Full Q&A with poet and essayist Thorpe Moeckel '93
In Making a Map of the River (Iris Press, 2008), his second full-length collection of poems (with an essay), Hollins University creative writing professor Thorpe Moeckel '93 journeys the Chattooga River, on which he spent ten years as a guide. With a poet’s eye for detail and a naturalist's sensibility, Moeckel winds these poems through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, a cartography of the river and his own memory, and flowing metaphor of human and natural relationships.
Bowdoin: How did you become interested in poetry?
Moeckel: I became interested in poetry as a kid exposed to it in school. I always enjoyed it. I didn’t really start writing it until later, in college. But, always my favorite classes were always English classes. In junior high and high school, I had some great teachers. I had to memorize poems in high school, and even in junior high. And, in college, I continued reading. I was an English and environmental studies major, and was exposed to a lot of great poetry, contemporary and older work. Later on, junior, senior year of school, I had been writing. Mostly journaling. Toying around with poetry and prose. Really bad stuff. But, I’d always loved making mixed tapes. Back then we were still using cassette tapes. That exercise, thinking about what song to segue into after one you’ve just recorded. I loved doing that. I loved receiving and giving. The whole ritual of mixed tapes. I started doing that with writing. At first I had grandiose ideas of becoming a novelist. I didn’t really have the attention span then for prose so—I’ll never forget. I loved Robinson Jeffers. I’d been exposed to a poem of his called Hurt Hawks in a first year seminar at Bowdoin called "Entering Nature." It was taught by Franklin Burroughs. I memorized that poem. Then, right as we were about to graduate, my friend Peter Relic ‘93 turned me on to The Incognito Lounge—it exposed me to another realm of feeling and emotion that was really applicable to how I was feeling and how I was living at the time. All through this time, I was doing a lot of stuff outside, leading a lot of trips, teaching whitewater canoeing, guiding rafts, and right after college I started working longer trips in the woods, 30-day trips, and the reason I did this was because I liked being outside, and I found even more how pleasurable it was to try to put words to the things I was seeing, and feeling, and smelling, and living out there, outside. And I liked words. I’d always liked words. As a kid, we used to hack around and just make up words and throw them at each other. I still like to do that. I like to do it now in different ways. In more formal ways. On the page, in poetry, and in some prose.
B: What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet?
M: My greatest obstacle to becoming and remaining a poet has to be patience. One of the reasons early that I moved away from prose is that I didn’t have the patience for it. Building a poem is like throwing together a chicken house, whereas writing a long chunk of prose is more like building a full-on house for a family; it’s a much bigger endeavor. Not necessarily any less rewarding—You know, those eggs that come out of the henhouse are pretty darned tasty. So, it has to be patience. I’ve always kind of like the struggle to resist the first word that comes to mind or the line that sounds good, or the poem draft that feels like it’s just the greatest thing in the world. To resist that and put it away and put drafts down and start another draft. I just love the process of drafting and the little game of impatience and trying to teach myself to just sit on it, sit on that poem, sit on that line—that might not be the best word—hang out with it. I love it when I’m patient enough with a poem, and working with the drafts; I work with them long enough that they become—not through any intention—memorized. And, I can be sitting at a traffic light, walking through the woods, or taking a shower and the poem will just pop in the mind, or sometimes even when I’m sleeping, kind of revision dreams—I love that stuff. So, really, the biggest obstacle, patience, has also become the most pleasurable part of writing for me, which is revision. I can’t lie. I love the first moment when, maybe outside somewhere, or wherever it and I whip out a piece of paper and a pen and I just start scratching some stuff down, and going wherever it goes. I love that stuff.
B: Did you have a goal for this book when you put it together?
M: Yes, I wanted a book that would submerge the reader in a landscape and a way of life, a feelings of awe and confusion and wonder and reverence, and fear and hope. I’d worked, starting at the age of 18, on the Chattooga River for several years, and I continued going down there and leading other trips, hiking trips in the watershed once I’d stop rafting, and I grew up a lot there in ways that I hadn’t grown up growing up in my home in Atlanta. I wanted to look at that, at what those ways were and were they really what I thought they were all about. I wanted to revisit those times and those people and those places and to continue taking people there. I was a guide, and I kind of feel like I still am a guide, an outdoor guide, in my work, in my poems. If I can put somebody outside in a wild place and let a reader feel that place through the language, through the words that I believe come out of that place, if I can find the right words and the right rhythms, and the right statements and anecdotes and stories or lyric rhythms or the right meditative lines of inquiry, then I feel pretty good, and I hope the reader does.
Hear Moeckel Read from Making a Map of the River
B: Did you glean anything personally from making this map of the Chattooga, of your memories?
M: In terms of if I’ve gleaned anything personally from this book, from writing about the Chattooga, if I’ve learned anything from my memories, it’s that that’s an amazing place and that it needs to be protected more than it is. And I’ve also learned that there are a lot of other places like this, especially in the Southeast, that are wonderful, pristine—well, as close to it as they can be in this day and age—and that are getting encroached upon really quickly by sprawl. It’s incredibly important that there are places, sanctuaries, where not only the birds and the plants and the trees and the animals can do their thing as undisturbed as possible but, also where people can go. There are a lot of soldiers that are going to be coming back from Iraq before too long—there’s just people everywhere wdho need to get outside, and who know they need that, and who love it. It’s not for everybody, for sure but, there are some who need a couple days, a weekend outside, a rafting trip or just going out on their own, paddling in a canoe or just setting up a tent, car camping, whatever it is, people need these places. And working on this book, which was years and years—and it didn’t start as “I’m going to write a book about the Chattooga,” it just happened. I was writing and I was visiting that place on and off and writing about it and thinking about it and being homesick and, instead of wallowing around in homesickness, I’d write about the place. And, eventually, I started looking through this big pile of poems and realized there’s a lot of stuff that might fit together in kind of interesting ways. So, with the help of some friends, I culled out some of the less exciting poems—I hope—and put the best ones I could find in the best order.
B: Readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader?
M: For readers who are apprehensive about poetry, I would suggest that’s probably just the right feeling to have about poetry! How would you approach a poem if you’re apprehensive? Probably the same way you would approach a new body of water you’ve just discovered. Maybe it’s a really hot day and you’re driving along and you find this creek, and there’s a big hole there below a falls, and you’re hot and it looks really inviting, so you go down there and you check it out, and you don’t dive right in—hopefully, or maybe you do—and if you do, hopefully you don’t break your neck—you probably just look around for a while and savor the different things you see. With a poem start wherever—a book of poems, you don’t have to start with page one, you don’t have to worry about what it means, just read it; let it wash over you, let it cool you off, or heat you up, or whatever it does.
To listen to more of Thorpe Moeckel reading his poems, visit From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of emerging poets: www.fishousepoems.org