In this interview, the poet Bill King talks about his new poetry collection, The Letting Go, what he’s learned from fatherhood, and the importance of sacred spaces for writers.
Landscape in The Letting Go charts the rare and mythic beauty of a homeplace—of Appalachia. The holiness of the sparrow in a “home-made box” and the choir trill of the toad “in his mirror” reveal your devotion to the deepest of watching. Could you describe a favorite moment you’ve spent in nature?
I fell in love with the natural world early. The first poem “Years Later, Grown Boy Explains Why He Missed Supper” is about that—the field near the top of the mountain was, for an adolescent, a lover’s bed I could not leave, and so, the poem is a kind of backwards aubade. I’d spent the afternoon in the field, lying beneath the setting sun, and with darkness coming on and the dinner hour fading was forced to leave.
How did you first come to poetry?
I was lucky. I went to a small, private school in Roanoke, Virginia, and starting in 8th grade we had a poet (Victoria—I don’t remember her last name) who offered a creative writing unit. We also had a poet named Julie (I think—and I wish I could remember last names!) who came into the classroom. We wrote a collection of poetry for them, with a table of contents and title page, bound in one of those plastic covers with the plastic sliding clamp. I still have one of them. I wrote about a firetruck laboring up my homeplace mountain, and a postman who “didn’t wear a bikini.” I remember a concerned full-time teacher talking to my mother—who taught at the school—about some of my stranger, “dark,” stuff, but I think Julie came to my rescue. I just loved getting lost in a square of paper. That was such a gift.
You are known as a devoted teacher to countless young writers, both at Davis & Elkins College and at youth programs in West Virginia. Do you have any advice for your childhood self?
Wow. What a great question. First of all, thank you. My advice: find your sacred spaces (whether physical or virtual), visit them as often as possible, and guard them jealously.
Among the relationships explored in The Letting Go, the tenderness shared between father and child lives in the lush groves of a most sacred love. Could you share something you’ve learned from fatherhood?
Hoo, boy. Personal desires can become unhealthy obsessions. Love conquers that.
What poets do you look to when in a pinch?
Charles Wright and Emily Dickinson. Then James Wright, Louise Glück, Robert Morgan, Irene McKinney, Marc Harshman, Maggie Anderson, A.R. Ammons, Robin Robertson, and Seamus Heaney. And others I will remember an hour from now. Danez Smith shakes me to the core and reminds me that poetry can be the be the butterfly wing that stirs a hurricane (how’s that for a cliché?).
Did any spaces or routines become ritual in the writing of these poems?
My backyard. If I remind myself of anything, it’s that manufactured experiences aren’t authentic.
What is your revision process like?
I don’t think I’ve ever completely figured this out. I write until it “lands,” and if it doesn’t, I try to banish it from my mind—break the obsession with it, lock it in a closet. I write a draft, copy it, paste it at the top of the page, and repeat. I meet with a dear friend, poet Doug Van Gundy, every other Friday to share work. Then we get down to the nitty-gritty. What a gift to have someone like that. Plus, he lives on a river, so we can reward ourselves with some time in the canoe or, if at my house, in my backyard with a drink!
Do you engage in other art forms? If so, could you describe something you’ve created?
My mother paints. She started painting when she was 48. I’ve always loved to draw and still have some old notebooks—mostly of landscapes, eyes, flowers, and everyday objects like a hammer. I think my favorite work of art is the treehouse I built for my son and his friend. I realize now that the building process mimicked my writing process: I knocked down a couple of old outbuildings in the neighborhood folks wanted removed, saved the wood and tin roofing that I could, and scavenged doors and windows from renovation jobs until I had a mish-mash pile of material teetering in the carport to choose from. I’m about to shore it up, as the tree has grown considerably.
How did you come to name this collection?
I tried out several titles. The line comes from a poem I originally had titled “Flight” but renamed “The Letting Go,” which comes from a line in the poem that describes the moment on a plane when you are looking out the window and you lose sight of cars and houses and streams. When you suddenly feel unmoored and in the alien sky. I feel that when I’m lying in a hospital bed, pining for my homeplace or children, or when I stood on Larry Gibson’s land in Boone County, WV, looking at the moonscape left behind by Big Coal and mountaintop removal. I love the places and people of my life deeply, and more so because of this feeling of letting go.
Illness, both of the body and of the world, takes on various forms in The Letting Go. The mortal failures of the body and the man-made destruction of the natural world, namely by mountaintop removal, seem in conversation with one another. Was this something that happened organically in the construction of the book?
Well, you nailed that one! It was organic. I didn’t see it during the individual experience of each poem. I saw it when I was standing in my office and started placing poems in stacks on the floor, trying to “order the storm” (I’d been reading Susan Grimm’s book of the same name). Any poems about illness ended up right next to the stack about extractive industry and that’s when I saw it.
Could you share a lesson you’ve learned from your time spent in nature?
Minute particulars is what it’s all about for me. That’s what I’m attracted to. The smallest detail—even if you don’t describe every one—is what gives the ordinary thing we do see its depth.
What is on your desk today?
Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius is on my desk. I’m at the kitchen table now: so, a cat, a box of medicine, bills, a candle, and some zinnias that need replacing!
Was there a surprising or unexpected moment in the writing of these poems?
Anytime a poem surprises me I know I have something, and that doesn’t happen with regularity. So, in a way, the book is a record of surprising moments for me. And, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I read the book straight through for the first time after it arrived in a box on the porch. But I felt those original feelings of surprise again and was relieved.
What is your favorite haunt in Elkins, West Virginia?
I have a few. Most are outside the city, favorite rivers or trails. In Elkins, my backyard. Outside the city, it’s anywhere on the Shaver’s Fork. When I was recovering from surgeries and could just start walking around a bit, a friend would take me to sit by the river and just watch the water roll.
You once built a beautiful treehouse for your children in your backyard. Do you carry a favorite memory of the life that structure took on from, say, when watching them play from a window?
I remember the first time my son and his two best friends at the time were able to climb up into the tree. I just had a platform strung between two posts and the trunk. We climbed up an aluminum ladder to get there and, at one point, they all just sat down and stared up into the leaves and sky with this identical look of wonder. That was pretty cool!
If you believe in heroes, do you have any?
Every hero is imperfect, but I think that’s part of what makes them authentic, so, yes, I do believe in heroes and have many: from MLK to Raymond Carver, who, in the final sober years before dying of lung cancer, turned from fiction to poetry. I haven’t read his book of poems, A New Path to the Waterfall, in years, but he and it pop to mind now. MLK is obvious, but for me, it’s the power of his voice, driven by compassion and a fierce demand for justice. That’s also why Larry Gibson is one of my heroes (whose voice you hear in “How to Destroy a Mountain”).
Too often, rural communities aren’t granted a voice in conversations surrounding the arts. Having spent time with you in Elkins, I know this as a disservice, not only to a vibrant and flourishing people, but also to the outside world. How have Appalachian arts influenced your writing life?
Appalachian poets and artists gave me my voice and focus. I realized that I didn’t have to be anything other than who I was, which had everything to do with where I was. Appalachian artists, maybe in part because of what you describe, are fierce, and have a deep history of fighting to be heard. So many writers and artists I have come to know in person or through their words have given me confidence.
What would the perfect day be like for you?
This one throws me for a loop. I like sitting with my dog and my wife watching a TV show after dinner. Standing in a river. Listening to a student read their poem and then getting full-body goosebumps. Maybe we could pack all those things into one day?
I remember how spectacular the moths are there. Could you describe a favorite?
We have silk moths here, dusky brown wings with a black eye-like spot at the tip of each wing that has a thin iris of powder blue around the spot. This summer, I found one clinging to a cord of my hammock one morning. He stayed there most of the day.
If a single line from The Letting Go were to ripple briefly, say, on stones in the bed of a favorite stream, which one might that be?
There are a few. But if I wanted one, it’d have to be a useful, somewhat universal message, so: “sacrifice is the way; / in the garden, no one stays.”