19 October 2009
Meat Pies, Mountain Men and Mining: An Interview with Jeff Mann
Jeff Mann grew up in Covington, Virginia, and Hinton, West Virginia, receiving degrees in English and forestry from West Virginia University. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Spoon River Poetry Review, Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Laurel Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, Crab Orchard Review, West Branch, Bloom, Appalachian Heritage, Best Gay Erotica, Best Gay Poetry, and Best Gay Stories. He has published three award-winning poetry chapbooks, Bliss, Mountain Fireflies, and Flint Shards from Sussex; two full-length books of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine and On the Tongue; a collection of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear; a novella, Devoured, included in Masters of Midnight: Erotic Tales of the Vampire; a book of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; and a volume of short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire, which won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
This interview was conducted in March 2009.
Jory Mickelson: When did you start writing or consider yourself a writer?
Jeff Mann: I attended West Virginia University and graduated with an English literature degree and an outdoor recreation degree. I ran across a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath my senior year of college. After I graduated, I moved home and worked odd jobs. I read more about Plath and the criticism of her work. I decided I wanted to be a poet. I contacted an undergraduate professor I respected and talked to him about getting a Master’s degree in English. There was no Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at WVU in 1984. I got my Master’s in English.
JM: You currently teach creative writing at Virginia Tech, what prompted you to become a teacher?
Mann: Why teach? I ask myself that quite a bit. (Laughs.) In graduate school, it’s what you had to do to get your tuition waived. Teaching didn’t interest me, but I didn’t know how else to make a living. It was also a way to talk about writing and literature and get paid for it. I have been teaching ever since graduate school.
After all this practice, I have gotten pretty good at teaching. I got an certificate of teaching excellence award from Virginia Tech. I have reached a point in my life where it isn’t about my own dreams anymore. Teaching is about helping other people. I have a strong sense of myself as a teacher now. It is a privilege to be part of the creative process for my MFA students. I get to contribute to the next wave of writers who will come after me.
I have taught many kinds of creative writing—poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction. I used to teach a GLBT literature class off and on. I am currently trying to make it a permanent course here at Virginia Tech.
JM: Your work expresses a deep love for Appalachia. Would you call yourself a regional writer or a writer of place?
Mann: I realize that my insistence on being frank about my sexuality and about living where I live has limited me in some ways. Being a regional writer or a gay writer allows some authors to dismiss me, to not consider me a serious writer. LGBT writers and regional writers are constantly dismissed.
A lot of details in my fiction are from Appalachia. Much of my nonfiction and my memoir have been about being queer in Appalachia. My poetry tends to be more universal. I want it to transcend, geographical region and sexual orientation.
I would say that the sense I get from the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) and some of my MFA students are that queer and regional writing aren’t worth paying attention to. I have a large ego, like all writers and Southern men. I am easily offended. (Laughs.)
JM: You are one of the few writers that I know who talks about both your love of place and the environmental degradation of it. Annick Smith does this in her book In This We Are Native. Can you tell me more about that?
Mann: It is hard not to talk about environmental degradation in Appalachia. Mountain top removal is a very heated topic here. Mining companies have destroyed Central Appalachia with coal mining. Central Appalachia is what gets written about most of the time—the poverty, the coalfields, and the uneducated hillbilly stereotype. I don’t live in Central Appalachia, but I feel passionately about this.
The economy is failing, the coal is running out, and the new method of mining is blowing up the tops of mountains with tons of dynamite. The mining companies take what little coal there is and ruin the environment in the process. A few years ago, I attended a tour of mountain top removal for West Virginia writers.
Ann Pancake has written a novel on this topic, I think it’s called, Strange as This Weather Has Been. You are probably familiar with her; I think she lives out in your part of the country too.
JM: She does live in the Pacific Northwest. Another topic that comes up frequently in your work is food, why food?
Mann: I am always about to be on a diet. I love food. I am a daddy bear and that sounds better than “slightly overweight, graying, middle-aged man.” (Laughs.) My writing deals with physical pleasure, the senses and the body. My work is sensual, whether I am writing about sex, alcohol, nature or food. That is part of it.
I come from a family where preparing and serving food was about how you care. It is also a masculine role for me. In my family men cook as often as women. My father won’t say “I love you,” he will make you a batch of biscuits instead. Food is about family traditions, kinship and heritage. So many of the dishes I eat or ate growing up are related to the fruits of Appalachia and the South. There are also the English, Scottish, Irish and German traditions to consider. I think about my ancestors and the food that has been passed down by them. I grew up eating all sorts of pot pies. When I was in England, there were all kinds of different meat pies. There is a direct food connection there. It gets passed on.
JM: Tell me something about your approach to writing, your technique if you will.
Mann: I am old fashioned in a certain sense. I am interested in poetry that deals frankly with real human issues and emotions. Poetry just isn’t about language play or intellectual ideas for me. I am not an elitist. Although my poetry is multilayered, you can take away something from it after the first reading.
Robert Frost and Nathanial Hawthorne are my models. You can get something from the first reading of a Frost poem, but every time you come back to it there are other layers, other meanings to explore. It isn’t confusing or impenetrable.
I write in a free verse style, but I am concerned about sound devices and rhythm. I don’t mean just rhyme, but there is assonance, alliteration, etc. I have a pretty good ear. I have been playing around with some formal verse recently.
JM: What would you say is the hardest challenge about being a writer in Appalachia or a queer writer in a rural area?
Mann: Just to keep writing. That is hard enough for most writers to do. Even though we writers think our work is fascinating, the world meets us with a resounding “I don’t give a shit.” The mainstream gay community has little interest in small town or rural queer experience. It is hard to get published as a queer or regional author. There are limitations.
Then I think, “What the hell else would I do?” If I were not to write, what would I do with myself? Just being a teacher isn’t sufficient for me. A friend of mine Irene McKinney, the Poet Laureate of West Virginia, said that when she was young she felt all sorts of painful passions and if she didn’t express them, she would explode. As an older person now, in her seventies, she says she writes because her whole self-definition is wrapped up in being a writer. I have to agree with her on that.
The greatest challenge is to keep on writing when the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit. Just continuing to write is saying, “Fuck you.”
JM: Do you have any last words for our readers?
Mann: William Faulkner, after The Sound and the Fury was published, wrote a commentary on it. He said of the black characters: "They endured." When I hear that phrase, it gets me shaking.
To LGBT writers, I say keep going. Be stubborn and ornery. Endure. As I know from my own writing niche as a queer mountain man, there is an audience out there for my work. It may be small, but people are hungry for it. That is who I am writing for.