A Conversation with Jeff Mann

       To meet Jeff
Mann is to see his work come alive—his stories, his poetry, his essays embodied
in a big Renaissance bear capable of erudition as well as obscenity, flavored
by a lazy drawl and his unique Appalachian slant. But how do you explore a man
who puts so much of his essence on the page? Well, you start at the beginning.

           Sylvia Plath’s
poetry was really what got me started writing seriously,” Mann states, “so I
guess her work encouraged me to use my own life as subject matter. She and Anne
Sexton, their poetry really moved me, and to this day it’s very frank, personal
poems that impress me, that mean the most to me. By the way, poet Diane Wakoski
says that such poetry ought to be called ‘autobiographical,’ not confessional.
Confessional suggests that the writer has something to be ashamed of.”

            Shame, then, does not drive Mann but
honesty and courageousness inform his work despite his geographic location in
the Virginia mountains, a region not noted for its homocentricity. “It can
be scary to be so open in such a Christian-lousy region, though, as big a bear
as I am, I don’t expect to be bothered. I’ve deliberated created an
intimidating persona—bushy beard, beefy body, tattoos—just so conservative
types will keep their distance. On the other hand, homophobes do run in
packs…so I guess I’ve developed a sort of siege mentality. That’s a burden…but
I do have broad shoulders, so I carry it without too much crippling neuroses.”

            “A poet friend of mine,” he
continues, “Edwina Pendarvis, in a little essay she wrote about me for Appalachian
Heritage
, said something about ‘the almost reckless courage that informs
everything’ I’ve written. I love that phrase! Well, I guess I do write and
publish whatever I damn well please and don’t think much about the
consequences. (There are some advantages to being a writer few people have
read.) Am I courageous? Well, I feel very full of fear. To some extent,
I’m still that small-town boy who’s terrified of the Big Bad Outside World. But
I’m big on lots of traditional male values—a fact that has offended a handful
of queer critics, who think masculinity is a dangerous construct that ought to
be eliminated—and courage is definitely one of the values I revere, in men and
women. Heroism fascinates me, from the Spartans and Vikings right down to the
War of Northern Aggression, as I like to call it. (Thus my sword collection and
my collection of sword-swinging DVD’s like 300 and Gladiator,
though the latter hoard is as much about hot, bearded men as it is about battle
scenes.) A lot of the things I’ve done I’ve done because I don’t want to think
of myself as a coward. I couldn’t live with that. I can say without doubt that
I have a very strong protective instinct towards members of my “clan” (and we
mountain men are supposed to be clannish, right?), and I certainly possess the
courage to protect with vigor those I love.”

            He also possesses the courage to
write poetry, which is a fearless act for a number of reasons. Many readers
don’t “get” poetry and it doesn’t sell to the masses. “Prose is easier for
everybody to take in,” Mann says, “since we encounter prose much more often in
our daily lives than poetry. I often ask my classes about the unpopularity of
poetry. Students say it’s too convoluted, too subtle, too oblique. Others say
that the focus on strong emotion makes them uncomfortable. Well, poetry can
be hard to absorb, since it tends to be so dense, concise, and multi-layered.
It takes patience to appreciate, and patience is hard to find in a world
accustomed to instant stimulation, gratification, and entertainment. I’m afraid
my new poetry collection, Ash, might seem obscure to people, since it’s
based entirely on Norse mythology, but most of the poetry I write I really try
hard to make comprehensible. I want a reader to ‘get’ a poem of mine pretty
much on the first read, and then to discover greater depths to it as it’s
reread. Part of this attitude of mine, this insistence on clarity, is, I think,
Appalachian: I want regular folks, not just scholars, to read my poetry and
enjoy it and, most importantly, find it relevant. I honestly don’t like overly
intellectual poetry; I think poetry ought to be visceral, about the body, the
earth, the natural world, strong emotions and desires, and less about the
intellect. Poets who write cryptic, opaque poems (what I call ‘WTF poems’) are,
I think, really doing poetry a disservice and driving away an audience. There’s
a kind of egotistical elitism in such work I have little use for.”

             
If Mann has disdain for egotistical elitism, he has even more disdain
for a topic he discusses in one of his essays, the “emotional cowardice of our
age.” But in a media culture obsessed with the self-exposure of reality TV, how
could we possibly produce emotional cowards?

            “I know almost nothing about reality
television,” Mann states, “so I can’t really comment there, though, from what I
can tell, it seems to be self-indulgence, loud display, and shallow narcissism.
‘Vulgar. Common,’ as my late mother, a Southern lady, would drawl. When I talk
about emotional cowardice, I’m talking about a lot of contemporary poetry,
which seems to be all about word play (what I contemptuously call ‘dicking
around with language’) and distanced irony. It’s not writing that deals with
the human heart in conflict with itself, which is what Faulkner said that
literature was all about. I also think that a lot of American men are brought
up to be wary of emotional honesty, as if expressing emotion and admitting the
ambivalent complexities of feeling are somehow weak.”

            Mann has certainly been exposed to
men and cultures other than American, as detailed in his book Edge: Travels
of an Appalachian Leather Bear
. His best friend on those travels? His
notebook. “One thing that has been very, very helpful to me in travel writing
is keeping a daily journal, in which I record details that I would otherwise
never remember. When I wrote Edge, most of those essays were based on my
travel journals. What I saw, where I went, what I ate and drank (the latter
being very important details to a gourmand bear like me!)—it was all there in
those journals. As tired as I am at the end of a day’s travel, still I always
make time to make those notes.”

            It’s not just while traveling that
his notebook is important, however. “I carry a little notebook in my black
leather backpack, which goes just about everywhere I go. In that, I make notes
when I’m not at my laptop, ideas for stories, poems, and essays. I flesh those
notes out on my laptop, let the notes sit for a while. The night before a day
I’ll have free to write, I review those notes and decide what I’ll focus on the
following day. This primes the subconscious, so to speak. I write best in the
mornings, especially poetry. If a poem isn’t written by noon, it won’t be
written that day. Prose I can work on all day. The next time I return to a
piece, I read what I’ve already produced and polish it, then continue extending
it. I do revise a lot, especially poems. Prose tends to come out pretty neat,
pretty close to the final form.  Poems I
‘rassle’ with, since every word must be just right.”

            “Poems tend to be based on intense
emotion, memory, and image,” he states. “I’m also very concerned with music in
poetry. Essays are about ideas (and allow greater length than poems, and so
more room for intellectual exploration). Fiction is mostly about setting,
action, and character. Poems I feel driven to write, by the way. Essays and
fiction I tend to create as a response to calls for submission.”

            

     With a new volume of essays out (Binding
the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South
) as well as Ash, a
fresh collection of poetry based on Nordic myth, the prolific Mann is never
without a project in mind. “I’m very busy “queering” the Civil War,” he says.
“The novel is done, at least the first draft. A publisher will be examining it
soon. It’s called Purgatory, after a big mountain right off I-81 in the
Great Valley of Virginia, and it’s set during the last months of the War, in
1865. The narrator is a Rebel soldier, and his love interest is a Yankee
prisoner of war who’s being treated very, very badly by the band of
Confederates the narrator’s running with. The classic battle between Love and
Duty: save the beloved or stay loyal to the country. I have an entire sequel in
mind, and I should get most of it written in 2011, since I’ll be on sabbatical
and thus not teaching. I’m also halfway through another book of poetry, Rebel,
which focuses on the Civil War, especially the Southern experience, and I have
notes for a novella, set during the first winter of the War in Highland County,
Virginia.”

            But whatever the subject and whoever
the author, Mann clearly has his priorities. “Please support LGBT literature! I
realize that there are many electronic temptations—texting (which I honestly
despise), cell-phone chatting (which I hate just about as much), DVD’s, iPods,
etc.—but a good book can give you much deeper rewards than any of that. And
give poetry a chance. Just because you pick up a book of poetry and don’t like
it, that doesn’t mean that you don’t like poetry. It means you don’t like that
particular poet’s work. There’s a huge variety of poetry:  ancient, modern, contemporary; learned and
allusive, direct and down-home. Keep trying till you find what appeals to you.
If you’re patient and ask around, you’ll find poetry that will move you to the
core, just like I have again and again.”

By Jerry Wheeler

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s