Leather and Lore :: Jeff Mann on Poetry, ’Purgatory,’ and Norse Gods
Whether he’s writing poetry, erotic short stories, or novels, Jeff Mann brings a fluency to the form at hand and a dose of man-to-man electricity generated by shifting power dynamics.
It might not be a surprise to Mann’s readers to know that he’s a bondage enthusiast; Mann’s stories often feature stark and passionate contrasts between roughness and sweet sentiment, restraint and tenderness. He’s a literary painter whose particular brand of chiaroscuro is not light and shadow but rather dominance and submission. It’s an form of artistry Mann embraces with gusto: In one interview, Mann characterized himself as "a rampant BDSM/Wiccan leatherbear."
Mann is also a professor of English at Virginia Tech, with a strong interest in Appalachian Studies. As a gay Appalachian himself--or, as he might put it himself, a mountain man--the poet and scholar has used his own life experiences and inner journey as source material in examining what it means to be a man from the rural South who loves other men, and loves them with a certain (even specialized) vigor.
In addition to his volumes of poetry, Mann has written a memoir ("Loving Mountains, Loving Men") and collections of essays (including "Binding the God.") His first novel, "Fog", was published last August; his next novel, a Civil War-era story of romance and captivity between soldiers on opposite sides of the conflict, titled "Purgatory," is slated to appear this Spring. Mann chatted with EDGE via email recently about his fresh slate of publications, the Nordic wellspring for his latest volume of verse, titled "Ash", and the mysterious strength that lies hidden in surrender.
Gods and Heroes
EDGE: You have been busy lately: A new collection of poetry, your first published novel, and a second novel on the way. Has all of this just been percolating away and now it’s seeing daylight in a rush?
Jeff Mann: Part of my recent productivity is thanks to my first sabbatical. At Virginia Tech, professors can take a sabbatical (research leave is the official phrase) every six years. I’d never had one before, and everyone I knew told me to take a full year at half-pay if I could afford it. So I did, meaning that I didn’t teach in 2011, I just wrote.
Best year of my life! I finished the revisions to "Purgatory," my first Civil War novel (which is due out from Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press in March 2012). I wrote "Camp Allegheny,", a Civil War novella (included in "History’s Passion: Stories of Sex before Stonewall," edited by Richard Labonté and published by Bold Strokes Books in November 2011). I completed "Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal" (published by Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press in August 2011). I wrote quite a few short stories and essays. I wrote a load of poetry about the Civil War; at some point soon, I’ll have enough for two book-length collections. Ten of those poems are appearing in January 2012 in Sibling Rivalry Press’s new poetry journal, "Assaracus". Right now I’m about two-thirds of the way through writing "Salvation," the sequel to "Purgatory."
EDGE: How do you approach a story when you know it’s going to be a poem, rather than a novel, or vice versa? How are the different formats alike for you, and what are the distinct challenges of each?
Jeff Mann: Poetry is the genre I’ve written the longest and the one I feel most often driven to write, though lately I’ve put it aside so as to focus on completing the first draft of "Purgatory"’s sequel before I start teaching again in mid-January 2012. (I can write poetry, short stories, and essays during the academic year, but not novels.)
Poetry for me is less about narrative than about capturing memorable images, distilling and commemorating what’s loved and admired, seizing intense moments of feeling. And, despite the fact that I’ve been writing poetry longer than fiction or creative nonfiction, I still find it the most difficult genre to get just right. Balancing meaning and subtext and music and keeping the poem fairly concise, that’s hard, that’s challenging. At the same time, I try to infuse my prose with all those elements too.
EDGE: Your new poetry collection is based on Nordic myths--sources known as the poetic Edda and the prose Edda. You’ve talked about the attraction of warrior cultures in your writing, so it’s not a surprise to see you writing about gods and swordplay and endless battles fought in the afterlife, but why Norse myths versus, say, Homeric hymns or Celtic warrior legends such as Cú Chulainn?
Jeff Mann: I’ve always been attracted to myth--Edith Hamilton’s "Mythology" was one of my favorite books when I was young--but for a long time those myths were the Greek and Roman ones that most folks are somewhat familiar with. Studying Wicca in my twenties introduced me to Celtic myth, and since then I’ve become more and more interested in the mythologies of my bloodlines, which are, like many Appalachians, English, German, Scottish, and Irish... in other words, Celtic and Teutonic.
In Spring Semester 2003, a friend and Virginia Tech colleague of mine, Joseph Eska, taught a graduate-level independent study course on Celtic and Norse literature, so I sat in on that and read all the material, including the Eddas. So much of my poetry tends toward the autobiographical, which means I get weary of dissecting my "issues," so to speak, and so writing about myth (though admittedly the autobiographical tendency comes through even there) was a pleasant change of pace. Quite a few poets had examined Celtic myth, but I hadn’t seen much in the way of poetic examinations of Norse myths, so in the summer of 2003 I composed a bunch of poems based on "The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda," and "The Saga of the Volsungs." "Ash: Poems from Norse Mythology" was the result, and Rebel Satori Press was kind enough to publish it.
EDGE: I was also happy to see you speaking informally here and there in the poetry, so that it’s not all high-flown and stultifying. Not to mention your bold addition of same-gender warrior sex in Valhalla’s Great Hall! Is sex between men also a form of combat? Can battle be a form of intimacy? How are violence and tenderness intertwined, if at all?
Jeff Mann: Well, I hope none of it is stultifying! And I hope none of it is opaque. I can’t stand poetry that seems deliberately obscure. Perhaps it’s my Appalachian background that makes me dislike overly learned, overly oblique verse. I want poetry to be comprehensible at the same time that it’s dense and multi-layered.
As for combat, intimacy, and the delicious intertwining of those two, anyone who reads my fiction--which I like to think is literary, carefully crafted, and erotic all at once--will know that the only man-on-man sex that really interests me involves power exchange--dominance and submission. It’s those vacillations in gay leathersex/BDSM between the rough and the tender, between what’s caring and what’s violent that I find most arousing, poetic, and inspiring. So of course my version of Eros is all about power and surrender, masculinity and battle, control and vulnerability, conquest and helplessness. And of course I’m going to be attracted to myths and narratives about manhood and battle.
EDGE: Your new poetry collection also came out right around the time as the Thor movie. What did you think of that (assuming you must have seen it)?
Jeff Mann: I want that hammer! Yes, oh God, I saw it twice, I bought the DVD and the soundtrack. In other words, I loved it. Chris Hemsworth, the actor who played Thor, was hot as holy hell. It was all beautifully done, parts of it super moving. I think the film was a fine depiction of maturing manhood. It made me think a lot about Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s book, "King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine."