Rob Merritt interviewed Michael Chitwood on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in April of 2002 after Chitwood's participation in The North Carolina Literary Festival.Nantahala: Did you like how you were categorized yesterday in that panel that was called "Working class poets"?Michael Chitwood: I don't mind any of the categorizations that somebody else (other than an idiot) comes up with, but I tend not to think of myself as an adjective before the word ‘poet' or ‘writer'. I have been called an Appalachian poet and that is fine with me. It is undeniable in the things I write about because of The Weave Room.Nantahala: I know some people, for example Michael Parker, who do not like to be categorized as a southern writer.Michael Chitwood: I think it can be a handy way of letting people know about you. Usually who is doing the categorizing is a book reviewer or a journalist of some sort, and that is a handy way of communicating with their readers what the majority of your work is about. The danger is that you think of yourself that way, and your imagination is limited. So I don't really think of myself as someone who speaks for the South or Appalachia, or for the working class. I wrote a book that was about that, and I am glad to have done that. When I was writing the book, I wasn't thinking "this is the voice of the working class."Nantahala: How would you describe the difference between The Weave Room and what you are doing now?Michael Chitwood: The Weave Room is a bit of an anomaly for me because it came in a fever almost. The center part, which is a big chunk of the book, came—at least the first draft— within about a six-month period, which is unusual for me. The next book that will be out next spring will be a more one-poem-at-a-time collection. I saw an arc developing in it which was a book about my grandparents' generation which I saw as vanishing. My grandmother died during that period, and I realized that her generation— a people with locality— would never be again. We have the Internet, TV and radio; that Appalachia has vanished. That's what I wanted this book to be: elegy, documentary, and love song.Nantahala: Do you think it is possible to over-romanticize the past?Michael Chitwood: Absolutely!Nantahala: How do you avoid that? Or do you not?Michael Chitwood: I hope I do. I think it is particularly dangerous if you are talking about Appalachia that has so many stereotypes associated with it that are kind of nostalgic stereotypes. I think you just write about the truth as you know it and the people who are real, and you hope that you aren't over-romanticizing.Nantahala: You want to save the past, but there is a lot in the past that is not all that positive. Do you think it all needs to be saved?Michael Chitwood: You have to talk about the negative as well as the positive. That's another way you don't over-romanticize it.Nantahala: How do you think you did that?Michael Chitwood: Well, the unions. The tensions that kind of came up between people who had been part of the union who were willing to tear that community apart to further what were really their political beliefs. It was a very tension-filled time, and I tried to capture that too.Nantahala: A lot of The Weave Room is a mixture of your experience there, and you try to take on the voices of the workers. Do you find it liberating or creatively enhancing to try to imagine what other people are thinking?Michael Chitwood: I do find it liberating— to have to try to get inside somebody else's skull. To think like they would think. I wanted the book to have a lot of different voices, and I hoped that because I had heard those voices so much that I could get them right and be true to them.Nantahala: A lot of contemporary poetry is personal or confessional. You are interested in getting away from that, taking on people's voices.Michael Chitwood: Yeah. The lyric "I" is probably the strongest component of contemporary poetry, but I think there are a lot of other things that can be said and approached, and I hope that I can find some places that other people have not already written about. Except for Ron Rash's book, which was another book about textile mills— this was really weird: we published the books almost simultaneously and neither one of us knew that the other was doing it. We basically split the subject matter. He took 1930 to 1950. I took 1960 to the present.Nantahala: And that was a coincidence?Michael Chitwood: A complete coincidence. We joked that we founded the "Linthead School of Poetry."Nantahala: Could you say anything about the form of The Weave Room?Michael Chitwood: The Weave Room is mostly free verse, but there are a number of prose poems. Particularly, I did prose poems from a speaker that was not my own voice. It was a signal to the reader that this [speaker] was different. But it also seemed truer to the way somebody would talk there in that place. It seemed more artificial to break it up into lines.Nantahala: Anything that was broken up into lines...Michael Chitwood: Anything in verse is either me or lyric stage setting. When you do a book like The Weave Room, if you are trying to capture a place, it is almost like a novel in verse. You have to fill in holes and gaps. You have to set the stage. It was something I had never done before. It was very challenging. There were times when I knew that I had to write a particular poem— to fit into the overall shape and to explain. There are three poems in the book from the point of view a young woman, unmarried, who was pregnant. I had the first one, and I knew I had to continue her story, to finish it out. Same thing in the case of there is a moment in the book when the personnel manager (the father) asks his son to basically spy and see who were the union organizers. And so I knew that at some point that there had to be a poem near the end that bookended that. That is very hard to do. I had never written a poem to assignment before. When I gave [the book] to the editor of the series at the University of Chicago, basically what I gave him was the middle of the book. He came back and said, "you've really got something here, but it's not finished. You've got to have a beginning that is pre the time and you need an end that is post— the adult poet that you became looking back on the experience." Which is great advice, but very hard to do.Nantahala: You hadn't intended to do that?Michael Chitwood: I hadn't. It was terrifying. I knew he was right. It would make it a much stronger book.Nantahala: Do most poets write a book like that, with a sense of the whole piece? Or do most poets put together what they have written over a certain period of time?Michael Chitwood: I think that most contemporary books are collections of individual poems that have accrued over time. Some books have obsessive themes so that it seems like it is a thematic book, but that is what they write about. Like Sharon Olds's father. Charles Wright says he set out to write a trilogy of trilogies, and I believe him when he says that. But I don't think there are many poets who have that long distance vision. Fred Chappell wrote the four books of poetry Earth, Wind, Fire, Water as their themes. He even did it one better in that in the Kirkman novel series, he retells the stories that are in the poems from the point of view of the boy who would become the poet who wrote those books. It's incredibly complicated, and he must have had that in mind when he started out.Nantahala: Why did you not write essays or a novel for The Weave Room? Like you say, it is narrative and novelistic.Michael Chitwood: That is the question my wife asks: "People buy movie rights to novels. They don't buy movie rights to poetry. Why did you do this in poetry?" I think you are born a distance runner or a sprinter. In a literary sense, I am a sprinter.Nantahala: How would you describe the language in a narrative poem that is different from the language in a novel.Michael Chitwood: Well, it is. There is a whole lot more of moving furniture around that you do in a novel that I was not interested in doing. [The Weave Room] happened in those sort of crystallized moments that are poems, rather than in a longer structure.Nantahala: What would you call poetic language? Every day people? Or is it some kind of jacked-up language?Michael Chitwood: It's both. I don't think you can say it is one or the other. You can read prose writers who have very beautiful, musical language and you can read poets who have a very flat, unadorned style. It is sort of what you make work.Nantahala: How would you describe yours?Michael Chitwood: I hope it is musical. But I hope it is closer to the music that you hear in everyday language. Because of where I grew up, which was rural, people, it seemed to me, were more connected to the landscape, the natural world, that even in their regular conversation, they were more metaphorical, more attuned to images. They were more attentive to what something looked like, what it smelled like. To me that is poetic language.Nantahala: You really nailed that in the poem you read yesterday ["I Hear America Singing"]. You just arranged a collage of voices?Michael Chitwood: A collage of phrases from Americana.Nantahala: What poets do you like or were you influenced by?Michael Chitwood: That changes week to week. I studied with Charles Wright. I love his work and am very influenced by him. The two poets that I read to get going if I am having trouble are Charles Wright and the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney—who is writing in similar territory to me and that gets back to question about nostalgia. The Ireland Heaney is writing about is fairly much gone. But he is still evoking that [place], in both its beauty and its terror. The Troubles are a part of what he writes about, but he does it from a slant, a little bit of a different angle.Nantahala: Sharyn McCrumb makes a big connection between mountain writers whether they're from Scotland, Ireland, or southern Appalachia. Do you think there is any kind of regional link between you and Heaney?Michael Chitwood: I feel like there is. I am not sure I can articulate what that is, other than to say that I think that, particularly for poets, the landscape of your youth is very important— [it] somehow infects you with its sounds, the way things look. I think I would share that with a poet from the Scottish Highlands.
Nantahala: Do think it is possible to teach a student to be a good poet. What kinds of things would you tell a young writer?Michael Chitwood: I'm not sure you can teach someone to be a poet. You can teach them to be a better poet. What you can teach is revision, how to go back into a work and what you can do to make it work better. If someone does not have a metaphorical sensibility, you cannot give it to them. It doesn't work. On the other hand, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Everybody who takes piano lessons is not going to be Beethoven, but that does not mean you cannot enjoy playing the piano. Even in your way, if it is just for you in your home, you can still enjoy it. Also, I will say this: Having taken a creative writing course makes you a better reader.Nantahala: Teaching revision is hard. [Students say] "these are my feelings— you are criticizing my feelings!"Michael Chitwood: That is what we all feel when we first start writing. If you are honest, it is what you feel every time you write a new piece; you think it is wonderful. And you go to bed and when you look at it the next morning, if you have any maturity about you, you say, "Oh God, it wasn't as good as I thought it was." I think student-writers have to learn that.