Former Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland is the author of The Word We Used for It, winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Poetry Prize. Other books include The Postal Confessions, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and Hunger Wide as Heaven, which won the Cleveland State Poetry Center Open Competition, and a chapbook, Apparition, from the University of Wisconsin Press. This summer, he’ll provide the keynote address at The Priory Writers’ Retreat.
I recently chatted with Max to learn more about his experiences as a rural letter carrier, humility, caffeine, and Dylan Thomas. Read on!
B.J. Hollars: This summer you'll be giving the keynote address for our inaugural summer at The Priory Writers' Retreat. First, no pressure (though this address will surely go down in literary lore as the moment dozens of writers reaffirmed themselves to their craft). the talk is titled "What I Learned On My First Day Of Writing" or "Don't Quit Your Job." Without giving too much away, what inspired this talk?
Max Garland: After working almost 10 years as a rural letter carrier on the route where I was born, where I lived, my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles lived, my first true love lived (we were 6-year-olds at the time), I quit that job, placed the last letter in the last mailbox on Rural Route 7, Paducah, Ky. 42001, and drove my mail car 442 miles to the Iowa Writers' Workshop for my first official day of Poetry School. My talk is a cautionary tale inspired by the mixed results of this journey.
BH: Over the years, you've had the privilege of working with thousands of writers in a variety of settings. What conditions do you find to be the most conducive to creativity?
The conditions I find most conducive to creativity are attentiveness, humility, and the stubborn conviction that you are the one best equipped to tell your own story, and also, of course, there's caffeine. I realize these aren't really "conditions," but more like qualities or attitudes, and in one case, a psychoactive drug composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, which, coincidently, are the four most abundant elements in the human body.
BH: Finally, was there a poem or poet or piece of writing that inspired you to take the poetic plunge? If so, what, specifically, inspired you? A line? A phrase? An idea?
MG: Writing that inspired me early on? I'd have to say the Elizabethan cadences (I didn't know it was poetry at the time), of the King James Bible rolling off my grandmother's tongue in her western Kentucky accent. Then in college we were assigned a poem by Dylan Thomas that went-- "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green/...Time let me hail and climb/ Golden in the heydays of his eyes/ And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns/ And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves/ Trail with daisies and barley/Down the rivers of the windfall light.." By the end of that poem, when I read, "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means/ Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea," I thought my head might fall off. The words were simple, but the order cast them like a spell. I was a goner.
Hear Max’s keynote address this summer at The Priory Writers’ Retreat! Click below to apply!