BILL GRAHAM | Thomas Rain Crowe on Crack light, Mountain poets, and the environment
BG You have an extensive and diverse list of titles. Where does Crack Light fit in terms of your body of work?
TRC Interesting question–in that it doesn’t fit neatly or chronologically in any particular place or phase of my body of work. The poems in this collection cover a time span of more than twenty-five years. The first poem in the book was written in December of 1978, when I returned to western North Carolina from northern California. The rest of the poems in the book were written at various times since then and up to the present time.
In terms of subject matter, however, Crack Light has a distinct place on the "shelf" of my published work. It is the only collection of poems that is definitively and specifically about these mountains where we live here in western North Carolina–the Great Smoky Mountains of the Blue Ridge chain of the Southern Appalachians. In this sense, it is something of a poetic sibling or sequel to my book of nonfiction Zoro’s Field–which is set down in Polk County along the Green River. Crack Light is my first book of what the literary world would call “regional poems.” I’ve always resisted the moniker of being a regional poet/writer, since my greater interests are global, really.
But this book is definitely a book dedicated to and grounded in our region. In that sense it is an homage to the land, the people, the cultures and histories of this place–the hills of western North Carolina. And considering that the book is dedicated to two of the patriarchs of the Southern Appalachian literary canon, James Still and Jim Wayne Miller, I guess people can now call me a “regional poet” if they want to. (laughs)
Also… this book is the first time that a book of poetry I’ve written is a collaboration with an artist of another discipline. In this case, it’s a nature photographer from Buncombe County named Simone Lipscomb. She did all the covers and chose some 20 photographic images from our region for
the text of the book–adding a visual dimension to the poems. As a whole, this is probably the most beautiful book of my work that has been produced to date. I have Simone and my publisher in Kentucky, Wind Publications, to thank for that. I have to say that I’m very pleased with this book.
BG You’re understandably hesitant to assume a “regional” role, but let’s look at that from a different angle. To your eye, what are some aspects of this area that are singularly evocative?
TRC To begin with, I wouldn’t be here if this weren’t a beautiful place. The beauty of this region is its real calling card. If anything, Crack Light is a celebration of this beauty as well as its uniqueness. Unique in terms of the diversity of landscape, diversity of climate, diversity of plant and animal life, diversity of culture.
All of these things–which for me also includes the diversity of language: Native American, Euro-American, Hispanic, Scots-Irish… I grew up over in Graham County as a boy speaking what is being called, now, Southern Mountain Speech or Dialect. It’s a language all its own–almost like a foreign language, at least to anyone coming into this area from somewhere else. It’s a wonderful poetic language–full of colorful imagery, metaphors and idiomatic turns of phrase.
So, in a nutshell it’s the beauty and the diversity of this area we call western North Carolina that is most attractive and evocative to me. And this new book of mine aspires to be a celebration of both of these elements in all their aspects. And as I say, it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to do that in a single book–to focus on western North Carolina and write about it over of a long period of time. Many of the poems in the book are dedicated to people who live here simply and softly and who love this place as I do and are doing things to try and protect it–to keep it from becoming “something else”. From becoming something other than all it is and has been for a very long time.
BG And Simone Lipscomb. To your eye, what makes her imagery special?
TRC I’ve known Simone Lipscomb for several years. She was a student of mine in a class I taught at the UNCA Seniors College on “Writing in Place”. She is not originally from here, but has taken to this place like a duck to water and loves it, now, as much as anyone. She has honed her photographic skills since coming to North Carolina and has become quite an accomplished nature photographer. She approaches the natural world and her photographic work about it from a spiritual perspective. I like this approach very much. She is able to capture the essences of things. She has a very keen eye. A very poetic eye, if you will. And her love of the outdoors and the natural world are evidenced in her portraits of wild places.
Her work is perfect for this book, since she is honoring this special landscape in much the same way as I am attempting to do in my poems. And we have had great fun in selecting just the right images to compliment the various poems and to give the right visual essence to this book. She’s a great person to work with and is a very positive person, so the process has been a great joy. And believe me this is not always the case when there is more than one “chef” in the kitchen! (laughs)
BG Give us a brief background of your environmental activism.
TRC This might not be too “brief”, as I’ve been at it for a long time. You have to remember that I’m a child of the 60s and my generation was very active back then.
But more recently and locally, I’ve been active here in Jackson County since I moved here from Polk and then Madison counties in 1984. I decided many years ago that my pen was mightier than the sword and that I could have more of an influence by writing for local and regional publications. So, that is pretty much what I have done these last 26 years or so. It all began back in the mid-1980s when we founded Katuah Journal–a bioregional magazine for our region.
As an editor and writer for Katuah, I learned to hone my chops, so to speak, in terms of writing journalistic narrative and about the environment and all the various issues attached to it. I’ve written for what was first The Green Line in Asheville, which then, later, became the Mountain Xpress; the Wild Mountain Times and occasionally the Asheville Citizen-Times. Closer to home, I began writing for the Smoky Mountain News at its inception, and have written umpteen LTEs in the Sylva Herald over the years.
Then there are several non-journalistic publications, books, anthologies, etc. that I’ve contributed to, as well. Aside from the writing, I’ve been active with a number of organizations in various capacities over the years. I helped to found The Canary Coalition here in Jackson County, I’m a founding member of the 80s and 90s state-wide organization AMUSE (Artists and Musicians United for a Safe Environment), I’ve served on the board for the Southern Biodiversity Project (now Wild South), and am currently on the board for the Environmental Leadership Council that is centered at Warren Wilson College.
Most recently, as I spoke of earlier, I am a founding member of our grassroots community organization United Neighbors of Tuckasegee. So, that, in a nutshell, is a very broad brushstroke of what I’ve done, and continue to do, in terms of working to keep our environment intact here in western North Carolina.
BG Talk about the place we find ourselves these days (regionally), in terms of the environment.
TRC While this national economic downturn has pretty much put a halt to gated community subdivision development here in the mountains for the moment, we’re in kind of a holding pattern to see how this will all play out. While this gives us all chance to catch our breath, we don’t know what the future holds. That being the case, we must continue to monitor and to work on enforcement regarding the situations and the issues that are residual from all the previous development activity–much of which is unfinished and therefore potentially destructive to the environment and people where we live.
At the moment, here in Jackson County, I’m concerned about enforcement of the land use regulations that we DO have in place. We may have the strictest environmental ordinances in the state, but unless these ordinances are enforced, nothing changes. More money and more man-power needs to be channeled into enforcement positions and jobs in the county and these enforcement officers need to be more diligent than is currently the case.
Also, I’m concerned about the “changing of the guard” in the county board of commissioners. The past board was very pro-regulations and very forward-thinking regarding development and establishing an identity for Jackson County as a ‘green’ county. I fear that the three newly-elected commissioners represent the past more than the future and are more prone to want to return to business as usual in terms of development and the dilution of our current land use regulations and ordinances.
This, in my opinion, would be a travesty for the county and its future and would only benefit a few people in the real estate businesses and/or the developers–who are only concerned with the bottom line and not the beauty and well-being of our region. So, we must keep an eye on these folks that are making decisions that will affect all of us in this county and speak up when we see them doing things we don’t agree with or don’t think are sustaining for our community.
BG Describe how your environmentalism “rears its head” in Crack Light.
TRC This book, as I said, is mostly a book of celebration and praise. But there are a few poems that are activist in tone or subject matter. There is a sequence of poems in the second section of the book that ‘speak out’ about various issues. The poem “Chores” addresses the fact that the ‘old ways’ and the older mountain culture, values, language, life-style is disappearing with the older generation of people and that this is a true loss to our region.
I see development as being one of the causes for this hasty retreat of mountain culture, as it is pushing natives in our communities out, due to the increased taxation of their land, among other things.
Then there are poems like “Song for the Skyscrapers Dream of Corn”, which is a fairly surreal title, but the subject matter of the poem is very straight-forward and a kind of lyrical rant, really, protesting how the literal moving of land (by bulldozers, etc.) is destroying our natural habitat, our farmland, our pristine streams and waterways, and our sense of pride regarding the beauty of these mountains, valleys and streams.
And then in the poem “What the Forests Were Are Now the Air We No Longer Breathe”, which is dedicated to The Canary Coalition Director Avram Friedman, I have written a lyrically imagistic poem that speaks to the subject of air pollution and to the practice of clear-cutting the forests–which I think are interconnected issues. Our bioregion is a very delicate and diverse place. It is also one of the most unique biospheres on the planet in that sense. The wholesale altering and destruction of the landscape affects everything in the region, really, in the sense that everything is interconnected. So, in this poem I am trying to bring attention to this dynamic and to these issues which are part of our current environmental paradigm.
BG What can we look forward to in the future from you? What projects are you working on now that Crack Light is out?
TRC Of course I’ll be working hard to try and promote Crack Light here in the region in the coming weeks and months. But beyond this the hottest iron I’ve got in the fire right now is a project with an organization based in New Mexico called Voice for the American Landscape. This is a conservation group that is trying to further the idea of conservation of land and natural resources by publishing books of poetry and artwork by poets and artists who are working in their bioregions to draw attention to these kinds of issues. In addition to publication and nationwide distribution of their books they foster an outreach aspect to the projects–encouraging and funding these poets and artists to go into the schools, community centers, public venues and to share their work and their visions of sustainability with others in their communities. So, four of us here in the region of the Great Smoky Mountains are working together to put together a book of poems and illustrations for the Voices people, who want to publish this book on our region by June of this year. The other two poets I’m working with on this project are Brent Martin, whom I have mentioned already, from over in the Cowee community in Macon county, and Barbara Duncan who lives over on the Qualla Boundary and works at the Cherokee Museum in Cherokee. The artist in this group is Robert Johnson, from over in the Celo community just outside of Burnsville and on the backside of Mt. Mitchell. We’re all having a good time putting this book together and we’re all creating new work for this book. For me, this has been a good thing in that it has forced me to write some new poetry, which is something that I haven’t done, now, in a few years, since most of my focus in recent years has been on writing prose for books of nonfiction, mainly.
BG From your list of publications to date you’ve written in almost every kind of genre, except fiction. Have you ever tried your hand at writing fiction?
TRC Funny you should ask (laughs). I spent most of 2009 and 2010 writing and revising my first novel. Now, and for the last six months, I’ve been searching for an agent –which is proving to be every bit as daunting a task as was writing the book. The novel market has become very restricted and one cannot even hope to get one’s novel published with a large house these days without it being represented by an agent. But I digress… The novel I’ve just finished is titled Like Sweet Bells Jangled–which is something I’ve taken from Shakespeare and one of Ophelia’s soliloquies in Act III of Hamlet–and refers to the story line which is, essentially: “Romeo & Juliet set in a Shaker community in Kentucky in the mid-1800s.”
So, it’s a love story, but with a lot of 19th century Shaker and American history and a lot of literary references and nuances. It’s historical literary fiction, this book, so it took a good deal of research in order to get the details of that period right. While the research was a lot of work, it was also very educational and helped to create new ideas that fed the story line as I was writing the book.
Going in, I was intimidated by the prospects of writing such a big book in a genre that I’d not done much, if anything, with in the past. But after I got into the swing of things and had been writing for a while, I realized that I was having fun–which is always a good sign (laughs). By the time I was finished, and looking back, I realized that it hadn’t been all that hard, after all. It was a lot of work and took a lot of discipline–which is not my strong suit–including large blocks of time and concentration in order to ‘get lost’ in the characters and the story. In the end, I’m happy with what I’ve done. Now, if I could only convince these agents of this! (laughs again).
BG Who are some of the “regional poets” who reside in our region that you would recommend for readers?
TRC This kind of question can be very tricky, since there are so many poets, now, in WNC and one runs the risk of leaving people out and in doing so causing riffs and making enemies instead of friends.
When I moved back to WNC in the late 70s, there were very few writers here that were publishing and recognized as poets by the regional community. Since then, and with the enormous influx of people moving to the WNC mountains, the population of poets and writers has exploded. And many of these poets and writers are writing about the region as their main source of subject matter. We have a ‘wealth’, I guess one should say, of writers now in WNC who are making our region more well-known–which is a double-edged sword, as I say, it is attracting more people to the mountains and I fear we care quickly reaching, if we haven’t already, our carrying capacity for what this region will hold in terms of human population.
And this is maybe also true in terms of the number of writers in the region. (laughs) As there are so many, now, that it’s hard sometimes for people who are interested in reading more ‘regional writers’ to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. So let me not name any names, here, except to reinforce the obvious in terms of a few writers who are pretty much universally recognized as being more than just competent and who have attained a national reputation. These would include writers (whose writing I would consider poetic in its proficiency) such as Charles Frazier (who lives in Asheville), Ron Rash (in Cullowhee), Wayne Caldwell (in Candler), Pam Duncan (Cullowhee), Kay Byer (Cullowhee)…
You see, I’ve already left out a few other people who I will probably think of in the middle of the night, tonight. These are established writers, so I’m safe in naming them, here. But just to add one name of emerging poets in the region, let me drop the name of Brent Martin, who lives over in the Cowee community in Macon Co. and who is the regional rep. for The Wilderness Society. His two recent chapbooks of poems beginning with the New Native Press book Poems from Snow Hill Road in 2008 have really established him, in a very short time, as one of the major poetic voices in our region writing about our region. I like his work very much.
BG What’s currently on your bedside table? What are you reading at the moment?
TRC First of all, I just finished a wonderful novel that I discovered on a recent trip I made to the Alabama and Mississippi coasts–called The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer. It’s a novel based on a real character from Fairhope, Alabama, which is also where Brewer lives. It’s a masterfully written book and a classic story in the style of To Kill A Mockingbird. I’d have to rate it as a modern Southern classic. I've also recently read a captivating book by the Australlian writer Tim Winton titled The Riders. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1995 and for good reason!
I’m currently reading two books by the Irish poet and spiritual writer John O’Donohue, who is, I’ve discovered, one of the most advanced spiritual thinkers on the planet at the moment. His two books Beauty and Anam Cara, have really stolen my imagination and are already full of marks, underlining, and notes written in pencil. I just recently finished reading Ron Rash’s latest collection of short stories that I found fascinating. He just keeps getting better and better, darker and darker. (laughs).
I am also re-reading Dylan Thomas’s collection of poems and short stories The Map of Love. For those who don’t know Dylan Thomas’s work as a prose writer, they should check him out, as he’s one of the best in my humble opinion. And then I’ve recently finished a novel by a writer named Karen Harper who has written a wonderful novel titled Mistress Shakespeare. The books title tells it all. And a book by anthropologist James Tabor called The Jesus Dynasty, which is a fascinating true story of the discovery of a tomb just outside of Jerusalem that archeologists think may, in fact, be the final resting place of Jesus and his family. And Michael Joslin, who teaches up at Lees-McRae College up near Boone, and his book Appalachian Bounty. Michael is the one-man “Foxfire” for the northwestern mountains of WNC. And I’m reading the prose and poetry of the South American writer Roberto Bolano–who is all the rage these days, especially for younger readers and young writers getting started. And, finally, Howard Zinn’s latest book titled The Bomb–which is a warning regarding the proliferation of nuclear bombs in the world.
So, there you have it. As you can see, I read several books at a time. Not a practice I recommend. But at the moment that’s how it’s working out.
Bill Graham (United States, 1966). Designer and writer. He’s the founder and publisher for the online regional newspaper The Tuckasegee Reader. Interview conducted in March 2011. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org& email@example.com. Page illustrated with works by Luciano Bonuccelli (Italy), guest artist in this issue of ARC.