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.”