Even as a kid, I remember reading stories and being enamored not only by the characters, plots, and settings but also by the notion that there was a personal presence behind the telling, that someone out there, some author, had first imagined into being what I as the reader was now imagining into being. As much as I loved reading, this idea of being the first imaginer was something that I always aspired to, and I was lucky as a young writer to have had many good teachers—from elementary school all the way up through my graduate programs—who cultivated this aspiration.
In another poem, I imagine the etymology of my surname as though my ancestors were plowmen, and I then tried that metaphor of turning earth for the poet’s task of “turning words / back to life, to light not stellar / but diffuse, like moonlight spread // across some field I must cross / by foot, by dream, by shadow.”
Books are also made from other books. I picture literature as a house haunted by the ghosts of authors past, full of echoes and whispers. I may only be able to name the literary ancestors of a given book after the fact, but I always know that they exist.
I think God’s miracles come in all shapes and sizes, and that many are mistaken for simple chance. We miss seeing them for what they are every day. The miracle at the heart of In Things Unseen is both big and small, in that it affects the entire world yet is only known by four people. In other words, it’s a personal miracle on a public stage.
Surface Dive: starting this new life with all this optimism and eventually settling in; then Underwater: disruption, challenges; and finally Surfacing: learning, growing, finding a harmonious way to live in the world.
The poems have happened in all kinds of ways. I was lucky that in college I worked with a mentor, the poet Gracia Grindal, for whom forms were important, so I tried them and got to know something about the way each moves, both musically and with its own shaped rhetoric or logic. I experienced how forms with repeating lines, like the villanelle and pantoum, can weave a spell.
Love does seem to me to be the source of art, broadly. Something comes out of us when we create, and it’s clear that it comes from beyond us, somehow. The “acts of days” referred to later in that poem refer to the labors of love, of each lived life. In the case of this book and me, a great part of that life was family life; another was the artist’s.
I guess you could say what I write is “non-creative fiction.” As the saying goes, you just can’t make this stuff up. If I lived in a different place, I’d probably see the world differently. But I’ve lived in South Carolina for almost all of my adult life, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Most of my novels center on a quest of some kind, though there’s not always a criminal element. With Coyote Fork I tried a number of different approaches—including science fiction—before finally settling on this form.
Entanglement is a wonderful mystery. My characters live in that wonderful mystery. I think we all feel like we’re entangled with many things, some of which we understand, some of which we don’t.
Here in the landlocked Midwest, the sky is the body of water most visible to me. I watch it the way I imagine people who live on the coasts watch the sea.
Lately it has been the fashion to talk about “measurable learning outcomes.” I really can’t stand the idea of measurable learning outcomes! The pioneer Yosemite climber Yvon Chouinard has said that adventure is the uncertainty of outcome. I want anyone who reads this book to have an adventure. I can’t predict where that adventure will take them in their imagination.
I hope these stories shift our angles of vision by allowing us to experience characters and cultures who break their promises for complicated reasons, then struggle to set that right. The future looks better for some of them than for others, but each has given voice to the challenge of remaining faithful.
“As the saying goes, If you want to see something new, walk where you walked yesterday. I most want the reader to see this speaker as grappling with what is so hard to put into words, what is beyond words.”
“This novel is a satire—a kind of intellectual-spiritual comedy—and the characters participate in the exaggeration that is a common feature of satire. It is also deadly serious, as comedy often is.”
“More and more I find myself to be an old school Romantic. Writing happens to me, or through me, or something like that. Writing is the force, the writer is the vehicle of that force. At best. In the end, though, there is a sort of freedom in this experience of writing. Freedom from the self rather than freedom of the self. Provisional freedom. The self is pesky and hard to kill.”
“I view my tie to the South in general, and particularly to Mississippi, in a sense more akin to the much broader citizenry exercised in Derek Walcott’s poems. Of course, his work explores and expresses his West Indian heritage, but the poetry itself never seems bound to, or limited by, any circumstance of geography.”
“At one point, toward the end of the book, he tallies up his many lies and calls himself ‘God’s Liar.’ It’s unclear what he means by that title. Does he think of himself as having some sort of divine license to lie? Is he lying on God’s behalf, or with God’s approval? I’m not sure he knows why he calls himself ‘God’s Liar.'”
“I tend to write about outlaws and outsiders, people who don’t fit in, who resist standard types and conventions. Many people in the arts seem to feel in a grandiose way unlike the so-called “common herd,” though I suspect everyone feels uncommon and just making-do.”
Poet Paul Mariani talks about his new poetry collection from Slant, Ordinary Time.