Lisa Phillips, a staff member of The Emancipator, recently had the privilege of interviewing Appalachian poet Marianne Worthington, who recently read at LMU and served as a staff member during the 2006 Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at LMU. She is a respected Appalachian scholar and the author of the poetry collection Larger Bodies Than Mine.
Phillips: Are there any writers who have been particularly influential in the development of your craft?
Worthington: Yes, my former and present teachers, including the poet Jeff Daniel Marion (who was my teacher at Carson-Newman College), and other poets I have studied with in more informal ways: Leatha Kendrick, Bill Brown, R. B. Morris, George Ella Lyon, Frank X Walker, and many others. I’m also drawn to the poetry of contemporary poets like B. H. Fairchild and Li-Young Lee because I admire their poetic skill in telling the truth about their fathers and celebrating the landscapes and inscapes of their lives. I often turn to the poems of Cecilia Woloch and Natasha Tretheway as models to help me understand and practice imagery, metaphor, and poetic form.
Phillips: Is there a certain setting in which you prefer to write, or a particular routine that you tend to follow?
Worthington: I’m not as disciplined as I want to be or should be. I’m no good at multi-tasking, so I find it difficult to write during a semester when I’m teaching full time. I tend to write in spurts during weekends, semester breaks, and summers. I also attend three or four writing workshops each year which force me to write. Because I write with no set routine, I’ve learned to write anywhere—inside, outside, in noisy or quiet places. The one thing I do fairly regularly is to read for about an hour early each morning.
Phillips: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
Worthington: Living close to both my grandmothers inspired my writing. They were both very independent, earthy women, raised on family farms in East Tennessee. They both came from very large families. My paternal grandmother used to say her father “wore out” three wives—too many babies and too much hard work. My grandmothers told me detailed stories, some funny, some heartbreaking, most of them ordinary, but important to me because their stories helped me see and imagine the long lives they had lived before I was born. I am also inspired by other artistic or creative expressions like film and photography, but especially by music. My first introduction to poetry, really, came by way of the hymnbook. Although I could not articulate it as a child, I realize now that learning the meter, rhyme, and attitude of hymns prepared me to learn the grammar of poetry. Once I realized that you could, if you wanted to, sing a poem, my whole perspective about language changed. I still love the hymnbook—even the heft and smell of a hymnbook is inspiring to me.
Phillips: Traditionally, the concepts of family and heritage are particularly important in southern literature and they seem to be reflected in your writing a great deal. Why is that?
Worthington: Who you are, who you come from, and where you come from are themes universal to all literature, I think. Discovering answers to these questions are often the reasons why we write. Certainly, these were the reasons I started writing. I wanted to try to understand my own place in my own family and I wanted to tell other people about my grandmothers and my father. I wanted to understand the ramifications and consequences of that illness on my family.
Phillips: Is there anything that you would like to share that interviewers never ask you about?
Worthington: No one ever asks me what makes me happy. I’m happy to be married to the funniest man I’ve ever known who tells jokes about everything. I’m happy to have two dogs that contribute to the messiness of my home. I’m happy that my daughter is finding her own way as a college student and an artist. I’m happy that my first book of poems was published in my middle age. There is a family of redbirds that have lived in the same clump of trees at the end of my driveway for 17 years. Often when I look out the window I’ll see one lone male on the roof of my neighbor’s house or I’ll see four or five females together grubbing on the ground. And on winter days, these sightings make me happiest.-e-