On Songs Born out of the Landscape: A Conversation with Matthew Haughton



Matthew Haughton’s poems first came to me in a coffee shop on a late afternoon between seasons. “Here, you have to read these poems,” my friend said as she pressed a copy of Bee-coursing Box (Accents Publishing) into my palm. The chapbook was nominated for the Weatherford Award for Appalachian Poetry. Now, Haughton’s body of work is one I have come to rely on, a place of revelation I impatiently look for, an opening I need to know. His poems carry us through heritage and hillside before delivering us into the unexpected home of ourselves. Haughton’s poems have appeared in Appalachian Journal, Now & Then, Still, Border Crossings and The Louisville Review. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, he works as a school teacher in Frankfort, Kentucky. Recently, Haughton was gracious enough to sit down and talk about his newest work, a full-length collection of poems titled Stand in the Stillness of Woods (WordTech Editions).

Leigh Anne Hornfeldt: Your book begins with an epigraph by Robert Penn Warren, the title, Stand in the Stillness of Woods, borrowed from that passage. Who are some other notable influences and what are some of the defining works that have shaped the writer you are today?

Matthew Haughton: Warren, in particular his short fiction and poetry—the Audubon poems certainly. I was raised in Greenup County, so Jesse Stuart’s legacy was something I came into contact with early on, not so much as a fan, although I became one, but more out of an awareness that one can take poetry seriously. That made a huge impact on me as a kid. When I really started to appreciate his work, later in my 20s, then I took a lot of interest in how he wrote with such determination. And good will I might add. James Still, of course, Don West. Billy C. Clark, I’d argue, has been a huge influence on my writing. Clark’s work is a creation of immense beauty, one that I deeply cherish. When I was at UK I was fortunate to see one of his very few public readings, and it re-defined how I saw my own writing forever. How I see my home, my family, teaching, everything. Other poet’s/collections, Tagore’s Stray Birds, Lorca’s Poems for the Deep Song, Robert Frost, Wendell Berry, George Ella Lyon’s Catalpa, Peter Fallon, Robert Morgan. All kinds of stuff really.

LH: Your poems are rooted in a rural environment: rusted grass; horse’s breath heavy as coal; bull-spit; fallen deer. Would you tell us what growing up in eastern Kentucky woods has meant in terms of your writing? Do you invite these images to the page or do they invite themselves?

MH: The music, or should I say learning music. It means something very unique to a kid with a guitar living in eastern Kentucky. While I was spending my time learning Tom Petty or Nirvana songs—or trying to write lyrics like Leonard Cohen—the landscape was there, and the music of the hills, too. So, those songs, the ones born out of the landscape, seemed to soak into me back then, giving me a deeper awareness of where I was—those folk songs that I heard. When you are a kid with a guitar, it is all about “getting out.” But your position in those hills sinks in all the same. Even now, people like Roscoe Holcomb inspire my writing.

When I lost my brother, my writing really turned to my eastern Kentucky home—in a very maternal way, through my mother and then through her people. I see the region as a part of his and my story inherently through that lineage. Our home is now very much a subdivision in the truest sense, but back when we were kids, less so. The woods were there, and it was where the books we read came alive, where we could go to get away, to get into trouble, to get a sense of ourselves. It gave us a passage for an interior life within an exterior, untouched world. I don’t set out to write about those images all the time, but like when I was a kid trying to do rock and roll, they find their way in all on their own.

LH: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “A Few Ways of Speaking to a Yellow Throat.” Tell us about your personal conversation with the world at large. What things do you wish for this book?

MH: That poem was written for a friend. I wanted to write a poem that appealed to her and that sort of celebrated what writing can be about. I wanted to suggest something about myself, that I am in awe of birds, of books (the poem invokes a conversation with a bird about a Jesse Stuart story) and of places. That the world is full of sensitive eyes, looking down upon us as we might be looking up. That creation is speaking back to us, even as we neglect it. There is room in this life to find a speaking-place, somewhere that we can commune and find acceptance of who we are, and how we feel.

I hope this book finds people who want to take time and risk with poetry. I deal with students all the time who may or may not “understand” poetry. But I want them to understand that it is important, that they can learn that there is literature out there that is not about anything more than intimacy with a moment. I was given that gift by good teachers, so it is my mission as one now, and as a poet. I’m concerned for this time in our world, and this book speaks to that concern. But it also suggests that there are things far greater to be understood. We live in a very unsentimental world, particularly in the Appalachian region. There are people who would choose to abolish sentiment all together, so be it. But I insist on not being one of them, and not taking a single mind for granted. So, I hope people who might risk reading poems, may come across this book.

Leigh Anne Hornfeldt was a semi-finalist for both the Mary Kay Ballard Poetry Prize and the James Baker Hall Memorial Prize in Poetry, and was the recipient of the Kudzu prize in Poetry in 2012. Her debut chapbook, East Main Aviary, was recently released through Flutter Press, and she is co-editing the forthcoming anthology Bourbon for Blood, due for publication in July 2013.

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