In celebration of National Poetry Month this April, Daze sat down for a 10-question interview with renowned poet, Prof. Robert Morgan.
1. Originally you were a math major; what prompted you to make the shift?
R.M.: Well, I was interested in writing from the time I was a teenager, but also I was interested in lots of other things — music, science. … Almost by accident I got into a creative writing class with Guy Owen … and I think one of the things that affected me was the great reception of my writing. I wrote about the Civil War because I actually know someone — my great grandmother — that remembers the Civil War being in Charleston after the war, with bodies piled up on the porches and dogs licking the blood. … I was just so impressed that I could write something that would move somone who had written novels and fiction … and the next year I transferred to UNC Chapel Hill and began hanging out with kids who had all been kicked out of the finer schools. They knew much more about poetry than I did, so hanging around them I began to write more and more poetry and it was reinforced rapidly with publication and awards.
2. You’re very much a cross-genre writer — you’ve done nonfiction, fiction, essays, poems — how would define yourself as a writer? Would you call yourself a poet, a non-fiction writer, a fiction writer or something else?
R.M.: Well, whatever I’m working on at the moment seems the most important to me but the truth is I primarily think of myself as a poet and I keep coming back to writing poems. … I’m writing a new poetry book that is being published next year by Penguin … I’m a poet who also writes nonfiction and biography and fiction.
3. If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
R.M.: My first ambition was to be a composer but I didn’t really have the talent so I segued into language.
4. What has had the biggest influence on your work?
R.M.: Obviously there are very many influences … but I would guess the single greatest influence on me as a writer was to grow up in a family of great story tellers. I grew up with people who loved to talk, to tell stories, to use language. They didn’t have a lot of formal education but they were very good at telling stories that drew a picture. Other than that I grew up around a lot of fundamentalists and eloquent preachers … and I think that had a great influence. It was very much a part of the culture at that time.
Believe it or not the biographer and poet Carl Sandburg grew up right down the street and he was always in the newspaper so I thought of writing from the time I was very early. The book mobile came to the Green River Baptist church once a week and I’d get Jack London, Thomas Wolf … and just before going to college I discovered Ernest Hemingway.
5. You lived in North Carolina, you lived in Ithaca and you seem to travel a lot; does this intimate knowledge of diverse geographic of the U.S. affect specific aspects of your work?
R.M.: Certainly. I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and I moved to Ithaca — what I call northern Appalachia. I’ve also studied the geography of the U.S. a lot the nonfiction book I’m working on right now is also a history book — it’s about western expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ve been travelling a lot and that’s one of the advantages of being a writer, you get to travel a lot. Right now I’m travelling the Georgia Poetry Circuit.
6. Out of all the awards you’ve received which has brought you the most personal pride?
R.M.: Perhaps the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters because it’s awarded by fellow writers and I think that probably meant the most to me, knowing that my peers selected me.
7. Which prize had the coolest award?
R.M.: Well, I gave a lecture at the Air Force Academy a few years ago and they gave this beautiful wooden statue of the Air Force falcon, which I have in my study. … it’s like my own Maltese Falcon.
8. If you could live in any other period of history, what would it be?
R.M.: I think the most exciting period would have been to live in the early 18 th century during the American Revolution and to have met the Founding Fathers.
9. If you could have any super power, what would it be?
R.M.: I think if I could have one supernatural power it would be to travel through time. I’d go back and talk with Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, or Shakespeare and see the Globe Theatre.
10. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only take three books with you, what books would you take?
R.M.: Well since I read and write in English I would want the King James version of the Bible — Old and New Testaments — the works of Shakespeare and the poems of William Blake. Can I suggest a question?
R.M.: Is Cornell a good place for poetry?
Daze: Ok. Is it?
R.M.: It’s a wonderful place to be a poet and teach poetry for many reasons, like its location. I love the country and it’s a great location and it’s also a great science university and agriculture school and I write a lot about science. … I once said that if I could choose any university to teach at it would be Cornell … you have to admit that Cornell is a unique place. RLD
Original Author: Allie Miller