Fall 2009 Vol. 6.1
An Interview with Davis McCombs
Ash Bowen
Davis McCombs is the author of two poetry collections. His first, Ultima Thule,was the winner of the 1999 Yale Younger Poet’s Prize. His second, Dismal Rock (winner of the 2005 Dorset Prize), has just been published by Tupelo Press and named Best Second Book of 2007 by The Contemporary Poetry Review. He currently directs the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas. This interview took place in his office in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Ash Bowen: At a recent reading you gave, you stressed that, while Dismal Rock is in many ways a book about the tobacco industry, you weren’t interested in the politics of tobacco as commerce. When you realized that the book’s first section was going to be about tobacco, what were your concerns for the book’s reception?

Davis McCombs: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I was uninterested in the politics of tobacco; it’s simply that, in the poems, I was primarily concerned with the loss of what has been called “tobacco culture.” By that I mean the unique way tobacco was farmed in South Central Kentucky and the way of life that grew up around the production of that commodity. I guess I wasn’t interested so much in the why and how of its disappearance (there wasn’t, after all, a lot I could do about that) as much as I was interested in exploring the grief I felt at its loss.
       I also felt strongly that I wanted to get a bit of what I knew about that life into poetry. And the situation in Kentucky, while I wrote the poems, was quite grim. Three years ago was the first time in probably two hundred years that tobacco was not farmed on my family’s land. That kind of rapid and dramatic change certainly added a sense of urgency to the project.
I also want to be clear that I am interested in a very specific type of tobacco farming, one that is particular to a small region of Kentucky. White burley tobacco farming is an incredibly intimate, hands-on, largely unmechanized form of agriculture. To bring a crop from seed to market is a nine-month, multi-stage process that requires immense skill and knowledge.
When I was growing up, the great tobacco farmers in the area were widely known and respected; they were sought out for their advice and counsel. In my lifetime, of course, their knowledge has been rendered practically valueless by forces beyond their control. I don’t know how it’s possible, however you may feel about tobacco, not to see that as a tragedy.
         I have come to believe that a person can be anti-smoking, anti-tobacco industry, and yet feel, as I do, a great sense of sorrow at the disappearance of this amazing way of life, a feeling that something ancient and worthy has slipped through our grasp. This is a position, I might add, that has been beautifully and convincingly staked out and elucidated by my fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry. In other words, I wasn’t the first person to come up with this.
    To answer your question, though, I guess I made an effort not to spend a lot of time thinking about how the poems might be received. It’s something I found easy enough to do. During the writing process, I got caught up in the work itself, the pleasure of it, the urgency of it, the sense that, if I was the person to write these poems, I damned well better do it to the best of my abilities. That, I think, is as it should be.

A.B.: The poems in Dismal Rock never step into the realm of the polemic. In fact, the only time the book wades into the socioeconomic realities of the tobacco industry is in the poem “Nicotiana,” where the speaker is told, “Tobacco paid for your education.” I know that your parents own and operate a tobacco farm and that you earned your Bachelor’s degree at Harvard. You’ve expressed feeling conflicted about tobacco as an industry because on one hand it’s a terrible product but on the other it has afforded you many wonderful opportunities. Was this poem a sort of catharsis for you? Was this a poem that you felt that you’d been needing to write for some time—not as a way of clearing the conscience or anything like that—but as a poem that just needed to be written?

D.M.: Honestly, I felt that way about all of the poems in “Tobacco Mosaic,” [section one of Dismal Rock] not just “Nicotiana.” I don’t think I would have written them otherwise. I suspect I require that feeling of urgency and necessity in order to write.
       In my writing life, so far, I have been blessed with two great subjects: the caves of South Central Kentucky in my first book and now, tobacco farming. To have a subject you feel passionately about, one that only a small group of people have intimate knowledge of, is, I have found, a tremendous gift and an awesome responsibility.
      The line you mention—“Tobacco paid for your education.” —is something my mother once said to me when I was holding forth about the evils of tobacco. She was right, of course, and I guess I’ve carried that knowledge with me for years. I’ve said, only half jokingly, that I feel as if every word I write is somehow sponsored by tobacco.
       I wrote the poems, in part, as a way to think about my own involvement in tobacco, to come to terms with it, if you will. And I think, on a personal level, I accomplished that. I mean, I don’t write poems to find answers exactly. Does anyone? I think it would be more accurate to say that I write poems in order to find out what the questions are.

A.B.: In your first book, Ultima Thule, you explored the life of Stephen Bishop, a slave born in 1820. In Dismal Rock, you’re contemplating tobacco laborers. What is it about what one might call marginalized America that draws your poetic gaze?

D.M.: I’m not sure I can answer that question. What you say is an interesting characterization of my work, but it’s not one that I can say immediately resonates with my own sense of it. Of course, I’m probably the person least to be trusted on the subject.
         That’s not to say I don’t see commonality between Stephen Bishop and the tobacco farmers. Both are, of course, particular to South Central Kentucky: one man laboring below ground, one group laboring above. Both are caught up in historical forces beyond their control—you’re right about that—and those forces have an immediate and very real impact on their lives. Both subjects provide connections with the quite distant, prehistoric past. Stephen Bishop, who is considered Mammoth Cave’s greatest explorer, was the first person to shine a light in passageways that had been dark for over 2,000 years. He was literally following in the footsteps of the prehistoric cave explorers who first entered Mammoth Cave some 4,000 years ago. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, the way we farm and use tobacco in South Central Kentucky is derived directly from Native American culture—a fact made clear by the artifacts we unearth in our caves and freshly plowed tobacco fields: pipes, hoes, and sometimes even caches of tobacco itself. So the two subjects have all that in common.
         It’s also true that both Stephen Bishop and the tobacco laborers are essentially voiceless. There is such danger, of course, in speaking for someone else or, worse, in thinking that they might want you to. I love the parts of Derek Walcott’s Omeros in which he wrestles with these very kinds of questions regarding the St. Lucian fisherman and islanders he writes about.
         I have no defense against the kind of charges he levels at himself other than to say that I wrote what I wrote out of great love and respect, out of a deep sense of connection, and that I wrote the poems because I felt an urge to do so that I found impossible to ignore.
A.B.: I’d like to talk to you about the influences on your writing.?Raymond Carver wrote in his essay “Fires” that familial obligations had leveraged more influence on his writing career than any other factor. What influences your writing these days? Are those influences different today than they were before you became a university professor?

D.M.: I think they’re what they’ve always been.
         Is it helpful to me, as a writer, to think about such things? I’m not sure. W. S. Merwin, who is a wonderful, wonderful man, visited us here in Arkansas last spring and one of my graduate students asked him a question dealing, ultimately, with the student’s own writing process. “Why would you want to know that?” he said. I thought that was so smart and the perfect response.
         Coleridge, for me, is a cautionary example of someone so intent on analyzing every aspect of his creative process, of understanding how it worked, that he rendered that process impotent. At least that’s how it seems to me.
      I can say this about myself: I don’t write out of some urge toward self-expression. I never have. What brings me to the blank page or computer screen is almost never a desire to relate something about my own, immediate life.
      This attitude was no doubt forged, in part, as a reaction against the kind of poetry that seemed to be very in vogue in America when I was coming of age as a poet. I absolutely cringed at the kinds of things people seemed to be willing to share about themselves in poetry.
      It’s also just a matter of temperament.
      But—if you push me up against a wall, shine a bright light in my face, and force me to name my greatest influence, surely it would have to be the landscape of Kentucky’s Caveland, the lives of the people who live above the cave, the ways in which those lives are shaped by the immense voids beneath them.

A.B.: A couple of themes stick out to me as I read Dismal Rock. One is the impermanence of the natural world—something you touch on in “The Last Wolf in Edmonson County”—and another is the dangerous seduction of the natural world that seemingly works at the behest of Death, like in the poems “Black and Yellow Argiope” and “Salt Caves Revisited.” Were you conscious of these themes as you were putting the book together or are these themes the byproduct of my own close readings?

D.M.: I was conscious of being incapable—utterly so—of not addressing in some way the question of ecological devastation. I guess I’m still a Park Ranger at heart.
         It’s interesting that you mention the poem, “The Last Wolf in Edmonson County” in this context. I think of that poem, in terms of my own work, as one of the most important in the book. Back in 2002 or so, I told my friend Mark Willis at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that I was working on a collection of poems centered around a place called Dismal Rock, a cracked, 200-foot high sandstone bluff in Edmonson County, Kentucky. He wrote back and told me the story of how, on January 16, 1902, a man named Noah Duvall shot and killed the last gray wolf in Edmonson County near the base of Dismal Rock. Duvall was thought of as a local hero at the time.
         The story combines so many of the elements I’m interested in: local history, extinction, the fraught line where agriculture and nature meet, our changing attitudes toward the natural world, the fairy-tale associations of wolves, even the kind of biblical echo of the name Noah. I felt, even after I’d finished the poem, that I’d hardly begun to plumb the depths of that particular bit of local history.
      Anyway, that poem is the one that served as a portal for me into the next part of my writing life. I’m currently working on a long, maybe book-length poem dealing with a fictionalized version of those events.
      I still can’t believe my luck at having something to work on this soon after the Dismal Rock poems. After Ultima Thule, I spent two years in utter silence and I fully expected to have that same kind of fallow period again. I even thought, since I knew to expect it this time, that I might enjoy the silence.
      I think you’re absolutely right to say that I’m interested as well in the dangerous allure of nature. Maybe that’s why Robert Frost’s poems resonated with me to such an extent when I first read them years ago.

A.B.: Much of what you’ve written in Dismal Rock could be viewed as “nature writing,” which is usually a prose medium. Were you conscious that you might be forging new territory with “verse nature writing” or do you see this as an erroneous view of what you’re doing with the book?

D.M.: I make no such claims about my own project. I would say that I often write a kind of updated pastoral poetry. I think of the poems as pastoral in the sense that they are set in a rural locale and that the people in them are often engaged in agricultural work. I think of them as updated in the sense that they depict their subjects in a much less idealized way than did the traditional pastoral.
         Again, I’m not the first person to tread this ground. Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Les Murray, for example, have all been tremendous influences on my work.
   Yes, I’m intensely interested in the natural world, but I don’t really know what the term “nature writing” means. People occasionally recommend some “nature poet” to me but I rarely connect with the poems. What I so often find lacking in them is a deep intimacy with a particular landscape, an understanding of nature that is born of long and careful observation.
   I have read poems in highly respected publications that were downright inaccurate when it came to some aspect of nature. That kind of sloppiness calls the whole thing into question for me. Why am I listening to this person?
   I think one of the reasons I write so exclusively about the Caveland (and not, say, the Arkansas Ozarks—not yet) is because I understand how that particular landscape works. I know, for instance, that the ponds in the area can disappear overnight into the caves beneath them. I know that a little more than halfway up the hills you’ll see a band of cedars because the rock there, a limestone formation called Girkin, produces soil in which hardwoods do not grow well. I think that kind of knowledge is essential if you’re going to presume to speak about a particular place.
   It has also been my great fortune to spend a lot of time underneath South Central Kentucky. To understand the caves is to begin to understand pretty much everything else. As the old Caveland saying goes, “The house ain’t much, but we’ve got one hell of a basement.”

A.B.: You mentioned that Hughes, Murray, and Heaney are all influences on your own work. I know that you studied under Heaney. ?Was his influence on your work a direct one? Did he ever pull you into his office and say, “Look, McCombs. Stop doing this. Stop doing that”?

D.M.: I can think of only one such exchange. Heaney once told me that the endings of my poems were good. Then he paused. “Maybe too good,” he said. That was great advice and, if I remember correctly, it was advice that he himself had once received; I don’t recall the particulars. He didn’t have to say any more, though. I knew exactly what he meant, and since that time, I have worked to try to temper my cymbal-crashing impulses.
         I used to crave that kind of personal attention from him, but the really hands-on approach was not his thing. I have since realized that Heaney taught me in exactly the ways he would have wanted: through his poems, his magnificent essays, his example as a writer and as a human being. And he continues to do so.
   Heaney was my professor fourteen years ago this fall and I can say in all honesty that there haven’t been more than a handful of days in all the time since that I have not thought of him.

A.B.: As the director of the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas, do you find yourself wrestling with the idea of influence? Do you find yourself struggling with finding a balance in being supportive and being brutally honest with your creative writing students?

D.M.: I teach both graduate and undergraduate students and, in some ways, teaching undergrads is easier. They have so much to learn and you can teach it to them in a relatively short time. Lucie Brock-Broido was my other poetry teacher at Harvard and she is, I remain convinced, the best teacher and editor in the world. There is no doubt that I learned to edit my own poems by watching her do it for me.
         I find that I have great affection for my graduate students and that I root for them wholeheartedly, but teaching them is so different. Yes, you owe it to them to be honest—there’s no doubt about that—but you also know that they’re going to have to learn what they need to learn (i.e., how to get their poems onto the blank page in front of them) by sitting alone in a room. You can’t teach them that because you don’t know, because each person will develop his or her own peculiar way of making their poems happen. And even when they have developed that process, they probably won’t be able to explain it.
   What you can do is to support them, to suggest alternative ways they might approach their subjects, to offer them reading suggestions, etc. I don’t in any way mean to discount or minimize the value of that kind of support. I think of my own experience and how my teachers at Virginia (Charles Wright, Rita Dove and Greg Orr) were, each in their own way, exactly what I needed at exactly the time I needed it.
   It’s wonderful when the teacher (be it a person, a book, an experience) that will teach you what you need to learn at that moment shows up unexpectedly, unannounced and on-time. That kind of thing happens to me over and over.

A.B.: I’m often privy to the conversations of other writers who talk of writing as their “art,” and I get the impression that they feel that having aspirations of publishing a book in order to secure a university teaching position is something akin to being a careerist rather than an artist. ?How do you, as a poet, reconcile your need to be an artist with your need to earn a living?

D.M.: This is a question I struggle with all the time. I don’t have an answer because the answer keeps evolving.
         I used to be the person you describe. I didn’t feel that publishing a book was selling out, but I did think it wasn’t necessarily a good thing that the vast majority of contemporary American poets teach in universities.
       In many ways, I would have been happy staying at Mammoth Cave. I loved my job as a Park
Ranger, but I earned so little money, I had very l little time to write poems, and very little time to spend with my family.
       When Ultima Thule was published, it suddenly?became possible to leave Mammoth Cave and I took that chance. Yes, I could conceivably have moved up the ladder of the Park Service and eventually have earned enough to live, but to do so would have meant giving up the very things I loved so much about being a Park Ranger. No more guiding tours, no more interacting with the visitors, no more being outside or in the cave most days. When I was a Park Ranger, it wasn’t that I had a good view from my office; my office was the view.
       My life now is, in so many ways, better, happier, more productive, but I don’t live in Kentucky, the place I write about almost exclusively, and I don’t have the kind of day-to-day immersion in the natural world that I crave and that is a big part of who I am.
      As always, I’m talking myself in circles on this topic.
      I love those lines in Lowell’s elegy for Berryman where he says:

Yet really we had the same life,
the generic one
our generation offered

Leave it to Lowell to see it that clearly and to say it.

A.B.: Let’s talk about your early aspirations for a minute. When did the idea of writing first strike you? And looking back on that time now, what were your illusions of the writer’s life?

D.M.: This is going to sound like something I’ve made up about myself after the fact, but I wanted to be a writer, a poet even, from a really early age. My father used to read to me from a book called Best Loved Poems of the American People and, oh man, was I hooked.
    I remember thinking of literature, even when I was that young, as a game I wanted to get in on, as something I wanted to try my hand at making.
    I still hear passages from those poems in my head and I suspect I don’t fully grasp even now how formative that early experience was. Surely to this day there’s a good dose of Poe’s “Annabelle Lee,” Longfellow’s “The Day Is Done,” William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” etc. in what I instinctively hear as poetry.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding-
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

I mean, come on! Those lines still work a kind of alchemical magic in some deep part of me.

A.B.: Was this desire to become a poet something you spoke about openly with others? Were your parents very supportive?

D.M.: I distinctly remember talking to my mother about how I wanted to be a poet while she was driving me to the airport to go to Harvard for my first year. I felt that the time ahead would be a test that would tell me whether or not I was cut out for being a writer and I think that’s exactly what happened. When I left Kentucky for Harvard, my only education, aside from a couple of summer programs I’d studied in, had been in small, rural, public schools. I knew so little. I didn’t have any way to judge whether or not this strange thing I wanted to do was possible.
         During the Fall of that first year at Harvard, I competed to be an editor on Harvard’s oldest and best known literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate. The Advocate’s editorial board was very much the literary in-crowd at Harvard. The competition process (called “comps”) was long and excruciating, almost like pledging a fraternity. In the end, I was turned down. That was a real blow.
       Maybe they were right, maybe I wasn’t ready. I sure didn’t fit in; that much was clear. The happy ending to the story, for me anyway, was that during my junior and senior years, I won the Advocate’s annual poetry competition two years in a row.
      So it wasn’t until my last two years at Harvard, during my time in Lucie’s amazing workshops, that being a poet really started to seem, if not possible, then not impossible. During those brief, enchanted years when I was her student, Lucie made poetry seem like the most important thing in the world. She made it seem as if poetry could change the world. What a gift. Like I said, she’s’ a phenomenal teacher. I also think she’s one of the best poets writing in English today. I owe her so, so much.
      I’m not sure my parents knew quite what to make of my aspirations to be writer but they were always supportive. I thankfully grew up in a family where education was valued above all. Going to Harvard—and then to UVA and to Stanford—changed my life so positively and profoundly and for that I am deeply grateful.

A.B.: What you said earlier about not living in Kentucky but writing about it almost exclusively brings to mind a line from your poem, “Broken Country” from Ultima Thule. The line reads, “ so much of the world lies out of reach.” To me, this doesn’t really seem that far from what Eliot might’ve been getting at in parts of The Waste Land—the idea that the world we crave is beyond our grasp. Do you think in your writing about Kentucky that you’re reaching for some kind of personal solace for the separation you feel?

D.M.: Yes, I think that’s increasingly the case. One of my favorite contemporary poets, Aleda Shirley, begins her first book, Chinese Architecture, with a quotation from Proust’s Swann’s Way that says, “the countries we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.”
       Aleda Shirley was probably the first poet I ever met (I was seventeen years old) and, aside from a few books by Wendell Berry I bought at roughly the same time, Chinese Architecture was the first book of contemporary poetry I ever owned. I loved, loved, loved it and carried it with me everywhere I went for years. I’m amazed now to think how much that epigraph has come to define my life.
       The line you mention, though, is from a poem about going into a really beautiful and fragile part of Mammoth Cave called New Discovery. One of the great perks of working at the Cave was that we employees occasionally got to go on what we called “After Hours Trips” into parts of the cave never seen by the public. And there’s a lot that isn’t open to tours. Out of the 350 known miles of cave, only about 12 are seen by visitors.
      I remember going to a passageway one night called Bransford East. The trip there was some of the hardest caving I’ve ever done: a long and confusing maze of a journey with much crawling and climbing. I remember that we stopped for a break in this little room deep in the cave. I remember lying there on sand that was deposited by an underground river over two million years ago, looking up at the ceiling and seeing fossils deposited by a sea some 350 million years ago, and just being blown away by the immensity of it all. I remember thinking that I’d never be back there. I also remember thinking that if I got injured on the trip, it would be days before they could get me out of the cave. At that moment the people I loved on the surface seemed terrifyingly far away.
         If there’s one thing Mammoth Cave teaches you, it’s how inaccessible so much of the world really is. We’re so tiny and the time we’re here is so brief, but the world is huge and strange and full of mystery. I think that’s an important and a humbling lesson of mystery. I think that’s an important and a humbling lesson.