An Interview with C.D. Albin
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Interview with C. D. Albin
By C. D. Albin and Aura Martin
“Writing has played a role in my teaching since it has made me value clarity more highly, not merely as a practical aid to communication, but also as an aspect of courage. Writers and teachers who believe in their content are not afraid to be understood.”
-C. D. Albin, writer and English professor at Missouri State University–West Plains
C. D. Albin is the founder and editor of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. His collection of short stories, Hard Toward Home, won the 2016 Missouri Author’s Award. His short stories, poems and interviews have appeared in periodicals including the Arkansas Review, Cape Rock, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, Natural Bridge, American Book Review, and Slant. His collection of Ozark poems, Axe, Fire, Mule, will be officially released in May, 2018.
How autobiographical are your poems about the Ozarks?
I don’t think of myself as an autobiographical writer in the traditional sense of using my life events as material. Instead, I’m inventing characters in my poetry and letting them tell their own stories. Of course, the characters a writer creates do reveal something about what intrigues and interests that writer. In that sense, every piece of creative writing has an autobiographical element.
Why do you write about the Ozarks? What do you think about while you write?
When I write, I think about people before place, but place always enters the picture because people tend to be influenced by where they live. The Ozarks region has distinct cultural and geographical elements that can serve a writer well, and it is the region I know best, so I’m sure it plays a role in my writing.
You mainly teach academic writing. Does this formal style of writing provide a break from poetry and prose writing? Do fiction writers benefit from critically analyzing a text and developing the skill to communicate effectively?
I can only speak for myself, but I have benefitted creatively by doing a certain amount of critical analysis. It’s a way of studying and learning from another writer’s moves, gleaning all I can from the way another writer produces art. And each genre, whether fiction, poetry, or criticism, requires its own precision with language. The struggle for precision is always beneficial.
Do you prefer writing poetry or fiction--or both equally? Do you go back and forth between the two, or do you usually stick to one for a time?
I find the short story more fulfilling than poetry, but I enjoy both forms. I move back and forth between poetry and fiction depending upon what the subject matter seems to dictate. Because of its economy with words, poetry does offer the chance to make multiple studies of an idea in a way that prose, even short fiction, may not. In that sense, I might write a series of poems before turning back to fiction.
In one such series of poems, you write about teaching. Specifically, in “Sign,” you wrote about a Latina student who struggled to understand (or pronounce) the words in a poem--and then she nails its meaning. Do students sometimes surprise you like this? What do students sometimes teach you?
“Sign” is from the fourth section of Axe, Fire, Mule, which deals with teaching in the Ozarks. That incident, or one much like it, did happen, and it simply reminded me that a glib facility with language is not the same thing as hard-earned knowledge. Every once in a while in academia one comes across a person, whether student or teacher, who is sincerely seeking knowledge. To that person I tip my cap.
How does teaching impact your writing, and vice versa?
Teaching has certainly played a role in my writing. A teacher must first be a student, so teaching fiction and poetry has necessitated that I study each art form carefully. Doing that inevitably affects one’s writing, usually for the better. Writing has also played a role in my teaching since it has made me value clarity more highly, not merely as a practical aid to communication, but also as an aspect of courage. Writers and teachers who believe in their content are not afraid to be understood. Their language does not act as camouflage.
Tell me about the founding of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies.
The journal Elder Mountain was an outgrowth of the annual Ozarks Studies Symposium initiated and run by faculty members of Missouri State University – West Plains, where I teach. I felt the quality of the scholarly and creative material being presented at the symposia demanded a journal, and so we started Elder Mountain. Volunteer labor by the faculty has so far kept it afloat, although publication has been sporadic in recent years.
When people think about the Ozarks, their minds jump to farming. How has the farmland around you changed? Does your family still do any farming?
Around my hometown of West Plains, more and more farmland is being subsumed in residential or commercial development. That’s not unique to the Ozarks. Throughout its history, this country has been on a methodical path toward urbanization. My family is not really an exception. Two or three generations back we were clearly people of the land, working it and depending upon it, in some ways perhaps even helping to sustain it. Now, as a representative of my generation, I am not a farmer but simply a man who lives, by choice, in the country. The land means a good deal to me aesthetically and in terms of family identity, but I don’t have the kind of relationship to the land that my ancestors did.
Baseball is another interest of yours. Baseball appears in your collection, in poems like “Preacher Roe” and “Blessed Those Days.” Why? Did you play baseball yourself?
Among the popular sports in this country, baseball has inspired the finest literary writing. I naturally write about baseball because I am a lifelong fan of the game, and because I believe it intersects with the human heart in myriad ways. I did play the sport, but at no higher level than American Legion, where I was primarily a utility infielder and pinch runner.
You also write about aging. Why the interest?
I suppose my interest in aging stems from a natural writerly interest in change. The process of aging is, among other things, the process of change, which is a dynamic subject in itself. I’m drawn to it.
Axe, Fire, Mule, ends with a collection of eight poems spoken by an old man called Cicero Jack, who remembers older times and resists his family’s urge to become more urban. Who is he? Is he a fictional character, inspired by a real person, or is he an older version of you to some extent? Where did you get the idea to write in that voice?
Cicero Jack is a fictional character, although his name is similar to that of a man I used to hear my parents, uncles, and older cousins discuss. I never met him, but over time the occasional mention of his name coaxed certain character details. I decided he would have been born in 1927, the year the last native mountain lion was said to have been killed in the Missouri bootheel. I decided he would be an Ozark farmer, not a formally educated man but a sharp observer of human custom and cultural change. And I decided he would be a widower who retained and worked his land well after his children decided it was safe for him to do so. He’s not a version of me, but I like him.
What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
My advice to aspiring writers is the same counsel I’ve received and tried to follow: read as much good writing as you can, study the way those writers work, and try to make every sentence you write the best sentence it can be.
To view samples of C.D. Albin, see Excerpts from Our Books.