Michael Chitwood has a good attitude about this global warming heat and humidity we seem to be glued into this Piedmont summer. After all, isn’t that what we’ve come to expect of our favorite local poets?
“The humidity makes me glisten, and every poem or story should be written while the writer is in a glistening state,” Chitwood says, grinning.
We’re having lunch at Elmo’s in Durham, catching up. Michael will be teaching again at UNC this fall, his seventh year there as a visiting lecturer. Earlier this summer, the local Hillsborough press Tryon Publishing released Chitwood’s Finishing Touches, a collection of essays and short fiction. This fall, LSU Press and Tupelo Press will each publish selections of his poetry.
Years ago, a friend asked if I knew where a particular line of poetry came from. This was way before Google. I called Michael; he knew the line and recited the next two lines of the poem right off the top of his head over the phone.
I asked him if he still recites poetry from memory.
“I read poetry aloud and I read my own aloud when I’m working on it. It’s important to me what it sounds like on the tongue.”
What’s his favorite line?
“Oh man, picking a favorite line would be like picking a favorite child, but on a dark night in a thunderstorm ‘with the slow, smokeless burning of decay’ will do just fine.”
As we pondered Robert Frost’s wood-pile, we talked on about reading and writing.
Independent: Your latest book is your second with Tryon. How did that relationship come about?
Michael Chitwood: I put together a collection of poetry that was very grounded in the Appalachian region. It’s called Gospel Road Going. Tryon had just done Lee Smith’s project with high school students from her hometown of Grundy, Sitting on the Courthouse Bench, and I thought they might be interested in my book as well. They were.
Durham and Hillsborough were both once thriving mill towns. Do they carry reminders of your youth?
For 30 years, my father worked for the J. P. Stevens Company and I spent two summers in the mill, too. So, yes, seeing those big brick buildings that once held the looms takes me back. I can still conjure up the noise of all those Draper looms thrashing.
I may be wrong, but in your later works God and spiritual themes are showing up more often and more prominently. Is this a conscious effort?
Spiritual issues are very much on my mind now and I have been consciously working on them. One section of Finishing Touches is given over to them completely, and they are the central issue of the book of poems that I’m working on now. I grew up in a fairly evangelical church and though I’ve come to question much of what I was taught, there is still much on my mind. I’m very uncomfortable with the religious certainty that folks like G.W. Bush and Dick Cheney espouse while declaring war in the name of the Prince of Peace.
Much of your writing reflects off the countryside of your earthy roots. Like another local poet, James Applewhite, you return to that past for metaphors. Do you encourage that in your students, too, as a way of finding their voices?
Yes, one of the first assignments I give my Intro students is to write a poem called “Where I’m From” based on a George Ella Lyon poem of the same name. For the assignment, they have to include foods they eat, place names and phrases that are spoken where they are from. So far, it’s worked great.
Writing is such a solitary endeavor. How do you see the current generation of students as they make their choices under a total media assault? Are poetry and creative writing holding their own?
I have been very impressed with the students coming through UNC. Students are awash in technology, but I don’t think it’s taken away from their imaginations. Once you get them writing pieces that are concrete and grounded in their experience, they do very well. The one thing I wish is that they would take those constant earplugs out and spend some time listening to the world around them.
The Carolina creative writing program is well known for its faculty, but you praise it as a community. Some university departments aren’t so open. What makes yours special?
The great thing about my colleagues at the UNC Creative Writing Program is they are so smart and funny and pleasant. It’s wonderful to have friends to talk about the writing life with, to joke about the writing life with, to learn about the writing life and to carp about the writing life. At the bottom of all their report cards you could write “Plays well with others.”
School’s still a few weeks away. What are you reading for fun?
I hadn’t read A Confederacy of Dunces, so when it made the New York Times greatest hits list recently, I decided to give it a try. It was great fun. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with Seamus Heaney’s latest collection, District and Circle–talk about lines that sing.
“The Phone Calls”
She keeps her cordless phone handy, right by her chair with her Bible. Its her sister she tells meher sister is just calling all the time now. And since she has to use the walker to get around she has to keep the phone close by.
Its pitiful, really, she says, the way her sister calls three, four sometimes five times a day. Her sister has given up watching the soaps because she doesnt want the characters seeing into her house. Oh they do you know. They can see where you put your pocketbook. They can see if youve got any jewelry around. Her sister worries about that but she doesnt. She doesnt care if they see her. So her sister calls to find out what is happening on the soaps. Sometimes it really gets on her nerves, having to recount who is having an affair and who is sick.
But her sisters real problem is that the dead are pestering her. People dead 10 years are calling her sister. John Bradley is getting married again. That man. This is his third wife. Youd think two would have been enough. And Hattie, poor Hattie. Her back has gone out and that good-for-nothing daughter of hers wont lift a hand to help her. Poor things. Both of them dead now and her sister just cant keep it straight.
Her sister is really in a bad way. All those dead folks bothering her. Telling her their stories, complaining. Youd think the dead wouldnt have so much to complain about. Youd think that wouldnt you, she wants to know. She wants to tell me about her sister. What are you going to do, she says. You just have to listen. Thats why you have to keep the phone next to your Bible.
There she says. There she is again. She picks up the silent phone and listens. Its her again. Thats the trouble with the deadthey just wont leave you alone. And what can you do but listen to their problems.
From Finishing Touches: Selected Essays and Fiction by Michael Chitwood, Tryon Publishing, $19.95
The noise of the place,
the roar of its making
sheets, drapes, robes,
brings them together
men and women not
husband and wife,
women and women,
men and men.
cheek to cheek, almost
kissing, hands to shoulders,
backs, all our possibilities,
as they are not
outside this rooms weaving.
From The Weave Room by Michael Chitwood, University of Chicago Press, $11