interview: Maurice Manning
when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?
All of my poems have something to do with Kentucky, with Kentucky’s particular landscape, history, and culture. While I hope my poems have something to say to anyone interested in poetry, I acknowledge that my poems begin in Kentucky. I’ve always felt that I come from a mysterious and haunting and lovely place; I’ve felt lucky for that, and I think my writing is an effort to be thankful for this place, even if, turning the place around, one discovers one dark side after another.
how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?
I think poetry, and probably any art, can be a valid means for spiritual contact, because doing the work calls for focus and concentration. Writing a poem requires one to pay attention to the process of imagination and discover the sense of its mystery. I would think one has to be quiet and nearly still in order to write a poem; you have to pay deep attention. In my experience the thing I attend to most is the fact that we are always living in Creation—the hills and trees, the weather, the birds and creatures, the stars and moon, the stream and the sound of the stream: this is the constant, unavoidable backdrop for any human endeavor or experience. Seeing the intricate qualities of the natural world is much like noticing the technical skills that have been used in making a painting or a poem—each little gesture is vital to the whole. Being closely involved with Creation ought to bring one fairly close to the Creator.
when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.
Most of my poems “arrive” unexpectedly, as small wonders and surprises. Every day I have to be outside in the woods, sometimes doing a farm chore, but always outside walking, moving over my local landscape.
I like feeling the physical features of the ground underneath my feet and I enjoy falling into a rhythm as I go—a rhythm of movement and eventually a rhythm of thought.
Once that rhythm of thought arrives, a line or an image often follows. I’ll keep the line or image in my mind for a while, until it seems ready to sit on the page. Usually I begin with a line and find the next line that naturally follows it and the next one after that.
when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!
Revision is something I tend to do all along; it’s part of my composition process. Because I write line by line, I will labor for hours over just a handful of lines. I want to see where the poem wants to go, but I want each line to be “right” as the poem goes. I stick with that method until what seems to be a full poem is on the page. I read that version of the poem over and over for several days, usually finding lines to change, rhythms to vary, phrases to shift. Then I type the poem and see how it looks on the printed page and hear again how it sounds. Once I am ready to put a batch of poems together, I usually make further changes. The initial version of a poem might take a few days or a few weeks, but by the time I reach the final version of a poem, years have gone by. I often tell my students the best thing one learns from writing poetry is patience. You have to work at something a long time; you have to work carefully and slowly, and you might have to start all over again and again.
what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?
The first step to writing is reading. I think anyone interested in writing ought to find a range of writers he or she likes and then strive to see how the work has been made, how the evidence of craft reveals itself. That will prove that writing is hands-on work—not merely the magical result of inspiration or feeling. I think a writer has to enjoy doing the work of writing, making elaborate patterns and systems, or “word machines,” as William Carlos Williams suggests.
would you like to share some thoughts about what you’re working on lately?
I’ve been thinking about a well that was behind a house my family lived in when I was a youngster. That well has a literal significance, but I’m in the midst of re-thinking its possible symbolic significance. I have a few lines in my notebook, but the poem is still in the works. We’ll see!
Maurice Manning is currently a Guggenheim fellow. His fourth book of poetry, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Manning teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and in the fall he will begin teaching at Transylvania University in Lexington. He lives in Kentucky.