Vicki: Your critical essay and graduate seminar focused an Appalachian poetic tradition concerning the dead. Please describe this tradition briefly.
Larry: I wanted to explore the death and dying motif in Appalachian poetics, a tradition I believe is expressed uniquely in our Appalachian mountain culture. Our writers lean artistically on the character of death and the death process in numerous fashions including mourning, as a means of expressing violence, as landmarks in history, as traditional ghost lore, and as a means of remaining attached with family. Death shows itself in our mountain writing more often than we give it credit.
V: In what ways did researching and then teaching about this tradition impact your forthcoming book Grave Robber Confessional?
L: It gave me a constant means of establishing road markers along the way. I have questions of my own about death and dying, of course. My writing is a selfish means of pursuing answers, right? So many of these poems resulted from simple unanswerable philosophical fascinations with the death mysteries, but some were just scenarios that popped into my mind while researching. What-ifs along the way. Long lists that accumulated as marginalia.
V: The breadth of the poems is fascinating. Some treat our sense of mortality, some fear and speculation about what it will be to die, some discuss cultural rituals related to death, and some leave me feeling eerie and afraid. Did you set out intentionally to explore the range of meanings associated with death?
L: If I recall accurately, I wrote at least half or more of them for the collection once I’d settled on the arcing theme. I was like, alright then, this collection’s heart is mostly orbited by death, and life with death, so let’s go with it. I robbed a number of other pieces I already had into the collection as well, from smaller projects, morphed poems, Frankenstein monstered up quite a few, so to speak, all while working on two viewpoints: looking into the cemetery and looking out from it.
V: None of the poems in the collection treat grave robbing in the sense of removing bodies, bones or artifacts. What led you to choose the title Grave Robber Confessional?
L:That’s a very deliberate riddle in a sense. We’re all grave robbers if we look to those who are gone for answers, are we not? Who among us hasn’t stood at the silent grave asking questions? Stared at the quiet stone? Passed the graveyard looking over the stones looking for a certain something? Wished to reach down, metaphorically, and gain answers from the grave? From “beyond”?
V: I notice that for a number of the poems in Grave Robber Confessional the title is the first line. What factors led you to make this choice?
L: I seldom title a poem until it’s near or fully complete. I doubt I’m very different than most in that way. I like to know what “becomes” in a piece, what it says for itself, and sometimes a first line is all the simple introduction the scene requires.
V: A collection of poems about death does not, at first glance, seem marketable. What is your elevator pitch, and then, if you like, share why you think readers will want to buy this book.
L: If you’ve done your taxes, then make a date with this book your next stopover. But seriously, I’ve tried to deal with what is usually avoided in some unique manners that might lighten the burden of anxiety. If I can do that, or at least tempt us to question the mysteries a little more bravely, then I’ve purchased my goal a step further.
V: Tell me about a poet—or a poem—that inspired you to try a new form or technique in your work.
L: The MFA semester (also my critical essay semester) I spent with Mary Carroll-Hackett (Death for Beginners, Trailer Park Oracle, and The Night I Heard Everything) as my advisor was eye-opening from a craft approach. I spent the entire semester immersed ONLY in prose poetry, a foreign mental-scape for me. I was ready to write about the destruction of my home neighborhood due to a grocery store expansion. With Carroll-Hackett’s patient tutelage in the prose form, I was able to express where I was emotionally in a unique way during a vulnerable part of my life.
V: Describe how you benefited from pursuing an MFA at WV Wesleyan.
L: What a question! Indeed, I’m not the writer I was before the program. It’s hard to fathom the absence of what you don’t know before enrolling and how steadily you grow when craft and real-world examples are introduced into your creative life. I brought enthusiasm. The faculty and leadership of the WVWC MFA program offered what I needed, but that I didn’t even know about. It’s that sort of community alchemy that builds you up. Gives you faith in yourself and in others. As for the creative family of peers in the program, our fellow students, they remain my sisters and brothers in the word.