n6110ac great spangled fritillary mound © 2014 . All rights reserved.

BRENT MARTIN: Cowee, North Carolina

I grew up in Cobb County, Georgia, not far from the Chattahoochee River.  It was a rural landscape then, and my family had roots there going back to the 1850’s.   There was a large unbroken forest behind my house that allowed me to roam all day, exploring and using my imagination to the fullest.   I now live in the Cowee community of western North Carolina and behind my house is the Nantahala National Forest – a great place to roam and explore.   It’s a rich and wonderful landscape full of wild creatures and places, Cherokee history, and local folklore.   It also contains the largest National Historic District in western North Carolina.

Tell me about your work for the Wilderness Society. I first got involved with The Wilderness Society in 1986.  I had been a member since I was a teenager and once I got into my twenties I decided to become more involved as a volunteer.  In 1986 they hosted a volunteer training project in the north Georgia mountains which eventually led to me becoming the first full time director of one of their projects, Georgia Forestwatch.   That was in 1996, and from then until 2003 I worked on a new forest management plan for the Chattahoochee National Forest – one that would focus on restoration, recreation, and long term protection, and less on logging, road building, and resource extraction.  In 2003, I left to go to work for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a small but powerful land trust in western North Carolina.  I worked there until 2007 and it was a great experience.  We conserved a lot of farm and forest land, and I was there for the conservation of the 4,500 acre Needmore acquisition, on the of the most spectacular pieces of protected land in this part of the state.   In 2007, I got a call from an old friend, Fran Hunt, who asked if I was interested in starting a southern Appalachian office for The Wilderness Society.  I told her I’d sleep on it, but my mind was made up before I hung up the phone.  Since then I’ve worked on a little bit of everything, but mainly getting more Wilderness protected in western North Carolina and getting a new Wilderness bill passed in Tennessee.    We’re going through a management plan revision for over a million acres here in western North Carolina and it’s a critical moment for long term protection and good management.

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Horseshoe Bend, Little Tennessee River, North Carolina, photo: Ralph Preston

 

Tell me about how your work with the Wilderness Society inspires your poetry? Well, it’s actually the other way around for me.  I’m motivated to write poetry because this landscape and the creatures which inhabit it inspire and fill me with wonder.   There are great stories here, and big histories, and weird places and people – all of which I draw from daily.  My average day with The Wilderness Society can be spent in front of a computer screen, or in meetings, although I have gotten poems from those of meetings. And I’ve of course gotten poems from some of those fantastic days when I’m in a big, wild place, and the world seems right and whole.   I approach my work as a poet most days, and see what happens.  It keeps me sane and helps me make sense in a world where we seem to be increasingly disconnected from nature in profound ways, and where we spend most of our time as professional conservationists fighting really bad ideas and projects, trying to convince people to think in new and creative ways.

In what ways does your environment affect your writing?   I live on the edge of the Cowee National Historic District, one of the largest historic districts in western North Carolina.  There is rich cultural and natural history here that permeates just about all of my writing, which is largely place based.   It’s the ancient diplomatic center of the middle town Cherokee Indians, which is the origin of the community’s name.  Cowee was their wall street – it’s where anyone doing business with them took place.  There is a large ceremonial mound here, and lots of important historical structures.   There was also a significant African American community here, which produced some very interesting people and history.  The Little Tennessee River runs near my home and the beauty and magnificence of this river is something that I could go on and on about.  My wife Angela Faye and I are on this river canoeing every chance we get.   It’s one of the most spectacular rivers in Appalachia and it has served as a great source of inspiration to me – both in poetry and non-fiction.

What is the best part about being a poet, a writer?  I enjoy the practice and process of being a writer – as well as finishing something and liking it. Although I never feel like anything is really finished.  I also enjoy being part of a community of writers.  There are a lot of writers here in western North Carolina, and some really good ones.   It is also satisfying to see something you’ve written in print.

What is the worst?  Feeling like I can’t write, or not liking what I do write.   I also can’t stand having to submit to publishers.  It takes me forever to get around to it.

What motivates you to write?  I’ve always found it an outlet, even at an early age.  As a teenager I wrote really bad poetry, just to fight off the loneliness and the teenage angst.   As I got older, and more serious about it, it became a way to express myself and interpret the world, as well as a way to escape.

Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying?  I had a really good poetry professor in college, Don Russ, who encouraged me to submit to publishers.  I had never given it a thought, but after one of his classes, he just started bugging me about it.  I got published, and then went on to graduate school, which deterred me for way too long.  I was working on a history degree, although I kept writing poetry, but graduate school has a way of devouring you.   Once I moved to western North Carolina, I met the poet Thomas Rain Crowe, who really motivated me to start submitting again.  His press, New Native Press, published my first chapbook, Poems from Snow Hill Road.   In the last few years, I have become good friends with the poet Kay Byers.  She is one of the most community minded poets I have ever met and inspires me greatly.

What would you tell the younger you, just starting to write?  Great question.   Stop going out so much.  Spend more time with a pen in your hand.  Don’t worry about what people think.  Be more courageous.  Read more.  Get a degree in English and Botany instead of History.

How closely do you follow your original idea in the process of writing a new piece (poem or prose)?   Rarely, but occasionally.  I’m a really slow writer, and I can work on a poem sometimes for weeks and then abandon it for good.  It might start out as a poem on owls and end up as a poem on fish.   Or I might mine it for parts of another poem I’m working on.

Do you typically work on one piece at a time or have several going at once?  I’m horrible about keeping multiple things going at once.  It’s probably a bad way to write, but it’s the only way I’ve found that’s productive.  I’m working on a novel right now, several poems, and a collection of non-fiction.  Angela Faye thinks I’m crazy and wants me to focus solely on the novel, and she’s right.   The novel has more potential than anything that I’m working on, but I get stuck, so I move on to poems for a while, or non-fiction, which can be productive, but it delays my focus on what should be my priority.

brent and izzy TusquitteeBrent & Izzy on Tusquitee Creek, Nantahala National Forest   photo: Angela Faye Martin

 Early in your career, before you had any real success, what fed your determination to keep trying?  I had a really good poetry professor in college, Don Russ, who encouraged me to submit to publishers.  I had never given it a thought, but after one of his classes, he just started bugging me about it.  I got published, and then went on to graduate school, which deterred me for way too long.  I was working on a history degree, although I kept writing poetry, but graduate school has a way of devouring you.   Once I moved to western North Carolina, I met the poet Thomas Rain Crowe, who really motivated me to start submitting again.  His press, New Native Press, published my first chapbook, Poems from Snow Hill Road.   In the last few years, I have become good friends with the poet Kay Byers.  She is one of the most community minded poets I have ever met and inspires me greatly.

What would you tell the younger you, just starting to write?  Great question.   Stop going out so much.  Spend more time with a pen in your hand.  Don’t worry about what people think.  Be more courageous.  Read more.  Get a degree in English and Botany instead of History.

How closely do you follow your original idea in the process of writing a new piece (poem or prose)?   Rarely, but occasionally.  I’m a really slow writer, and I can work on a poem sometimes for weeks and then abandon it for good.  It might start out as a poem on owls and end up as a poem on fish.   Or I might mine it for parts of another poem I’m working on.

Do you typically work on one piece at a time or have several going at once?  I’m horrible about keeping multiple things going at once.  It’s probably a bad way to write, but it’s the only way I’ve found that’s productive.  I’m working on a novel right now, several poems, and a collection of non-fiction.  Angela Faye thinks I’m crazy and wants me to focus solely on the novel, and she’s right.   The novel has more potential than anything that I’m working on, but I get stuck, so I move on to poems for a while, or non-fiction, which can be productive, but it delays my focus on what should be my priority.

Are there rituals you follow in your creative practice, certain things that you do that help you to be in the best frame of mind for writing?  I try to look at the world fresh, which means parking all the garbage – email, internet, bills, news – and just staring at trees or birds.   I love the plant world, and I get a tremendous amount of inspiration by walking in the woods observing.   I also enjoy talking to some of my elderly neighbors and friends.  They usually give me pause and make me reconsider what I’m thinking might be priorities.  I also write most days whether I feel like it or not.  It might be stream of consciousness, but it’s still writing and sometimes some good things emerge from the practice.  I also read a great deal, which is incredibly important for motivating me to write.                                       

How does the internet affect your work?  I have a love/hate relationship with the internet.  Most days I get an overwhelming amount of email, and so the last thing I want to do when I get home from my job is to be in front of a computer.  But as a 21st century writer or artist, you have to.  I use the internet all of the time for research, and it is an amazing resource.  It’s also a wonderful thing to be able to submit to publishers electronically, along with finding publishers electronically.    I’m less fond of social media.  It seems way too superficial and more of a way for most people to get some type of personal validation.

Can you talk about balancing being a writer with your relationship with your wife?  Well, I’m lucky to live with a talented musician and writer.  She’s my muse in many, many ways.   We collaborate emotionally all the time in ways that we probably aren’t aware of.  We also share a lot of common interests that inspire us both, mainly nature and art.  We both are avid birders, for example, so we often talk about birds we’ve seen that day if we’ve been apart.  That leads to things sometimes.  Or plants we’ve seen of interest.  I can’t always find the time I need to write, and that is frustrating.   We live in an old farm house, and try to grow food and heat with wood.  It takes a lot of my time.   And working full time in conservation can often require long weeks of travel and meetings.  I take my journal with me and try to write every day, even it’s for five or ten minutes.

How do you get through writer’s blocks?  I’ve been working on a novel for a while, and recently have been blocked.  I’m not out of it yet.  The first four chapters came relatively easy, then one day I didn’t know which direction to go with it.  I’ve been coping with it by thinking about one of the characters a lot, one who is based on a real life character from our valley.   He’s buried up the road from me, so I ask him to give me a hand whenever I pass by his grave.  I’m trying to do him justice, so I’m waiting.   With poetry, I just keep writing away, even if it’s no good.  I just put pen to page and see what comes out.  I keep a poetry journal for such things, and I might go back six months later and see if there is anything in there worth extracting and using, and to my surprise, I often find a few lines that I can incorporate into something that I’m working on.

How do you deal with the disappointment/despair when your work isn’t getting the attention you desire?   This may sound crass, but I tell myself that I’m going to be dead in forty years at best, and that nothing I’m obsessing over is really going to matter in a thousand years anyway.   I really try not think about it too much, and focus instead on the ephemerality of life and the desire to simply make good art.   I want to enjoy the time I have on this planet, and try my best to save what’s left.

 How do you find the strength to continue?   There’s a great Thich Nhat Hanh quote that goes something like, “Yes, all is hopeless, we must therefore work harder than ever.”  I’m not willing to give up.  This planet harbors such miraculous life and possibilities.   It’s horribly depressing to think that we are living in the midst of a great extinction, and we’re likely going to end up part of it, but the planet has incredible resiliency and will recover once we’re gone.   It can be a big beautiful wild place again.

What are your vices?  Buying books, good red wine, IPA’s, and spending too much eating out.  I probably spend way too much on books, but we have a fantastic book store here, and I support them every way I can.    They support local artists and writers and are a community book store in every sense of the word.   We also have a great food and local craft beer culture here in western North Carolina.  And I love to travel.

What kind of pets do you have?  We have a dog and three chickens. The chickens are my wife’s pets though.  I grew up with chickens, and I can take them or leave them.  They are fun to look at sometimes though.  The German film director Werner Herzog says chickens are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.  I wouldn’t go that far, but they do have a quality that seems to set them apart from other animals, wild and domestic.

What is the last wild animal you saw? I saw nine deer this afternoon out by our garden.  They were in snow and eating buds off of our blueberries. I also saw an Armadillo this past Sunday on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia.  It was completely unafraid and we watched it for ten minutes as it rooted around in the leaves.

I love your poem The Green House in the Woods. What inspired you to write it? The Green House in the Woods is based on an actual house I see every day in the forest across from our old mountain farm house.   I’ve only seen a light on it one time in seven years.   It’s basically abandoned, and I’ve looked at it so long, and walked over to it so often, that I can’t help but have imaginary thoughts about it.  This may sound crazy, but Angela Faye and I have seen strange lights around it twice.   Both times have been in winter, when no one is here. There’s something going on with it.

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The Green House in the Woods

The green house in the woods
is the color of thirsty moss
and glows at night like foxfire
from the vapor light down the road.  
 
I study it from across an abandoned
pasture which is the world that separates
me from its somber essence.
Its absentee owners are far from here
 
in Florida and do not care
that my heart is tethered
to a pack of wild dogs
which hides from the heat of day
 
beyond their broken cellar door.
Come evening they crawl out
glazed with mica dust
and chase deer up to the Grant fields.
 
When the four wheelers ride
the gravel road down to the
green house in the woods I curse
their mutinous rattle and wicked defiance
 
but I never call the police,
for I believe in their need
to be there and beyond the law.
And I would like to sail like that
 
through the woods to the green house,
but in a silent fugue of dream.  To sleep
among the Tulip trees, leafing out and reticent,
along its atrophied west wing.

 

camelia 20001

   photo: Angela Faye Martin

Hunting for Camelias at Horseshoe Bend

The mountain camelia is such a needy plant
that it would give up altogether
were it not for a few undisturbed places
that satisfy its sensitive disposition.
Growing on moist slopes
of narrow unreachable ravines,
for most of the year it is not proud.
To the untrained eye it is silver bell,
sweet shrub, buffalo nut, and a dozen
others resting in the unblossomed beauty.
We skirt the rugged bluff of Horseshoe Bend
above a spot where the Little Tennessee
coils like a snake through a phantom
of its former self.
Looking up through the dog hobble
and the dying hemlock, the April sky turns a dark purple.
Our old woman friend from Brush Creek
has worn the wrong shoes again
and I see that there is a quarter-size hole
in her thin socks that barely disguise
her aged legs. She says we’d have
better luck looking for a ghost,
but when I look again she is gone.

~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The Ferryman is a poem about an actual character that continues to give me poetry.  Most people around here don’t like him, or understand him, but he’s enlightened in a really dangerous way.   He’s a Vietnam vet, and I’ve always had a good rapport with him.  He’s conservative, but then again not, and I constantly find him contradicting himself in ways that puzzle me.  I’ve gotten several poems out of him, and two that are in my new book  Staring the Red Earth Down.
Ferryman

He could care less
whether you get across the river,
about your Buddhist metaphors,
or the Great Vehicle.
Pay him, for he cares if you pay him,
and he will get you down the river
as far as you care to go.  
The journey always begins
at the same place
and you will choose your destination.
What happens in between
are stories he has heard so many times
in so many different ways
that they have become
as unintelligible as the cries of wild birds
blowing across windy empty sky.
In the old story Vasudeva
listened to the river
and was deeply peaceful.
He dwelt and shone in all things.
He knew that everything came back.
Here it doesn’t stand a chance.

~     ~     ~     ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~    ~

Brent’s new book :  http://www.redbirdchapbooks.com/brent-martin.html

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” Here is a beautiful chapbook by my friend Brent Martin, one of the best poets writing out of our southern mountains. Stunning work. Place-based, lyrical, memorable. Need I say more? ”     — Kathryn Stripling Byer, previous Poet Laureate, North Carolina

~     ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~

Poems from Snowy Hill Road: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/1883197236/poems-from-snow-hill-road.aspx

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shout in the woods

http://flutterpress2009.blogspot.com/

 

to buy Brent’s new book on paypal:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_xclick&business=blueyodel32%40gmail%2ecom&lc=US&item_name=Staring%20the%20Red%20Earth%20Down&item_number=1st%20limited%2c%20numbered&amount=12%2e00&currency_code=USD&button_subtype=services&tax_rate=0%2e000&shipping=0%2e00&bn=PP%2dBuyNowBF%3abtn_buynowCC_LG%2egif%3aNonHosted

 

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Photo of Brent by: Angela Faye Martin ~ she was previously featured on Light Seeking Eyes http://www.irenehardwickeolivieri.com/lightseeking/angela-faye-martin-franklin-north-carolina/

Cowee Mound photo at top of this post is by Ralph Preston

 

If you want to subscribe to Light Seeking Eyes type your name in the subscribe box at the bottom of this page.

3 Comments

  1. Nancy Russell

    Thank you Brent for your wonderful poetry. It brings the people of your part of the country to life for me. I look forward to reading more of your work – it inspires me!

    • Annel Martin

      Congratulations on the new book — I will cherish my copy and read it many times.
      The poems shared in this wonderful interview, like poems from his past, became a picture in my mind as I read them. I’m proud to have this talented writer as my son.

  2. There is honesty in Brent’s interview about life’s inescapable realities but beyond that, such hope and optimism in his manner of living his beliefs and finding his art throughout the nooks and crannies of his everyday life. Western North Carolina is lucky to have him.

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