Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Karl Plank

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The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: One of our editors has familial ties to the region described in your poem and was particularly drawn to the strong images of coal mining country in the language of this piece. What drew you to write specifically about this region, one that is often underrepresented in literature?

Karl Plank: I did not grow up in a coal-mining region, but from another part of Kentucky. The gateway for “After Eden” was Hopper’s painting, Pennsylvania Coal Town, more than immediate experience. But then the question becomes: why did this painting resonate with me and what led me to fill it with particular images of coal mining (when Hopper himself does not do so)? Though I don’t know the Pennsylvania area apart from photographs, maps, and histories, I found myself supplying for Hopper’s coal town familiar images from Eastern Kentucky and recalling people from those mountains whose lives had deeply touched my own in earlier years. When I read contemporary literature that captures the fabric of this region and its people—for example, the fiction of Silas House (Kentucky) or Ann Pancake (West Virginia)—I feel a desire to stand in such a place, to be among that company. Not out of any romantic notions about mountain life, but from a recognition of a certain dignity that emerges there in facing hardship with work and resolve. The stories, the lives, cut to what matters and is essential; these deserve respect which I hope the poem confers. As for the images: coal towns are yoked by a particular language that names their realities in this way and that. No place is anonymous; certainly not these. We sense the lives in the sounds of the language—gob, bing, culm, tipple—and draw near to what we hear.

 

RR: As a professor of religious studies, how have religion and religious writings influenced your creative work?
KP: My work in religious studies has always followed a literary path. I was trained in the middle 1970s, a time in which the literary-critical movement surged in biblical studies, narrative theology was a-borning, and religion and literature generally was beginning to flourish as an interdisciplinary pursuit. I have always taught stories and poems and not been especially interested in drawing much of a line between those that are overtly religious and those that are not; more connects them all as makers of meaning than will ever separate them. That being said, my work in religion has made me sensitive to concerns for how lives and worlds get broken and repaired, how we live in aftermaths and dare to hope. My creative writing seems preoccupied with these questions. I would say, as well, that my life as a scholar of religion—and particularly of literary and textual traditions– disposes me to write as a reader and increasingly to read as a writer. In a sense, for me, creativity is also commentary.
RR: How does religion intersect with place in your writing?
KP: The traditions I study, especially those of Jewish literature, are commonly associated with time. In that regard, religion might be seen as a way of organizing memory, reckoning present moments, and envisioning futures. Yet, time is always in situ, situated or placed. ‘Where are we?’ is a deeply religious and existential question. We not only remember places, but places prompt memories to come unbidden; the home we long to find or return to, we see as a particular place. And such places, imagined or geographic, engage our emotional core. Much of my poetry takes the form of verbal landscapes that, one way or another, try to speak a story in terms of where we have been, where we are, where we are going. The figure in Hopper’s painting does not begin there where he stands in older age beside the house with garden rake in hand; he lives in a scene that seems to be “after” and to have come from “somewhere else.” Where he has arrived is the place where light finds him still, and shines with surprisingly familiar kindness. But, in imagining this, do we not also feel the prior dislocation, eclipse, or interruption?
RR: Although this piece begins with poignant, painful images like “tracing the coal seam with bruised feet” and “he coughed the haze that hung over,” the poem shifts to a warm, resolute tone towards its conclusion. In what ways is this resolute tone connected to the sense of place in this poem?
KP: You have, I think, picked up on the Adamic quality of the poem that works its way into the title. I speak of an arduous path, the movement from one place (lost) to another, to a destination, though, that is not simply defined by its pain, absence, or loss. Something here has been recovered, that has a warmth as before, yet may take courage—the quality of being “resolute,” as you put it—to stand in its presence. The Adamic frame that I have employed suggests that the place is existential in the way that myth always is. The exile from Eden is not finally tragic or not simply so; we move to a place where light persists, even shining on a body that is older and has perhaps known too much—a warmth that is welcome, surprising, and encouraging in its moment. Could this happen in a coal town, in landscapes we now recognize in ruin? Hopper wagers yes; as do I. If not there, then where?
RR: Your poem works in the rich tradition of ekphrastic poetry, a tradition that dates back to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and arguably even back to Homer. Speaking to this tradition, what possibilities are engendered when different forms of representation intersect?
KP: Traditionally, ekphrasis involved rich description, but what also occurs is a kind of intertextuality, or interplay between the imagined possibilities of one text (Hopper’s painting) and another (the poem). Hopper’s paintings are known for their signature treatments of light and composition, but they also have a powerful narrative quality. His figures are set in scenes that evoke the viewer’s imagination of a backstory and a prospect. Hopper has not meant to put an Adam on view, but that is my way of making sense of what I see in the painting and a way of stimulating a sense of its trajectory. But once that takes place, the interplay may go in the other direction. Viewed in light of the poem, we notice that the figure has a rake, is in a garden patch, that there is a tree whose fronds are catching the light and grass creeping over a border—all of which give additional Edenic dimension to the painting, at least as I see it. Be it the interplay of two verbal texts or across genres and media, the interplay that creates new possibilities of interpretation is the real fruit to be plucked here.