Reaching Back to the Past: A Conversation with John Lane

If you like your literature ferociously earnest, your earth fiercely protected, and your authors unscripted, spirited, rascally and down-to-earth, then John Lane is about as likeable as they come. He is one of those exceedingly rare grown-ups who somehow managed to smuggle into adulthood all the imagination and inquisitiveness of childhood. Along with his wife, Betsy Teter, John is co-founder of the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina – one of the integral forces behind the civic revival that has swept through the former textile mill community.

Author of a dozen books, John is Professor of English and environmental studies at Wofford College and director of the college’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center. Among his way-too-many-to-list achievements is a recent induction into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. A few weeks ago, editor Timothy Laurence reached out to John via email to talk a little about his experimental essay, “The Father Box,” published in this issue of Sliver of Stone.

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Timothy Laurence: The Father Box is a project that draws beautifully from a range of complicated memories and musings – heartache, loss, angst, fondness, confusion. It’s a hard decision to let this kind of stuff hit the page. Would you talk about how this piece came together and what it was like writing (and recalling) these stories?

Jonh Lane: One of my early poetic mentors was Gregory Orr and his explorations of personal trauma through the lyric are heroic (he shot his brother in a hunting accident) and so what was I to do but continue to return to the complexities of my own father’s loss to suicide when I was five in 1959? My first published poem, when I was a junior in college back in 1976, was about my father’s death, and over 20 years later I probed those same wounds again when I published the collection called The Dead Father Poems. In that collection my father’s ghost keeps returning to me, around the year that I reach the age he was when he died—44.

Timothy Laurence: You mentioned that this project started out as a group of poems in the late 90s. What persuaded you to shape these reflections into an essay, or nonfiction, rather than verse?

Jonh Lane: In environmental studies (where I teach, not in an English department) there was a huge movement a few years ago to look closely at “materiality” in a literary way—our material culture—and environmental history scholars started writing entire collections around things like the 12 ingredients in Coca-cola including the bottle itself—where do the these ingredients come from? What is exploited to make them or acquire them? So I wasn’t that interested in the theory of materiality but it did start me thinking about what material objects I have of my father and what I might learn by looking at them carefully in the light of my art. What sort of memory or imagination or both might be activated? So I decided to widen my literary probe to anything material I still possessed related to my father, who died when I was five, in 1959. And I put everything in a material thing—a real box, one of those cardboard Banker’s Boxes. What was in the Father Box? Letters, wills, photos, maps, deeds, a paper cap, legal papers. photos, war souvenirs, inherited furniture (though that doesn’t fit in the box!) Once I had gathered the material stuff together I just started reaching in and pulling stuff out, or looking at a rocking chair, and it just so happened I started this in January 2015, my father’s centenary birth month. The Dead Father Poems came out of my literary imagination and memory. But I have always wanted to write something based actually on the material legacy left from my father. I also wanted to stretch it out, to see what the reflections on the material would feel like when given more space, so this loose lyric prose ended up being great for that.

Timothy Laurence: For this project you collaborated with photographer Rob McDonald, whose seriously evocative work was also featured in Hub City Press’s Carolina Writers at Home. How did that collaboration come about?

Jonh Lane: Rob is a genius of photographing things. His photos of rural bird houses in a collection published by horse & buggy press in 2007, is one of the most evocative collections of photos I have ever seen. And he also has photographed Thomas Jefferson’s summer home POPLAR FOREST. I knew these pieces needed to have photographic reinterpretation of “the things them-self” and so I knew from my admiration of his work that Rob was the one to do it. He is a busy man, but he has thrown himself into it! He has captured a whole different side of these objects. I hope they remind folks a little of the way photos work in the prose of WG Sebald, something like Rings of Saturn.

Timothy Laurence: What’s going on now? What’s the next big project for you?

Jonh Lane: Two prose projects under contract–

An 80-page essay-bio of Phil Wilkinson, a legendary alligator researcher in the Santee Delta of the South Carolina coast, to accompany 150 photos of Phil’s in a coffee table book to be published by Evening Post Books in fall ’18. An almanac based on a year following red-shouldered hawks in our neighborhood, out in Spring ’19 from the University of Georgia Press.

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John Lane is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, including six from the University of Georgia Press. His latest book of poems, Anthropocene Blues, was released in 2017. His recognitions include the Phillip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment and the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. In 2012, his book Abandoned Quarry was named the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Poetry Book of the Year. His first novel Fate Moreland’s Widow was published by Story River books in early 2015.

Timothy Laurence is a Research Assistant at the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College. He is the author of the forthcoming essay collection, How to Make White People Happy, and has written essays and stories for numerous publications including The New Welsh ReviewCatapultFourth RiverNinth Letter and Grist. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Aberystwyth University Wales.

Rob McDonald is a photographer who has been living a double life as an English professor and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Virginia Military Institute for a number of years. He was a nominee for the Vienna PhotoBook Prize and won a fellowship in the visual arts from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. His work, which is held in many private and museum collections, has appeared in several monographs, including Cy’s Rollei (with Sally Mann, Nazraeli Press), and Carolina Writers at Home (Hub City Press).

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