Appalachian poets Barbara Duncan, Brent Martin and Thomas Rain Crowe hosted a thought-provoking evening featuring their recently published book of poems, “Every Breath Sings Mountains,” at the Rickman Store in Cowee last Friday.
The joint project rejoices in the landscape and heritage of the Great Smoky Mountains, intended to inspire readers to cherish and protect these ancient lands from unwarranted development. “Every Breath Sings Mountains” is the the seventh chapbook from the more extensive Voices from the American Land, a project founded in 2008 by a group of writers, graphic designers and editors who had worked together for several years on on a series of local poetry readings which featured environmental concerns in different sites of the nation. The mission of Voices from the American Land is to bring the prestige and imaginative power of contemporary poetry, both spoken and in print, to raise awareness and aid in the defense of significant lands and landscapes of North America. “Every Breath Sings Mountains” is the third book of the second volume in the series.
In true folk heritage fashion, the three poets entertained and informed the small crowd with a ‘poets in the round’ evening, sharing their poems by taking turns reading aloud their favorites from the book, as well as two or three that were not published. Thomas Rain Crowe opened the gathering with a native American song played on a traditional carved wooden flute [see video online], which introduced the contemplative and solemn mood perfect for reading, and listening to, poetry.
Each poet shared with listeners their inspiration and often some thoughts about the structure and process of writing the individual poem, and then opened the floor to further discussion and conversation from those attending the event. Many of the audience members grew up in the Cowee community, and felt strongly about conservation and preserving the beauty and majesty of the area. Those who came to find Cowee or the Great Smoky Mountains later in life were even more awe-struck, and understood how important it is to preserve the natural resources of these mountains since they have seen overdevelopment ruin the natural landscapes where they live.
Crowe told of the process of writing the book, explaining that the publishers had insisted on the poets writing about specific locations in the mountains, so he chose Mingus Mill, near Cherokee, NC, which was built in 1886. The poem is a somewhat lighthearted, good-humored slice of the history of the mill, and takes the reader back in time to imagine the sounds and textures of the working mill.
Brent Martin told of the experience that he enjoyed when he was recruited to assist with the research of a bat scientist who was studying the effects of the white-nose fungus on the local brown bat population “right up the road on the Little Tennessee River.” The bats, as it turned out, were fine and didn’t suffer from the disease. It was interesting enough to inspire his poem, “Assisting the Bat Scientist,” which warns of the threat of neglecting the natural balance of the ecosystem: “Trying to sleep in the strange swelter of September, we listen to insects clatter about the porch screens, their steady octave permeating the nightfall. When the bats are gone the sound will grow, and we too will navigate a newly diminished midnight.”
Barbara Duncan, Director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC, presented her unpublished original about the blue-tailed skink to everyone’s delight. Duncan explained some of the history of the Cherokee in the area and the delineation of dialects and the effect of language on the names and pronunciation of the mountains and valleys of the area. Then she read one of the poems from the book, a wonderful piece entitled “Prayer for Patience.” Duncan also thrilled the room by playing guitar and singing an uplifting Cherokee song in the native language, followed by repeating the same song translated into English.
The evening was supported by the NC Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit, and The Friends of the Rickman Store. According to the Friends, there will be more opportunities to enjoy the work and wisdom of these three Appalachian poets in the near future. But in the meantime, pick up a copy of “Every Breath Sings Mountains” and open your heart to the natural beauty and majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The historic Rickman Store is located in Cowee-West’s Mill Historic District, seven miles north of Franklin on Hwy. 28. For more information on upcoming events, call (828)369-5595.