Thomas Rain Crowe: A Writers Life, an Interview and Reading

♪ [Opening Music] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪>>Gene Hyde: Good afternoon
everyone and welcome to A Writer’s Life: An Interview
with Thomas Rain Crowe. I’m Gene Hyde. I’m
head of Special Collections here at UNC Asheville
and kind of giving you the program for today. I’ll be telling you a little bit
about the- what led to us being here together and then I’ll
introduce Renee Ambroso who will be interviewing Thomas
about a writer’s life. And after the show [laughs]
after the interview and reading, Thomas will be reading some too. Thomas will have
some books for sale, if you’re interested. This all started out- I got to
know Thomas and he donated a collection of his writings from
regional newspapers to Special Collections. And although his main archival
holdings are at Duke University, and it’s over a hundred linear
feet- which is a big collection. And it’s typically not the thing
where a Special Collection will take in materials that are
also held in another Special Collection but this was special
for us because these were writings- over 275 of them
that were written in regional newspapers and I felt that
it was important to have them indexed and available and
searchable online in terms of what he’d written in
Western North Carolina. So we brought those in and it
made a lot of sense to have them here and the first
thing I thought, “This would be a great
project for an English intern.” As things went I soon met
Renee Ambroso who was taking an Appalachian Foodways course with
Dr. Erica Locklear and Renee expressed an interest in
an internship and I said, “Well, would you be willing to
work with this stuff from Thomas Rain Crowe?” And she
went, “Oh yeah.” So, we crafted the internship
together where she would work with this and part of it was
intentionally so she could meet Thomas and we could have this
interview as part of the whole process. And Renee
Ambroso is a junior here at UNC Asheville and she’s pursuing a degree in Literature
with a minor in Psychology. On campus she’s a member of
the National Literature Honors Society as well as Alpha xi
Delta and she’s the first. She’s a poet and a writer. She’s from Durham where she
graduated from the Durham School of Arts with a concentration
in creative writing. Her poetry has been published
in the high school’s literary magazine Portraits in Ink and
she received the Silver Key Award at the 2013 Scholastic
Arts Awards and first place for high school poetry at the
Phoenix Literary Festival, Highpoint’s University. And she’s been working with us
in Special Collections as an intern this semester. Renee?>>Renee Ambroso: Thank you.
First of all I just want to thank you all for coming and for Thomas to coming to read
some of his stuff for us. Thomas Rain Crowe is an
internationally known writer, poet, editor, and father of
New Native Press and Fern Hill Records. He was born in 1949 in North
Carolina and after living abroad in France moved to San Francisco
to become the editor of Beatitude Magazine and
co-founder and Director of the San Francisco
International Poetry Festival. In 1979 he moved back to North
Carolina and spent several years living off the grid in a cabin
in Polk County from which he would later write his award
winning memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods. Crowe continued to become editor
of Katuah Journal: A Bioregional Journal of the Southern
Appalachians as well as editor-at-large for the
Asheville Poetry Review. Crowe has also spent time living
and writing at the Dylan Thomas Boat House in Laugharne, Wales
after which he published his book The Laugharne Poems as well
as an anthology of contemporary Celtic poets. Crowe now lives in Cullowhee,
North Carolina while continuing to write for the Smoky Mountain
News and publish with New Native Press. His work is archived at Duke
University’s Special Collections library in Durham, North
Carolina and now also here at UNC Asheville. Over the past 4 months, I have
had the privilege of working with Mr. Hyde in Special
Collections at UNCA’s Ramsey Library to archive the
collection of Mr. Crowe publications including newspaper
articles dating back to 1978 and publications from
New Native Press. The result is Thomas Rain Crowe
Regional Publications Collection which contains over 280
items, the majority from local publications such as the
Smoky Mountain News and the Asheville Citizen-Times. So I’d like to start off
by asking you to give us an overview of your writing career
in your own words and describe some of the most
important moments.>>Thomas Rain Crowe: Okay.
Hopefully we have enough time to do this today. [laughs] Just listening to your
introduction it brings back so many different points and parts
of my life and specific times and places. It’s hard to know when to start,
where to start but it’s only fitting that you start at the
beginning and so the beginning for me was growing up in my
house and my mother reading to me every night
before I went to bed. I grew up in very
rural places in my youth. The most important one maybe was
over in Graham County here down the road a couple of hours. At the time there
was no television, there was no radio and
there was barely a telephone. And so all the entertainment or
all interchange on a literary level was done orally. So storytelling and anything
else that you would get on that level would be oral in some way
or another and my mother would always read to me every
night before I went to bed, sing songs to me. When I developed and what I
was conscious of because I can remember it still, being
conscious of how when my mother would read to me it would
be an auditory experience. The words would go into my ears
but what happened was that I would see pictures in my mind,
it was like a screen and I’d never seen television so this
wasn’t something that I was getting from
experience from television, it was totally organic. And I remember thinking that if
I could ever write anything like my mother was reading to me or
I was reading myself that would have that effect
on other people, it would be more than magic. It would be kind of like the
ultimate thing you could do in life. And so that thought kind of
stayed with me and my love of reading as a result of being
read to continued and I became a voracious reader and I
started scribbling poems when I was very young. I had a second grade teacher
over in Robbinsville who really encouraged you know my interest
in reading and writing and as a matter of fact she would let me
go in behind the bookcases while everybody else was playing
and doing other things. And I would make books, I would
make these little books out of paper that I would staple
together and maybe scribble some stuff in, just making books and
that’s where I started making books which eventually ended up
my becoming a publisher myself and publishing the work of other
people through the New Native Press but it- those
were the beginnings. And from there I guess that
it’s a long story and I probably should leap forward quite a
bit and just say that I hit some high points. Definitely one of the high
points for me was living in France right after I
graduated from college. I went almost
immediately to France. In my mind as an expatriate,
I wanted to be a French poet. I loved Rameau, Moliere and
Sartre and Camus and all the French writers. I’d studied French in school so
I knew the language well enough to appreciate it
knew the culture. But I wanted to be a French poet
and I thought to be a great poet you had to be a French poet,
so I moved to France and lived there for a short time, a lot
shorter than I had intended. But then I went to San Francisco
when I came back to America and I moved to San Francisco. I was kind of- I was
sick is why I came back. I had developed a disease
in France from drinking unpasteurized milk. So I developed a form of
brucellosis which in people is called undulant fever, which is
un-diagnosable now in America because nobody ever gets it. So anyway, I was sick for a
while but then I went- had to re-kind of evaluate by life and
figure out where I was going to go next and so I decided to
go where my heroes were and my heroes were all in San
Francisco at the time. And so- I’m talking
about the beat poets, so I went to San
Francisco and sure enough, it was great, great timing. The whole beat generation
phenomenon had kind of taken a back seat to what was next on
the media’s agenda and they weren’t getting a lot of press
and they weren’t getting all the accolades that they had in
the 50’s and early 60’s. This was in the 70’s now and
they were ripe to have any kind of young poets or people hang
out with them and show their appreciation and to- for them to
be kind of teachers or mentors and so that’s what we did. Me and myself and many other
young people my age hung around our heroes for several years in
San Francisco and did a lot of things. We created a magazine, we
re-introduced Beatitude Magazine and brought it back again. We did a lot of readings that
started out on a very small scale but then got larger
and larger and larger until we created the San Francisco
Poetry Festival in 1976, had thousands of people
for the Poetry Festival. So there was a real renaissance
that happened during that time in San Francisco in literature
but also in the arts and music and we integrated a lot of that. You know, we were working
together at a lot of these events and stuff and we did a
lot of protesting which is very “beat” you know I mean we
were- there were- there’s always issues and there were issues
then and we jumped right into that, to that genre too. It was what we called back then
the University of the Streets. We were getting our education at
café’s and the bars from hanging around all our heroes who were
in their 40’s or maybe almost 50 by then and just taking
it all in by osmosis. It wasn’t structured in any
way it was just you know poets hanging around other poets and
that was my focus for several years. I didn’t go to movies, I
didn’t go to rock concerts, I was focused on poetry because
it was all right there and I knew where I was and the
possibility that I would then been given to- the privilege
really of being around these people that- whose work that I
admired and took full advantage of it. So that was that period and then
when I left California and I came back to North Carolina here
in the mountains just- I thought for the winter. I was living in a Teepee in
the Sierras in Gary Snyder’s community. At that time I’d done the city
thing and I was very infatuated by the bioregional movement that
was going on which was centered up in North San Juan along the
Yuba River and Snyder and a lot of the back-to-the-land people
where living up there from cities all over the
country and I moved up there. I spent a year living up
there with them and it refocused everything for me. But I was living in a teepee in
an old Mayan Indian village that had once been an old
Mayan Indian village, ceremonial and spiritual center. It would- we were farming that
and in the winter time is when it rains in Northern California
in that area up there in the Sierra foothills and so,
living in a teepee in chilly wet weather for three or four months
didn’t sound like a lot of fun. I’d spent a lot of time down on
the Green River bogs at Furman University in college with an
old mountain man there and he had since died and the cabin
that he and I built there near the Green River was
available to me at no cost, no rent just to come
and use anytime I wanted. So in my mind I thought, “Well
I’ll just go back and hang out in the cabin for the
winter, then I’ll come back to California.” I never went back. I stayed in that cabin for 4
years with no electricity, no running water, grew my own
food and tried to survive the way that Thoreau did. Thoreau was one of my heroes. And while I was there that
winter hanging out I thought- I was re-reading Walt Whitman and
some of Thoreau’s other work and I had the thought,
“Well I’m 28 years old. Thoreau was 28 when
he went to Walden, I don’t have a job, I
don’t have a family, I don’t have any
responsibilities, I’m very healthy. If I’m ever going to do what
Thoreau wrote about now might be the time to do it.” And so I hunkered down with this
idea that I would- to see if I could be self-sufficient.
I didn’t know if I could do it. I had some of the skills to do
it but I’d never done it and that’s a big-
there’s a big difference. So I spent 4 years over in Polk
County doing that and ever since then I’ve been much more in
touch with nature and the wild world and the earth and the
planet and ideas of conservation and balance and harmony and all
these kind of things that the ancient peoples that lived on
this continent before us knew about and lived in accordance
with and were really working and focused on that, environmental
conservation and that kind of thing for the last 25-30 years
and that’s probably where a lot of the writing is now you
know here is writing that has something to do in one way
or another with those values. So, I told you it
would take a long time. [Laughter]>>Ambroso: Okay. So
you’ve been writing poetry and fiction for most of your life as you’ve been saying
you’re a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers. So what motivates you to keep
writing or was there ever a time in your life where you felt like
you weren’t going to be able to write?>>Crowe: No, that question kind
of reminds me of when people talk about writers block. I don’t believe
in writers block. If you have writers block it’s
because you don’t want to write. Either that or your
too self-critical. You should you know lighten up
and just have some fun with it. No, I can’t really think of
anytime when I didn’t want to write because most of my life
my adult life anyway I’ve had to write to make a living
especially- I worked for a while at the Sylva Herald in
Sylva, at the newspaper, the local newspaper
and I got laid off. Because I got laid off, I got a
year of unemployment for that and so I had some time to think
about what I was going to do and where I was going to go and I
decided I wanted to make my living as a writer.
I’d never done that before. I mean I made a little
money here and there, but never like the whole shebang
you know coming from my writing and so I really launched
into that did research and did thinking and talked to people
and tried to identify certain publications that you know might
be conducive to the things that I was interested in and started
writing you know contacting these people and these
places and seeing if they were interested in anybody doing any
writing and I was lucky almost everywhere, every place I
contacted I got a positive answer. So, there were outputs, a
lot of them were in the arts, there was the Arts Journal here
in Asheville during those days, I wrote for them every issue
for I don’t know how many years. There was the Arts
Journal down in Atlanta, a big one. I wrote for them
then I went national. I was writing for a national
magazines about the arts and literature, but also doing a
lot of newspaper work The Smoky Mountain News over in
Waynesville had just started and they were looking for reporters
and writers and I jumped on their wagon and started doing
news reporting and editorials and book reviews and different
things and I’m still with them, not the news, not the news
anymore but I’m still writing book reviews and editorials. So, it was a real you know wide
range it was all really because I needed to make a living.>>Ambroso: Actually you just
answered my next question which was why did you decide to
contribute to some of these local papers, like the
Smoky Mountain News, Asheville Citizen-Times
and stuff like that?>>Crowe: Well it
wasn’t only to make money, I mean there was also this
bigger thing like I was talking about before coming out of
the bioregional movement and becoming more attuned with
nature and becoming involved with different environmental
groups and programs. I learned- what I learned in
California was that you know you have to focus small cause
like the whole added small is beautiful and instead of trying
to save the whole planet by yourself, what you can do is
just focus on where you live in your own community and try to do
what you can to help in that way and so my focus became
Western North Carolina. At the time, there were a
lot of issues that were very, very threatening and important,
air pollution being one of them. I helped start an organization
called The Canary Coalition which was a kind of a clean air
watch-dog organization and it’s still going on
fifteen years later. I’m still on the board
of the Canary Coalition. But there a lot of you know
the Pigeon River was totally polluted I mean there was a
lot of environmental issues, development you know there was a
big green light here in Western North Carolina for developers
to come in and do whatever they wanted cause most of the
counties in the west that were here doesn’t have any kind of
land use regulations at all so the developers could come in and
have their way with the land and do whatever they wanted. So, there were a lot issues and
I felt like that it was part of my responsibility and duty
to address these issues which included you know community
commissioner’s elections and everything else because
all of that is interplayed. They all interact. The developers with the county
commissioners with the you know it’s all a part of everything
so depending on who you have on your county commissioners board,
often times determines what your regulations are or not are in
your county and so I jumped in with some elections and trying
to help get some people elected that had more progressive ideas
about these things and more conservative in terms of
conservation ideas about protection and all that. So, that was a lot of my
motivation for writing and staying focused locally.>>Ambroso: So, like you
mentioned a little bit just now, your mother was a
big influence on you, on your desire to become a
writer when she would read to you when you were a child and
you’ve even published your own children’s book
through New Native Press. So, can you explain a little bit
about how this early experience helped you, you know facilitate
your literary career or had influence on you as a writer?>>Crowe: Well I was speaking
about that you know earlier. It just was at that young age
that time of your life when you know you’re taking it all in and
it all really stays with you, you know I think that those
informative years you know people talk about it a lot you
know it’s like well is it really true? It’s just some psychological
ideas somebody came up with and everybody believes it because
they studied it in school, but I think it’s true for me
looking back now my years in Graham County were the years
that really formed who I am, not in every way but certainly
in terms of certain values and certain- certain love-
love of the natural world. It’s still very- a remote place
and very wild back in Graham County. It hasn’t changed much
in the last fifty years. But I could literally walk out
my back door if I wanted to I could walk for days and
never see another human being, and so nature was all around
everywhere and I spent a lot of my time over at what was
then Snowbird Indian School on Snowbird Reservation. They had an Indian school there,
the VI was running the Indian school. It was segregation, like there
was in most- the rest of the country at that time where the
Indians have their school in this case the Cherokee and all
the white folks have their own school in town. And at the time I
was growing up there, there was still segregation. I spent a lot of my time out
there and so I was running through the woods
barefoot with Cherokee boys, my own age and we were all doing
stuff becoming blood brothers and all the cool stuff that
you do when you’re young and I learned how exciting it was for
us to be free and wild in the natural world. I wasn’t thinking
about that then, but I was living it and you
know fifty years later when I’m starting to think about things
as my life unravels towards the end, I think back on those years
and I realize how important they were for me in terms of my
eventually coming to a place where I love the natural world. I feel protected of it. I feel like you know it’s the
only issue out there you know, everything else breaks down into
other issues but without the natural world and without a
balance in the natural world, without the diversity in the
natural world all the rest of it falls away. We don’t have anything really in
the end if we don’t take care of our home and our home is
the planet and in our case, it’s Western North Carolina. It’s these
beautiful old mountains, the oldest
mountains in the world. I mean are you kidding? This
is the Garden of Eden. When I would go to church on
Sundays in Robbinsville at the Methodist church the pastor
would always talk about the Garden of Eden. I don’t know why it was
either the Garden of Eden, or Adam and Eve or both, and
he would you know every time he would start rhapsodizing
about the Garden of Eden, reading from the bible and
whatever I’d start my naïve young age I thought he was
talking about Graham County because my experiences of the
natural world was just like what he was reading
right out of the Bible. It was beautiful everything
was given and they just lived in this blissful
state in a wonderful, in a wonderful beautiful
place and I still feel that way. It’s not the same anymore as
it was when I was growing up in Graham County, there’s
a lot more people here, there’s a lot more building,
there’s a lot of different kinds of issues but the
beauty is still here. It’s still here if you’re
looking for it and if you’re aware and paying attention and I
think we need to focus more on that and be working more in that
direction and not away from it. A lot of people have
this, have this view.>>Ambroso: So, moving on from
North Carolina I want to talk about san Francisco a little bit
and how you were influenced by the literary scene
there and the place.>>Crowe: This is not the
question that could take us a couple hours at least. Aside
from Graham County, San Francisco and my time in
San Francisco would be probably the two most
important times in my life. I just- like I said I happen
to be there at the right time everybody was there everybody
was friendly there was a lot of exciting interests, youthful
interest in the literary arts. I was hanging around my heroes. It doesn’t get any better
than that if you’re an artist. It just doesn’t and it reminded
me of Russia you know right around the time of the
revolution the Bolshevik Revolution and the incredible
scene in St. Petersburg in Moscow that went on there and in
Paris during the twenties 1920’s the incredible arts
renaissance that went on there. Well San Francisco
was exactly the same, the same thing was going on
there were huge audiences for these readings we did and
interest in the arts and music and it was seemingly endless and
I was right in the middle of it and doing a lot of the
organizing and the work behind Beatitude Magazine and press and
organizing a lot of these events and there was a lot of off shoot
from that in the scene spread out into the whole Bay Area in
Berkley and over along Salinas, along the coast and down into
Santa Cruz and then up to the Yuba River. There was this whole- it
was almost like Western North Carolina, there was this area
about the size of Western North Carolina and there were these
little enclaves of in my case poets in all these places and
they were all doing different kinds of things, very similar to
what was going on in Russia the different movements the
different cliques’ same thing in Paris in the twenties.
You know I was thinking about that all the time
and there was just like then and there those places there
was a lot of interaction between these different groups, there
was also a lot of competition but just like it was in
Russia and Paris in the earlier part of the
twentieth century. The competition was a benevolent
competition and we were all learning it and
taking from each other. You know we’d have
these confrontations, these groups you know in a
reading maybe or something and you’d hear the work that’s
coming from the community you know a hundred miles
up north and you’d go, “Whoa what are
they- you know whoa.” So, it’s all informative and it
was all part of that university of the streets you know,
what I was talking about. It was just coming in a
different format and you know I learned a lot of lessons too. It’s like when I was younger you
know I held some of these people like Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti
and Michael McClure and Diane di Prima and William Burroughs and
de Corso you know I held them with- they were kind of gods to
me you know reading them in high school and that kind of thing,
but I was hanging out with these people on a daily basis. They were sleeping in my kitchen
and stuff you know and- but what you learned is people always
aren’t always who they seem. [laughter] And then especially
with writers and it’s probably true with a lot of different
other kinds of people as well but you know writers
they write these lofty, incredible, mystical,
miraculous things and you think, “Oh man these people are just
like gods you know they’re so smart and they’ve got
their act totally together.” Wrong, they’re human beings just
like everybody else and we’ve all got our frailties and our
short comings and it seems like in poets that their short
comings are always magnified much larger than
any other group. [laughter] I don’t know why
that is. So, there’s lots of stories
and I’ve written about it and there’s books. I published a book with New
Native Press that’s really a picture book of those
years in San Francisco of the publications and the events and
the people and all the things that went on during
that renaissance. So, it’s kind of
a documentation, a historical
documentation of that period.>>Ambroso: So, speaking of
people not being what they seem I wanted to ask you about labels
kind of like what does “beat” mean you? And you’ve been
called “baby beat” so what does this label mean to
you and did you ever feel like being called
that restricted you as a writer?>>Crowe: No, it’s a matter
of- it’s a funny story it’s an ironic kind of story,
paradoxical story in terms of how the moniker came to be.
I’ll tell you the story first and then I’ll respond to it.
Like I said we were hanging out in the café’s and the bars and
there was a place across from City Lights Bookstore
called Specs’. It’s an old bar, it’d
been there for a long time. It was a neighborhood bar and
all the locals went there and we all hang out there all us young
guys and some of the older poets and we’d go there at night. And John Logan, the poet John
Logan was in town and we heard about it and we met him on the
street one day near City Lights and he says, “Oh I’m going
to be over at Specs’ tonight. Why don’t you guys come over?” You know and we always- we
always traveled in little groups you know it seems
like all my friends, so that night we went to Specs’
and John Logan was sitting in a booth in the back and he was
with Richard Brautigan and they were back there you know talking
and drinking and so me and two or three friends walk up and
John gets all excited you know, he’s going, “Oh hey, hey.” You know and he’s real excited
you know to have some young people around but
Brautigan was not happy. He wanted Logan all to himself. He had a thing about John Logan
he revered him kind of like I revere Ferlinghetti you know or
something and he didn’t like the fact that we were going to horn
in on his you know special time with John Logan and he made it
very clear and came out with this epithet he says, he
turned to John he says, “You don’t want to hang
out with these baby beats.” And just blown up so he actually
came out with the phrase but it was you know, it was you know a
negative connotation and somehow that- and I don’t know how it
happened but somehow that phrase and that story got to a writer
in the San Francisco chronicle who did all the literary stuff
and the arts and wrote a big piece on the beats which wasn’t
unusual cause there was always news in San Francisco when
anything interesting was going on and he wrote this whole piece
and created the moniker of baby beats for all us younger people
that were hanging out with all the older big poets. And so, it kind of stuck and
then people were kind of kidding us, “Ah the baby
beats, the baby beats, you know but for me it was a
huge compliment because I had been linked in a
way with my heroes, with people whose work I really
admired and the people who I really admired and as
contemporary poets. And ever since then I feel
lucky to have been a part of the moniker of being a baby beat
because the beat generation literary tradition is one of
the only literary movements that this country has created on its
own and it has survived and been kind of influenced it’s been. It’s been a huge influence on
several generations now well at least three and those writers
from that era from that movement the beat movement have had a big
effect on America at least in a literary sense if not in other
ways as well and I feel you know very lucky to be
associated with that tradition. And I like the fact that
we’re identified as the next generation because now there’s a
whole generation that’s coming on that are younger than I am
that have also been influence by not only the writing of us baby
beats but also the beats and the tradition goes on which is
also very much like the Russian tradition that I
spoke about earlier. So, I feel honored to be a part
of that tradition and it doesn’t bother me at all really.>>Ambroso: So eventually you
decided it was time to leave San Francisco and so why did you
come back to North Carolina?>>Crowe: Well I went into that
when we were talking earlier and I was living in a teepee and I
was living in a teepee in the winter and the Sierra Foothills
isn’t exactly what you’d call a good idea. And so,
I came back here to spend the winter
and got into being here and re-identifying
with you know my childhood, growing up here and the
environment issues and the other thing too was that
living on the west coast, those mountains out there are
very young mountains and you can feel that energy. The energy on west coast
is very off the ground, lot of ideas, lot of enthusiasm,
a lot of insanity which is really good for a young person
and then has [indistinct] grow up in a southern Baptist you
know environment and on the east coast south. It was good for me. I needed that, I needed to see
that it existed but it’s very youthful and very-
almost off the ground. People would come up with ideas
and things but then very few people would
actually do stuff you know? Manifest it with things and I
realized when I spent the winter here after coming back that
time that these mountains really grounded me. I really realized that I was
kind of off the ground too. I was kind of floating out
there with all my heroes and everything and I
was emulating them. I wasn’t finding my own voice,
I was really trying to copy different people and be a poet
in that way and I realized that I felt a lot more grounded here. I felt a lot more relaxed and at
home and I realized that in my writing that I was
doing that better, that my poems were very
different than they have been before and they were kind of
more original and that was a big realization for me cause I
wanted to be my own person, my own poet. I didn’t want to be a copycat
but up until that point I really hadn’t discovered what my voice
was and what were- what the focus was and I very quickly
found them you know the natural world was my focus. And higher
consciousness you know, reading a lot
about other religions, other philosophies and things
which I did a lot in the winter time when I was living in the
woods cause you know that was the time I could relax and
really expand my mind instead of working my body for you know
six or five months to survive. So, I wanted to expand into
being more thoughtful in terms of a larger paradigm where
the planet was concerned.>>Ambroso: So, you come back
from California and decide to live self-sufficiently for what
ended up being four years in a cabin out in the woods in Polk
County North Carolina and it was about twenty years later that
you actually went through the journals and started writing
Zoro’s Field and so you were inspired by the writing of
Thoreau and Emmerson which you had talked about and you wrote
that your objective was to live twice the time that Walden did
at the edge of Walden Pond to give myself a realistic
opportunity to take the Walden experience and the life of
relative seclusion a step further. So, did this ideal change at all
throughout your experience and writings Zoro’s Field twenty
years later do you think that returning to the woods was
necessary for you at the time?>>Crowe: Returning to the woods
meaning originally- my original return or going back
twenty years later?>>Ambroso: I mean the original.>>Crowe: Yeah, yeah so just
refresh my memory about your question was?>>Ambroso: Did this ideal of
living the way that Walden did at the edge of Walden Pond, did
that change throughout the four years that you spent there?>>Crowe: No, no if anything
I would have stayed longer. The circumstances that
occurred after four years were substantive. I was
more or less forced to leave. I left on my own volition but
the circumstances there were changing. It was a
250-acre old mountain farm and the patriarch
that owned the property died. His children and relatives
swarmed in and started making noises and started actually
doing some of these things they wanted to develop the property,
cut down all the trees and sell them for lumber,
cut down the orchard, run cattle on the mountain tops,
which was totally antithetical to what the owner of the
property wanted for the land and totally against you know my
own values and what I had been working on with myself in terms
of my ideas of what Thoreau proposed and all that. So, if anything it got stronger
as I went along and twenty years later I start writing a
book out of necessity, I have a good friend John Lang
he’s a writer he’s the head of the environmental studies
program at Wofford College and is part of our- we’ve been
friends for a very long time and he kept telling, “Thomas you
should write a book about those years you spent in the woods. People really like
to read about that.” I wasn’t too excited about
writing a whole book about my experience in the- I had never
written a whole book you know a prose book that way and it was
it would’ve been a big book and it would’ve taken a long
time and I wasn’t really an experienced prose
writer in that way. So, it was a little
daunting, but I needed money, I was desperate for money and he
convinced me that it was a book that somebody might want and it
might make some money so what I did is I wrote a chapter a month
in the Smoky Mountain News. That’s how I
wrote the whole book, two years every month
for two years I wrote a fifteen-hundred-word chapter for
the Smoky Mountain News and I got so much feedback from those
monthly articles that I knew that- that John Lang was
probably right that people would be interested in this book cause
I was getting amazing feedback and people would come up to me
in the Ingles parking lot and say, “I just read that
piece you wrote on the bees. Well I’m a beekeeper.” And we start talking about
bees for forty-five minutes, that kind of stuff happened
all the time and people would be camped out in front of the
newspaper waiting for the monthly issue to come out to
read what I was going to do next I mean who would’ve figured? I certainly wouldn’t have,
but the book was like a magic miracle in my life you
know, it just took off. And it really gave me an
identity I didn’t have as a poet or as a freelance writer. Major universities started
using it for their environmental studies programs,
it’s still being used. It’s been published
in four languages. I just got a letter yesterday in
the mail from Geneva Switzerland from a guy who had read the
French version of Zoro’s Field wanting my autograph. This is a long time after
Zoro’s Field was published, I mean the book’s been out there
and been in circulation and is available. I mean they kept it in print
and like I say it’s in different languages, but it keeps
happening you know this was a shocker. I’ve never had this happen
before somebody asked me for my autograph are you kidding me? [laughs] I’m not a movie star,
but it did happen and I’ve got it right here. I’ve
got a copy and I can show, I can prove it. [laughter] In case you don’t believe
me, so anyway.>>Ambroso: You talk about the
winter months at Zoro’s Field when you would spend a long
period of time inside reading and writing and was this a-
were these intensive periods of writing was it a new approach
to writing for you than you previously had?>>Crowe: Well, yes
because it was very intense, very intensified, were
very intensive periods. I had three months, I take one
subject that I’d focus on it for the whole winter reading-
once I hitch hiked down to the Hendersonville library and get
books through international- inter library loan. I’d have to order the books that
I wanted to use and I’d focus on like one winter I did world
religions you know reading books from world religions. One winter I did anthropology,
reading you know reading anthropological stuff and so it
went like that every winter and my writing tended to focus on
whatever it was I was reading and thinking about. I’d take long walks in the woods
you know after I read something just thinking and thinking and
using my brain and not just my body all the time. And my poet- I was
reading more Japanese poetry, the ancient Japanese poetry. Again, it was an influence from
Thoreau and so my writing- my poetry I was alone writing
poetry then and was shorter it was more compact. It was more nature based, it was
more mystical maybe in some ways cause I found as I was living in
the woods that I became more and more of a more animistic
in my spiritual thinking, more agnostic. In other words, I was becoming
part of nature and nature was my frame of reference it wasn’t
some made up myth it was created in Nicaea and all- early
part of the first millennium. It was real and the things
around me were real and they’re what sustained me and so you
know my spiritual thinking was reflected in my writing. I wasn’t writing a lot but I
kept this big ledger and I would write in it almost every day and
that became really the detailed reference for Zoro’s Field
because I had the details there, I was you know chronicling all
the plants that would come up in the spring and when the
different things would happen in nature so that I have exact
dates and frames of reference associations and
things to draw from. But the poems that I wrote were
almost all very nature based and very merging on the more
mystical higher consciousness. I became at that time
more interested in higher consciousness and awareness and
realized I’ve been putting you know toxic substances in my
body wasn’t helping my mind any. I wanted to be on a natural high
after the sixties that’s a long strip you know I
think it was a long step, but it paid off I think and I
found out too I mean lots of little things like I grew up you
know the thinking was when I was growing up that you had to eat
meat three times a day to stay healthy and be strong, a
lot of protein a lot of meat. Well I didn’t never eat any meat
until Zoro’s Field hardly ever except for a few fish once in a
while or rattle snakes somebody would bring and I’d cook up or
something I mean it wasn’t much and I was stronger and healthier
and my mind was more active than it’d ever been in my life and I
realized I didn’t need all that meat. I didn’t need
all that marijuana. I didn’t need the LSD. I didn’t need all that stuff
that we were you know during my generation in the sixties we
grew up on thinking that was going to help us raise our
consciousness when in fact it was actually helping to do this. You know it took four years in
the woods for me living clean that way to realize all that
and I think that was a huge, huge benefit for
me in the long run.>>Ambroso: So obviously Zoro’s
field was a really important place for you and
you wrote that, “during these years of isolation
I have come to believe that we must go home again” and do you
think that it’s important for every writer to do this?>>Crowe: No I wrote an essay
it was on the birthday of Thomas Wolfe, the Asheville Citizen did
this big thing back in the back in the early eighties, around
1980 or 81 I think and the Citizen was running this big
thing all during the whole period of time right around
the Thomas Wolfe’s either birth anniversary or maybe the
publication of Look Homeward Angel or something and you know
he’s famous for his book “you can’t go home again.” And so, I was living in the
woods for three or four years by then and I was thinking, “man
what would’ve happened to me if I hadn’t come home
again?” And at that time I thought of you know these
mountains as my home. I wasn’t born here and I lived a
lot of other places but at that moment in my life I was relating
to my childhood and I had been there in that one little place
for almost four years and I said, “no, no he’s got it
wrong you got to go home again.” If you want to- if you believe
in community and if you want to take what you’ve learn from
being away from wherever you were raised and your home place
and bringing that information and that experience
back to the home place, especially places that were
very remote and reserved and conservative like where I
grew up most of my childhood upbringing to bring the more
progressive thinking and the more I would call it higher
consciousness thinking back home and integrate that into the
community and that’s how we grow as a species. But that doesn’t always happen
you know people leave home and they never go back home and at
the same time in the essay that I wrote called You Must Go Home
Again which was published in the newspaper here in some chapter
it- I lost my train of thought. I also kind of said that you
know not all of us can go home again. I mean it’s
not for everybody. It’s not possible, there’s a lot
of reasons why it’s not possible or it’s not practical or
it’s not fun or whatever, but for those who can and for
those who had been out in the world and learned something that
might be of value to where they grew up. If they love where they grew
up, if they love that place then it’s almost it would seem to be
almost an obligation for them to come back at least for a while
and to share that experience with the people and the
place that they love. We’ve been doing classes over
at the Arboretum the last couple years on writing about place and
loving where you live and all these kind of things and we’re
all writing and talking about the places we’ve lived and grew
up and moved to and come to and in a lot of cases here in the
mountains and sharing our lives in these other places and
telling and sharing with each other why we love this place
which is a new home for many, many people. Most of the people I’d say that
live in Western North Carolina weren’t raised and born in
Western North Carolina if the you know if you went back
and looked at the population statistics I’m willing to guess
that at least half maybe a lot more of people living here now
were not born and raised here in these mountains. But they- you know a lot of
cases the people that have moved here from other places sometimes
love this place more than the people that were raised here
which is okay with me because that’s where the growth comes. That’s where the
progression comes, that’s where the kind of change
comes from that allows us to- to get better
instead of going down.>>Ambroso: So, you waited until
twenty years later as you were explaining before to write the
actual memoirs of Zoro’s Field and did this change your
perception at the time that you spent there?>>Crowe: No, no but
what it allows me to do, it allows me to go back there
again in my mind and my memory. The place itself has changed. The little cabin that I helped
built and lived in is gone. They’ve put up an old metal
building in the garden that I grew my food in you know and
so the orchard has been chopped down with grape arbors are gone
you know it’s essentially the same but it’s different in a lot
of ways that were important to me. So, when I think about my time
there I don’t think about the metal building I think about my
whole experience and a lot of it you know sometimes I go back
to the book and that’ll trigger memories and feelings cause I’ve
done a lot of public work with the book over the
years in various ways. So, I’m constantly going back,
the book is kind of a touch stone for me and it’s also a
catalyst for my memory of that time and I use that a lot. I go back and use that as a
touch stone to help me remember the things that
I’d learned there. I learned some really valuable
lessons there and sometimes I have to go back there to
remember them because you get caught up in your daily life and
everything in the now and you forget often times maybe where
you were trying to get or trying to move to or where all that
originated and the book is has been that kind of a
touch stone for me. Maybe as an example, this is the
example let me just read real quickly something that might
illustrate what I’m talking about. This is just a little
section from the chapter on- it’s called The
Wild Work which is a phrase that was taken- that
I took from Gary Snyder during the time that
I was living up in the Sierra foothills with that community
and with bioregional movement. I write, “For almost four
years this has been my home.” I’m talking about the little
cabin down along the Green River, “where I’m again amongst
the familiar fallen faces of my youth, black bear,
wild turkey, hedgehog, peregrine falcon,
grey fox, rough grouse, black snake, copper head,
and the ever-present crows… With the gift of a roof over
my head enough cleared land to garden and a few interruptions
where temptations from the outside world I’ve set up house
and garden to take Thoreau’s Walden experience even more
self-sufficiently into the deep woods to try and discover
first-hand the organic and natural rules of the god given
world as well as the ritual essences of self-sufficiency,
self-confidence and the purging of psychological fear. Where on full moon nights I
sit by the fire in deep thought contemplating- contemplating
the physics of wildness based on common sense familiarity and
observation born of a life lived at the true speed of life. A speed born of wilderness, a
life lived doing the wild work. The real wild work is what we
humans do with our intellect in efforts to organize and
improvise ways of maintaining some modicum of balance
with the natural world, allowing us a life of relative
peace and possibility and in good times even a
sense of security. Without this inner peace that
comes with a deep inner knowing that we are at one with the wild
world around us there can really be no sense of security and
therefore we’re not at rest but rather are restless, fearful,
tired and we know from history what havoc is reeked
from fear and fatigue. So, while fear and fatigue are
inherently present in those few of us who attempt to live
self-sufficiently on the land, we do try to minimize those
weaknesses those weaken and diluted states of body and
mind by giving ourselves a fair chance at a noble life of living
in peace amidst the ordered anarchy of the wild.” And this is the quote
from Gary Snyder from Woods, the wild work came. He says, he defines the
real work as he called it, “is what we really do and what
our lives are and if we can live the work we have to do knowing
that we are real and the world is real then it becomes
right and that’s the real work, to make the world as real as it
is and to find ourselves as real as we are within
it. It is what is to be done, to take the struggle on without
the least hope of doing any good, to check the
destruction of the interesting and necessary diversity
of life on the planet so that the dance can go on a little
better for a little longer.” So, that’s- that’s where
[indistinct] and that’s where I still am when I think about
going back to- to that place and those years because that became
my focus you know I really embraced those thoughts and
those words as something that I really wanted to try and live
by and I’m still working at it.>>Ambroso: So I wanted to move
on a little bit and talk about music. So, you have
your band called Thomas Rain Crowe and
the Boat Rockers and with that you’ve released a lot of
spoken word set to music. So, can you elaborate a
little more on how you view the relationship between
music and spoken word?>>Crowe: I could tell how those
two things came together in my life and with the creation of
the band how that was formed and all that. When I was in San Francisco
I was hanging out with other artists and writers and other
musicians and we put on ratings and performances and
things and festivals. We’d also play music and
I like that combination. Nobody was doing music and
spoken word at that time together but sometime, must’ve
been 1990’s I came across a recording by native American
Sioux Indian named John Trudell and he had done some albums of
spoken word and music and they were incredible. I mean really just that’s the
only word I can think of to describe what he was doing
was poetry and electric music, very powerful stuff. He was head of the American
Indian movement at one time AIM very political, very, very
political and a lot of his lyrics, spoken lyrics are very
political a lot like Sherman Alexie’s who we were talking
about earlier only more direct and I thought wow this
really, really something. And what I understood was that
from my own experience was that people weren’t paying a lot of
attention to poetry either they couldn’t- they
couldn’t grasp it, their minds may have been
alienated from it in school or whatever it might be, they
really just weren’t paying attention to it. They weren’t
reading a lot of it, they weren’t listening even when
you know there’d be an audience and you’d be reciting it. You get the feeling they were
kind of tuned out you know? They weren’t really paying real
close attention and we couldn’t get audiences to poetry events
and I thought well maybe if we combine music and music has
always been popular medium I mean you know look at the
you know rock concerts you get thousands and thousands of
people just coming to listen to music. So, I thought
well okay if we put music together with
spoken word with poetry maybe people will come, maybe
we can get some people and then maybe if they
come with the music kind of as a background
for the poetry it might even penetrate their thick
skulls. That’s not being fair
to the audience, but anyway that’s what it felt
like being a poet in America at that time. It didn’t feel like to me that
anybody was listening and you know poets want to be heard I
mean that’s part of the job is to get the word out there to
sow the seeds so to speak. But- so I created the band
and found some musicians here locally that wanted to be a part
of that and the band grew and changed, members
changed the focus changed, for a while we were doing
all Hafez program with middle eastern musical instruments and
arrangements which was a lot of fun and a lot of
very profound poetry. I was translating Hafez at the
time and then we moved on to more political and
environmental as well. Poetry and music became more
electric and louder and the band was bigger so you know it had
some early origins where it was just two or three of us and
then it grew and as it grew the different musicians locally-
we had some wonderful musicians from this area people like
Chris Ross was in my band, Greg Olsen who lives
up in Weaverville, Salle Bajio who lives
over in Black Mountain, Wayne Kirby who was the head
of the music department here at UNCA was my bass player and
these were all very talented, very experienced musicians. Wayne Kirby was the bass player
for Blondie in her early days, so I mean these are people who
had experiences as musicians and could do anything and so we
moved around and tried different things and had different kinds
of focus for both the word the spoken word part and the music. So, but as we get older it’s
harder to do all the leg work to find the gigs, and do the
rehearsals and you know it’s just- it just gets a little bit
harder to do and so we went out on a high note it was a part of
the Asheville Poetry Festival several years ago and they
booked me and Coleman Barks together to do a performance in
the dueling Sufis it was- he’s translating Rumi and I was
translating Hafez and so my band had been doing all this Hafez
stuff with the middle eastern instruments for
two or three years. And so Colman was all excited
you know because he was going to have really good music and
everything and so what we did is we had a little- there was a
club downtown and we had the place packed it was packed there
were people in the street and Coleman would do a poem and the
band was going and he would do a Rumi and I would do Hafez. It was kind of like one of these
thing- it was off in a friendly you know we’re just
having fun really, but that’s the way we booked it
and right in the middle of it when things were just heating up
and kind of hitting a zenith you know for the
evening all of a sudden, the police show up
with the sirens going, you know guns were
drawn you know all that. It’s like whoa you know but
apparently there were so many people we broke the fire code. There was too many people in
this small space and so half the people in there had to leave so
that took a while but soon as they got that figured
out the police left, we started up again we
were going back and forth, back and forth here
comes the police again. The people who had left
the inside had gone outside, they were standing on the
sidewalk and looking through the window and we left the doors
open so they could hear it you know and the police didn’t like
that because they were blocking the sidewalk. I mean come on and so we figured
that this is a good time- I did anyway I think go out when
you’re on top and it makes a good story you know the police
come and they you know [laughs] the whole thing you know it’d
make a good movie if you could if you had a camera, it
would’ve been a good movie. So that was the last
time my band performed, who knows? You know.>>Ambroso: So, you’ve written
about Bob Dylan as a major poetic influence and a musical
one so could you elaborate on how his work effected
your writing or your music?>>Crowe: Well his writing
didn’t affect my writing but his writing effected my
generation. He was the voice of my generation.
I mean there were a lot of voices,
don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t the only
voice by a long shot, but he- his status was kind
of raised up by the media or whatever it was as being
the voice of my generation, the sixties
generation and rightfully so. His songs were appropriate,
they were very high-quality song lyrics, everybody
knew the words. He was one of the idols of
my generation and his recent induction is a Nobel Laureate
to me I thought was appropriate. It got a lot criticism from
the academic community and from other people, because they
didn’t see him as a poet they saw him as a musician and
you know how academia likes to segregate everything and so
you know you can’t give a noble prize to a musician you know
he’s writing a song he’s not writing literature. But a lot of these things that
I’ve read and heard forgot the fact that Bob Dylan as a
songwriter and as a very, very good song writer I mean his
stuff will be around for- for a long, long time, was part
of the bardic tradition. It was preprinting press
literature that went on for thousands of thousands of years
and most poets and writers, story tellers that were part
of the bardic tradition for all those thousands of years used
musicians to accompany them when they reciting their- I
mean Ovid and we know the great writers that we admire and
acknowledge in the academic cannon most of them spoke their
work with musical accompaniment. Hafez and all the
great Sufi writers, they always had a musical
accompaniment and they still do in that part of the
world, it’s not unusual. It’s just part of a long
tradition of culture or a cultural tradition and in
my mind Dylan falls in that. He’s a bardic poet and
beside that when he was young, he was- like I was only you know
ten or fifteen years earlier, he was hanging out with the
beats you know there’s movies that he made with the beats that
were made you know during the sixties that he was a part of
with Ginsberg and some of the other Corso and some of
the other- Burroughs. So, he was identifying himself
as a poet and he said- and that I found documentation
where he said, “Yes I’m a poet.” Later after his book Tarantula
got a lot of negative criticism, he altered that phrase. He
kind of started calling himself a guitar poet you
know okay that’s fine and then now these days he calls
himself a troubadour. Okay people I mean how many
clues do you need you know to get to the work bardic and to
embrace the whole idea of the bardic tradition
and its literature. His form of literature has been
going on for thousands of years not two hundred like us- the
printed traditions been going on for whatever it’s been four
hundred whatever it’s been and he’s one of the great
writers in that tradition. So, why not give
him the Nobel Prize? I mean, I applaud the Nobel
committee for being able to think outside the box and to
bring him and his tradition which is the oldest tradition-
literary tradition in the world for us people as humans
back into the ball park, who knows maybe Leonard
Cohen will someday win the Nobel prize. [laughs]>>Ambroso: Are there
any other musicians who are big influences on you?>>Crowe: Almost all the
rock bands of the sixties. If you go back and if you really
study the lyrics from the rock bands in the sixties
almost all of its political, almost all of it’s about
love, it’s very communal, community,
planetary, progressive, anti-establishment a lot of it
not all of it but a lot of it is and that started with the folk
music scene and it progressed into the British Invasion and
then you know the rock scene that followed on
through a decade or so more. I can- not to brag but if I’m
listening to the radio and a song from the sixties comes on
and I know Gene is like this we’ve talked about it, within a
few bars of music I can identify the song and usually if I’m
listening to the song I can sing along with it.
That’s what people used to do before the printed
word, people could recite the poets that they admired in
these various bardic tradition cultures and a lot
of them still can. I was in Ireland one summer and
hanging out in County Mayo on the west coast in this little
pub called The George and I was there until like two or three
in the morning and people were singing and reciting
Robert Service poems for hours. These are Irish people that
they’ll sit around and watch television all day and still
have a very strong musical and bardic tradition in their
culture they’re sitting around reciting poetry. It wasn’t unusual back in the
old days and that influenced, those lyrics that consciousness,
that energy, that revolution that never happened was
not about over throwing the government it was about
installing inside the government a more wholesome
and unified and accepting and compassionate form of
governments that included everybody. In those
days, especially the black community that was the
big issue at the time still is. So aside from Graham County I
would say that the rock music of the sixties was probably as big
an influence on me as everything anything, maybe not literally
in terms of the influence of the lyrics onto my own poetry though
other poets have influenced me more than rock music has
in terms of how I write, but not what I
write necessarily. Because I really believe that
we were trying to do something- something very positive for our
culture and our community and for our planet that needed to be
done and it needs to be done now probably more so than ever. So we’re still work- some of us
are still working on that you know we haven’t given up on the
sixties dream and we’re still out there plugging away trying
to do a little bit here and there, whatever we can do, try
to make things more sustainable and balanced and better so that
my kids and your kids will have a beautiful Garden of
Eden to live in too. So.>>Ambroso: Well I just have one
more question and it’s a little bit cliché but what’s the best
piece of advice you received as a writer?>>Crowe: That’s a tough one
because I didn’t really receive any literal advice. I didn’t take any writing
courses I didn’t have an MFA program as part of my life. I didn’t take
creative writing classes, everything I did was
self-generated except you know that I was hanging around other
poets all the time and after a certain point, especially in
San Francisco and then now afterwards all my life really,
most of my friends are poets. They’re all over the world and
the advice that I’ve gotten is really just from knowing these
people and from reading their writing and so various
things you take in by osmosis. And I would say that the things-
the advice that I’ve been given has mostly been taken in by
osmosis in that kind of waste in knowing different people
who have affected my life or influenced my life or gained
my attention for one reason or another, who I admire for
different reasons even though they’re crazy. [laughter] So, especially- especially
because they’re crazy somehow and I include myself in that
group so, there’s many things that I might say is advice
if I was asked if somebody had you know, “what advice would
you give to young writers?” That’s easier for me you know
and it’s very simple for me I would say read and write the
more read the better you are as a writer. It all
goes in you don’t- you’re not aware of
it but it’s amazing. I was going back over some work
that I wrote twenty-five years ago, I hadn’t looked at it
since and then all of it on the envelope that all these
poems were stuffed in, it said “not for publication.” I’d written that on there, and
I went back and started reading these poems that were not for
publication that I hadn’t looked at in twenty years
or more and I said, “Whoa these aren’t too bad after
all” you know very different, I really- I wrote that? You know I mean you surprise
yourself and it’s all about- and a lot of it I could recognize
that some of the poems- things that I had read you know by
other people that had kind of creeped into the
poems and what not, not plagaristically, but ideas
were kind of broken phrases that might indicate certain things
that I was reading at the time really influences and they get
in there and they come back out you know. You’re not aware of it, it’s
just automatic almost so reading is really important and I was
lucky enough to be a reader at a very early age and I love
to read I still read a lot. But then the other
thing is to write, if you’re a writer you got to
write and the more you write the better you get it’s
just- it’s like an athlete. My father was a great athlete
and he was an all-star football player, all-American and you
know to be an all-American football player you’ve
got to practice a lot, it takes a lot of years, a lot
of time and a lot of pain and as a writer it’s the same thing you
know your mind and your arm and your hands are your vehicle
and you have to exercise them. They have to be in good shape
you know to be a great football player you’ve got to be in
really good shape and to be a great writer you’ve got to be in
really good shape and the more you write the better you get. It’s just automatic and you
can’t be too self-critical. You can’t go into writing
thinking, “oh I’m not as good as James Joyce” or something.
I mean you just can’t go there cause you’re not
going to be as good as James Joyce cause you’re not
going to be like James Joyce. You’re going to be something
different than James Joyce, that’s the whole point and
you’re you and being you is like nobody else, nobody else,
especially if you’re really listening to your own voice
and you’re not trying to emulate somebody else. So, read and
write, it’s real simple.>>Ambroso: Well those
are all the question I had.>>Hyde: Thomas would
you read something else?>>Crowe: Well, I could
probably find something else, two hundred and
fifty-eight articles. I don’t know how much time we’ve
got but this is the poem that started it all for me. I don’t know how old I was and
my mom would know cause she gave me this not too
long ago to remind me. It came out of a
children’s book of poetry, it’s a child book of
verses, Garden Book of Verses. I don’t think it’s a classic
book for children and I was read every night from that
book as a little dude, but this poem was
the one that really, really got my attention. I remember it because I
would ask for it every night. I was thinking, “read that one
again about the old dude with the glasses you know?” And so, it’s called
Grandpa Dropped His Glasses. Grandpa dropped his glasses once
in a pot of dye and when he put them on again he
saw a purple sky. Purple fires were rising
up from a purple hill, men were grinding purple
cider at a purple mill. Purple Adaline was
playing with a purple doll, little purple dragonflies
were crawling up the wall. And at the supper table
he got crazy as a loon, from eating purple apple
dumplings with a purple spoon. [laughter]>>Crowe: I’m telling you [laughter]>>Crowe: When you’re five years
old it’s pretty cool stuff. Well it gets your mind and
imagination going you know and that’s what it’s
all about. That’s what it all about you know more of us, all
of us should use our minds and imaginations
more and have fun. People ask me sometimes you know
it’s one of those questions you know like somebody asking you,
“Who’s your favorite author?” I mean you can’t really pick one
person it’s just not possible for me it’s not. I
read too many good writers to be able to just pick one
out, but they ask you know, “What’s your favorite
poem that you’ve read?” That I can do, I
can’t tell you why, but I do have a favorite poem
and it’s a poem I wrote in the seventies when I
was in San Francisco. I was studying ballet with the
Pacific Ballet Company in San Francisco because at the age of
twenty-five I thought I wanted to be a ballet dancer
which is absolutely ludacris, [laughs] My body was sore one
hundred percent of the time that whole time, but anyway I was-
I was dating a Swedish ballet dancer, I was part of a New York
dance company whose picture I saw in a magazine in
the café one morning. I don’t know what it was but
it was something about that picture. I wrote to the
magazine, I got this woman’s address in those
days they would do those kinds of
things. I wrote her a letter several months later I got a
letter back. Several months later from that she appears
at my door unannounced. So, that’s as much of the
story as I’m going to tell you. [laughter] But there is a poem,
there is a poem and this is the poem that came out
of that whole story, it’s called Learning to Dance. I am disappearing into
the side of her body, her body which when it lifts
and turns also moves the earth. I have given up the toys of my
childhood and my ambitions for old age and have moved deep
within the walls of her silver skin. I am through with my love of
suffering and the words that describe that love. I’m going to carry on a
magnificent affair with the wind from the inside of her
body where we both sleep. Friends, I am going deeper, even
deeper inside than the animal or blade of grass. I’m looking for the stones, the
stones that lay to the side and in the bed of the great river.
Among those stones there’s only one rock with my name.
I will pick it up and hold it high above my head
in the inner light. Outside with her body she is
teaching the world to dance. I like those poems; my poems
have gone out of favor in the I like those poems; my poems
have gone out of favor in the last fifty years.
It’s really, really hard to find a love poem in any
anthology or collections. There’s no collections of love
poems that I’ve crossed in the last fifty years. There probably is
something similar, but if you send a love poem to a
magazine these days you’ll get a rejection almost
every time, why is that? Love is the whole deal it’s
why we’re here. If we can’t be sensitive and vulnerable
and surrender to ourselves and to our friends and the people
around us there’s not much hope and hope is about all we’ve
got anymore I think you know and we need to embrace these
ideas and start acting on them. And love poems was a way that
humans expressed themselves for thousands of years.
You go back to the old stuff almost all of it is love stories
and love poetry. All the great myths and everything there
these huge love stories. I think of Arthur and Guinevere
and some of these great, great stories. They’re all loves stories; the
great poetry is all love poetry. Another poem that is one of my
favorites is another poem that I wrote in the
seventies in San Francisco. One of the few poems from
that time that is probably worth reading, but it’s
called The Perfect Work. Love is the perfect work, a
music which rings all the bells in the temple, a
special wind in the trees. Listen to the way the
drummer hits lovingly his drums, the way the dancer
moves over the warm earth, and watch as children leave
their bodies behind on the old logs around the fire and sing. The world is aglow in the
shadows of the children singing of the sticks against wood, but
the heavy silent breathing of the old ones who sit off to the
sides of the circle and pray. When I’m at work in my
garden I take off my shoes, I let my other
hands embrace dirt. I plant myself in this place and
knowing what love is I wake in this place in my body full
of dream music full of life. So, in a nutshell you know if
you ask a poet if he could leave one poem behind for posterity
what would it be I think it would be for me it
would be that one. I think probably you know it’d
be easy to pick other ones for different reasons but part of
the job of being a poet is to leave something behind that
would be useful and helpful to humanity and all the other
life forms that we live with. I embraced it. That
was all part of the beat and baby beat tradition
that we had. We believed that. It was- it was an activist
literary tradition it wasn’t passive, it wasn’t
ivory tower stuff. It was get in the streets
and participate and be part of what’s going on in the world
around you and express it in a beautiful way or maybe a very
strong way depending on what’s needed at the time. And so, I believe in
being a public poet. I was gifted with the
ability to be public. It took me a long time to get
there I was a very shy person growing up and was very
intimidated to get up in front of groups and things but I
overcame that because I hung around enough people who I
learned from that did get up in front of groups and did get
out in the streets and express themselves in
sometimes dangerous ways. So, I was empowered by my
association with all these people and I posed it upon
myself to become that because I wanted to be part of that
tradition and I wanted to contribute in that way not to
sit off in a corner somewhere and write little
ditties about my dog. I wanted to be
part of the future. So, that’s why I’ve become a
very active person as a person and as a poet I believe
it’s part of the job, what people would call the job
of the poet and if you go back to the bardic traditions that
you know that’s what they did. They were totally integrated
with their community and engaged and respected and had a job to
preform and fulfill and then a lot of them did it very well. We’re still reading their
work thousands of years later or hundreds of years
later at least so, unless you want to hear one more
I have a more recent poem or do we not have time?>>Hyde: Let’s have one more. We have- Thomas and I wondered
if whether we’d fill the time or not and in fact we have but we
have time for one more poem and a big thank you to
Thomas and to Renee here too.>>Crowe: I actually I was
hoping we’d have time to talk more about the special
collections library and what you folks are doing and the
importance of that work and what your focus is here in
terms of your own interests. I know that you’re very
interested in this region in Appalachian studies and
culture and heritage and that is something that I’m hoping that
everybody here will look into and become involved with and
this guy is one of the best sources there is
on that subject. So, it’s all about home and
place and embracing where we are and trying to preserve it and to
make it even better than it is so and part of that comes from
knowing where we come from what the history is and what the
cultures were that were here before us and how they lived and
how they embraced those ideas or didn’t in whatever the case. But anyway, this is a
poem it’s about this place, it’s about the
environment, it’s about nature, it’s a love poem really to
this place in a certain way. It’s an acrostic poem. I don’t have anything
that I can draw on, for those of you who don’t know
what an acrostic poem is it’s a phrase or maybe a word that
goes down the left column. You write it out
down the column. In this case the title of the
poem is She Goes Everywhere but Loves the Woods and I’ve
written down the column she goes everywhere but loves the woods
and every line starts with the letter of the one of those words
and you fill it out and let that determine where the poem goes
and how the language moves and everything. It’s a
wonderful, wonderful form
and it just happens to be one that I can do pretty easily
and so this is called She Goes Everywhere but Loves the Woods. Say the word walk and
she’s out the door, headed for the woods in any path
that enters the green landscape that goes on forever and never
ends for once to hold houses on its flanks or even its meadows
where she’s lost in the delicate sunshine warming the leaves of
fan-veined plants that as she enters the
understory of buckeye, hickories and thorn less plums. Viburnums blaze the trail near
flame azalea and fire pink as early spring morphs into early
summer and red buds with rosin and rings scar come to life like
known flower girls and nature’s nuptial’s with lanceolate
leaders and low leaves as pomades having only fun on an
outing into the everything of where the node of nightmares
ends and the real takes shape in the mid-vein of nightshade
wanting to be ragwort and every step she takes past pipevine
and blue curls by bloodroot and bouncing bed where bees hover
before making their way to foam flower and up the trail past
waterfalls to where black birch house nuthatch,
grosbeak and winter round. There on angle moss she sits to
save her silence and the long whistle of wind that takes her
to places only she can go and goes willing to be wild very
close to wilderness and all that is perfect and protected even
as she eats wild blueberries and watercress she is found in
canopy sunlight along the way. Then as crows call she rises and
makes haste to the top of the hill where topsoil turns to
galax and lyreleaf sage and in every direction, there is her
favorite view of ridge lines wandering east and lingering
breast lines not unlike her own under thin cloth that has given
milk to children old enough to have their own who will grow
up into the out of doors and be taken to the woods and shown
what it is to move forward along paths and be wild.
Thank you very much, Gene.>>Hyde: Thank you all. [applause]>>Crowe: Does anybody
have any questions? This is kind of you know it’s
the end of the formal part and we’ve been recording it of
course for the collections library, but if anybody has a
question or if you’ve had enough that’s fine too. I understand.
I did a lot of yakking so.>>Audience member: What’s your
creative process like, do you write every day, you get up at a
certain time and start writing?>>Crowe: No, I have a lot of
friends who are disciplined. I’m not one of those people. [laughter] I write when the
spirit moves me and it can come anywhere, anytime
and in any form, poem, prose, whatever. It depends on where
the ideas come from. But when I get an idea
I usually move on it. I don’t wait. I’m not
a procrastinator. Anyone who knows me knows when I
get an idea I usually move on it cause I don’t like coming back
to thinks you know that’s just not me. Same with email
somebody writes me an email, I write them right back cause I-
you know I don’t want a big list of emails. I can’t do that, so I write when
the spirit moves and it’s a lot like the comparison I make is
it’s a difference between Mozart and Beethoven. Mozart got the music it was
automatic, he heard it. He wrote it down as he heard it. Beethoven was a worker, he
was a rewriter you know it was detailed and
revised and revised. Get up every day and you
know very different process, but I’ve got friends
who get up every morning, I talked about my friend John
Lang down in Spartanburg and he gets up every morning at six
o’clock and does what he calls poetry pushups. He writes poems, some
of them he throws away, a lot of them actually, but
he does it and it kind of goes along with what I was saying
about advice to young writers, you got to write and you just-
the more you do it the better you get. So, poetry to me, I mean writing
to me is like magic especially poetry and I learned that from
my mother and in seeing those pictures in my mind it was like
magic and I said to myself when I was pretty young and you know
when I was in San Francisco I think I said, “If it ceases to
be magic I don’t want to do it anymore” because to me it’s
all about that magic experience. It’s exciting to me and
it’s even more than exciting, it’s fun and when it ceases to
be fun and becomes more like regimented and work I got a
lot of other things I can do so.>>Audience member: I was just
curious to hear you talk about your identity as an
Appalachian writer. Is it you know going to
California and coming from you know Graham County, North
Carolina and going out there and going to France and all these
other places and meeting all these people when you came
back here and you wrote you know Zoro’s Field and some of the
other things that you’ve written since coming back here. How’s your identity as an
Appalachian writer or you feel your identity as an Appalachian
writer progressed over time to where you are today?>>Crowe: Well I don’t identify
myself as an Appalachian writer. I identify myself as a
writer who lives in Appalachia. I love this place,
I love it a lot. That’s my connection but I don’t
identify my interests are too varied to just limit it to one
moniker and I certainly don’t write Ron Rash type novels
which are very Appalachian, very Appalachian and he’s
an Appalachian novelist. He is and he- that’s he’ll
probably never escaped that moniker and I don’t think he
wants to because I think he wants to write about his
upbringing in these mountains and he does it very well. But my interests are too varied. I mean they’re planetary,
they’re more than planetary, they’re universal. I’m interested in Cosmo physics,
I mean you know it’s all part of the same picture. But saying that one of my
first languages was Appalachian dialect language I mean I grew
up speaking somewhat Jim Wayne Miller calls southern mountain
speech with all the Chaucerian and native American, Irish
implications in all that which I’ve come to coming back. I mean it took me years and
years to unlearn that language as my family moved to different
places where that language was considered idiotic. I didn’t like being thought I
was being an idiot so I changed the way I spoke but when I came
back here and re-immersed myself in the landscape
and in the culture, I was hanging around a lot of
older mountain people that spoke that language again.
So, I had to relearn the language and what I discovered
was that the languages were rich in poetic content
and texture and illusions and metaphors and things that
suggest the incredible…>>Audience
member: Storytelling?>>Crowe: Yes.>>Audience member: Story
telling which you’re very you know you know about.>>Crowe: Yeah and so I’ve tried
to embrace the language as much as the identity of being an
Appalachian author- I’m not you know. I wasn’t born
here number one so I can never be that and I don’t write Appalachian fiction or my
subject matter isn’t Appalachian even though it may be based in
this place in a lot of ways. So, I’m trying to incorporate
the language into the poetry and into the prose and you see
as much of it as makes sense without becoming
cliché or imposed you know. So, in that way…>>Audience member: Well I
also meant to use the term Appalachian writer in a forward
sense not in a backward sense but in a progressive-
you know as a role model. I think there are you know young
people that look at someone like yourself has written and lives
here and you know writes many things including about you know
here and your identity here and that they could see you
as somebody to look up to. So, I meant that as a you know
a leadership kind of you know coming from this place that you
know the voice as unique to this background coming from here.>>Crowe: Well I mean I don’t
think of myself in those kind of high, high plateau place but I
do think a part of the job of being a poet is to be a
role model and to leave behind something that may be of use and
benefit to younger people coming up that are either are from here
or have come here and live here or are raised here or maybe come
here later in life that want to identify with this place
because of their love for it so, in that sense you know okay
you know in my life if I’ve done some things in my life that have
sent a positive model for some other people, great and if I’ve
written some things that staying with people in a way that have
helped them move into the future and do something with things
that I believe in too then great, but I don’t sit around
thinking about myself as a teacher or a sage or even
an Appalachian mountain man. I don’t you know I mean I
lived a life of an Appalachian mountain man for four years but
that doesn’t qualify me to be an Appalachian mountain man or
an Appalachian writer so, like they say it is what it is. [laughter]>>Hyde: One thing
that you did do that was very regional, bioregional is you
were involved with the Katua Journal for to- well you were
involved for a number of years and you were involved for about
ten year which is my segway to a plug, our friends at Appalachian
State University are in the process of digitizing the full
Katua Journal with the lessons and signed copyright agreements
from Thomas and the editors and that should be online probably
this summer it’s just they’re wrapping up the
metadata on it now, but that will be available for
a great book and that’s a major Appalachian bioregional work.>>Crowe: Yeah I mean when
we were doing it back in the eighties- early eighties for me
there was no audience for it I mean there really wasn’t and we
tried it but we didn’t try hard enough and so it kind of came
and went but I think now I think a lot of what we wrote about in
the articles in the magazine and the focus on bioregionalism
of it on community, on spirituality, on native
cultures all those kind of things, people are more
interested in that now, either they’re curious or
they’re wanting to take that, embrace that into their own life
and take it into the future like you’re talking about. And so having that available
especially online because everybody’s on their gizmos now
that’s the only way we get our information mostly and having
it available I think is really great because we couldn’t get
it out there before you know as part of that sixties we’re thing
trying to change the world and change the consciousness of our
species a little bit and I think maybe there’s bigger possibility
of getting that information and that message out now and through
some really amazing work by some young people who had digitized
and scanned all the old Katua Journals and stuff and then with
Gene embracing it and getting it up to Appalachian State and
them doing another incredible technical job with it. It’ll be available and
that’s a good thing, that’s a good thing. [applause]>>Hyde: I want
to thank you for a great job.>>Crowe: Yes,
thank you very much.>>Hyde: Thank
you all for coming. ♪ [Closing music] ♪ ♪ ♪

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