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Continuing with our Taproot Interview Series, we'd like to introduce you to Thorpe Moeckel. Thorpe's prose and poetry has been featured in issues 2-4 and 6-9 of Taproot Magazine. Through his writing, we are invited into his world of well-crafted words. Homesteading, family life, goats, wood stoves named Gracie and the beauty of every day reality are the threads that connects us to his stories. Thorpe teaches at Hollins University and lives on a small farm near Buchanan, VA, where he helps his wife Kirsten and their children make good eats from their Nubian dairy herd, sheep, poultry, and big garden. Thorpe is the author of three books, most recently Venison
: (2010, Etruscan Press). Other works include Odd Botany
and Making a Map of the River.
Thorpe Moeckel's fourth book, Arcadia Road,
is forthcoming in 2015.
Thorpe, you have the heart of a poet and the mind of a naturalist. You're an author of three books and have been awarded the 2011 NEA fellowship in poetry. Your life experiences (teaching, fathering, homesteading and being a river guide) take focus in your stories and poetry. When did you know you wanted to be a writer and a poet? Do you find farming/homesteading to be a complimentary work ethic to writing/teaching?
l: As a kid, I messed around with words in my head, on paper, and in talking. Making up words, playing with the sounds and meanings of words, was always fun for me, and it was more than fun at times -- it was comforting, deeply so. In college, I mostly majored in the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer and various field guides, meaning I focused on what the woods and rivers and coasts and locals of Maine had to teach as much as what my classes did; a course with Frank Burroughs my senior year, where we read Faulkner, connected these impulses, made me start writing with a dedication I'd never known or expected. Faulkner's ways exploded something in me, as if what he heard (and distilled) from teachers, readings, lands, waters, people held a key, unlocked something in me. I memorized paragraphs from his works. I copied him badly and often. That same season, spring of '94, a friend Pete Relic gave me Denis Johnson's poems and his book Jesus' Son
-- o my. I wrote and wrote a lot of imitative, crappy stuff and kept messing outside, leaving college and summers guiding on the Chattooga River to lead 30-day Outward Bound-adaptive trips for state-sentenced (Pennsylvania) youth offenders. For a few years I did this, six trips/180 days a year on the trail, sleeping out and so forth, all these wonderful, chaotic, tough, beautiful kids, learning more from them and the woods and weather and seasons, trying to, watching them, and I kept writing, wrote a lot in the early mornings and memorized poems on the trail during the day and fell hard into poetry. I didn't have the attention span for prose then – maybe my life was too nomadic.
The teaching job at Hollins led us to affording these 18 acres, but Kirsten and Sophie, my wife and oldest daughter, led us to caring for this place and making food the way we do. They are amazing with animals and plants and soil and people, all the loving, humble attention and care, the domestic life, the critters and plants and neighbors. They are artists of the domestic, great ones. They work and care their hearts out, and have a way as if everything they touch turns magic; it's amazing. I'm the often neglinquent maintenance man, but day in and day out there are chores and things to fix and tend to and so on, and I help. The last nine years or so of doing this led to daily, weekly, seasonal patterns and rhythms that made prose writing more natural than it had felt prior to living here. I like teaching writing and reading and great books, have inspirational students and colleagues, and I like the academic schedule, the time to help Kirsten and Sophie, and to read and write and mess around, when possible, outside the fences.
What does a typical creative day look like for you? Can you share thoughts on balancing (or the illusion of balancing) homesteading a small farm, raising a family, and working outside the home? If you have a few words to describe your experience maintaining a creative work/life/career what would they be?
The only thing typical about a day is this: coffee, chores, meals, and if I'm not teaching or going to meetings at work, then maybe some writing. Lately the big writing shots have come at odd, sleepless times, sort of binge-sessions. But I take a lot of notes -- not really a journal, more drafting notes, sketchbook stuff-- and I'm always writing and working on sentences and paragraphs in my head. Always. Yes, I'm distracted, focusedly so. The things I'm working on, revising, they are audacious, and working around this place or driving and cutting wood or playing with the kids, making coffee, whatever, the words are moving, they are messing around, and I'm, in a way, herding him, and in another way, I’m trying to tear down all the fences, trying to let them be free and wild again.
To maintain a creative work/life/career: stay in the flow -- even when everything feels dammed up, you have to trust that you're in it, the flow, or close to it, and if you're not and can't find your way back in, you'll know it because then you'll be losing your marbles and that's no good for anybody, so you better find a way back in no matter what. Ways back in, ways to blow up the dams are various and seasonal and personal; some include working with my hands/body on a focused project outside, a jog or a walk, exploring with Kirsten and the kids, jumping in the creek – lots of ways.
"Revision dreams" and patience is how you describe the process of drafting your written work. Can you share with us a bit of your writing process? Do you write or journal every day? How do you work through creative blocks and tap into the muse?
The response to #2 addresses this, but yes, weirdly, I used to dream sentences/poems being revised a lot more than I do now, or remember upon waking doing now.
In your Bowdoin interview
you mention being inspired by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers and how you saw his poetry relating to your life and how you were living at the time. Would you describe this as a pivotal point in your writing career? What other writers, artists and poets do you go to for inspiration?
I mentioned Jeffers specifically in relation to the poem Frank Burroughs showed us the fall of my freshman year at Bowdoin, a class called "Entering Nature." Frank was at that reading/interview. He's a great writer and person, a quiet, deep influence. It was a well known Jeffers poem called "Hurt Hawks." I was a very confused kid then and a poor student grade-wise, but I memorized that poem and spoke it a lot, and it helped keep me safe, I think, while I did a lot of things young men do. I was about to leave Bowdoin to learn about and from the Chattooga River, an amazing place, while working as a raft guide. I was lucky, so lucky to find my way back there (to Bowdoin) after a while, and lucky too to be able to keep working on the Chattooga in the summers, and I was a different, hopefully better sort of confused then, as now.
As a professor in the MFA program at Hollins University, you are steeped in the written word and literary culture. Do you have any words of advice for new writers? Do you have any upcoming projects (written, life, farm or otherwise) that you are looking forward to this year?
Projects underway include, first, getting our family back into a healthy living space. We’ve had home health – Lyme, mold – issues, and it’s been a tough year, but we’re on a path towards changing that. I always look forward to the words that Taproot
bases its issues on; these words bring a busy life into relief, give it shape. Also, there’s a book coming out in 2015, a trilogy of long poems called Arcadia Road, which is the road where we live, exit 168 off of I-81 in Botetourt County, Virginia.
My main advice for new writers is this: Turn off your phone, close your email, close all the parasitic internet stuff. If possible, do not even own a cell phone and use some of the money you'd save then to buy books or buy time to read them, read and live with them until you feel them in your blood.
We thought you'd enjoy hearing Thorpe read his own poetry. Click on the links below and listen to Thorpe read three of his poems: Southern Cresent
, Beginning to Peel
, and Trees and Stars