When it comes to writing her award-winning poetry, Yancey County resident Anne Maren-Hogan points to postcards as her initiation into the form.
“I count my ardent postcard correspondence, by candlelight in the early mornings of raising children, as the seed of my writing poetry,” she says.
In 2002, Maren-Hogan, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, relocated with her family to Celo Community, a communal settlement near the South Toe River dedicated to simplicity, sustainability and consensus decision-making. Since that time, the poet has published three collections. Her latest, Vernacular, won the 2021 Lena Shull Book Award from the N.C. Poetry Society.
Xpress recently caught up with the poet, who, along with discussing the places and people who inspire her work, shared her poem, “Alone on the Mountain,” from her latest book.
Alone on the Mountain
She lets down her hair,
inviting me deep into her loveliness,
to knead her knotted muscles,
there at the last outpost
of Keeney’s Mountain.
Keeper of the fire, her cookstove
factory turns out quart jars
of green beans, as fast as she feeds
the stovewood. Ash, her preferred
fuel, hickory too hot. Slow and steady
her rhythm, fatback her secret ingredient.
Keeping company with her radio,
a voice that tells her how much coal
to haul up those stairs before the storm.
Her housemate, a stray Siamese, cries
just like a baby. In her rocker on the vine
covered porch, her mind creates scenes,
says small children play by the woodshed,
just out of reach.
Hunters come in the fall, chat a little, bent on
the quarry ahead. She the first to see the bear
or bobcat as they slide back down the mountain
towards town. Her worry, she confesses, “lectric
storms, they’ll run in on you.” Snow doesn’t scare
her a bit, a white blanket to lay her loneliness on.
An old feather tick wards off the cold.
Her spirit leaps to join the season, day by day,
warming her toes by the coal stove no matter
what the day offers. Sweet potato slips, set
in sand, incubate in an old wash tub snug
by the fire. Seeds packed in tins, presents
to herself. Her kitchen special, blackberry
cobbler, from patch to bubbly black edges,
fresh from the cookstove.
Her apron limp, beside the chair, after baking
she asks, “Can you rub my back?” Kneading
her coal-carrying muscles beneath the thin cotton
dress, I stroke the ridges and folds of a mountain.
Xpress: Thanks for sharing your poem with us. Can you tell us how you came to write it?
Maren-Hogan: Orene Boyd, the elderly woman I portray in my poem, befriended me when I first arrived in these Appalachian Mountains to begin life in a log cabin. A path was soon well-worn between our homes.
In the years afterwards, she became for me a symbol of quiet strength, which I was bent on cultivating. As she aged and died, I slowly grasped the fact that a generation of mountain traditions were dying with her. It has became harder and harder to find the old mountain folks who have the knowledge in their fingertips and minds — and the generosity to share the secrets of living a rugged rural life, fine-tuned with the seasons. …
I think of my poem as a memorial to her and how she became a link for me to the unique traditions of the mountain culture.
That’s fantastic. Many of the other poems in Vernacular seem inspired by individuals in your life as well. Have personal relationships always driven your work?
I love how writing a poem allows me to pause and hold an experience in the palm of my hand, with time to explore the relationships and circumstances of a situation at length. I begin with a pencil and a timed free-write that helps me move from the conscious details to unconscious overtones. The poem slowly develops from this stage to the computer.
I focus on abiding images and people, those that keep coming back, teasing me to look at them. I’m grateful for deadlines that force me to carry a poem around for some days until it coalesces. So many of my poems highlight folks who have touched me profoundly. I search for a spiritual nuance that I long to convey to others.
Along with people, there is a strong sense of place in this poem and many others in your collection. How have the places you’ve lived, particularly WNC, influenced your poetry over the years?
As modern agribusiness began to dominate the landscape of my Midwest home, I longed for the slower, more earth-centered ways of my childhood. Traveling to the mountains, I encountered an unhurried attitude toward life. The nature of life here necessitated moving slower, whether it was driving winding mountain roads or walking wooded trails. This leisurely pace becomes my muse, offering spacious time in fields and woods, listening as the vireo sings and pines murmur. My writing hinges on my reflections congealing in this atmosphere.
The open sky dome of my Midwest childhood has remained an inspirational necessity as I’ve made my home here where open meadows lead to views of the Black Mountains. Living in close kinship with this beautiful, feral place in the South Toe River Valley and all its inhabitants — human, plant and animal — is critical to my writing process. Sharing life in a land-based intentional community helps me keep in mind I do not create in isolation but bring my gift of writing and collaborate with all my neighbors.
Could you tell us more about the Celo Community and how you came to it?
I first heard of the Celo Community through friends in West Virginia, where we had built a homestead. Twenty years ago we moved to the Celo Community in WNC for our son to attend the Arthur Morgan School — an experiential middle school embedded in this community. Quickly we realized the neighborly support and the Friends Meeting — a Quaker worship group — were nurturing us in remarkable ways we needed as a family. The Meeting House serves as a community church for all, whether they are attenders or not. Among the community’s membership there are many artists, including glassblowing, writers, sculptors, painters, musicians and potters. This atmosphere of creativity proved fertile for my writing to flourish.
Celo Community is a land trust founded in 1937 by Arthur Morgan with its own rules of taxation and land tenure run by the ideal of consensus. The members have personal holdings, but the land itself, including the land under those homes, is owned by the community. Workdays, once a month, help us stay acquainted and feel the joy of working together on projects such as clearing beneath power lines and keeping up the miles of trails in the community. Presently, about 40 families care for the 1,200 acres.
Shifting back to poetry, is there a recent collection by a fellow local poet that speaks to you?
A friend, neighbor and teacher of mine, Pat Riviere-Seel, is well known in both Asheville and Celo. She has a captivating new collection from Main Street Rag [Publishing Co.], When There Were Horses. Pat is one of those gifted authors who not only is a writer who teaches but a teacher who writes. She begins her collection with an urgency that gives us the courage that comes with youth and, if we take her advice, continues, as she “clutched a fistful of mane, urging faster and faster.” Like the gorgeous misty cover of Pat’s book, she leads us into the unknown with these words “abandon the dock, row your way into the nightmare, further out is the only way back.”
Lastly, I’m asking all the poets I speak with for this series to list the four poets on their individual Mount Rushmore.
Natasha Trethewey, Ada Limón, Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver.