Getting the 'word' out
It’s a sunny, crisp afternoon in the high hills of Tuckasegee and Thomas Rain Crowe throws another log into the woodstove.
Unwinding into a nearby seat, the renowned Western North Carolina poet is all smiles. As owner/founder of New Native Press, his entire catalogue of printed works — including his own writings and those of others he has published — is currently on display in a glass case at the Jackson County Public Library.
Since its inception in 1979, over 50 titles have come to fruition because of his initial vision of being able to track down quality work by wordsmiths from around the globe.
“I was impressed seeing it because those books are all on the shelves and in boxes, you never get to see them all together,” he said. “I have neighbors that don’t even know I’m a publisher, and I want to let people know that New Native Press exists.”
He runs the operation out of his cottage. The books are physically printed offsite in Michigan. Structured after famous niche literary presses like New Directions and City Lights (run by legendary poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti), New Native Press’ perfect-bound books and it’s Stewardship Series of chapbooks focus on up-and-coming poetry and aesthetically designed paperback books.
“I love the rhythm of poetry,” he said. “I find that rhythm, stay with it and let it take me away.”
The name “new native” comes from Crowe’s stint in California during the 1970s, where he absorbed himself in the Beat literary movement and the bioregional cultural and environmental movement.
Raised in rural Robbinsville, Crowe incorporated a deep passion for nature as a kid frolicking around the thick woods of Western North Carolina with a never-ending thirst for the written word. His soul became restless. In the early 1970s, at age 21, he took off for France in an effort to immerse himself in the homeland of his literary idols.
Once that faded, he ended up in California, where he soon fell into the world of the Beat poets in San Francisco, which included the original pioneers of the genre (Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski, amongst others).
“The cafes and the bars were our classrooms, the universities of the streets,” he said. “In San Francisco we sat around, watching our heroes, taking it all in and sharing your work. If you can’t get it that way, you’re not going to get it.”
In 1979, Crowe was living in a teepee in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California. The impending, harsh winter was upon him. He decided to head back to North Carolina and stay in the cabin of a now deceased old mountain man Crowe had befriended years earlier. The cabin, which has no electricity or running water, was like a page out of Henry David Thoreau. Crowe jumped at the chance to live off the land — an experience he chronicled in Zoro’s Field, a throwback to Walden Pond.
“I didn’t have any family, job or responsibilities. I was young and healthy and that was the time to do it,” Crowe said. “I went back to Western North Carolina and never left.”
A decision to stay in Western North Carolina came from a need for personal inspiration and the eternal quest to find his writing voice. Yes, being around all of those prominent writers in California was great and all, but he also found it very suffocating to his own work.
“You’re around all of these creative, smart and inspiring people there,” he said. “But, you emulate them and end up just writing like them. You need to isolate yourself and break away from the others.”
And thus began the New Native Press. In the early 1980s, Crowe started working in the print shop of The Sylva Herald, which gave him the tools and access he needed to a press. Besides his own work and that of others he interacted with, he also started producing broadsides. These large, poster-sized pieces combined the work of regional artists and poets to create one-of-a-kind art pieces for collectors.
Branching out even further, Crowe also started Fern Hill Records in 1993. The idea behind the label was to bring together poetry and music to provoke an interest in spoken-word performances and artist collaborations. Through it all, it has been a true labor of love, something Crowe is well aware of as his identity and business evolves in such a fast-paced world where literature can often fall to the backburner of society.
“If you’re going to survive, you have to find something that nobody else is doing,” he said.
That survival for Crowe has come from a keen interest in translations of endangered languages. His latest project, which took the better part of three years piecing together, Writing The Wind – A Celtic Resurgence, is a collection of translated Celtic poetry. Plans are also currently in the works to release a translation of poems written in the ancient Mayan language.
“I’ve always been interested in endangered languages and publishing translated works [from across the globe],” he said.
Crowe admits he breaks about even, with most of his published titles being sold to libraries, other poets and those curious who show up at readings and discussions.
It’s a tough world these days to be a publisher, a tougher one at that to be a poet. But, for Crowe, this is his life, for good or ill.
“It’s too late, like what the hell else am I going to do?” he laughed.
Reflecting on the display at the library, Crowe pushes forth into the 21st century with New Native Press. He points to the deterioration of modern society, in terms of language and the literary priorities of the world.
“People are getting lazier because technologies are doing everything for them,” he said. “Books from 300 years ago are hard to read today, and 100 years from now, people will be having a hard time reading what we write.”
But, for now, in this moment in time, Crowe is proud. Not only because of the display, but also at the decades he’s spent pursuing and achieving his dreams.
“I did what I set out to do,” he said. “It’s nice to look back over the last 30 or 40 years and feel good about it.”