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Senior associate director of the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tony Reevy is a graduate of North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Miami University. He is a David P. Morgan Award winner (2006) and a Pushcart Prize nominee. His previous publications include poetry, non-fiction and short fiction, including the non-fiction books Ghost Train!, O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line and The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano; the poetry chapbooks Green Cove Stop, Magdalena, Lightning in Wartime, and In Mountain Lion Country; and the full books of poetry, Old North and Passage. He lives in Durham, North Carolina with wife, Caroline Weaver, and children Lindley and Ian.
We’d throw down our bikes—
just graduated from banana
seats to ten-speeds—at the end
of the development’s road.
A broad flood-plain bank,
littered with Hurricane Agnes’
leavings, was our front porch
to the James.
Jordan’s Point, the looming
bridge towers, just upstream.
Then, farther west, Hopewell
and its fuming factories.
While we splashed, played—weekends
mostly—men labored in the old
filling station, which Allied Chemical
said it didn’t own. And the plume spread
downstream towards us. Each Monday,
we’d go back to junior high together,
wearing our Converses,
if the river water soaking them
Her hand is warm,
louder than the snap
of the quartz clock.
Outside, a fresh Spring
forces buds to open
under a blank window.
The machine’s sighs
tell the time here,
less than a day
Once spattered with slip
smooth no more,
shape no more,
coil, throw no more.
But they are not
Instead, rubbing together,
restless, as if they—
need to be washed.
in the smiles.
Today, some growing,
Scan the image,
An Interview with S.E.B. Detling
SEBD: Tony Reevy, thank you for taking time to talk with me today. Before we begin, would you mind setting the scene for our readers? Tell me, where are we (your office, a café?) and why did you choose to answer these questions here?
TR: While answering these questions, I am sitting in our study, which is the former butler’s pantry in our house. We live in a 1920 arts-and-crafts house in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood of Durham, 3 blocks from the North Carolina School of Science and Math, just a short distance from Duke University, and a 15-minute walk to our wonderful, local, independent bookshop, The Regulator. From our study window, I see my neighbor, environmental anthropologist Ralph Litzinger’s, study. Ralph writes about minorities in China. It is a perfect place to write, and so this is usually where I spend my writing time.
SEBD: You are an accomplished, award-winning writer, environmentalist, and train historian. You have over 150 publications in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction dealing with various subjects. Throughout these genres, it seems your main objective is to capture a fleeting moment as if in a photograph, and through this moment, to tell a story. You shared some of your thoughts about storytelling in a Riff Pub interview in 2013, citing John Prine who has sung about place and his coal mining community. Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
TR: I wish I could say I was a storyteller, but that is not my skill. I am from a bookish childhood, and my children are in an electronic generation, and so our experiences are very different from those of my parents—and so, of course, are our skills. My father grew up in a coal-mining area with a Victrola being the height of entertainment technology in that place and time. It is truly amazing where we have gone as a society in three generations. If I have told any stories with any skill, it is in my songs, all but one unpublished (see “Tourist Ghost Town” in Measure), and in the character poems I write very occasionally—these are in rhyme and in the voice of a character (like the published poem, “Jock Lingard”, from the chapbook Green Cove Stop).
However, you are right—I write about photography as well as writing poetry, and I often think of poems as I draft them in visual terms. I do believe that photos, and sequences of photos, can, and often should, tell a story. As can, and in my view, often should, poems. If my poems have captured a “decisive moment” and conveyed it to a reader with some meaning, I would view that as a sign of success.
SEBD: Throughout your publications in varying genres, a common thread that ties them together is a strong sense of place. For example, from the barren sand box of the Rio Grande in “Stalking Asparagus officinalis, / Socorro, New Mexico, 1970,” to the cold wind blowing down the Hudson in “First Week in Troy—1972” (a Pushcart Prize nominee), to the images of a vanishing, small-town Americana in O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line. Why do you think the development of “place” is so prominent in your work?
TR: Again, as with your comments on image in my poems, I think you are asking exactly the right question. If my friend, North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson’s, great theme has been the legacy of race in our state and the American South, I have tried to make mine Americans searching for a sense of place. This is what the poem “First Week in Troy” is about, to the extent that any poem is about any one idea or theme. Why this is so for me is easy to explain—my father is from Slovakia originally, my mother is from California, and I had lived seven places in fourteen years by the time my family moved to Durham in 1976. I felt as if I had no roots, and came to feel that this is a theme that carries across the United States: hence the emphasis on a sense of place in my work. In terms of small towns, the places I remember living as a child were Cortland, New York, Socorro, New Mexico, Center Brunswick, New York, and Prince George County, Virginia. So, my childhood places were a series of small towns and rural areas.
I felt very lucky to get to do Life Along the Line, as the vanishing small towns of American Appalachia are so prominent in O. Winston Link’s photographs, and so his images are very thematically connected to my poems. See “No. 17 Gets the Highball, Rural Retreat” from the chapbook, Magdalena, for an ekphrastic example.
SEBD: You are also a musician. You learned to play the guitar from your father, who learned “from a moonshiner in the Pennsylvania mountains,” according to your website (www.tonyreevy.com). In your poetry, such as “Kepone Days” included here, you use a musical rhythm and line length similar, in fact, to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a storytelling song you also refer to in your Riff Pub interview. I’m curious if these rhythms are remnants of the country music you listened to in New Mexico on the only radio station you had growing up, or some other influence. Could you discuss the musicality of your poetry?
TR: I grew up surrounded not only by my family’s books, but also by our records. And Dad played guitar at least every Saturday and Sunday. Although I am a very poor musician, I love music, and if my poems do have “music” in them, as you say, that is wonderful to hear (pardon the series of puns!). The Hank Williams song you mention, by the way, is one of the few songs, in my view, with lyrics that, even absent the music, approach the poetic.
With regard to line length, many have told me that my style is based on the short line, so I guess that is correct. My model for that mode was not, at least consciously, songwriters, but poets such as William Carlos Williams. Frankly, this is the first time I have been called to think about a possible connection between my usual poetic form and the form of traditional American music. All I can say there is that I will give that idea some more thought; it is an idea that seems to have possibilities.
Some final thoughts—Hank Williams is one of my favorite songwriters, and also one of my favorite vocalists: a notably rare set of skills. Also, since rhymed poetry is rarely written today, I believe much of the survival of rhyming in our society occurs in our songwriting.
SEBD: Achieving success in varied interests seems to come naturally to you. Having earned degrees in Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Marketing, and Mass Communication, how did you come to the world of writing?
TR: I grew up wanting to be a writer, but as I thought about making a living, I decided to major in engineering. I added chemistry because I worked my way through NC State as a lab clerk, and got interested in the subject that way. Too late—that is, while interviewing for jobs as a senior at NCSU—I realized I didn’t want to work in the for-profit world. So, I did graduate work in marketing and mass communication, and started my career in public radio (at WAMU-FM, now best known for “The Diane Rehm Show” but then also known for its bluegrass and folk music programming). As soon as I got out of graduate school and had time to do anything but schoolwork, I started writing again, and have kept at it. My second career job was at the public radio station then owned by UNC Charlotte and luck smiled on me—I used my one-course-per-semester tuition remission benefit to take creative writing courses with a master, Robin Hemley. If I have any skill in poetry, I owe it largely to Robin, who is a great teacher and mentor.
SEBD: As senior associate director of the Institute for the Environment at UNC-Chapel Hill in North Carolina, co-founder of the Norfolk & Southern Historical Society, husband, and father, among other activities, I wonder how you have time to be such a prolific writer. Toni Morrison has said that because she had children and a nine-to-five job, she wrote on the weekends or before dawn. Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process and the steps you’ve taken to develop your craft?
TR: Well, in terms of how do I get this done, I have a supportive, nay long-suffering, family, especially my wife, Caroline Weaver. She lets me spend all day each Saturday that I am home writing. So, in terms of craft, I spend each Saturday in our study writing. When I have a book coming out, I do go into the mode you mention for Toni Morrison and get up early and go to bed late. At that stage, it is not really writing, but the business of writing you are doing—reviewing proofs, working with indexers, that kind of thing (I am talking more about non-fiction books than books of poetry when I say this).
With regard to poetry, I carry a notebook everywhere and jot down poems, and these days songs as well, when they come to me. I have a trail I like in Eno River State Park, about ten minutes from here, and I usually draft poems while hiking there (Jim Applewhite also does this, I hear). Songs usually come to me while I am driving. Non-fiction is more of a process—I sit here in the study banging away at the keyboard to produce it.
If I had any advice on craft, it would be, read a lot, spend a lot of time writing, and think about taking some writing courses. When you are starting out as a writer, do not be afraid to submit, and try different genres until you find the mode that you love; or, to put it another way, find the things that you HAVE to write.
SEBD: In your poem “First Week in Troy—1972,” you mention a boy “wishing he had a, / wishing he knew where was, / home.” What is “home” to you, and have you found it?
TR: I wish I could say that home to me, as it may be to the Native Americans I saw frequently when I lived in New Mexico, is a place. My childhood was too unsettled, in terms of place, for me to be able to say that. If I have a home, it is with my family; and I have thought about this a great deal recently as my extended family, and a number of our close friends, have struggled with illness and death. Living in Durham, and having two children who are natives of Durham, I think is as close to having a home as I will come. I love Durham, but I still miss New Mexico; I love too many places for comfort. I also love London; Budapest; Green Cove, Virginia; Harpers Ferry—too many places. You will see all of them in my poems.
SEBD: Your poetry appears to be autobiographical while your nonfiction has been praised for the enormous amounts of research that are obvious in the final work. I am intrigued to find out whether, for example, “Kepone Days” is based on your personal history of living through one of the worst cases of chemical pollution in American history, or whether it is a product of your environmental research into the region?
TR: The unpublished poem “Kepone Days” is not from environmental research; it is personal, almost brutally so. I mentioned Prince George County, Virginia, earlier in the interview. My family lived right near the shores of the James, just downstream from Hopewell, in 1975 and 1976, while Kepone was being manufactured in a converted service station nearby, and workers were being poisoned. We played at the riverbank and were certainly exposed to some extent. My sister’s daughter recently died of leukemia at 16, a completely unexpected and tragic happening. Is there a connection; probably not—but part of what I am trying to say in the poem sequence centered on “Kepone Days” is, can we be sure? Maybe there is a connection? If there might be a connection, why aren’t we more careful? But then, in the U.S., we allow companies to basically remove mountains and fill the nearby stream valleys in with the waste. Go figure.
SEBD: In “Days,” you mention people being “gone” in various aspects. This leads me to the opening pages of your Kepone Days manuscript where you write “In memoriam: Katie and Billy.” Would you care to comment on this inscription, or perhaps how the stories behind these memories are reflected in the work?
TR: Yes, I mentioned my sixteen-year-old niece who recently died; that was Katie, one of the folks in the dedication. The other, Billy Johnston, was the faculty I worked with as a lab clerk at NC State. I didn’t know my maternal grandparents very well, and never met my paternal grandparents, so Billy was basically a substitute Grandfather to me. There are poems about Katie, and Billy, woven through the poem sequence “Kepone Days.”
SEBD: On a personal note, my father is a train enthusiast too. I grew up listening to the variations of train whistles and counting the train cars while sitting at the railroad crossing. One of the things I wish that I could share with my children is the sight of the caboose at the end of the train, now replaced by a blinking red light. In “Days,” you allude to the importance to “save” these passing moments with technology. Why do you believe it is important to capture the past, and how do you attempt to pass along the past to your children?
TR: Well, in “Days,” I am trying to have two levels of meaning; to both ridicule the way many today are more interested in capturing photos for Facebook than in living the moment; while also suggesting it is important to save memories nevertheless. As already mentioned, if my poems have a theme, it is a protagonist, and a country (the United States) in search of a place; and this implies a country with a deficiency of memory. Given the newness of much of what we have in the U.S., I think it is particularly important for us to try to save the relatively few markers of the past that we do have. With regard to music, I will mention that I based the line-length form in “Days” consciously on a great Television song, also titled “Days.”
Going back to my work, I write often about New Mexico, and that state, with the pueblos, Chaco Canyon, Santa Fe, and so on, forms an interesting contrast with much of the rest of our country. I try to take advantage of this contrast in my work when I can.
I will not speak for Caroline, but I wish I could say I had done a better job at passing things along to my children. The demands of work, family, aging parents and our 1920 home, along with writing, have led to a “where does the time go” kind of feeling. I do try to read a poem at dinner, and have encouraged both of our children, Ian and Lindley, to take up music. They do know, or in the case of their late Grandfather, knew, all of their grandparents. They have, or soon will have, seen all of the places the various parts of their extended family are from. They are actually from a place, a really nice place, Durham. That might be the best we can do, at least for now.
SEBD: Now your turn – you ask the question and you give the answer.
TR: Let me be crass and ask about my work and where to find it, and what I am working on now: “Kepone Days,” the poem sequence profiled here, is a work in progress. Both of my full books of poetry are from the great folks, the Cumming family, at Iris Press—Old North and Passage. On the non-fiction side, O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line was edited by Laura Dozier at ABRAMS and is very much in print. The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano, edited by Sarah Jacobi and Linda Oblack at Indiana University Press, is due for release this fall, November 9.
A note from the weird coincidence department—Robin Hemley’s fiction publisher is Indiana University Press, and he and I signed with the press independently.
In addition to the poem sequence “Kepone Days,” I am currently working on a sequence of poems about New Mexico, and planning a non-fiction book about the photography of Lucius Beebe (of New York City Café Society fame) and Charles Clegg.
Tony, it has been a great pleasure spending time with you today. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. And thank you for being a part of Negative Capability.