it’s very easy for people to want God to have these human qualities, these very human feelings. So I very much respond to that, and I think the opposite doesn’t really make much sense to me either, to think of God as a force field or, you know, DC energy, something like that. That’s really vague for me.

Do you consider yourself to be a Southern writer, or feel like you’re a voice for the South? Do you mind if people think that?

I don’t mind if people think that, but I don’t want to limit myself to that description. I want to feel free to write about whatever I want to write about in a way that I feel is natural to me.

To what extent do you feel that any ‘voice of the South’ speaks for the region, reaching people in a broad way? A lot of cultural issues have been addressed by other Southern writers – do you feel that’s true of your own work?

Yeah. That’s another kind of Southern issue that is interesting to me. I think class is more felt in the South than it is in other regions of the country, and I think it’s partly because—at least in small-town South—the way culture works people have interaction with each other. Poor people and rich people run into each other, know each other, and…need each other, perhaps, in ways that, say, in suburban America especially, that just doesn’t happen.

In a poem like “Feud,” from the book, you have this strong sense of the way relationships exist between people, and the way they get solved. It seems like America is a culture that feels like it’s outside of history: each generation comes along with very little connection to the generation that has come before. There is one particular situation that occurs in the book where the sense of the past constantly weighs, constantly comes in. In what sense is history, the depiction of history, or a history, important to you as a writer?

I personally think it’s a mistake for American writers to not acknowledge the past. I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it goes back to Emerson declaring that we need something new from America. The humble beginnings of American literary culture might be something that people are unconsciously ashamed of—something like that, I don’t know. But I think we have a very fascinating history, and I’m interested in it very much.

It is interesting that two specific objects are presented in the book: a shotgun and a pocket watch. They’re so full of history. So much of daily life in the South is connected to the past: everything in your grandmother’s house might have a story attached to it. Perhaps it is like that in other parts of the country, but the South seems to be particularly anecdotal when it comes to their garage sales, if you will.

I think the South—I’m sure it’s because of the Civil War—I think the South is very protective of its past. And defensive, in a bad way I think. Certain aspects of it I think is not fair, but “protective” is okay, I think, in general. I think it also comes from the fact that the South has for a long time been a kind of oral culture. It’s oral culture for black people and white people in the south. No other part of the country has that, I don’t think. And I think the orality makes things seem old.

If Booth had a favorite country-and-western song, what would it be?

I think he would like an old song by Waylon Jennings called “Lonesome, Ornery, and Mean.” Booth would be interested in sort of country gospel. Mountain gospel.

What about a favorite poem, or could you pick a poem for him?

There’s an old poem I remember…my dad used to say this strange nursery rhyme sort of thing. He would sing it to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” that went, “Had a little chick that wouldn’t lay an egg / poured hot water up and down it’s leg / little chick cried, little chick begged / little chick laid me a hard-boiled egg.” So I thought of that as this sort of seminal thing, because there’s a humor, and violence, and a beauty to that whole thing, to my ear at least.

And a totem animal.

Yes.

If we could switch subjects, I’d like to talk a little bit about craft issues, and your process as a writer. You’ve talked about how the Lawrence Booth work in particular was sort of germinating in your head for several years. When you were working on the collection, how did that take shape as a whole for you? Was there a poem that would come every now and then that was related to the collection, or was it something you were specifically working on in a very focused way?

It was a very focused experience. Really, the bulk of the poems were written in about a year. And I wrote a lot more than actually wound up in the book. For a year or so, that was the only kind of poem I wrote, was a Booth poem. I just felt immersed in it. That’s what happened; I kind of like got four or five poems, maybe seven or eight, written. And it was enough for me to see, “Ah, I’m dealing with a world here.” Once I was able to sense that world, whenever I was ready to write I could just go there. You know how a lot of times when you’re just working on a random poem you just sit there forever, because you don’t know what in the hell you’re going to write about. But if you’ve got this very specified world that you’re emotionally involved with, that you’re intellectually curious about, that you’re imaginatively fired up about, I think you can get there very fast.

What role does revision play in your work?

I sort of revise as I go; that’s part of it. Rarely do I just write 25 lines and then go back and see what I’ve got. I sort of write a line and then think very carefully about what the next line will be. There’s just that kind of self-correcting method that I know of. For me, the real revision comes when I get a big chunk of stuff done, when I can see and get a sense of how it’s fitting together. It’s only then that I can really even have a sense of what I’m trying to do in the larger project.

You’ve said that when you began working on the Booth poems you had a lot of material, and you were just figuring out exactly how to use it. Do you find it’s easier to do that when you’ve constructed a fictionalized framework?

For me, it is, partly because psychologically you’re dealing with material that’s personal. I think you put blinders on and you feel more obligated to be faithful to the truth, strict autobiography or something like that, and to take something and fictionalize it, in a really demonstrative way. I was thinking about this material in the book in first-person, and by putting it into third person it transformed the material and allowed me so much more freedom with it, and made it in a way less difficult to work with. I felt a greater degree of distance between the personal experience and rendering it, so it allowed me a sense of objectivity that was very important.

In terms of writing a more fictional narrative, what is it like, as the artist, to have to move the extra step away when interpretation is brought to the work? How do you reconcile that disassociation as the creator of it?

I just don’t worry about it. I think you have to get to a point where you feel like “I am sending this thing out into the world, and once it leaves my hands it’s out of my realm to have much to do with it anymore,” and hopefully some people will like it, or be interested by it, or there could be better things that happen too. I think it would be a mistake to send something out with instructions for how to understand this and think about it and things you may not do when you read this.

A lot of students say as undergraduates, “Why do I need to learn this? Of what value is literature studies?” As someone who both teaches and is contributing to literature, what would you say is the right answer for an undergraduate student? Why do we need to learn about poetry?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Not necessarily “Why is it important to study poetry?” but more generally “Why do we need creativity and artistic expression?” And I think because that’s how we learn how to feel. It’s the oldest thing we know. We grow up feeling love toward our parents and feeling loneliness. As children, the first things that we’re really cognizant of are not intellectual concepts, they’re emotions. I think the way we do things, especially in this country, our emotional lives get increasingly boxed off as we get older, as we go through school. And unless you have along the way outputs and inputs to that emotional life then it stays stunted. So maybe by the time you get to college or so you’re not really inclined to take an art history class or a music class or a creative writing class because in some ways you’re emotionally underdeveloped, and so you’re not going to be very good at it. We live in a society where we want immediate success, we want to be good at something and if we’re not good at it we just cast it away.

Sylvia Plath says in her journals that one of the purposes of poetry is to “make of a moment something of permanence.” As a way to explain poetry to undergraduates, is that something that you think is a fair explanation of the craft?

Yes and no. I think if you consider someone like Plath who is in a way ultra-interested in representing her own experience, and obviously keeping the veil down, I think that notion of preserving the past or making a moment last works. But to me the downside of that is it sort of encourages us to only be interested and curious about ourselves, and our own lives. Unfortunately we sort of live too much under that shadow now, and it’s sort of constricted American poetry especially as a result because we’ve got this confessional thing, and tend to think that poetry can only be about the poet’s personal experience.

The mainstream media will turn to poets at certain times—as when there’s a horrible disaster—and say “Alright, sum this up for us.” Right after the September 11 th attacks, Billy Collins was interviewed on NPR and said he couldn’t do that because he was too close to it. That event seems to be a clear example of why we may need some distance as writers. How do you reconcile working in an overtly fictional mode with the real events of the world?

I think there are moments of social and cultural commentary in the book. It just depends on the kind of poem we’re talking about, the kind of voice the poet is using. Someone like Yeats: at times he speaks really for himself, and at other times he is clearly speaking for Ireland. He’s got this kind of populist mode that he could work in, but then he’s got the far more private individual mode. I don’t think it’s fair to expect a poet to be one or the other only, nor do I think it’s healthy to expect poetry to be one or the other. I also think it’s maybe helpful to think about exactly what about a historical event poetry responds to. I think about Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” That’s a response to a very specific moment in history, but it’s really not about Yeats. And it’s not glorifying his life or his accomplishments in any way…there’s a little bit of that, but it’s very little.

Was there a time at which you became more certain about the work you were doing? What occurs to make one want to keep pursuing writing?

I don’t know. My first semester [at Alabama] was rough, just because it was all so new to me. I learned pretty quickly that what had become my familiar way of writing a poem and the familiar kind of poem for me to write was just not that interesting. I also saw that I wasn’t the only one in that boat, that a lot of poems weren’t all that interesting. It sort of made me feel like “Shoot, I want to write a poem where there’s something happening; where there’s a real sense of action, and drama,” which I think allows for the poem to have an emotional life, rather than a cool, intellectual life. Poems can have both, but for me personally the poem I enjoy reading most and the poem I enjoy writing most is emotion-heavy. Not that I’m an advocate for sentimentality or anything like that; I just mean that the feeling is really there in it, and sincere, and that there’s something happening in the world of the poem that is creating that emotion, that is justifying that emotion. By my second semester things just started to change.

What is your approach to teaching creative writing?

Oh, I don’t have high hopes. In fact, I don’t really think I’m teaching creative writing; I think I teach, or offer, an example of how to look at the language. Because a poem is not just the language, a poem is what happens, and the people, the personin the poem, and you can’t teach somebody how to do that, somebody has to have a desire to do that, to be interested in that; so all I can do is offer some kind of assistance with fine tuning things, or sharpening things. I don’t feel like I have any more expertise with that than anybody else, I just think that it’s something that I’ve learned is important to consider. And about the time a student of mine learns that too, then any benefit I can have to that student is over. You just have to get in the habit of thinking about language; thinking how it works, thinking how you can manipulate it, and push it, and use it to your service.

Do you think MFA programs help that or hurt that?

I would say they can hurt that. But they can also help it. I mean, clearly with as prolific as MFA programs are, they’re cranking out a lot of people who call themselves a poet. But it’s, you know, sort of like pop music. We’ve got a lot of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears wannabe’s out there, and that’s not really good, I don’t think. But we just got one Bob Dylan.

One Waylon Jennings.

One Waylon Jennings, that’s right.

We have talked a little bit about how poetry is a marginalized art, and how art in our culture is really marginalized…

And trivialized.

And trivialized, definitely. Do you think that there’s hope for it?

Well, I think there is hope for it, but I think where the hope is going to come from is not from society suddenly waking up and saying, “Oh my goodness, we need to be studying poetry again.” I think it’s going to come from our poets and artists. The ball is in our court to make a kind of poetry or a kind of art that is more accessible to more people. But we’ve sort of boxed ourselves off. We’re partly responsible for the predicament we’re in, I think. There’s a lot of artsy folks who snub their noses at the rest of the world, and I don’t think that’s smart. I don’t agree with that.

What is it to be a poet in America today?

Sad. And sort of futile. I’m still dedicated, but I feel like it’s an uphill struggle, and almost an act of futility. I don’t mean to sound like a total pessimist or a fatalist. Poetry isn’t going to change the world. Or stop what’s going on in the world that’s bad right now. Art in general—good art—looks at the world we live in in a fresh way, from a fresh perspective. I don’t think in general as a society we’re interested in doing that. We, in fact, do just the opposite; we want things to stay the same. It’s like now with the so-called economic crisis, everyone wants to return to the good-old 90’s, and I just think, Lord. That’s not very imaginative to want that.

So why do we keep writing?

It’s sort of like Dylan Thomas: rage, rage against the dying of the light, you know? You’ve got to keep doing it. I don’t know why. Just don’t feel good doing otherwise.

*This interview with Bryan Penberthy and Anne Zimmerman was printed as is in Sycamore Review’s Summer/Fall 2002 issue, 14.2. Please note that all facts may not be up to date. Sycamore Review appreciates the opportunity to reprint this interview on the web.