Moor's Lushly Lucid,
An Interview by Lisa Jones
For six days we purify metal,
sleepwalking through sulfur clouds.
A few pennies forged with every muscled
clang of pig iron and rust. Friday's
whistle, our Pavlovian call to bedlam.
Come Saturday , we hang our checks
on new shoes, silk ties, gold chains.
Scrub iron ore from our fingers,
. . . tug our hats down until our faces
are curved horizons with brown, felt
suns rising askew.
--excerpt from "Nomads" in Tap Root
Sacramento's own Indigo Moor has just been announced as this years winner of the nationally recognized Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize, for his second book of poetry, Through the Stonecutter's Window. We also know Moor as the former vice president of the Sacramento Poetry Center and author of, Tap Root, a collection of poems published in 2006 by Main Street Rag's Editor's Select Poetry Series. Natasha Tretheway and Jane Hirshfield described Tap Root as a consequential work that elegizes the south and explores the pull of both personal and collective history across place and time. His second collection of poetry, Through the Stone Cutter's Window expands to broader subjects, from "dialogues with the visual arts to the natural world and the poet's dreams and nightmares."
Born in 1964, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and imprinted by New Orleans and Cambridge, Moor currently resides in Rancho Cordova, California. He is enrolled in the low-residency Stonecoast MFA program for the University of Southern Maine. He also teaches writing workshops, writes fiction and plays, and is an IC physical design engineer. His work has appeared in Poetry Now and various anthologies and journals including: Xavier Review and LA Review. He has been awarded the 2005 Vesle Fenstermaker Poetry Prize for Emerging Writers and a number of other awards and fellowships (see www.Indigomoor.com).
. . .
Jones: How did you come to writing and reading poetry?
Moor: As a child, I wrote a little poetry, a few short stories, probably no more than most children with active imagination and time on their hands. But I also painted, played a little clarinet (very briefly). Mostly I was seeking a form of expression that would fit me, serve me in a fashion. As an adult, writing became the art form that . . . obeyed me, gave me the best opportunity to say what I wanted how I wanted. Don't get me wrong, it takes a lot of work. There's no such thing as mastering writing. It's more than a labor of love, it's more of an armed truce: if you stop learning, stop reading, stop studying, it destroys you artistically, makes you predictable. I enjoy the learning. The more I learn, the more I grow. It's exciting.
Jones: "Nomads" is one of my favorite poems in the book. Can you tell me more about the making of that poem and its importance to you.
Moor: I lived with a stepfather in Pennsylvania for a while. He and all his friends worked six days a week with one day off. The ritualistic nature of their Saturday nights always fascinated me, how different they were from their daytime personas. Much of the poem is what I recall from what they would say to each other as they sat in the living room listening to music and having a few drinks to "get tight" as they would say. Of course, the words meant little to me as a child, but I stored them away, pieced then together as I got older.
Jones: You've been a part of Cave Canem for a while and were recently honored by them. What is Cave Canem like compared to other writing fellowship experiences? How has it influenced your writing?
Moor: Actually, the influence that Cave Canem has had is probably different from what most would expect. By nature, Cave Canem is not ethnocentric, concentrating on the works of African-Americans. In fact, the fellowship is dedicated to removing the boundaries and restrictions too often placed upon the work of African Americans: you should write about this; your work should have this type of imagery; your work should consist primarily of a strong oral tradition. As importantly, it is the high expectations of the fellowship that impress me. Cave Canem has influenced my writing by providing what many young poets lack: examples of people who look like them writing as they please at a very high level. I would say that my second book, Through the Stonecutter's Window, where I explore everything from Renaissance artwork to lynching, from opera to cunnilingus, is a direct result of the expansive, freeing nature of the fellowship.
Jones: What made Italo Calvino an important influence for you?
Moor: I have a friend by the name of Eva Ng. There is a poem in Stonecutter about her. She was the first to tell me about Invisible Cities, in which an aging Kublai Khan receives the reports from Marco Polo about the various cities in the Khan's decaying empire. Told in a series of 55 short prose pieces, the episodic novel is the beginning of the genre known as magical realism. My background in literature and entertainment is eclectic to say the least and Invisible Cities gave me permission to write in the fashion my brain was already leaning towards, uninhibited, blurring the line between fantasy, fiction, and reality, only mindful of the objective, the truth of the moment.
Jones: I am also very interested in learning some of the answers to the questions you post on your website to describe your workshops (expressing without emoting, representing history/culture--being true to the story vs. the actual events, etc.).
Moor: Wow. Tall order in a short space. Let's see. When it comes to writing many of us start from a very emotional place, often an event or series of events we want to explore. The problem with emotional subjects is the desire to gush over the page, to tell more than show. There is a harnessing process that must occur to create art from pain, substance from ache and need. With history and culture, the difficulty is making art from dry facts or issues that we are too close to. Being close to events often entails more happening in our heads than on the page. These two workshop are often taught in tandem.
Jones: Could you tell me more about the poem "Seasonal Affective Disorder?"
Moor: "Seasonal Affective Disorder" was a very ambitious undertaking for me at the time. Traci Gourdine once said, and I paraphrase "We are poets because we look deeper; we see what other's don't, exposing the depths of even a mundane event." I wanted to illuminate one of these mundane events and write about the underlying procedure, the make-up of the seeing itself, from end to beginning, presenting a timeline from effect to cause, working backwards. I chose a memory from my days in Cambridge, MA. The poem starts with the observance of leaves falling from a tree, and my having the sense that I had just witnessed the moment summer turns to fall. The leaves falling made me shudder and I realized I was experiencing a sense of violence, foreboding, as if the end of summer was also signaling the end of tranquility, peace, and innocence. Obviously, far too strong an emotion to be attributed to this singular moment. It did not take long to dredge up the image the falling leaves had awakened in me. In Seasonal, I work from present to past, North to South, and parataxis to hypotaxis, simple to complex, in three stanzas. In the end we see that a very violent event has spawned the image, the emotional content of the observance. The poem moves forward only along the axis of the disease as it parallels the change in weather. People who suffer from SADs are clouded and depressed in winter and awake, alert in spring and summer. The revelations in the poem move from light to dark. It was a difficult poem to actualize as I wanted. I am happy with the results.
Jones: You have such a gift for sound, structure and scene and Hirshfield's praise for you, "muscular, concentrating phrase" is very apt. I wonder which strengths came first for you in your development as a writer and in your current writing process-- the sound (assonance/rhyme/rhythm) or the story/characters?
Moor: From as far back as I can remember as a writer cadence and muscular language have been my allies. I believe this cadence was informed by an amalgamation of natural, intrinsic components of my upbringing in the south. The combination of landscape, southern Baptist preachers, southern idioms, and a slew of other input have shaped my rhythm, my imagery. Not to the degree they are now of course--a framework that served as foundation for my own voice, as it is. Learning to use this cadence and rhythm in poetry have been instrumental to my growth as a poet. As importantly, learning when not to use them.
Jones: What did you learn from working with Hirshfield?
Moor: I spoke of two things earlier: the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis and also my need to know when not to use the cadence of my past. Naturally, my syntax and rhythm were long, flowing, thick with imagery, complex. What I learned from Jane was the interspersing of short, powerful statements. It reinvented my work, making possible different forms of expression and opening my eyes to the idea of trying different styles.
Jones: What poet do you admire that you think has not been adequately recognized?
Moor: The addendum to that question is "for the level or stage the poet writes on." Yusef Komunyakaa, for all his accomplishments including the Pulitzer, is still not the household name he should be. Kwame Dawes is the quintessential writer, having excelled at every form of literary expression and many visual and musical ones. Regie Gibson, a self-made poet who, like Patricia Smith, has mastered both stage and page equally.
Lisa Anne Jones is a staff interviewer for Poetry Now, a participant of the Napa Valley Writers Conference 2009, and, as a member of the Squaw Valley Writer's Community, the recent co-editor of The Squaw Valley Review 2008, with poems by Dean Young and local Sacramento poets, such as Theresa McCourt and Joseph Atkins--just released and available at http://www.squawvalleywriters.org/poetry_anthology.html. Find her poetry and publications at http://www.alchemyofbirds.blogspot.com/