Ed note: John Lane is a naturalist, author, professor of Environmental Literature and Creative Writing at Wofford College, and co-founder of the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina
NA: I first met you at a poetry reading back when you were a Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia. Already an accomplished poet, I remember listening to you read the poem, “Quarries,” which beautifully articulates the poet’s need to look at the losses in the world, a poem I am happy to find in your new and wonderful collection, Abandoned Quarry. The poem ends with the line: I longed to grow into a man and work/to quarry the emptiness outward/until all was level again. I know it’s an odd question, but I’d love to know how you see your evolution as a poet? How has your quarrying been?
JL. Thank you Nin. That was I believe 1980. A long time ago. (It’s getting close to the time when “half a lifetime ago” isn’t just a figure of speech!) I’ve always loved that poem “Quarries,” which I wrote during my Hoyns Fellowship year in Charlottesville. It’s one I return to often when I want some sort of hard fix on what I want from my poetry. I’ve got a great story that goes with its republication in Abandoned Quarry. I was back in Charlottesville last fall as a visiting environmental writer at UVA’s Brown College and I had breakfast with Greg Orr, my mentor in whose workshop I wrote “Quarries” over 30 years ago. It was a very emotional visit for me—walking the Lawn and seeing old friends. It was one of the few times I’ve been back there since I left in 1981. As you know, lots of my changes were there, both good ones and bad. When I told Greg the name of the new & selected poems I had due out from Mercer University Press he picked up the reference to the old poem right away. “I can’t wait to read the poem called “Abandoned Quarry,” he said. I had to admit to him that I had not written a poem called “Abandoned Quarry,” and he said, “Well, get to it. You can’t call that collection ‘Abandoned Quarry’ unless there’s a poem to show why.” So that next day I wrote a first draft of the poem “Abandoned Quarry” in the Charlottesville airport on the notes app of my iphone! In a few days I sent it to Greg right and we “work shopped” the poem back and forth, and now I have that new echo poem to that one written over 30 years ago. Strangely enough, it was written in Charlottesville. So after 30 years of, as “Quarries,” says, “thick dust stirring, then slowly settling around me,” I’m still at it!
NA: I often think of you as a nature poet, recalling many of your poems that move gracefully from the natural to the personal, from the intimate to the infinite. But you write other kinds of poems including your quirky and insightful dead father poems. I am not usually a fan of dead father poems, but yours I love. They remind me of how the dead actually do continue to talk to us—in the most ordinary ways. I love how the dead father in the poems is cooking hash browns, gambling, telling you to change the oil in your car, etc. Can you talk a little about these poems? Which poem was your first dead father poem?
JL: Those are real ghost poems. I wrote the first one—“My Dead Father Dressing”-- at Interlochen Arts Academy in the winter of 1987 or ’88. I was there teaching as a poet in residence for a semester. I’d been out cross country skiing and I’d piled my wet clothes in the corner of my little room when I returned and then sat down to type at my computer. Out of the corner of my eye I had this funny little vision of my long dead father putting on my clothes. The spooky visitation only lasted for a few microseconds but in the midst of it I began typing this poem, “I see my dead father in the room…” A little background: a few weeks before at Christmas my mother had given me my father’s driver’s license. He’d died, a suicide, in 1959 when I was five years old. Well, when I looked at the license I noticed that my father was only 5’6”. I never knew that. I’m over 6’! Well, that I believe was the beginning of it in my unconscious. Fathers are supposed to be bigger than sons, and yet my father was a half a foot shorter. There also was the whole thing Donald Hall made famous among poets with his long poem “The Day I Was Older.” Will we live more years than our fathers were given? (Or our mothers?) Well, in 1987 I was 33 years old, and I knew my father took his own life when he was 44. Over the next ten years I wrote the rest of the poems that appeared in The Dead Father Poems, the beautiful letter pressed Horse & Buggy collection in ‘99. The last one in the collection (or section in the new & selected) is “My Dead Father Rebuilds My Engine,” where he rebuilds an old car in my yard and then “hands me the keys.” Very metaphoric! And I wrote that when I was approaching the age my father was when he died. It’s all about ambition (“a dream with a V-8 engine,” as Elvis said) and about my dead father giving me permission to go on without him. The last poem written though was the one called “My Dead Father Visits my Mother.” This poem was a request written for my friend, the poet Deno Trakas. He read the collection in draft and said, “You know what’s missing? He’s got to go over and visit your mother.” He was right and so I added that one in before it was published.
NA: I have been enjoying your two new books, Abandoned Quarry, and The Best of the Kudzu Telegraph, bending the pages of the poems and essays I like the best. As I do this, I think of how authors often read the same pieces from their collections over and over again—when they give readings. I am wondering if you could name one or two of your favorite poems and essays to read aloud?
JL: It’s hard to decide. There are 107 poems in there written over a period of 33 years in the collection, so I could dip in almost anywhere. I have little colored markers on the ones I read a bunch. There’s “Quarries” and “Tony Dorsett and his Band,” from the early years, and I have to read “Sweet Tea” if I’m in the South (it’s become my “Sweet Baby James” here in South Carolina) and I like to read the “Certainty” section from the long poem “Against Information,” and I always read a “Dead Father Poem” or two, and the Mark O’Conner improvisation “Delta Morning Blues,” and of the new poems I’ve read “My Sister Cleans Out My Ears” several times, and “Cliffs of Moher” once or twice. With The Best of the Kudzu Telegraph I like to always read “The Battle for Suger Tit,” and “The Not So Constant Gardner” and “Ode to a Truck” and “Whose Planet is it Anyway?” I think those transcend the local and people seem to enjoy them all over, even above “the kudzu line.”
NA: After reading Kudzu Telegraph, a collection of nature essays that you wrote as a weekly column for the Spartanburg Journal, I have a silly question for you. How do you go about catching a snake? (Feel free to answer with a poem.)
Often as not
You just reach down
And simply snatch it.
Others (when you
Note it’s poisonous)
You directly employ
The services of a good stick
Or a good friend or a bucket
Or at best all three. Sometimes
You don’t catch it at all
You just look on in joy
Instead, it catches you
NA: I know you have always had an interest in nature, but how did you become a nature writer and essayist? And a professor of Environmental Literature?
JL: Well, I fell in love with the world and it just poured through and I’ve never been able to stop it. I also have been blessed with a set of great field scientist friends and they’ve been with me from early on and set me on the right track. My best friend in college is now a fine herpetologist, and when I was at UVA I lived with a group of environmental scientists, and one of my primary mentors, Ab Abercrombie, is a world class alligator and crocodile expert, and a new friend, Drew Lanham, is an ornithologist of some note. As for becoming a professor of environmental literature, I’m drawn to those sorts of nature/culture stories and poems and films, and so when I saw a chance to become the humanities presence in our new environmental studies major at Wofford college, I took it.
NA: Publishing a book of poetry or maybe of essays as well-can be very discouraging. I think you quoted Donald Hall once . . . What was it he said about the publication of a new book of poems? And could you comment on Donald Hall’s statement?
JL: Don Hall has been a major mentor to me. We have corresponded for almost 40 years. He said somewhere that publishing a book of poems can feel like clapping in an empty room, and even though I like to quote that, it’s never felt that way for me. Of course I’ve never gotten the kind of attention we all crave as ego-driven artists (“Love me and please love my poems!!”) but when a new book comes out there are always notes from friends and fans who show up at readings and usually a few reviews and things like this interview to show that the room may not be full, but there are people out there hiding behind the furniture who still love poetry. In the end the mere response to your work is gratifying and enough to make you feel that we’re part of something bigger than us—the rush of the passing river of literature! Another thing Don said once to me when I was complaining that I didn’t have enough acclaim was that if you compare yourself to your contemporary peers you are “swimming in a small heated pool.” “Swim in the ocean,” he insisted, “where there are sharks like Keats and Dickinson.” I guess the room where you clap alone is kind of like the small heated pool.
NA: Knowing what you know about publishing, what inspired you to become a publisher yourself? Tell me about the Hub City Writers Project. Why and how you helped bring it into existence . . .
JL I worked once for Copper Canyon Press. I was there in the early years when my old friends Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson were still running the operation and much of the output was letter press. Sam and Tree got me an NEA apprenticeship grant and I spent a year learning about design and printing in 1978/1979, the year before I met you in Charlottesville. I worked on books by Olga Broumas, Gary Snyder, Robert Hedin and others, including a letter press pamphlet of “Thin Creek,” the first poem that I reprint in “Abandoned Quarry.” When I finally landed back in Spartanburg I taught a semester at Wofford College and I brought back to the South with me the memory/taste for that sort of west coast literary community that I’d fallen into in Port Townsend. Much of the culture in that town revolved around several good presses—Copper Canyon and Graywolf, both now very different than they were in 1979. When I went back to teach at Wofford in 1984 I founded a small press called Holocene, based on the Copper Canyon Press model I’d learned from Sam & Tree. I tried a few years being a small press publisher and couldn’t really make it work. I was trying to go it alone. At first I was letter pressing broadsides and several small chapbooks which I’m still very proud of, but I didn’t have the temperament for the detail work, and so I began doing offset work and also experimenting with early desktop publishing. (I wrote a little about this in an article in Poets & Writers about 1995 or so.) In fifteen years with Holocene I published work by David Romtvedt, Jim Peterson, Janet Wondra, David Lehman, Stephen Sandy, and many others. I guess I published about 25 or thirty chapbooks, books, and such, then I lost steam. I kept the dream of “literary Spartanburg” alive as best I could. It wasn’t until I co-founded Hub City Writers Project in 1995 with several friends that it became a reality. Here’s how it happened: I’d come back to teach full-time at Wofford in 1988 and about 1993 a crazy Californian drifted through Spartanburg and opened a coffee shop where a bunch of us started hanging out, and that’s where I met two journalists with literary sensibilities, Gary Henderson and Betsy Teter. It’s in that coffee shop where the three of us decided to publish and edit a book of personal essays by writers about Spartanburg to be called Hub City Anthology, and the Hub City Writers Project was born, reasserting the traditional nickname for the community, a hub where train tracks crossed. We did that book and it went great guns. We sold out of the first printing, decided to do another book, this time about the Spartanburg music scene (Hub City Music Makers), and then a third, with Christmas stories from the community, Hub City Christmas. It wasn’t until the forth book that we got really “literary.” That book, New Southern Harmonies, was a collection of stories by four emerging Upstate fiction writers—including wonderful crazily talented George Singleton among them!—and that book somehow won Independent Publisher Magazine’s top award for a book of short fiction published that year in North America. I edited New Southern Harmonies and it’s something I’m very proud of. After that Hub City was off and running. Soon after the organization had a budget, a board, and a staff of one—Betsy. Then a couple of years after Betsy and I met we started going out and we eventually married, merging our literary dreams and our lives. Betsy’s always been the real force behind things. She’s amazing—a great editor, dedicated, and disciplined. Now she’s the full-time executive director of Hub City Writers Project, a $400 thousand a year organization that publishes 4-6 books a year, runs a writers conference, manages several contests (including the South Carolina Novel Prize), and operates a not-for-profit bookstore in downtown Spartanburg. These days I’m just contributing ideas and such. Gary and I are now board members emeritus, and we’re on the press advisory board. I’m still good at keeping the ideas flowing, but Betsy’s the one who does the real day-to-day work of running a press and a bookshop (now with a staff of seven full and part-time others) and she’s great at it and the organization has evolved into something like nothing else in the country under her leadership.
NA:Is Hub City a regional press? As with your environmental writing: have you focused on the writings about the land and people that you know intimately and love deeply? If so, does the regional aspect of Hub City help with the sales and marketing of the books?
JL: Hub City started out hyper-local, and we started out by focusing on place, this place. We sold 2500 copies of the first book, “Hub City Anthology,” mostly in two zip codes. There were two or three essays in there you might call “nature” pieces but there were also pieces about community. Many of our books have sold that way—locally—but in last few years we’ve begun to be more of a regional or even national press. Novelist Ron Rash’s first book of poems in 10 years is due out this month from Hub City. I’d argue Ron’s a national literary figure and this book will get national attention.
NA: What are some of the high points of Hub City’s publishing history? Feel free to provide links.
JL: Early on, in the late 90s, there were articles in “The Utne Reader” and national daily papers. A half-dozen organizations nationwide copied our model and did books of their own after those early articles came out.
Lately I’d say that getting an article about us in Publishers Weekly was a big deal.
lAnd it was great hearing Betsy appear on NPR’s What D’Ya Know to talk about the organization when the show broadcast from Spartanburg.
And of course the best way to get a glimpse of the Hub City Literary Empire is to read about it on the great web page:
NA: Will you be in New York City, promoting your press or new books any time soon? Do you have a touring schedule?
JL: I’ll be in New York September 8-11. I don’t have much lined up yet. A good friend is holding a literary party for me to celebrate the book. It’s hard to break in up there! If anyone has any ideas of a bookstore or venue that might want me to read or sign that weekend, I’d love to contact them. So I’ll be reading mostly in the southeast this fall, and I have been asked to read at Vanderbilt in February and I’m looking forward to that. Once again, if there’s anyone who would like me to come visit, just get in touch. Have new book, will travel!
John Lane teaches environmental studies at Wofford College where he also directs the Goodall Environmental Studies Center. His latest prose book is My Paddle to the Sea, forthcoming this fall from The University of Georgia Press. Other recent prose books include The Best of the Kudzu Telegraph (Hub City Writers Project, 2008) and Circling Home (University of Georgia Press, 2007). His Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems was published by Mercer University Press in 2011. Find out more about John Lane here.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here.