Within the water
live a thousand thousand more rivers. The flow
wracks the stones with time. I turn:
The river is a ghost trapped behind my eyes.
—“Under the River” from Creeks of the Upper South
DANIEL CROSS TURNER: Creeks of the Upper South (Unicorn Press/ Jacar Press, 2016) is a remarkable collection. The forty poems included embody exceptional quality and span while being linked to a common theme: each poem aligns to the central image of the waterways in the South. Even the collection’s aesthetics are worth remark: the cover art is eye-catching, featuring Lynn Boggess’s oil painting of an autumnal creek scene “2 November 2015” that is somehow lush and stark and serene all at once, and the smooth typeface inside goes easy on those self-same eyes. They make a good book at Unicorn. Creeks of the Upper South is most remarkable, however, in its process of creation: the two of you—both well-established poets in your own right—collaborated in producing these poems. At least from the vantage of the finished product, the collaborative authorship of these poems appears seamless. To begin with that last remarkable thing, how did this collaboration come about, and why? What were some of the main challenges? The surprises? Successes?
AMY WRIGHT: Thank you, Daniel. I feel so fortunate that Will suggested we collaborate. He thought we had a chapbook between us and suggested a project he titled Creeks of the Upper South. He knew we shared a deep love for the region and concern for its surrounding waterways, but he didn’t know how much energy would rush onto the page from desire to conserve those creeks and habitats endangered by fracking, mine runoff, logging, industrial contamination, etc. Once he opened that channel of words, though, the project almost immediately became larger than us. It gave us the means to express the language and stories of the region we hold dear, which had the effect of drawing our voices together. That was a wonderful surprise, because if you read our individual books, our voices are more distinct. Finding a common denominator could have reduced what is unique to each of us. Instead, we seem to have pushed each other a bit farther toward our edges. That was a challenge—to create and sustain a new way of writing to meet the needs of the work at hand—which was its own reward.
WILLIAM WRIGHT: I encountered a chapbook of Amy’s entitled Farm and was impressed by her ability to compress interesting language into poems that invited multiple interpretations. That chapbook focused on a small piece of land, but Amy made it into a macrocosm through her keen perception of the microcosms. I asked myself, “What if I were to interleaf lyrical narratives into this style?” Of course, “this style” belonged wholly to Amy, and so my wish to embroider my own style with hers necessitated that I approach her and ask about the idea of a collaboration, to which she replied enthusiastically (thank goodness).
The main challenges for me were my own neuroses about the ways in which the poems communicated. I call them “neuroses” because I tended (and continue to tend) to become very myopic during the writing process and experienced difficulty distancing myself from the whole. However, a deeper part of my mind took solace in the fact that the connections were being made even if I didn’t understand or detect them at the moment. I trusted the process, but not with an insignificant amount of anxiety.
The surprises, and I hope the successes, were that the poems did work together, some of which when connected resonated far more than we anticipated. Even as Amy and I write with distinct voices—the two linguistic approaches seemed to mesh. That in and of itself was surprising and very satisfying.
DCT: Did you feel like you each “maintained” your own poetic “voice” throughout the collaboration? I’m not sure precisely what either of those terms mean—hence, the quotation marks above—so please define these as you see fit, which is, I guess, a big part of the question.
AW: There’s a rhythm I recognize as inherent to my voice, on and off the page, a kind of aural penmanship, an accent. A certain lilt of line that chops its syllables up, as in “Boots sharp as a swift kick onto the now-paved street,” sounds to my ear like me. And yes, I find those staccato strings hung throughout this book. But I was also more conscious of what was cultural about those rhythms due to the subject and fact that I was writing to and with the editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology series. I recognized certain tensions and easements within my voice as rooted in my upbringing more clearly by hearing some of the same tendencies manifest in Will’s work. There was something familiar about writing with him from the very beginning—in the etymological sense of being “on a family footing.” But even in his wildest moments my uncle Billy would never have come out with “hyssop, sometimes odoriferous,” so it was kind of a rush to see what this voice cousin could do.
WW: Yes, I do, and, if anything, Amy helped me complicate my understanding of “voice” in ways very beneficial to my work.
DCT: In a related (inverted?) question, did you ever (often?) find yourself “absorbing” or “reflecting” or “echoing” or “re-sounding” the other’s “voice,” sort of adopting and adapting some specific elements of your partner’s poetic style as you wrote? Like Paul McCartney writing “Helter Skelter” in John Lennon’s style? Or Keith Richards taking over both guitar lines on Let It Bleed, “re-sounding” Brian Jones’s “voice,” since Jones was too far gone with madness and drugs, already bled dry? Or Robbie Robertson ventriloquizing Levon Helm’s Arkansan cant in writing most of The Band’s best songs?
AW: I rose to meet or circle round or duck beneath Will’s voice throughout these poems, as the call-and-response style we began encouraged. That interaction kept the poems inspiring and at times hard to figure, as I tend to head for the reaches instead of fishing a through line. The center remained steady, though—the center being a singular voice emerging from the dialogue between the poems themselves. It was a lark to ride the ripples of a phrase of his without quite knowing where we’d end up.
WW: I certainly bounced off of Amy’s poems, yes. While stylistically I’m not sure I absorbed or echoed her, I found her poems to be radiant such that they inspired me—often immediately—to write my responses; I did see them as “responses” to one another, a conversation that derived from different epistemological origins and inclinations.
DCT: We’re often still tied to that Romantic notion of the poet as The Poet: brooding, isolated, individual, recollecting the spontaneous overflow of emotions in tranquility, alone. This collaborative model is a different thing. Not new to other artforms, obviously, such as filmmaking, songwriting, graphic narratives, etc. But this flies in the teeth of our preconceptions of what poetry is—or how poetry is made—and of what poets are. I suppose you gain creative call-and-response, among other things, through collaboration, but you might hazard losing something of your own identity (or at least your poetic persona, not just within the words/across the lines, but on the title-page) as well as losing something of propriety interest in the final product? Worth the risk?
AW: Isolation is overrated! I mean I get it, but the issue of propriety didn’t rear its head until it came to the practicalities of finding a publisher for a collaboration (and we couldn’t have gotten any luckier there) or organizing a reading while you live states apart. Working together on the writing itself was enervating. We both had an interested reader whose reading was invested in making the work stronger. That perk alone is worth the risk. If what one is in danger of losing is a separate poetic persona when the tradeoff is participating in a conversation, I am all for it. No, COTUS will never be “my” book in the way books I’ve written alone are, but neither would it exist without Will. If I were to pull my poems out of the book they would be like that poor baby Solomon threatened to split. They would never be quite whole even if I wrote twice as many more. Creeks was born of our relationship, an alchemy that produced a new element altogether.
WW: Absolutely worth the risk, as I see such projects as amplifying the power of what poetry can be. And, to be specific, we did not collaborate on poems themselves; in other words, we collaborated on the book, and I wrote entire poems and Amy wrote entire poems. So we maintained our individuality—even if we chose not to identify who authored what in the book (for that might have caused fragmentation for the reader).
DCT: How would you describe your overall approach to form in these poems? What about your use of particular techniques in Creeks of the Upper South (so immensely diverse that it’s tough to summarize), including narratives poems, which are never strict or straight, and are often adorned in astonishingly lyrical ways, such as “Memory and Prophecy” and “The Blue Child” and “Bluer than Lake Louise”; start-stop fragmentary pieces, such as “Water as Specter,” whose lines split sentences down to their component parts; tight imagistic compression, pressing the syllables fast to the page, such as “Language” and “Amulet” and the opening section from “Office of Readings”; the intermix of various “found” words, drawn from scientific discourse, historical documents, park brochures, media accounts, federal regulations, and technical terminology, etc. in poems such as “MRDL” [“maximum residual disinfectant level”] “Falling Waters under the City Geocache” and “Wells Creek Basin”; the wall of words technique in “For Every Bronzeback”; the question-and-answer format of the eight poems that make up Section II (each of the “question” poems runs in couplets and the “answer” poems respond in a single stanza of condensed two- to three-beat lines); the “Choose Your Own Adventure” intricate mix-and-match triptych structure of “Six Vespers,” which interleaves the tense and tender strains of form, of feeling, matching complexity and compassion; and so on and on!
AW: That the project was always about water gave us the freedom to swim in and out of form, I’d say. My ear bends toward patterns of sound and rhythm but favors disrupted prosody. There’s nothing quite like the unexpected cowbell—when it’s subtle. As Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken make laughably apparent in that Saturday Night Live skit about “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” too much of any one instrument can override the music. And think of a creek! It burbles and gulps and hushes between the banks and variable contours of its container. William and I created formal obstacles for our selves that I may never have taken on alone. Working together created energy for greater constraints, which compressed into hotter lines that could burn through a wide range of lyric styles. That every line was in conversation prompted reaches that necessitated an expansive but still buttressed frame.
WW: I just wanted the styles to be variegated and to never, ever allow the poems to fall into a sameness, a stagnation. The contrapuntals you mention correctly as “choose your own adventures” were the first I’d ever tried. I conjured the bravery to attempt those poems because I was thinking about the Heraclitean idea that change is the natural process of the universe. So whatever the “adventure” chosen, whether it was in first-person or not, I wanted each to offer some sort of distinct “truth,” and increase the chances of a reader moved by one or two of those contrapuntal readings.
DCT: Each poem is like a world unto itself. But the collection does not seem cobbled together, not at all. It flows, it feels altogether there, whole beyond confusion. All this despite the two authors, and despite the dizzying styles and forms employed. Although perhaps we should invert this question, too, and say instead: All this because of the two authors, and because of the dizzying styles and forms employed. Either way, how did you braid such strong currents, countercurrents together so seamlessly—pied beauty incarnate?
AW: Thank you for saying so, Daniel, but I’m not sure I can articulate the process. William would lay a braid down and I would pick it up and try to gather what balanced it in heft or lyric weight, which often meant contrast. Narrative threads also enter many of the poems and are inevitably wound between our imaginations and daily lives. In that way, the poems were like missives detailing our preoccupations, and I found their texture fascinating. That we can both think in metaphor created a common language through which we could lean toward each other even as we were encoding it with new vocabulary.
WW: I decided that, with a few exceptions, my contributions were to be ultralyrical. I wanted to braid very lush and sonically charged poems with Amy’s more ecopoetic (and more nature-knowledgeable) consciousness as it manifested on the page.
DCT: Why creeks? What made bodies of water such a powerful image that flows throughout the collection? I suppose this motif conjures a surface-depth dynamic in your poetry. And there also seems to be a deep connection between these ecological fluidities, and the ebb and flow of poetic rhythm. Perhaps collaboration could also be seen as a confluence of voices, styles, all flowing together?
AW: I’ll be interested to know what Will says since it was the focus he gave us. For me, creeks were the perfect symbol because I grew up splashing and rafting and fishing in Cove Creek, just below our house, so creeks orient me toward place. But they don’t stay put. They travel, as I have, through the region with stories they carry outside it—or so I imagine. They certainly carry things—storm litter, a neighbor’s discarded tire. Wallace Stevens’ jar stays round upon that hill in Tennessee, but a prescription drug bottle in a creek bed may turn up on a shoreline in Japan. If that isn’t an illustration for interconnectedness, I don’t know what is. Collaboration joins voices in a similar way as water, which can be partly managed but is also beholden to forces beyond our control.
WW: I like your metaphor about the confluence of voices, Daniel, and Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser would agree with you, as they did something similar a few years ago. For me creeks are almost preternaturally beautiful. In Edgefield, South Carolina, I grew up next to one and remember—perhaps with a specificity lacking in just about all other memories of that time—the clarity of the water and thus the sensorial access of everything within the creek: all sorts of minerals, blood-red dace, detached leaves, crawdads, dragonflies with blue-stem bodies, the occasional fiery salamander, snakes (many cottonmouths!), turtles, and the proliferating flora that seized the good soil flanking that creek. For long periods of entrancement, I would watch how the sun and water conspired to cast webs of light on the creek bed, wavering and uncontainable. I also felt mildly threatened by the absolute vastness of lives around me—lives extraordinarily alien to my own and yet sharing the world with me and each other.
A recurring dream from those years involved me swimming in the deepest pools of that creek, some eight feet deep or so, during a hard rain, somehow able to take in the subaqueous and thus mysterious bounty of what usually lay hidden. Water, especially creek water in its accessible but indefatigable flow, became deeply mysterious to me.
DCT: What about the rest of that title: Creeks of the Upper South? Would you call yourself a “Southern writer”? What does this mean to you? How does this affect your work, if at all?
AW: I grew up on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, so I consider myself to be an Appalachian writer as well as a Southern writer. But yes, I would give my work either label in hopes of stretching their potential and of joining in the conversation between writers with similar preoccupations. I think of David Huddle’s Black Snake at the Family Reunion. There are aspects of any family that its members best understand, which is powerful and dangerous. Affinity can be used to exclude people or it can be used to question what we consider inherent in human nature. To write with intimacy requires knowing and—importantly, discovering qualities about contexts and cultures that you may not want to know. That’s the snake, I’d say, to keep with the symbol. That it’s at a family reunion means you are related. Being Appalachian is present in everything I write, sometimes as a coil in the shadows easily missed. Other times, it’s front and center in the title.
WW: I can’t speak for Amy, but as I mentioned I wanted there to be a kind of uncontainability in the book, so I wanted each poem to work in and for itself (with the exception, perhaps, of the question-and-answer poems that were relatively dependent on one another).
The Piedmont and southern Appalachian Mountains influence my writing profoundly. I’m not concerned with being designated a “Southern” writer at all, but I’m not interested, too much, in designations. I never say to myself, “I’m going to write a southern poem today,” but because the South and its unnumbered complexities form a large part of my cultural epistemology, it’s inevitable that the poems absorb that essence. As for the title: it was, in all honesty, made up immediately. I presumptuously said to Amy, “the title of our book will be. . .” and Creeks of the Upper South is what I said. Somehow I knew—perhaps without knowing fully consciously—that it was right.
DCT: There’s a group of contemporary Southern writers producing what has been called “Grit Lit” or “rough South” literature. Their writing moves away from a genteel, romanticized vision of the South and towards the region’s darker strains, in terms of violence, financial hardship, emotional or psychological distress, racial and gendered conflict, environmental pressures, etc. Often people don’t think of poetry and roughness as dwelling in the same possibility. But Will and I just coedited a collection for the University of South Carolina Press called Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry that very much begs to differ. Would you characterize Creeks of the Upper South as “rough South” poetry?
AW: I would say it dwells in that same possibility. The poem, “Office of Readings” begins with the epigraph, “You’re going to see that little needle go way all the way off the dial.” That’s a hard line, I’d say, which is followed by an invitation to “hold the brass buckle / and necklace key to the cabinet of bone china.” There’s awareness there that the keys we are given sometimes unlock unsavory artifacts. We never just inherit the china. To think so is a form of white privilege. We have to look at that porcelain in situ—hence the cabinet. To hold the key means you wear it around your neck. It becomes part of you, inextricable as genetics. You can tuck it under your shirt or wear it proudly, but taking it out will toughen you up, for good or ill. Hiding will too. Both approaches illuminate the South, and its layers of roughness from thick skins to those that are paper-thin.
WW: I think it could be labeled “rough” as we defined it in Hard Lines, definitely. The book explores environmental decay and contamination, familial struggles, psychological instability, the deaths of children, and other themes often thrumming through “rough South” literature.
DCT: There is a lot of death in Creeks of the Upper South, and a lot of violence, from human and nonhuman sources. What are your damages? In this case, there are a lot of damages, as laid out, for instance, in “A List of Impaired Waters”: damages to self, to psyche, to waterbodies, to our bodies, to wildlife, to wildness, to the things around us, to the things we are. Storms, floods, drownings, serpents, insects, contaminants, pollutants. It starts to feel a little Biblical, in the apocalyptic way. In “Sanguinaria,” after the mother has taken a spade down through an unlucky possum’s skull, we hear: “There is no such thing as empathy.” One page, one poem on, we see a repetition with crucial variation in “Striders on Her Back Tap Messages over a Thin Skin of Water Tension”: “There in no empathy but love / wishing for another’s sake the and-so-it-is were not so.” Is there hope? Or at least empathy?
AW: There is love, yes, which my own losses have taught me is infinite by our corresponding capacity for grief.
WW: I tend to have a gothic preoccupation, one that will perhaps quell (ironically), as I age. My predispositions now are to perceive objects and phenomena as signals of the end of things—to see them in states of decay; so philosophically, I suppose I’m a pessimist because of an idiosyncratic phenomenological bias or, perhaps, laden with my own self-imposed mountain of existential angst.
The speaker in “Sanguinaria,” for reasons not explained, is attached to his mother in such a way that he seems stifled, and the killing of the possum is, to me, the speaker witnessing something he already understands: that death is certain and that its timing is often unpredictable. Contradictorily, he suffers from some kind of fatigue—and he’s (I guess) gone through something that we can’t wholly understand. In that poem I want to give readers room to imagine why the speaker is as he is.
Despite the stygian baths I often steep in for whatever reasons, I do believe there is hope and I know there is empathy.
DCT: There are so many ideas flowing through these poems, but one concern that recurs is the connection between “the human” and the “the natural.” In your poems, it sometimes becomes difficult to divide off these terms, and indeed, you constantly invoke one side as metaphor for describing the other, to such an extent that metaphor almost leads to metamorphosis: the human transferring into the natural, and vice versa. I suppose one could file Creeks of the Upper Southunder “Nature Poetry,” but not under a rote, traditional understanding. How do you think your poems envision “nature” or the “ecology” in relation to the “human”?
AW: Well, humanity is part of that paradigm we call “nature,” even as we try to supersede or subjugate every aspect of the natural world. The sorry fact is that it doesn’t have to be the conflict we have presumed if we could better understand mutualism to be as integral to the story as competition. Can these poems contribute to that side of the story? I read them, anyway, as illustration of this “counterpoint to note,” to quote from one of Will’s poems. Taking nature to mean the opposite of us or of culture creates a false divide. The truth is more complex than that. When we study the creaturely aspects of our selves, as when we “cat / through the night-aired backyard / and question the left [logging] equipment / with the scent glands of our hands,” we find ourselves outside the machine of human progress. But we also helped drive that logging equipment there by living on lots cleared to house us. Eco-poetry or nature poetry interests me most when it calls for reconciliation between the needs of an increasingly threatened whole. Creeks asks as much.
WW: To be brief about this—in an answer that I could probably protract for a book-length study—I’ve imposed on myself a rule in my work: All of my poems must contain some aspect of the elemental: earth, fire, water, wind, stone, flora, fauna—and these need not be human. But, by the end of the poem, I want these motifs to elucidate human issues and for the human (whether implied or the speaker) in the poem and the reader themselves to cross a boundary and see the world behind the world: that is, I want them to understand that they are not isolated from the world-that-is-not-human, and that that aspect of the world might, in reality, be far stranger than they know.
DCT: Who do you count among your most important poetic influences?
AW: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or Will Oldham, Amiri Baraka, David Huddle, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Oppen. This list shifts and morphs and might go on and on, but these are longtime friends.
WW: James Wright, James Dickey, Theodore Roethke, Ted Hughes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Hugo, Seamus Heaney, Charles Wright, Jane Hirschfield, Pattiann Rogers, Lorca, Georg Trakl, Coleridge, Eric Pankey, Robert Morgan, Elizabeth Bishop.
DCT: Finally, a question that I like to ask each poet I interview as a way to end things with an unending question. What is the future of poetry?
AW: First I need to explain that I read poems as a means of training what I’ll call generosity of attention. Poetry can expand our awareness of the world to encompass, for example, a purple bean, which is an endangered freshwater mussel. Reading a poem might prompt someone to consider how this mussel, endemic to northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, is like Joe High School, who can also never escape the “water” he’s born in. Maybe that moment of empathy will cause him or her to pause over the referendum of a politician who prizes industry over environmental rights. Poets have long strived to do as much. John Donne told us centuries ago that we are none of us islands but all “part of the main.” If we have any hope of rectifying the climate predicament, it’s going to be because we have heeded such lessons and trained ourselves to think more broadly. I imagine that in thirty years, that interdependence will be undeniable. We can point out the growing evidence, but we also need to develop the capacity to internalize its reality. Poets can give us the courage and inner means of doing so. For now that means seeing things as they are, as in poems like Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” which recently went viral. So many were encouraged by that poem, I think, because she positions the “I” as an adult capable of admitting harsh realities while fostering hope that we might still act differently and effort better.
WW: I have a theory about this, but it’s a book I’m pondering writing. I’ll only give one hint! I’m studying many of the concerns of the Oxford ethicist, futurist, and philosopher Nick Bostrom. If I let myself answer the question, the interview will quadruple in length and bore the heck out of most readers.