“The Next Big Thing” is a blog hop where writers around the world share what they’re working on by responding to the same ten questions. Linda Parsons Marion invited me to participate, and you can read her post on Facebook. I’m tagging Sylvia Woods, Georgia Green Stamper, and Dan Westover for next week.
What is the working title of your book?
I am likely to title it In the Backhoe’s Shadow, which is a line from my poem, “Jones Valley,” first published in Louisiana Literature. In the poem, the speaker notices the gravediggers who wait in the backhoe’s shadow for the mourners to leave a new grave and briefly envies their sense of routine while others suffer such loss.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
This collection of poems comes from my growing awareness of generational shifts as I have become middle-aged, seeing the effects of time not only on my parents and children, but also on standards of value and standards of living. I have become more aware of how notions of family and tradition have changed in the past few decades, and, prompted by some family experiences, I hope to preserve sense of belonging. I am also, I admit, trying to figure out explanations for odd pieces of experience. “Mandolin,” first appearing in The Connecticut Review, came from my learning at fifty that my maternal grandmother insisted that her new husband stop playing his mandolin once they got married. I was astounded by that information; everyone had always encouraged me and my brother to learn to play music, as my wife and I have encouraged our children. Since my grandmother passed away many years ago, I of course could not ask her why she banished the mandolin; however, I pondered reasons for a long time and came up with some explanations, mostly centered around a young wife who believes her husband sings about experiences he yearns to have. I’ll never know my grandmother’s true reasons, of course, but I benefited from considering possible reasons.
I also started mandolin lessons pretty soon afterwards.
I think I am likely to face a couple of uncomfortable reactions to some of these poems, though. In some cases, for the sake of the poem, I have fudged on facts a bit and will have to plead “poetic license.”
Another situation that may crop up will come from my mixing completely fictional first-person narratives in with the more autobiographical material, some of it scandalous, so I am expecting interesting conversations in future family reunions.
What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry, with a mix of lyric and narrative pieces—
Which characters would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I wish I could tell you that Tim Robbins would be perfect to play me, but mirrors have insisted over the years that either Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie and Clyde) or Eraserhead-era Jack Nance would have much closer physical resemblance. I think I would want Atticus Finch to consult with Sheriff Taylor in Mayberry, and go for that feel as long as the film can sustain it. Finch could use some of the relief, and Taylor could use some of the help.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
I was listening that whole time, but I’m still trying to understand.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I have not started sending this manuscript out yet. I am new to the idea of publishing a creative volume, more accustomed to submitting single pieces to journals; my book publication experience has been with academic texts, and I am not certain how that experience will translate. The great majority of these poems will have been published in various journals. This collection will be my first book-length creative manuscript submission.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It has taken a bit over three years so far. I have been balancing creative writing with academic and scholarly writing, presenting papers, and publishing essays. My co-editor Roxanne Harde and I have a collection of essays, Walking the Line: Country Music Lyricists and American Culture, coming out later this year, and preparing that volume has taken a lot of concentration and energy. I do not know what it would be like to have the liberty to focus on creative writing alone. So, I’ve been piecing this manuscript together for quite a while.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Most of these poems describe ordinary circumstances that carry emotional resonance not obvious in the immediate experience, so the content would compare to any number of works.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As I have mentioned before, questions about family and tradition have prompted many of these poems. I confess that a couple are a product of useful eavesdropping, but I have an immediate tie, either through personal experience or through having integrated family stories, to the situations in most of the poems. Of course, saying that any of it “really” happened is another matter. This volume is not a family history so much as an exploration of family and its meaning—I incorporate family to illustrate, not to define.
Regarding the writing itself, part of what happened was in spring 2008 I was at a scholarly conference and met someone who had been serving as associate dean at another university, and, when she learned that I had just gotten a similar appointment, she said that I “would never get anything written.” I took that comment hard, because I was still teaching and working on some projects. Her comment strengthened my resolve that I would continue writing as much as I could. Then, that fall, Jesse Graves joined our faculty at ETSU, and Dan Westover joined us in 2010. I cannot express how appreciative I have been of the catalyst these two have been to my writing, with the encouragement that they have offered and continue to offer. As I completed a book project, I was beginning creative writing again after a long fallow period, and I have regained a feeling of needing to write. I also began attending conferences that concentrated on writing (I have attended every Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University, for example), and I have come to recognize writing as a community activity. The generosity offered by these folks can be overwhelming at times, just overwhelming.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
On the submissions page for Appalachian Heritage, George Brosi expresses editorial preferences like so: “Please spare us the 'Papaw Was Perfect' poetry and the 'Mamaw Moved Mountains' manuscripts.” My work is not nostalgic, romantic, or sentimental, although I hope it does convey feeling and thoughtfulness, with a bit of mischief thrown in.
Coming up next, week, look forward to hearing from Sylvia Woods, Georgia Green Stamper, and Dan Westover. Thanks for reading!