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The poetry of work 

"The poets of our age have a lot of responsibility," wrote a 24-year-old Robert Morgan to Russell Banks and William Matthews, his editors and compatriots in a literary uprising that was taking place on U.S. college campuses in the 1960s. "It's up to us to make sure poetry doesn't become a luxury, something like fine perfume or cognac for the wealthy to dig in their leisure ... [It] should be a way of life."

That was 1970. Morgan was living on his father's farm in Zirconia, N.C., a place he once described as "luxurious with briars and rusting barbed wire, gullies the color of peach fuzz lined with bastard pine." He had finished his MFA at UNC-Greensboro in 1968, published his first book of poems a year later with Lillabulero, the press founded by Matthews and Banks, and was trying to write new verse while laboring on tomato and bean crops, and coping with his wife's sudden flu in a hamlet far away from the hospital.

It is hard to see that struggling young farmer when you look back at Morgan's career now, which includes 10 volumes of poetry, three books of short stories, three novels, four NEA grants, a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller, and numerous other awards. Most recently, he received pop culture's literary equivalent of knighthood, Oprah's Book Club selection, for his latest book, Gap Creek. Yet inside the stories, novels and poems themselves, Morgan's love for his land and his people still reigns. A professor at Cornell University for almost three decades, and a disciplined, prolific author heralded as the "poet laureate of Appalachia," Robert Morgan has made his poetry--and all his writing--not a luxury, but a work song, and a way of life.

The Independent: As a writer who has lived outside of the South for nearly 30 years, what motivates you to return to the region for both setting and subject?

Robert Morgan: One of the great surprises for me, after I moved to Cornell in 1971, was that I returned to the South in my writing and reading. After coming to upstate New York, I became a student of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a way I had never been while living there. I studied regional histories and county histories. I read Cherokee history and books about early exploration, as well as the geology and geography of the area. In a sense, my whole life has been my research. And, of course, I began to draw on family stories, stories I heard as a child, and my experiences growing up on a farm in Green River.

Another surprise to me was how often I returned to the subject of work in my writing. I had gone to college partly to escape the hard work of plowing and hoeing, sawing wood, digging postholes, killing hogs and making molasses. Yet, in my writing, I seem to focus on work more and more, and on the poetry of work, the wisdom of work, the sacrament of work. I guess I feel it is work well done that gets us through our lives.

Much of your work is set in the Green River valley of North Carolina. Can you comment on writing about a place from memory, on the difference between evoking the landscape of the mind's eye and the landscape of the eye?

It may have been homesickness and nostalgia that stimulated me to write so much about Green River from the distance of upstate New York. As the Greeks had it, the Muses are daughters of memory. Memory fuels the imagination, the verbal faculties. I love to try to create a sense of the living past, of my own and earlier times.

You have admitted to Fred Chappell's interpretation for "Double Springs," that the "northern" and "southern" springs in the poem symbolize two streams of literature in this country surfacing "close/from opposite directions." Can you discuss these "opposite directions" in Northern and Southern literature? Do you think these differences will continue into the next century?

"Double Springs" certainly dramatizes my dividedness between the influence of the great New England writers such as Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman and Dickinson, and the messier Southern culture and Southern writing. I feel I have been equally affected by the idealism and intellectual rigor and aspiration of the great New England writers, and the darker, more vexed tradition of the South. But as the poem finally implies, I am finally of the South and of the mountains, and of the ordinary people.

Much of the best poetry and fiction being written is being written by Southern writers. One explanation for that: [Beyond] the love of storytelling and words, in both white and black Southern culture, is the strong sense of place and real experience, not the playing of postmodernist literary games.

Your poetry--which has a strong elemental feel and often focuses on the inanimate--is profoundly different than your stories and novels, which delve so completely into characters like the poor Branch girls who had to walk halfway back from Texas to Asheville in "Dark Corner." Do you find yourself moving easily between genres, or do you devote yourself alternately to verse and stories/novels?

Since the mid-1980s, I have written less poetry and more and more prose fiction. I still love poetry, and plan to continue to write poems. But I have found myself obsessed with storytelling, with living voices, with trying to portray people's lives. It took me a decade to finish Topsail Road, the book of poems forthcoming. But when I complete the cycle of longer stories, I plan to return to poetry with relish and passion.

After your literary predecessor Thomas Wolfe wrote about the people of Appalachia, he found it difficult to return to the place he had fictionalized. Have your own portrayals of the Blue Ridge Mountains' hardship and extreme poverty made it tough for you to go back?

So far the people of Green River, and my family in particular, seem to have taken no offense at my writing. This may be because I have written primarily about the past, and have also tried to write the stories from the "inside," not standing off and judging the culture or the characters. Thomas Wolfe is a great writer, but he is primarily a satirist. His portraits of small-town politicians, lawyers [and] salesmen, are gems of satire. The country people are far in the background, sinister figures telling stories of misery and mournfulness, sickness, those who died long ago. I have tried to write the stories of those mountain folk from the inside. They are my people.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a new novel but have been so busy since the Oprah selection, I've had to set it aside. Hopefully I can return to it this summer.

What advice do you give to your students, or to young writers just starting out?

The most important advice for a young writer is that you only learn by doing it. It is like playing a sport: You only get better by practice. No one can teach you, though they can coach you. I also advise young writers to study history, [to] develop a sense of the narrative and detail of history.

What is the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I ever got was from Bill Hardy at UNC-Chapel Hill. He said, "You have a story when you get a character who wants something bad, and it's hard to get. The tension and the conflict are in the wanting, and the difficulty." I've never been able to improve on that. EndBlock

Robert Morgan will read with Kathryn Stripling Byer, Michael Chitwood and Michael McFee at 3:00 p.m. on April 12 in Polk Place at UNC-CH. For more information, call (919) 962-1157. "Double Springs" is reprinted with the permission of Louisiana State University Press.

  • In a recent interview, writer Robert Morgan discusses his craft and his attraction to Appalachian subjects.

More by Maria Hummel

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