I’ve recently been tagged to participate in “The Next Big Thing,” a literary chain letter/blog hop that’s meant to promote new writing. The gist is that you answer a few questions about an upcoming or recent book, then post these answers to your blog/website/Facebook page/wherever, and tag some friends who will do the same the following week.
My interview is below, and following that is the list of folks I’ve tagged with links to where you can read their answers next week.
What is the title of your book?
A Conference of Birds
What genre does your book fall under?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Consider the birds.
Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
It was published by New Native Press in 2012. I was really fortunate to be able to work with Thomas Rain Crowe, who founded and runs NNP, for my first book. He’s more than just a publisher—I consider him a mentor and a friend.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The book is centered
on my poem “Conference of the Birds,” originally published in Loose
Change Magazine. That poem, in turn, is based partially on Farid ud-Din
Attar’s The Conference of the Birds—the ancient Persian epic in which,
to put it simply, several birds go on a pilgrimage to find God and end
up seeing themselves in a mirror, thus realizing they are a part of God.
“Conference of the Birds” is also based on a day I spent
studying writing with several folks at Janisse Ray’s farm in southeast
Georgia, near the confluence of the Ohoopee and Altamaha Rivers. That
day was full of encounters with birds of all kinds. In Attar’s epic,
there is a guide bird, called a hoopoe (which is a real bird, native to
Africa and Eurasia), that leads the other birds on their pilgrimage.
Given all the birds I recalled from that day at Janisse’s, the
similarity between “hoopoe” and “Ohoopee” struck me, and I’d found the
framework for a poem.
I met Thomas Rain Crowe (through Janisse,
as it would happen) and we became friends at about the same time Loose
Change published “Conference”—maybe a little after. Since I knew Thomas
was into the work of the Sufi poets, I shared my poem with him, just for
the sake of sharing it, and the next thing I knew, he was offering to
publish it. At first, if I recall correctly, he was interested in
publishing the poem (which is almost five pages long) as a very short
chapbook. But he asked me if I had any other poems that fit the theme,
so I sent him all I had that referenced birds and that involved some
sense of seeking, of pilgrimage. He whittled what I sent him down to
fifteen poems, and that’s where the book came from.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
of the fifteen poems in the book spring from moments with my wife, Deana, and
our two children. (Our son is three and our daughter is one now, though
when they appear in the poems, they’re younger—my daughter was just a
month or two old when Thomas first offered to do the book). Three of the
poems in the book spring from moments with my maternal grandfather. So
if it weren’t for the inspiration of these four people, there simply
would be no book.
I have to include Thomas Crowe
as an inspiration, too, because I wouldn’t have put the book together
the way I did were it not for him. In fact, I used a line from one of
his Hafiz translations as an epigraph for the book, because not only
does it capture the book’s essence, but also the kind of poetic
vocation—or pilgrimage, if you will—that Thomas’s belief in me, and thus
the book, set me on: “O Holy Bird, please bless this path I’m on, / for
I’m new to this traveling, / and it’s a long way I have to go.”
birds, of course, were a big inspiration. If you’re interested in how,
probably the best thing to do would be to see my recent interview in the
current issue of Town Creek Poetry—specifically my answers to the fifth
and sixth questions.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
didn’t realize all the poems in the book were going to be part of a
book until Thomas offered to publish it—I guess that would’ve been
November 2011 or so. Since the book came out in March 2012, it seems the
book came together with ease, but it didn’t. A couple of the poems in
the book go back to 2008. “Antidote to Narcissus,” the poem in the book
that’s probably gotten the most attention in terms of the number of
times it’s been published and reprinted, goes back to 2009, and after a
couple years of sending it out and it being rejected each time, I almost
gave up on it. Most of the poems in the book, though, were written over
the course of 2011. In fact, I suppose the seeds of at least thinking
about putting a chapbook together were sown in early 2011, with the
encouragement of some friends at Kennesaw State (especially Kathleen
Lewis). But the short answer is four or five years, without knowing I
was writing a manuscript at all.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
is a question I thought of skipping since it seems to be geared more
toward fiction, but other poets have played along, so why not. The four
people that make multiple appearances in the book are my wife (Deana),
my son (Cannon), my daughter (Opal), my grandfather (Papa, pronounced
more like “paw-paw” than “poppa”), and me. Janisse Ray makes an
appearance as “the poet” in the final stanza of “Conference of the
Birds,” and my neighbor also appears briefly, to poke fun at my attempts
at gardening, in “Parable of the Wren.” So here goes:
Deana: A young Geena Davis, circa A League of Their Own, but with darker hair.
His age ranges from poem to poem (newborn to two), so let’s just say
any toddler who can tell a finch from a warbler and has an affinity for
Opal: She was a newborn when the book was in
publication, but she does appear in two poems—once when Deana was
pregnant with her, and once as a newborn. For the former, we’d just need
a basketball to go under Deana’s (or I guess Geena’s) shirt, and for
the latter, Opal’s a bit more of an extrovert than her brother, so she
could play herself.
Papa: Some combination of the late Walter
Matthau (circa Grumpy Old Men or Dennis the Menace) for the gruff
personality, and Wendell Berry for the looks and accent—and for the
personality, too. Berry-as-actor having been trained by Matthau would be
the ideal. (Berry, of course, is not an actor, and my chapbook, of
course, will never be a movie.)
Me: Once Deana was flipping
through channels and stopped for a second on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Cannon, who was one at the time, saw Jethro, pointed at the screen, and
said “Da-da.” So I guess we’ll go with Max Baer, Jr. at the height of
his career for me. I actually have a poem about this called “Jethro,”
but it’s not in Birds—it’s part of a manuscript-in-progress called The
Book of Jethro.
Janisse: You know, I initially thought I’d try to
be clever with this one, but the more I thought about it, the more I
realized that Janisse’s appearance in my chapbook, and her inspiration
behind the specific poem she’s in, are very small parts of a much larger
story she’s telling, a story that starts in Ecology of a Cracker
Childhood and continues through The Seed Underground—in the sense I am
one of the many, many people Janisse has inspired in her life’s work.
And when I realized that, I realized that an actual movie about Janisse
(independent and artful, of course), based on Ecology but also including
stories from Wild Card Quilt and Drifting into Darien and other such
books, would be pretty cool. She would need to be played by someone with
a penchant for creative activism and social engagement with strong
Southern roots, so let’s go with Ashley Judd. (This thing might be
going to Hollywood after all, folks.)
My neighbor: The late Don
Knotts, circa more Apple Dumpling Gang (or a little older) than Andy
Griffith. We’re really lucky to have good neighbors. This neighbor in
particular is always cutting up with Deana and me, as he was doing when
he saw me digging a garden, a moment that made it into “Parable of the
Thomas: If this were one of those movies not so much
based on a book as it is about a writer writing a book, then Thomas Crowe
would of course need to be played by somebody. In the introduction to
Thomas’s book Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods, author
Christopher Camuto describes Thomas as “a mossy-looking poet of a man.”
From that description, then—not entirely accurate but not entirely
off—we could cast Thomas as an animated Lorax. John Lane, star of River
Time, would also play a good Thomas. That would mean Thomas could play
John since John has some books with New Native Press, and pretty soon
we’d be looking at a multilayered blockbuster trilogy.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
First of all, the cover is beautiful, as is the layout. Thomas did a great job making it a piece of art. And I'm really fortunate that my friend Hara Woltz allowed NNP to use her artwork for the cover and title page.
As far as the poems:
poem in the book was originally titled “Instant Grits,” and it became
“A Zen Line from the Book of Job” in the final draft. I don’t know how
that’s possible. It’s about a hawk eating a starling.
One of my
favorite poems in the book, “The Water Oak,” actually turned out pretty
light and playful for the subject matter—it’s essentially a meditation
on death based on a conversation I had with my grandfather—though in the
initial drafting stages, it was a multi-page, way-too-heavy-handed
rebuttal of sorts of the canto from The Inferno about the wood of
suicides. In the initial drafts, I was trying to turn Dante’s extremely
negative tree imagery around, but keep that imagery connected to death
in some way, and my grandfather supplied a quote that allowed me to do
that. So I put Dante aside and just wrote about my conversation with
Papa. A representative few lines: “It’s a damn lie, my grandfather
cawed, / all them old women who carry on / about how good a dead body
looks. / Just an old corpse if you ask me.”
Other things from the
book: A heron refutes the myth of Narcissus. Buzzards and humans have
featherless faces for metaphorically similar reasons. A poet silently
teaches that no talk of poetry in the world will amount to the poetry of
a bluebird resting on a fencepost. Goldfinches fall like pollen grains.
Purple martins flare for dragonflies. Crows play on a hospital roof
just feet away from a “new and unknown” little girl. And so on.
thing that might possibly pique readers’ interest is hearing me say
that, yes, the book is sentimental in places. Not in all places, to be
sure: Aside from some of the unsentimental things already mentioned,
within the book there’s a passing reference to our prison system, a
“parable” about the folly of industrial poison, a polluted river
coursing through a broken history, a reflection on the scars of war and
abuse, etc. But sentimentality persists in some places. The chapbook has
been well received, but one critique it’s gotten a couple times, and that I agree
with, has to do with the sentimentality.
What I hope this book shows,
though, is an early fire that might just sustain the poems I’m working
on now and the ones to come years down the road. I’ve been so busy with
my full-length collection, Starting from Kennesaw—not to mention with
life in general—that Birds sometimes seems like a memory even though
it’s just turning a year old. So this interview has been a fun way of
going back and stoking the fire.