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James Applewhite is a highly acclaimed poet and a much-beloved teacher. Born in 1935 in Stantonsburg, a thousand-person town in eastern North Carolina, Applewhite has crafted poetry resonant with the life and landscape of his tobacco-country past. At the same time, his work has been marked by his distance from these origins; educated at Duke University (A.B., M.A., Ph.D.), where he has taught since 1972, Applewhite examines the meaning of that past in light of scientific discoveries, his vast knowledge of English and American literature, and his own experience as a father and grandfather.
Applewhite has received numerous awards for his poetry; among the most prestigious are the Associated Writing Programs Contemporary Poetry Prize, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award in Poetry, the Roanoke-Chowan Poetry Award, the Governor's North Carolina Award in Literature, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has published one critical study, Seas and Inland Journeys: Landscape and Consciousness from Wordsworth to Roethke (1985), and nine books of poetry, including River Writing: An Eno Journal (1988), Lessons in Soaring (1989), A History of the River (1993), and Daytime and Starlight (1997). His most recent volume is Quarter for Three Voices (2002), which Harold Bloom described as "the sublime of his lyric achievement." His tenth book of poetry, A Diary of Altered Light, is forthcoming from LSU Press.
This interview took place on January 10, 2003, at Applewhite's home near the Eno River State Park in northern Durham County. Applewhite discusses the significance of family, place, and history in his work, the legacy of ruin and race for the South and for the nation, and the stanza forms and unifying themes of his recent poems in Quartet for Three Voices and A Diary of Altered Light.
CQ: You have often been described as a "poet of place." What does this description mean to you, and how has your understanding of place developed through your writing?
JA: Well, in the beginning I was marked quite indelibly by physical and emotional and cultural circumstances in the small Eastern Carolina town where I grew up. It was very much a time in transition. My grandfather had moved into town from a farm from which his father had departed to the Civil War and come back wounded, and he and my grandfather plowed with a mule. And even when my grandfather moved into town in 1910, he valued physical things in a way that denoted a previous scarcity. I still remember him turning on and off the 60-watt bulb suspended from the ceiling by these intertwined strands as if the straw-colored kerosene he had used previously was flowing through [laughs]. Most of us don't regard electricity as any kind of a valuable thing. But he did.
And then my father was involved with engines, with a service station and garage, and he was trained as an aeronautical mechanic or engineer for a little while after leaving Duke in 1929. And I grew up just during World War II when change was enormous. I guess the intersection of technology and pastoralism stamped this thousand-person town with a certain resonance, whereby I was pulled toward the past and the future simultaneously. Allen Tate says, "Tension is crucial to poetry."
CQ: You mentioned the memory of your grandfather turning on and off the light bulb. What do you consider to be your earliest childhood memory?
JA: I can't locate my very earliest. It might be the absolute mahogany brown sensation of being underwater in Contentnea Creek just outside of town when my father had turned me over in his 14-foot fire-red Evenrude-powered outboard, when he was racing with the husband of his sister. Or it might be, it might be tasting cracklings, which are the residue of blocks of pig fat thrown into an iron pot and boiled down until there isn't any grease left, then extracted to be baked into cornbread or given to a young kid [laughs]. Or it might be, a very vivid thing, perhaps it might be a World War II P-47 having crashed in a pine grove and me having seen it in the company of my father. Or maybe being up on top of his service station in the civilian spotter's tower and looking at those silhouettes, those types of planes that got imprinted on my memory.
I guess that as I've become more conscious of place, the idea has expanded, currently through my interest in science, which actually has been with me all along, but now with the contemporary realization of things that either we didn't know or I wasn't conscious of earlier--for example, that we are essentially made of star ash, our elements created by the burning down of novas and supernovas and disseminated through the universe; or that the continents once cohered as Pangaea, the supercontinent, or that the demise of the dinosaurs was assisted by an asteroid. Increasingly, I've come to see Earth as the cliche "Spaceship Earth," and to feel at times the illusionary nature of our sensory experience: of, you know, a flat earth arced over by sun and moon. To know that this is a benign illusion, a kind of divinely afforded language of sensory impressions, from which we have extrapolated the articulate language of signs and symbols, whether speech or mathematics or music. So what I'm into now is completing for mys elf the idea of place with poems and essays or just thoughts, wherein place is contextualized as a kind of uniqueness, a special intersection of coordinates of body and soul, stasis and movement, and time and eternity, whereby for a little while we get to meet and talk...and continue our species [laughs].
CQ: It is fascinating to me that in your answer you move from the physicality of your memories, some of which have appeared very vividly in your poems, to the arc of light. I've noticed that in many of your books, and I'm thinking particularly of your last four, you've begun each with a poem that is taking up something from your father or grandfather, that you are coming to terms with some aspect of your relationship with the male inheritance in your family...
JA: Right, right.
CQ: And you end each of these books with a poem that directly or sometimes …