Recorded live, April 10, 2023. In celebration of National Poetry Month, Maurice Manning joined us for Lawson McGhee Library's monthly book discussion group, All Over the Page. Hear Manning read his poems and talk about his book Bucolics. Manning also discusses more recent work including his new podcast, The Grinnin' Possum.
Maurice Manning has published seven books of poetry. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the Yale Younger Poets Award, and his fourth, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches Transylvania University.
The Grinnin' Possum Podcast: Poetry Music History with Maurice Manning
Bucolics XXII, XXXV, and LVIII at Art and Theology
Bio and poems at the Poetry Foundation
Manning reading at the Sewanee Writer's Conference (Video)
Mentioned in this episode:
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Thank you all for being here tonight. Thanks to Anna Leah Keene who's been hosting All Over the Page for many years, and thanks to my partner in crime, Melissa Brenneman, who's recording the program tonight. She's the co-producer of Knox County Public Library's podcast, The Beat. I would also, of course, like to thank Maurice Manning for making the long drive to be with us here tonight. He'll be reading a few poems from his book Bucolics, and then I think he has a plan to go from there. We'll be having a Q&A session at the end. But, first, I'd like to give Maurice a proper introduction. Maurice Manning has published seven books of poetry. His first won the Yale Younger Poets Award, and his fourth, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Garden & Gun, The New Yorker, and many other fine publications. Maurice has taught at DePauw University, Indiana University, in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College, and at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. Currently, he's Professor of English at Transylvania University in Kentuky, and, most importantly, he has a brand new podcast series, released just last week, called The Grinnin' Possum. Please give it up for Maurice Manning.Maurice Manning:
Alan failed to acknowledge that he and I went to graduate school together and have been friends for twenty-five years. Good ones, too. I'm going to read just from Bucolics, starting at the beginning and go a little while. And, for those of you who don't have the book in front of you, the poems do not have titles, and there's no punctuation. So that's different than fiction, I guess [laughs] if this book club is used to talking about novels. There is a character addressed by the poems whose name is Boss. And there is a character who speaks who doesn't have a name.
[Manning reads from Bucolics--poems I-V, VII, XVII, XIX, XXI, and XXIII]
Maybe I'll pause on those and go to brand new poems that I've been writing since December. And I'll read a few of these, and maybe you got the impression from the Bucolics that I read that, sort of, once you get started with that sort of mode and that rhythm, it's easy to keep it going. It's like lulling. You know. Or like getting in a canoe, and the current is strong enough that all you have to do is steer. I enjoyed--I was telling Alan--I began working on these poems in two thousand one and it took me six years to finish. Of course, I had other things going on, too. It's not like I was 365 days a year for six years, working on those. It's something that I don't often say, but I gave myself, like, a little challenge in writing these poems. And the challenge was "You can't use the word 'and.'" So I didn't [laughs]. It's a commonly used word, so to hold back from using it was kind of fun. And it allowed me to find ways around, avoiding this common conjunction. And one of the things I learned in writing this book, and, in a way, kind of immersing myself in it for so long, I learned how to feel the rhythm of the line that works best for me, and I'm just sharing that. For me, the line that I hear, 'cause it's what I hear around small-town Kentucky, where I'm from, is a four-beat line. Which, in the trade, we would say iambic tetrameter. Um, and so, as this book goes, the early poems are really heavily enjambed, and the metrical pattern just kind of crunches, um, but as the book goes, the poems settle into a steadier tetrameter rhythm, and that is because, maybe from what I've read, some tension between this speaking character, sometimes called a shepherd, and Boss. And a lot of that is because Boss ain't saying much. Um, and the character's got a bunch of questions, and curiosities, and wonders, and over the course of the book, that relationship settles down. There's less tension, and so the rhythm of the lines mimic that. Ever since, kind of, arriving at this, kind of, intuitive attraction to a four-beat poetic line, that's mostly what I've done ever since, so these brand new poems are also in the same metrical pattern. But these are really different. So it's almost like, in music, you can have songs in the same time signature, but they can sound totally different from each other. I've enjoyed that flexibility. These are similar to what I just read, except the speaker here is unnamed. There are three characters in this. The unnamed speaker who is sort of the "woe is me" character. Then there is the Squire, who is a bad guy, and then, there is Jack, who is mostly a good guy. But Jack doesn't say a whole lot.
[Manning reads "Devil's Walking Stick"]
The Squire has a sometimes-used nickname, "Mr. Mud."
[Manning reads "Dust My Broom"]
Hear the rhyme in that one? I don't know if you all can really see this, but I got interested in... The poems in Bucolics are just what I call "stacks." Like haybales stacked up. And that's okay, but it's visually not very interesting on the page. But I get attached to the things that I do, you know, it's like a habit. And breaking the habit is freaky because you think, "I'm going to have to do something that I'm not used to doing. How's that going to work?" And so, for these poems, I kind of got into like a four-line and a couplet playing back and forth, so like a quatrain, which is what we call a four-line stanza, and then a two-line, couplet--just kind of--Doonk-joonk-joonk-joonk-joonk, you know, like intersecting, and seeing how that worked and seeing what sort of music--you know, you might think this looks like piano keys--uh, what kind of music I could make from this kind of arrangement. And, obviously, still in the process, so, don't really know. But it's fun. It's sort of like--if you have experience playing by ear, you know, you hear a song and you can go to the piano or the guitar. You just start picking it out and figuring out the notes. That can be--uh, what--a nuisance for other people in the house, but it can be very pleasing to yourself.
"To the Pharisees and Sadducees Sprung Up of Late." Now these are different because they have titles, punctuation, the word "and" is here.
[Manning reads "To the Pharisees and Sadducees Sprung Up of Late" and "A Bit in the Horses Mouth, Jack"]
When I was a youngster, vacation bible school was a big thing, and one of the songs I've always loved, and Lord knows why, [Starts singing] "Oh, the B-I-B-L-E, yes, that's the book for me. I stand on the word, the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E." So it was like religious instruction and spelling combined. I think that's why I liked it. So I think that's gonna come up in this poem.
[Manning reads "Smite"]
That wasn't very uplifting, was it [laughs.] Sorry about that.
[Manning reads "Nightmare in the Light of Day" and "Two Altars, One is False.]
I'll pause on that. Alan mentioned that I and a friend of mine back home have put together a podcast. Which is--that's about like going into surgery and, you know, asking for the scalpel, 'cause the technology stuff isn't really my thing. So sitting around, doing this podcast has been a learning experience, to say the least. We have ten episodes, and, um, for most of the episodes, we went to some place in Kentucky. And, so it's like field recordings. And, for each episode, I read a couple of poems and usually plunk around on the banjo and sing an old-time song. Um, we recorded one episode on the broken-down front porch of a one-room schoolhouse. We recorded another episode in this sanctuary of an abandoned church. We recorded another one behind a waterfall in Red River Gorge. Totally, um, our idea was, "Let's just go see what this is, and figure it out." And then... So I figured what I'd do for a few minutes is read some of the poems that I've used in this podcast. And, uh, these are totally different. These are real tall-tale oriented, but they're also in the same four-beat line. And I get... This is the nerd of writing for me is just like this obsession with getting rhythm into the line and then being able to take that rhythm and just make it go that way and make it go that way. And, um, express such variety, or, it seems to me. [Laughs. Manning reads "Oral History"]
"Long Ago, on Teges Creek, a Man Got Right with God." Teges, T-E-G-E-S. It's a phonetic rendering of of "tedious."
[Manning reads "Long Ago, on Teges Creek, a Man Got Right with God" and "Playing Dixie Rook"]
This is a little R-rated. PG-13.
[Manning reads "The Conversion of Abel Glades"]
Some of these... I don't know what to say. Let's see if I can.... I'll do one more of these.
[Manning reads "Treatise on Milk Gravy"]
Maybe I'll pause there, and, uh, if y'all have questions, I'm happy to hear them and converse. Yes, Linda.Audience Member:
Your Squire and Jack pieces are downright Shakespearean. And I wondered if you ever thought of adapting any of your work for the stage.Maurice Manning:
Linda you... Uh, yes, and it's happened. It's been done. Not in any, like, great circulation, but my first book was adapted to a stage play...Audience Member:
Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.Maurice Manning:
Uh, well, it's because it was performed at Transylvania University, and that's it. [Laughs.] A little local theater company that's based in Northern Kentucky has done readers theater adaptations from The Common Man. And, um, my most recent published book, Railsplitter, which is in the voice of Abraham Lincoln, and is very consciously theatrical because he liked going to the theater and was killed in one. This was during the pandemic. Our theater director at Transylvania had made plans for the subsequent year's productions, and had spent the money to pay for the production rights, and, so, when the pandemic came, there was no money to do a production, so she and I got together, and they produced adaptations of Railsplitter. And you can you can find this online because they put it on YouTube or something. One of those things. But, because we took the pandemic pretty seriously, she designed—Tosha Fowler, our director—she designed the production of that, so that two or three students would work together on a dramatic rendering of one of the poems, and then another group would do a different one, and then so on. And it it's pretty impressive, first of all, for, you know, 18 and 19-year-old young people working under those conditions.Audience Member:
Yes, you mentioned working on what I would call the serial poem. Or a series of poems that, like, have a similar setting or the same speaker, and it seems like that's something that you do from time to time. And could you talk a little bit more about the pros and cons of that? What did you find challenging about that?Maurice Manning:
Okay, that's a great question, and it very much connects to what Linda was asking. If you've got two speaking voices, you've got drama, you know, at its base. You've got a dramatic situation. You can have a dilemma between the characters. You can have unease between the characters. In the last poems that I read that are the tall-tales, there's, you know, that that's drama, too, in my view, but it's just it's way, way down to earth, and it's the drama of ordinary people talking to each other and running into goofy situations, and, you know, taking them seriously. Which, I think that's like some of the best humor is, in real life, is, you know, you find yourself realizing that this crazy thing has happened, and you have to you have to do deal with it, but it's ludicrous, also. But that's, that's fun. I also... I like poems to have some kind of a setting that's visceral, that's feels like... And it does it doesn't need to be complicated. It can be a room. It can be the woods, it can be a hillside, whatever. But that, also, for me is dramatizing. I feel I can reach my personal private struggles and concerns through the vehicle of drama, through other voices, through a kind of superimposed scenario rather than, you know, just earnestly speaking my poet voice, you know, I just... But that's no different than like, you know, whoever wrote "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" [singing]:
"They've got me in the jailhouse on my knees
Lord, I'm down here in the jailhouse on my knees
Down in the jailhouse on my knees, Good Lord,
Don't wanna be treated this a-way"
Well, probably, the guy that wrote that wasn't in jail, uh, you know, but maybe he felt like he was in jail, or something like that. So I like... I just, Oh my interest is avoiding me. You know, I don't want my poem to be all about me. That gets in there, of course, I mean it's unavoidable, but I don't want it to be the the thing that gets all the focus. One more? Yes?Audience Member::
I guess I'm interested... You talked about using the four-beat line in your poems, and I didn't know... I'm reading Sidney Lanier’s poetic criticism, I guess, poetry theory. He talks about the imagination of the ear?Maurice Manning:
Ah, that's great!Audience Member::
And I'm kind of wondering, like, how you... How do you utilize space on the page, maybe, when you're writing? Is it primarily interested in that aspect of meter in the line? Or do you... Do you do use indentation, or is there any exploration of...Maurice Manning:
Well, the middle poems that I've read, there's some indentation there. It's not great. It's not dramatic. You know, I've got one poem where, you know, there'll be left margin, left margin, and then maybe way over here... But I don't know why... I'm perfectly willing to admit it is a personal limitation that I can't bounce all over the stage. The page. Um, it's just very old fashioned to stick to that left margin, and, you know, I'm sure part of my attachment to it is a, you know, a kind of control? And, as we know, control is okay sometimes, but you don't need it sometimes. So I felt, um, with the middle batch of poems that I read, I felt I'm loosening up a little bit. As loose as I get about these things. But the... What was Lanier’s…?Audience Member:
Well, there’s an oral quality to your poetry, and I didn't know if you explored the page some to achieve that, but Lanier called it "the imagination of the ear..."Maurice Manning:
I love that.Audience Member:
You get the imagination of the eye... So he's talking about, well, we're readers now. So what's happening to this art of sound. He calls poetry the art of sound...Maurice Manning:
I would totally agree with that. And, uh, a later poet—Oh, my gosh, I'm gonna blank it. Well, I'm sorry, but he he wrote a prosody handbook in the '60s, and he says in the first sentence, "Poetry is the art of sound in motion." Um, which is different than music in motion, you know. Music is is an art of sound in motion, too, it's just a specific sound. Poetry is voiced sound, and by design, or by nature, it's in motion, or else it would all... [claps his hands] you know, we wouldn't hear it, so it has to be moving. This is something I say to my students, advocating, at least in their early stage as 18-year olds wanting to try their hand at writing poetry. I don't require them, but I, you know, I nudge them to try writing metrical lines. Because it's gonna require you to compose your line syllable by syllable, which is sound by sound. Or it can be. You know, obviously, not all sounds have equal value. But training your ear to to find voiced sounds that have just a little more oomph, and you know, learning to play the line as if it's a musical instrument, the way, you know, I don't play the flute, but you gotta get air into it. And it's gotta be steady, and then you vary it as it goes. A line of a poem can can be like that. I think the challenge is to, you know, to maybe do that, but then vary it so it just doesn't become dull and repetitive.Alan May:
Thank you, Maurice!Maurice Manning:
Thank you all!