Kentucky poet shares connections with Maine

Kristina Stahl was a Colby student who, after her time at Colby, died young. Her parents wanted to remember her love for creative writing in some way and founded the Kristina Stahl Writer-in-Residence program. The program brings writers of poetry and prose to Colby where they spend time talking to students over lunches, attending and participating in classes, and giving both a craft talk and reading in the Robinson Room of Special Collections inMiller Library. The Robinson Room, named after Edwin A. Robinson, was the ideal location for poet Maurice Manning’s craft talk and reading because of his affinity for Robinson’s poetry. He said that while passing through Gardiner, Maine, he felt the intense urge to visit Mr. Robinson’s old abode. He felt sure that Robinson remains one of the greatest poets in recent history. During his reading on Tuesday, Sept. 30, Manning noted that much of his inspiration comes from Robinson. Manning’s work, similar to Robinson’s, focuses a lot on nature as subject matter.

Manning’s work also focuses on his home state, the same state where he currently resides. “Like all of my poetry, it starts with Kentucky and spirals out from there,” he said during his craft talk on Monday, Sept. 29. Kentucky becomes vibrant, even for those who have never been to the South, as Manning reads his own work. He animates his poetry with his voice, bringing the vernacular to life with his own Southern drawl. His connection to nature is extremely strong and, in some ways, was what led him to writing poetry for a living.

While working for a public TV station after his undergraduate program, Manning drove by a farm that was in the process of demolition in order to create more condominiums in the area. That moment triggered in him the need to enter work either as someone who saves historic properties, or become a poet. He thinks of being cut off from nature as a “moral problem” and sees poetry as a different way to constantly remain connected to nature. Although he had never taken any formal poetry writing classes—his college did not offer any—he chose poetry, and enrolled in an MFA program.

During his reading, he sampled poems from his most recently published book, The Gone and the Going Away, as well as poems from a book he hopes to publish sometime next year called One Man’s Dark. The book is constantly “dreaming of the place of the past,” he said. In addition, he read some of what he is currently working on. He realized that students made up the bulk of his audience and he understood how important the progression of work is for writers.

Mr. and Mrs. Stahl attended the reading and participated in the question and answer portion that followed. Mrs. Stahl commented on Manning’s consistent use of dreams in his poetry, to which Manning agreed. He views dreams, along with the imagined world in general, as extremely important. He then told the audience about a dream he had had recently. That story gave insight to the possible inspiration behind his attraction to words, as he explained his great-grandmother’s importance as a storyteller in his life. Many times during his childhood he would ask her, “Tell me a story.” Over time, he became attracted to stories and in turn, the sentences and words and sounds thereof that make up stories. He remarked numerous times  about the imaginary during his different events, saying “the imaginary requires the cloak of reality” and that “the imagined world can be as important as the actual world,” implying mutual dependence.

As for his poems, there is no one form or type of poem that could categorize them all. Perhaps it is the attention to detail and measure of self-awareness in each work that draws connections between them. In “Sleep,” the speaker asserts, “progress is the one word question running down the spine” (the spine refers to the spine of a book). In another poem, he wrestles with the definition of faith, acknowledging that “faith is difficult to define” and musing, “that, I think, is also a part of faith: its imperfection.” In other poems he focuses on time. Manning firmly believes that “our individual life can touch 200 years of time” due to the connections between generations of family members spanning from great-grandparents—reminiscent of Manning’s own great-grandmother —to great-grandchildren. He adamantly feels that in today’s society, we focus too much on the immediate future and not enough on the distant future. Concerning today’s society, he has what at first appears a “cynical outlook,” but remains positive that good things will come out of society while the world seems to be falling apart.

The last “batch” of poems as he called them, are the makings of a possible new collection. He does not know when he will publish it, or exactly what he will title it, but he muses that he might call it The Red Chair. Manning writes many of his poems in an “old, rickety red chair,” and you will never find him typing them on a computer. A student in the audience asked whether or not he hand writes his poems, and he answered that he hand writes each one, embellishing the pages with arrows and doodles that might only make sense to him. In this particular set of poems, he is “arguing against the tone of the world,” he said. Still, the poems do not come off as argumentative or defensive, but maintain a focus on small details in the natural world, such the wildflower called wild asters or the small insect the katydid.

As with any poet, language is supremely important. Professor Adrian Blevins asked Manning to share his thoughts on a new poetic movement that resembles the conceptual, visual modern art. Manning sees value in the same approach to words, but it “doesn’t move him.” Perhaps it is his assertion that he “wants poetry to be something average people read and understand,” rather than a puzzle for an elitist.

He understands the limits of language as well, writing in the poem “Sparks of Joy” that “the soul doesn’t speak in English or some kind of chant.” After the question and answer section of the evening, attendees were invited to join Maurice Manning and Mr. and Mrs. Stahl in the President’s Room for refreshments, time to chat informally with the poet and hold a book signing session.

Maurice Manning Website

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