By Seth Grindstaff
A number of years ago when I opened my new copy of Jeff Daniel Marion’s collection of poetry, Ebbing & Flowing Springs, I was both delighted and surprised to find the Ted Kooser poem, In East Tennessee, included as the book’s introduction. The poem did more than connect two of my favorite poets, it honored my home among the “laurelly tangles” and “rhododendrons.”
Ted Kooser (U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006, and recipient of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry) is a Nebraskan who continues to publish poetry, nonfiction, and children’s books. Jeff Daniel Marion was a lifelong resident of Tennessee where he taught at Carson-Newman University, published poetry, short fiction, essays, and a children’s book. Marion passed away in 2021. Both Kooser and Marion’s work highlights the voices from their region. Their friendship connected from halfway across the continental United States, a distance that their letter correspondences (now kept at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Library) traveled for decades.
This interview with Kooser was completed in January through a series of email exchanges. In it, he writes about his friendship with the late Jeff Daniel Marion. The conversation grants readers a powerful example of friendship that is not easily forgotten. Included with the interview is Kooser’s poem Danny, which commemorates his friend’s life.
Where did you and Jeff Daniel Marion first meet and what sparked your friendship?
It was sometime in the '80s, I think. Joan Short taught high school English in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and invited Danny and me to read poems to her classes. She had thought that Danny and I would like each other, which we did.
What were some of Mr. Marion’s qualities that you wish everyone could find in a friend?
He was the kind of person it was a delight to laugh with, or to fall into long silences with when that felt comfortable.
Did you ever travel to visit him near the Holston River or vice versa? If so, what were some of your takeaways about the Appalachian landscape he wrote so much about?
I visited Danny both at his place on the Holston and in Knoxville when he was married to Linda Parsons. He and Linda drove up here once, and went on to tour our sandhills and western Nebraska. I loved that house on the Holston and had many wonderful times there, just Danny and me sitting and talking and looking down at the black-capped herons fishing in the rocks when the dam was closed. I miss those dear times, side by side with my pal.
During your many conversations and correspondences with Mr. Marion, did you find yourselves returning to certain discussions or topics over time? Would these discussions ever carry over into your own art?
Both of us liked certain poets, like Robert Morgan and Jared Carter, and we shared the poems of others. Danny introduced me to the poems of Claudia Emerson, for instance, and I went on to award Claudia a Witter Bynner Fellowship at The Library of Congress, and I was on the Pulitzer jury that awarded her a Pulitzer for Late Wife.
Did you and Mr. Marion ever introduce one another to the work of other writers associated with your regions or homeplaces? I wonder if you ever discussed the writing of Robert Morgan or James Still from Appalachia or Wright Morris from Nebraska?
Danny did introduce me to the work of James Still, Harriet Arnow and Mildred Haun. I don’t remember ever mentioning Wright Morris to him, but Danny’s photography is much like the photography of Morris in books like The Home Place. I’m sure he’d read Morris.
Although geographically apart and both labeled as “regional” poets in academic textbooks, to what extent did the two of you write for the same audience?
I think we both saw as our audiences a more general reader as opposed to an academic one.
During the 1970s, Mr. Marion founded a publication titled The Small Farm, in which you were published. What insight do you have about his relationship with his small press or local poetry community? What do you see is the future of place-based or localized poetry in the coming years?
Danny’s journal was a very good one, and handsomely printed in letterpress on his own equipment. He had a complete printing shop. His father had been a printer, as you probably know. He took me up to visit Pressman’s Home on one of my visits. As to regional publishing, I think there will always be a future for that, just as I think local weekly newspapers will survive as the big papers shrink and go under.
Many readers are familiar with your postcard exchanges with Jim Harrison and your Valentines postcards. Mr. Marion was known for his eye-catching calligraphy. Can you speak to how the act of correspondence can become an art in itself?
Danny wrote letters with pens from his considerable collection of fountain pens, in brown and blue ink, never in black, as I recall. Beautiful letters both in appearance and in substance. After his death, his son Stephen gave me a pen from the collection. He was very attentive to the appearance of words on the page and had built a fine collection of signed poetry broadsides from talented letterpress printers. I believe that those are still in the collection at The Appalachian Center at Carson Newman.
When you think of Mr. Marion, is there a certain poem or set of poems that you remember him by?
No specific poem. I enjoyed them all. He was a natural storyteller, and the poems with a strong narrative component are, I think, some of his strongest.
Much of your and Mr. Marion’s work emphasizes “place,” but what stands out to me is the people of those places you each have written of, whether from Nebraska (your Local Wonders comes to mind) or Tennessee (like in his Out in the Country, Back Home.) During your visits, did you ever discuss the importance of honoring the people of these places?
I don’t recall any conversations specific to that, but we both understood what each other was doing, or trying to do. It’s possible, I suppose, that each of us, through our poems, encouraged each other’s homage to place.
To conclude, do you have a certain story or memory about Mr. Marion that you would like to share?
One of my dearest belongings is an oak leaf that Danny picked up on Faulkner’s grave on my birthday and sent to me. That was the person he was.
Seth Grindstaff has been published in journals such as The Baltimore Review, Blue Earth Review, and James Dickey Review. He teaches in East Tennessee where he lives with his sun-loving wife and four children.
J. D. M. 1940-2021
We lived two days’ driving apart,
my home on the plains—the spare country
of the dusty upright piano—and his
in the bluegrass foothills—banjo, fiddle,
guitar—both of us fond of old stories,
wrote letters for years and now and then
talked lore on the phone, his voice soft
as a hand brushing crumbs from a table,
then a laugh like a splash, a kingfisher
spanking a stream. I envied his house
overlooking the Holston, black-capped
night herons fishing down in the rocks
when the river ran low, a stone fireplace
with its hearth set with arrow points,
tree-shaded windows, a fluttery light
one could sleep in all day if he wished,
or if he needed to, old heart cramped
by angina. And then he was gone,
leaving his poems and stories behind,
taking the unwritten ones with him,
gone like a kingfisher, flapping on down
the brown river, passing the place where
there once was a ferry, then the spring
where, decades before, General Johnston
stopped briefly to water his horses.
Ted Kooser's most recent collection of poems is Cotton Candy; Poems Dipped Out of the Air, from University of Nebraska Press. Copper Canyon Press is to publish a 20th anniversary edition of Braided Creek; A Conversation in Poetry, by Ted and his late friend, Jim Harrison.