Speaking Truth to Power:
At Home in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina
an interview with THOMAS RAIN CROWE
Thomas Rain Crowe, a naturalist poet based in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, talks to TAR about his partnership with Voices From the American Landscape, a land conservation group that publishes poetry by writers and artists who are working as activists in at-risk bioregions. Crowe, in collaboration with photographer Simone Lipscomb, also has a poetry collection, Crack Light, out this month which pays tribute to his homeplace in western North Carolina.

The Adirondack Review: Voices From the American Landscape harnesses the power of poetry to highlight some of America’s most treasured land areas. It’s vital not only to encourage conservation, but to inspire pride and celebration in the local residents—which, in turn, supports and grows local efforts to protect it. Why is poetry such a special medium in which to communicate this message?

Thomas Rain Crowe:  I suppose what they’re thinking is—that poetry is the most direct use of language to “speak truth to power” as the Quakers put it, originally. And it’s the most effective way to communicate using symbolic and/or specific language to get a point across. If you want to communicate effectively with a large group of people, you’d go to someone who is using the language in an effective and powerful way, right? And poets, by definition, fit that bill. And if you’re talking about the land, you’d want poets who are active in their community with respect to the environment to speak to or for the community at large.

TAR: Each quarter, editors select a different cultural and natural landscape to highlight. Your project focuses on the Great Smoky Mountains, a region you know very well. How are you bringing fresh enthusiasm and perspective into these poems?

TRC:  First off, we are the first region to bring three poets to the table of this conversation about environment and region. All previous VFAL books have featured only one artist and poet from a specific place. In our case, we are offering three cultural and environmental activists who just happen to be writers/poets. So, this is a fresh take on their usual format and three voices lend more perspective than does just one.

Also, we are writing about an area of the country that is unique in terms of its environmental and cultural diversity. There is no other place in the United States that has the same rainforest type personality as does the Great Smoky Mountains with respect to the diversity of plant and wildlife population. So, a focus on the region’s uniqueness should, I hope, hit people and cause them to get excited about this place and what it has to offer.

TAR: Your fellow poets, Brent Martin and Barbara Duncan, are local, hailing from the Cowee community in Macon County and Qualla Boundary, respectively; how important is it to capture not only the vitality of the “message of the land,” but the message of the local people and their storied cultures?

TRC: Extremely important. Especially here, where the art of story-telling is indigenous to both the Native American and the European cultures who have called this place home. The Cherokee stories have been captured in two award-winning books by Barbara Duncan, as well as in her songs. She is a first-class songwriter and the singing of songs and the telling of stories is something that she brings to the table from years of experience as a Folklorist, as well as a lifetime as a singer/songwriter, and most recently, a poet.

Growing up here in these mountains, I spoke a very different language than what is spoken here today. We call it now: Southern Mountain Speech—a term coined by WNC poet Jim Wayne Miller. It was, indeed, a foreign language to anyone coming into these mountains from anywhere else in America. A lovely language that is full of idioms, metaphors, turns-of-phrase and idiosyncracies that are truly poetic. I loved this language as a boy and I love it even more, because of the general disappearance of it, as a 62 year old man.

Until recently, ‘local’ was everything. Many people who called these mountains home—for generations—never saw a neighboring county, and certainly not a neighboring state our foreign country. All the frames of reference were local. All the stories were local. All the cultural and spiritual icons were local. It is the focus of the VFAL project to bring some of this ‘localness’ back to these mountains and to see the place as a bioregion and in terms of watersheds rather than artificial county and state boundaries.

TAR: You’re also collaborating with a local artist for this chapbook, Robert Johnson, who is from the Celo community. How will his visual contribution enhance the poetic message?

TRC: His semi-surrealist landscapes are poetic in a visual sense and are focused, largely, on western North Carolina. He has spent literally years out in the wild here in the Great Smokies taking in and studying the landscape and then rendering his experiences into a visual medium that says everything, and  more, than what we poets can say with mere words. Robert’s work is now getting national and international recognition, and rightly so. He’s a wonderful spokesman for our region and has single-handedly brought attention and enthusiasm to this place through his paintings and his dedication to the protection of the environment, here, as an activist, as well as an artist.

TAR: The tagline for VFAL is “…to bring the prestige and imaginative power of contemporary poetry, both spoken and in print, to bear in the defense of significant lands and landscapes of North America.” Spoken poetry is not only a powerful way to convey a message, but an important nod to our country’s oral heritage. How will readings from your chapbook strengthen the written message? Do poetic performances more closely evoke the history of the land you’re protecting?

TRC: In the end, all language is oral. All three of us that are representing The Great Smoky Mountains are embedded deep in the oral tradition. Both Brent and Barbara would tell you so. Speaking the poem is part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. The printed page and books are only a recent technology, while storytelling and singing have been with us for centuries. To my mind, the speaking of a poem is ever more powerful and effective than trying to lift it off the page with our eyes. The auditory act of listening seems to be more effective in terms of communicating the power and the emotions of a poem. And, after all, that is what we are after, as poets and in terms of this particular project—where we will be taking our poems and songs into the classrooms of local schools and hoping to get our young kids excited about where they live and the special and diverse environment that surrounds them.

TAR: Tell me a little bit about your plans for community outreach. Poetry in schools, especially, is disappearing. How important is it to expose young people to poetry, and how effective is poetry when you're communicating with young people about protecting their homeland?

TRC: If done right, there are few other better ways to get the attention of young people and to engage them in the work to save our environment from the greed of Free Market Global Capitalism—which is like a cancer on the body of the planet. If the poet can focus on who s/he is speaking to and address that audience appropriately and with regard to their age group, and read their poems, and those of others (with conviction and compassion), then the message can be transmitted. I’ve seen this happen. I was involved in a project during the 1980s and early 90s to Identify and Protect Native American Sacred Sites in the Southern Appalachians. Part of the work we were doing was going into the grade-schools here in the mountains and talking to the kids on their level about how important it is to understand the Native American perspective of the sacredness of the earth and the importance to live in balance and harmony with one’s environment. We did this by playing with the kids, singing with them, dancing with them and telling stories. It was very effective and created a literal firestorm of interest in Native American thinking and cultural and environmental values here in our region.

TAR: How meaningful is the Smoky Mountain region to you, both creatively and in terms of your identity as a local?

TRC: The Smoky Mountains are home to me. That pretty much says it all. Out of all the places I’ve been and lived, I’ve chosen to spend the major portion of my mature life here. There’s no other place like it. It’s as beautiful and as diverse (interesting) as any place I’ve been on Earth. And…it’s one of the best places I’ve experienced that is conducive to living a balanced life. The climate is perfect—with four distinct seasons, mild weather in the winter and summer, rich soil and plenty of water for attempting or maintaining a sense of self-sufficiency (i.e. growing your own food, gathering wood to heat your house, etc.). I don’t think that I could live this well in any other place in this country, and quite possibly the world. I feel very lucky to have grown up here and to have had the experiences I had as a young person that made me appreciate this place enough to want to come back and make it a home, a place to play, and a place to die. 

TAR: This is not the first time you’ve worked in environmental activism. How were you initially inspired to advocate for the land?

TRC: It all began back in the mid-1980s when we founded Katuah Journal—a bioregional magazine for our region. As an editor and writer for Katuah, I learned to hone my chops, so to speak, in terms of writing journalistic narrative and about the environment and all the various issues attached to it. I’ve written for what was first The Green Line in Asheville, which then, later, became the Mountain Xpress; the Wild Mountain Times and occasionally the Asheville Citizen-Times. Closer to home, I began writing for the Smoky Mountain News at its inception, and have written umpteen LTEs in the Sylva Herald over the years.

Then there are several non-journalistic publications, books, anthologies, etc. that I’ve contributed to, as well. Aside from the writing, I’ve been active with a number of organizations in various capacities over the years. I helped to found The Canary Coalition here in Jackson County, I’m a founding member of the 80s and 90s state-wide organization AMUSE (Artists and Musicians United for a Safe Environment), I’ve served on the board for the Southern Biodiversity Project (now Wild South), and am currently on the board for the Environmental Leadership Council that  is centered at Warren Wilson College. Most recently, I am a founding member of our grassroots community organization United Neighbors Of Tuckasegee. So, that, in a nutshell, is a very broad brushstroke of what I’ve done, and continue to do, in terms of working to keep our environment intact here in western North Carolina.
TAR: You’ve just released Crack Light, a collection of poetry which is also about the Smoky Mountains.  Tell me a bit about it.

TRC: The poems in this collection cover a time span of more than twenty-five years. The first poem in the book was written in December of 1978, when I returned to western North Carolina from northern California. The rest of the poems in the book were written at various times since then and up to the present time. In terms of subject matter, however, Crack Light has a distinct place on the "shelf" of my published work. It is the only collection of poems that is definitively and specifically about these mountains where we live here in western North Carolina—the Great Smoky Mountains of the Blue Ridge chain of the Southern Appalachians. In this sense, it is something of a poetic sibling or sequel to my book of nonfiction Zoro’s Field—which is set down in Polk County along the Green River. Crack Light is my first book of what the literary world would call “regional poems.” I’ve always resisted the moniker of being a regional poet/writer, since my greater interests are global, really. But this book is definitely a book dedicated to and grounded in our region. In that sense it is an homage to the land, the people, the cultures and histories of this place—the hills of western North Carolina. And considering that the book is dedicated to two of the patriarchs of the Southern Appalachian literary canon, James Stilll and Jim Wayne Miller, I guess people can now call me a “regional poet” if they want to.       

The beauty of this region is its real calling card. If anything, Crack Light is a celebration of this beauty as well as its uniqueness. Unique in terms of the diversity of landscape, diversity of climate, diversity of plant and animal life, diversity of culture. All of these things—which for me also includes the diversity of language: Native American, Euro-American, Hispanic and the Scots-Irish mountain dialect which I mentioned before and which I grew up speaking.  So, in a nutshell it’s the beauty and the diversity of this area we call western North Carolina that is most attractive and evocative to me. And this new book of mine aspires to be a celebration of both of these elements in all their aspects. And as I say, it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to do that in a single book—to focus on western North Carolina and write about it over of a long period of time. Many of the poems in the book are dedicated to people who live here simply and softly and who love this place as I do and are doing things to try and protect it—to keep it from becoming “something else”. From becoming something other than all it is and has been for a very long time.

TAR: Describe how your environmentalism informs the poems in Crack Light.
TRC: This book, as I said, is mostly a book of celebration and praise. But there are a few poems that are activist in tone or subject matter. There is a sequence of poems in the second section of the book that ‘speak out’ about various issues. The poem “Chores” (which is dedicated to my farmer friend William Shelton) addresses the fact that the ‘old ways’ and the older mountain culture, values, language, life-style is disappearing with the older generation of people and that this is a true loss to our region. I see development as being one of the causes for this hasty retreat of mountain culture, as it is pushing natives in our communities out, due to the increased taxation of their land, among other things. Then there are poems like “Song for the Skyscrapers Dreaming of Corn”, which is a fairly surreal title, but the subject matter of the poem is very straight-forward and a kind of lyrical rant, really, protesting how the literal moving of land (by bulldozers, etc.) is destroying our natural habitat, our farmland, our pristine streams and waterways, and our sense of pride regarding the beauty of these mountains, valleys and streams.

And then in the poem “What the Forests Were Are Now the Air We No Longer Breathe”, which is dedicated to The Canary Coalition Director Avram Friedman, I have written a lyrically imagistic poem that speaks to the subject of air pollution and to the practice of clear-cutting the forests—which I think are interconnected issues. Our bioregion is a very delicate and diverse place. It is also one of the most unique biospheres on the planet in that sense. The wholesale altering and destruction of the landscape affects everything in the region, really, in the sense that everything is interconnected. So, in this poem I am trying to bring attention to this dynamic and to these issues which are part of our current environmental paradigm. I do a similar but different thing in a more recent poem titled "The Morning Woods," which will appear in the Voices chapbook. Here, I'm "speaking truth to truth" while celebrating wilderness in a metaphysical and even alchemical sort of way rather than "speaking truth to power," straight up, as in the "Forests" poem:

The Morning Woods

Into the night
the doors of the mountains swing.
Into the saloons of morning.
Where we see ourselves in branches
and in the voice of wilderness that sings.
Where for a million years
the trees have laughed at the wind
and the rivers made rock into rich black soil.

How quick the leaves change to crimson
from green, or back to green again
in the memory of a winter’s blood.

Like the f in forest, or the t in trees,
the language of the morning woods takes form
from the scent of rain-soaked pine and
wilt becoming the bloom of flowers,
to the lightning crack of a storm.

Where a bouquet opens
from what would once have been weeds and
blue moss throbbing in the deep shade,
the compost of a wren’s nest
sets fire in the peat of loam.
Where what was once short
turns now to something long.
And spring turns to summer
in the sound of song.

TAR: In this collection, you collaborate with a photographer Simone Lipscomb. To your eye, what makes her imagery special?
TRC: Simone, who is a nature photographer from Buncombe County, did all the covers and chose some 20 photographic images from our region for the text of the book—adding a visual dimension to the poems. I’ve known Simone for several years. She was a student of mine in a class I taught at the UNCA Seniors College on “Writing in Place”. She is not originally from here, but has taken to this place like a duck to water and loves it, now, as much as anyone. She has honed her photographic skills since coming to North Carolina and has become quite an accomplished nature photographer. She approaches the natural world and her photographic work about it from a spiritual perspective. I like this approach very much. She is able to capture the essences of things. She has a very keen eye. A very poetic eye, if you will. And her love of the outdoors and the natural world are evidenced in her portraits of wild places. Her work is perfect for this book, since she is honoring this special landscape in much the same way as I am attempting to do in my poems. And we have had great fun in selecting just the right images to compliment the various poems and to give the right visual essence to this book. She’s a great person to work with and is a very positive person, so the process has been a great joy. And believe me this is not always the case when there is more than one “chef” in the kitchen!

TAR: Crack Light is available now from Wind Publications. How can I buy a copy of the VFAL collection when it’s released?

TRC:  Actually, you won’t have to BUY a copy. You can get it free. Their funding situation allows them to print the books and not charge for them. In other words, they can, and do, give their books away. They want as many people as possible to receive these books and don’t want finances or reluctance to spend money on books to get in the way of transmitting the message they’re trying to put across. So, when we go into the schools or to gatherings of environmental groups, or to give talks and readings in local libraries, etc., everyone in attendance will go home with a copy of this book. A brilliant idea on the part of the VFAL organization, don’t you think?

THOMAS RAIN CROWE is an internationally recognized author whose work has been published in several languages. As a poet, translator, editor, publisher and freelance writer, he is the author of thirty books of original works including Rare Birds: Conversations With Music Legends and the multi-award winning book of nonfiction Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods, published in 2005 by the Univ. of Georgia Press. As an editor, he has been an instrumental force behind such magazines as Beatitude, Katuah Journal and the Asheville Poetry Review, as well as editing the modern classic of contemporary Celtic language poets Writing the Wind: A Celtic Resurgence. He has translated the work of such prominent writers as Hafiz, Guillevic and Yvan Goll. He is founder and publisher of New Native Press. His literary archives have been purchased and are collected by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He lives in the Tuckasegee community in rural western North Carolina.