April was National Poetry Month and, while it may now be in the rear view mirror, there are still those in Knoxville who believe deeply in the power of words to change lives for the better.
In fact, Knoxville’s current Poet Laureate, Rhea Carmon, celebrated last month by working with the city’s public transit system to ensure that “Pop Up Poetry” performances occurred on both buses and at bus stops. Known also as Rhea Sunshine, she peppers conversations with phrases like, “I want everyone in Knoxville to be struck by poetry.”
Despite the efforts of Carmon and a few individuals or groups like the local writers’ guild, no one would mistake Knoxville these days for a literary Mecca. This is actually somewhat odd, if you think about it. We’re not a particularly large city, yet we’ve managed to generate quite a few writers who, for instance, went on to win prestigious awards like the Pulitzer Prize (James Agee and Cormac McCarthy) or see their names immortalized on volumes that appear on bookshelves around the world (Karl Edward Wagner).
Which brings us to Knoxville’s original Poet Laureate, R.B. Morris, who might argue that he isn’t so much a poet as he is a writer of many different things: songs, plays, books and occasionally even things that might be called poems.
Morris is known mainly for his music, as a quick Google search or visit to his Web site makes clear: https://www.rbmorris.com. He’s managed to attain a certain amount of fame as an alternative country performer, and if you’re lucky enough to score tickets to one of his performances you should jump on them with both feet.
But for those of us who knew him back before he was a successful recording artist, the words “poet” and “R.B. Morris” are nearly synonymous. I first met him in late 1989 or early 1990, when he was teaching creative writing at the now-defunct Laurel High School and I was one of his students. Dressed mostly in black and with a prodigious appetite for coffee, he told us stories of the legendary Beats and tried to make a roomful of kids steeped in punk rock understand why Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was more than just the bleating of an old hippie. Most importantly, from my perspective, was that he believed I had some talent as a writer and he encouraged me — fiercely — to pursue my muse wherever it led.
He also showed off copies of a literary journal/alternative newspaper that he’d helped put together in the Fort Sanders neighborhood as the World’s Fair descended on our scruffy little city in the early 1980s. The name of this little slice of local publishing history? The Hard Knox Review….
Over the 30-plus years since I first sat in his classroom, R.B Morris has become a Name (at least in some circles) and I’ve grown up to be a successful journalist (at least in East Tennessee circles). Our paths don’t cross often these days, but I’m usually glad when they do. Not only does it give me an excuse to reminisce, but my former mentor still always has something interesting to say.
When he recently agreed to answer some questions for Hard Knox Wire as part of National Poetry Month, I was genuinely excited. And then the month of April came and the unfathomably tragic became all that those of us in the news business could focus on. Anyhow, I know that I’m a few days late getting this to you, but better late than never.
And so, in his own words, here is R.B. Morris, circa 2021….
I was born May 15, 1952. I’m 68 now, soon to be 69. I was born in Knoxville at Fort Sanders Hospital, born on the battlefield. First lived on Wilder Place and East Knoxville, but when I was about a year old we moved off Washington Pike in North Knoxville. I went to Alice Bell elementary school, then Holston High School, and then attended the University of Tennessee for one year. I later served 4 years as UT’s writer-in-residence.
It’s hard to say “what got you so passionately interested in poetry?” I often note my older brother’s influence when asked that question. He’s four years older than me, which is a significant difference in age when you are young. He had an interest in poetry and literature and turned me on to a number of writers, including Joyce and Yeats, James Agee, Arthur Rimbaud, Ishmael Reed, Charles Bukowski, the Beat poets, and Bob Dylan. I later developed an interest in the work of other poet-songwriters like Leonard Cohen, John Prine, Tom Waits, and many others. As a child I sang in church, and also in elementary school, and singing was a form of expression that seem to come natural to me.
I think, as I child, I had fairly common interests and “heroes” for a young American boy of my era: Tarzan, Huck Finn, Davy Crockett, and sports figures. I played these figures with my brothers and friends in the backyards and fields where we lived and grew up. I became interested in sports, mainly baseball, football, basketball, and played those sports growing up. I played basketball competitively through my senior year in high school, but after that my direct interest and participation in sports ended.
Poetry and songwriting became a passion and I took up the guitar to assist in that. The idea of creating a song, music and words, became the great and worthy accomplishment. Why? It’s hard to say, but when I saw and heard it done I respected it so much and was influenced by it so much that it became a lifelong pursuit. In so many ways I gave myself over to it, at times and even now as a livelihood, but really more as a way of life.
Having said that, I’m not sure I am so “passionately interested in poetry,” at least not in ways that might typically be viewed as a passionate interest. I have not, for instance, written any poetry or songs lately, I don’t think. I haven’t of late been thinking of writing poetry or songs so much. I have been writing, but lately I think of it more as “plays,” I have a new play and another one I’m working on. One might consider it poetry, or at least dialogue, that and music are part of it. I tend to move through some of the standard forms: poetry, songs, drama, prose, journals, essays, depending on what’s in front of me, or which way I turn next.
I do have an unfinished “book” of poetry that I have returned to now for a few years. And I have songs for a new record or two I would like to make. There are works that I hope to get to before I die. Some of these have percolated for a while, growing as they do from my imagination, and some can be created more quickly than others. Some you have to let go, but some you really want to get to if you can.
It’s all a song, it’s all a story. It’s the narrative of your life, and you have to supply the details and meanings that you choose. One can easily and perhaps correctly say that it’s worth nothing, except what it might mean for oneself.
The last record I put out, a little over a year ago just before the pandemic hit, was Going Back to the Sky, a collection of songs and stories that I had been gathering for years and always referred to it as my “dustbowl record.” Not that it had anything to do with the Dustbowl, but it had to do with my early road trips and ramblings out West, my rough and rowdy days just thumbing around or hopping in a car with your best pal or best gal and bustin’ out for the hide and wide just to see what’s out there. Every now and then I’d write a song and say that one goes in the dustbowl. So, I had a hatful of songs that slowly came together over the years, and finally was recorded and made into a document of sorts, like an old western movie or book. That’s how I see it. But, I guess the main point is that sometimes a work has to grow in to itself, or sometimes you have to nurture a work along until it finally takes shape.
This last play I wrote, The Poisoning of Robert Johnson, A Play in Three Acts, is similar in that I had the idea for some years before I finally committed it to paper. I could always see parts of it, but other parts had to poetically come together in my thought process before I settled into writing it. And then the writing process itself introduces new aspects into the work.
When I was much younger, I submitted poetry to poetry journals and other publications, something I haven’t done in many years. I remember Jack Neely once showing me an article in the Utne Reader about small international press publications, and glancing through it we were both surprised that they mentioned my name as an up and coming writer.
For whatever reasons, I have long since quit submitting work to publications. I know it is a smart thing to do if you are trying to pursue some sort of career in poetry, and I wouldn’t want to influence young writers otherwise, but it is not something I have pursued. Perhaps it is all part of a disappearing act I keep trying to pull off. Regarding music I often say, “I’ve been avoiding careers all my life, and the music biz is no different.” I’m sure it has to do with some psychological deficiency or fear, but when things start opening up in one direction I tend to turn in other directions.
Regarding this, another memory comes to me that might add something. I’m sure it’s been at least ten years back, but someone contacted me saying I should submit a poem to a certain publication. I was already long since into my negation of such pursuits, but the suggestion came just as I had finished a certain ‘poem’ and with the contact info of the publication right in front of me, I uncharacteristically submitted it. The publication got right back, thanking me and saying they would like to feature it in their next issue. Yes, wonderful, mission accomplished. However, I wasn’t compensated for it, didn’t receive a copy of the publication, and never saw it, and didn’t hear from them again. I don’t recall the name of the publication or who for sure recommended it. So, there you go, perfect.
Let me say, being named Knoxville’s Poet Laureate was a true honor, and I still feel that honor if I stop to think about it. Coming from where I came from, which was basically the streets, reciting on corners and in bars and “publishing” in little street rags and going off in “poetry readings” thrown together by other street artists, and not having any academic or publishing credentials that so many local poets did have, it was in many ways a big leap to reach that position.
I am glad they created the position and I feel like Knoxville deserves it as much or more than many towns and cities its size and bigger. Still, I had second thoughts about being nominated for the position. I was approached by various people wanting to nominate me but needing my permission, I guess, and I considered it a while before saying okay. During my time at the position, one to two years, I tried to do as much as I could manage and get away with. Some things, like the poetry program with the Knox County School System, worked out beautifully, I thought. Other programs like Wordscapes, which involved putting poetry into the cityscape like word murals, I just didn’t have enough time to jump through all the legal hoops. I am, in fact, still working on a project or two from that program.
I thought Marilyn Kallet did an incredible job as Poet Laureate in the middle of the onslaught of the pandemic. She was writing and posting a poem every day and keeping everybody’s spirits up when the world was coming apart and shutting down all around us.
I was very happy to see Rhea Carmon become the latest Poet Laureate. She and I were creating a duo performance art piece to perform with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in D.C. when all events were cancelled due to the pandemic. She requested that I submit a brief poem for the Poetry in Motion program she is currently working out with the City where short poems promoting unity and love would appear on billboards. I sent her this:
“the tallest wall
in the world
is a word”
— R.B. Morris
Published on May 4, 2021
Sent from my iPad