Section: Arts

Kentucky comes to Cheever with southern comfort poetry

Kentucky comes to Cheever with southern comfort poetry

By Bailey Blaker

For a brief moment, in Finn House’s Cheever Room, Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Transylvania University Maurice Manning took his audience out of the deep freeze of the Ohio winter and transported them to warm summers in the Kentucky countryside. After an introduction from Professor of Creative Writing Lewis Hyde, Manning began his reading by diving into the stack of loose pages of poetry he held in his hands. This large stack of papers did not contain poems from Manning’s published collections, but rather newer poems, some written as recently as a few weeks ago. Starting with “Like Flicks of Flame,” a poem about the inherent beauty found in a pair of moth’s wings, Manning created an instant connection with the audience. The atmosphere in Cheever throughout the reading embodied the warmth and lightness found in Manning’s poetry. Manning’s melodic southern drawl, combined with the nature imagery found throughout his poems, worked to create an organic and ultimately charming experience for his audience.  “I want to feel that a poem can be as natural as breathing, and walking through the world,” Manning said in an interview with the Collegian.

The presence of the natural world is prominent in Manning’s work. Poems such as “Like Flicks of Flame” and “To Birds” are filled with the images of leaves floating on streams, birds resting on battered clotheslines and the decaying wings of a moth. All of these images are familiar to anyone who has spent any time in a rural setting, but Manning plays with this by placing a deeper meaning on the familiar and questioning our notions of what is beautiful. “I’ve been thinking about the big ideas we elevate in our culture, like beauty and art,” Manning said. “How do we make those designations? I like the mental gameplay that comes with challenging those conventions.”

Kenyon Review Associate Meera White ’18 found a sense of home in Manning’s poetry. “It was nice to hear something that was so regionally distinct,” she said. “I’m from the south, so it was nice to hear something that sounds like the people that I’ve been around.”

Manning’s use of the everyday as subjects for his poems, for White, was something distinctly rural. “The idea [is] taking what’s in your yard, or whatever you have, and making the most of it,” White said. “Being an outdoors person and paying attention to the little things… people in cities don’t do that.” White enjoyed the humorous tone of Manning’s work. “He just came off as witty and fun, but it wasn’t so comical that there wasn’t any meaning behind it,” she said. “I laughed during it, and I think that’s a very good indicator of whether it’s a good reading: … if there’s a joy in it, not just a seriousness, but a joy.” White also admired Manning’s ability to balance humor with a deeper meaning. “I think it really takes someone who has finesse to be able to write something that has serious undertones, but does it in a way that you can laugh and smile through it,” he said.

After a brief question and answer session, Manning turned his focus on the creative writing students in the audience. He asked three students to tell him about the most recent poem they had written. Emily Bernstein ’18 was one of the students Manning questioned after his reading. Manning’s personable style of writing appealed to Bernstein as both a reader and a writer. “I’m always reaching for a way of writing that is … personal without being ‘teenage-girl angsty,’” she said. “[Manning] reaches this concept of personal stories wrapped around humor wrapped around these metaphors wrapped round the landscapes he grew up with.”

Manning is currently involved in a collaborative exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) in Chicago entitled Convergence: the Poetic Dialogue Project. The project, curated by Beth Shadur, consists of 20 pairs of visual artists and poets. Manning’s partner Sergio Gomez is a painter based in Chicago. “He has these wonderful dreamy paintings,” Manning said. “I love looking at paintings, especially paintings that clearly came from the mind of the painter. … I feel a kinship with that process. There is some aspect of a poem where it can just spring out of your head.” The exhibition runs at the UIMA in Chicago from Feb. 6 to March 22, 2015.

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