BRIAN LAMB, HOST: This week on "Booknotes", our guest is former president Jimmy Carter. He joins us to discuss his recent book "Always a Reckoning and Other Poems". President Jimmy Carter, what's the origin of the title of your book of poems, "Always a Reckoning?"
JIMMY CARTER, AUTHOR, "ALWAYS A RECKONING AND OTHER POEMS": Well, it's extracted from one of the lines of a poem about my father, and how he ran our farm, and everything had to balance. There was no possibility in his mind to have anything on the farm, as I said in the poem, that you couldn't plow or didn't give milk or you couldn't get eggs from or you couldn't find a rabbit or a quail, so it meant that my father required a reckoning from all of us who worked on the farm or whatever. And I think it's kind of applicable to life in general. When you put an investment in something, you get back a dividend, so it's kind of like an ocean wave going in and out.
LAMB: How long has your father been gone?
CARTER: Daddy died in 1953. He had cancer. He was 59 years old. He was a member of the state legislature and a very fine, very stern disciplinarian who was honored in his community and who, I think, loved me very much -- he was quite reticent about indicating his affection -- and who has always been one of my heroes.
LAMB: Have you done things differently with your kids because of the way your dad was with you?
CARTER: (Laughs) You know, I don't think I did until my children got up, a little bit older, and began to be much more verbal in their criticism of the way I treated them. I was a naval officer for 11 years, and I was a very stern disciplinarian. When I told my three boys to do something, they did it. If they didn't, they suffered the consequences. And then we waited about 15 years, and Amy came along, but I never was nearly that stern with Amy. My rationalization is that she didn't really need to be chastised. And in another poem that I wrote, "I want to be part of my father's world," to that extent, I realized when I was an adult and had sons of my own and was at my father's bedside during his death that there was a surprising parallel between my father's relationship to me, which I resented very much on occasion, and my relationship with my sons. And I saw that my father had implanted in me not only habits and attitudes but also, I guess, genetic material that mirrored himself in me. And I wrote one of my most difficult poems about that.
LAMB: Where are your ... You have four kids?
CARTER: Yes, I have four children.
LAMB: Where are they?
CARTER: Amy is in graduate school. She has just moved to New Orleans. She is going to transfer to either Tulane or New Orleans University. She is in fine arts. She just finished her undergraduate work. She's a painter, and a very good one, I think. My youngest son, Jeffrey, is a graduate of George Washington University here, with a degree in geography and in computer programming. He's one of the most advanced computer program designers in our country. He has three sons. Chip is in international finance. Chip deals in establishing funding for interesting projects in strange places like China and Chiapas, Mexico, things of that kind. Chip has two children, the oldest of whom was born a month after I moved into the White House, and Chip was living in the White House, then. And then Jack, the oldest son, has four children, two of his own with his first wife and two children, stepchildren, one of whom did the illustrations for the book. So Jack is living in San Francisco. We have a very good family.
LAMB: Show an illustration, because all of your poems have an illustration. Here's one that leads off, and the poem was called "Rachel." Tell us who did these illustrations, and then we can talk about Rachel.
CARTER: Well, all of the illustrations in the book were done by my 16-year-old granddaughter, Sarah, who has a summer job on the streets in Telluride, Colorado, ski resort, making quick sketches of people's faces. And she did these line drawings, just black-and-white line drawings. When she did this, I don't think she had ever seen a mule. But Sarah drew the black-and-white sketches after she had read the poems. It's kind of a 16-year-old interpretation or impression of the book. This is a hunting scene. There again, she read the poem and decided to draw a scene of what she envisioned to be a hunting scene.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea to have her do the illustrations?
CARTER: I thought first about getting a professional illustrator to do them, because I kind of wanted an illustration for each one, but I realized that Sarah was a very accomplished young artist embryonically. This one is about my mother, who was in the Peace Corps and who was faced with the very unpleasant prospect of doctoring a little girl with leprosy. She was a registered nurse. She reacted against that very strongly. The poem is about, extracted really, from a letter that I received from my mother when she was 70 years old in the Peace Corps near Bombay, India. This is an illustration showing what a registered nurse might mean: the cap of a registered nurse back in the 1930's and 1940's, and the emblem of an R.N., or registered nurse.
LAMB: Where did you put the originals?
CARTER: I think at this moment the originals are with Random House at Times Books, and I need to get all the originals back to make sure that we have them in my own archives. Sarah struggled with some of them. You know, she had never seen a mule, and she had never seen a barn. And one of the things was about a peanut picker; she had never seen a peanut picker. She was a city girl from Cleveland, Ohio, now moved to San Francisco, and so she had to use her own imagination about what some of the things looked like, but I think the fact that they are unrehearsed and just simple are very good.
This is about my sister, who was an avid motorcyclist who was a hostess for a bunch of rough motorcycle drivers who would stop at her house on the way to Daytona every year, and when my sister died, the bikers came into Plains and stayed with her at her bedside for several days before her death. And during her funeral, they formed a motorcycle cortege in front. There were 37 motorcycles. One Harley Davidson ... they had to be Harley Davidsons in front, and then 36 behind it. And on her tombstone there in Plains there is an inscription: "She rides in Harley heaven." She was very deeply committed to cycling.
LAMB: That was Ruth Carter Stapleton?
CARTER: That was Gloria.
CARTER: Yes, my oldest sister.
LAMB: Ruth died also -- didn't she? -- Of cancer, as I remember.
CARTER: All of my family has died of cancer. They all smoked cigarettes, they all died with cancer: my father, my mother, my two sisters and my brother -- all of them. I'm the last one left.
LAMB: And have you stopped smoking?
CARTER: I never have started.
LAMB: And they all smoked?
CARTER: They all smoked, yes.
LAMB: What impact did the fact that all of these people have -- you lost them, especially your father, real early; your sister at a fairly early age -- what impact did that have on you?
CARTER: It was a sobering experience. Obviously they passed away one at a time, my father first, back in 1953. And then my mother lived to be in her early 80's. My brothers and sisters all died fairly young, but it was a very sobering experience. Strangely enough, they all had pancreatic cancer, which was formerly thought to be like one out of 1,500 people die with pancreatic cancer, so it's beyond the realm of mathematical probability that everybody in a family would die with it. But now the American Cancer Society is doing a special study on our family to see if there is not a familial inherited trait that causes the incidence of pancreatic cancer. So every three or four months I have a special test run on my body to see if I am becoming afflicted with pancreatic cancer.
LAMB: You have -- I'm trying to find it here -- a poem in here, about ... probably too far in the book, but I'll get you started on talking about it. It's a poem about the end of your life and a bunch of professors.
CARTER: Oh, yeah, that's right.
LAMB: What's the point? What's the story behind that?
CARTER: There are two or three humorous poems, and that's one of them. Well, we were trying to analyze the impact on the Carter Center and its relationship within the university when I was dead, and we got a group of scholars at Emory to analyze how the university would treat the Carter Center after I was no longer there. And they couldn't bring themselves to use any sort of frank language about my being dead, so they finally derived the euphemism that my "level of participation would be reduced."
LAMB: Did you hear them talking about this?
CARTER: No. It came out in a written report document to the president of the university. And they couldn't bring themselves to say "when he passes away" or "when he's gone" or anything like that.
LAMB: And in the poem you say here, "I, now dead, have recently reduced my level of participation."
CARTER: That's it. That was a euphemism they used all the way through. Instead of saying, "when he's dead," they said, "when his level of participation is reduced." So just to kid them, I wrote the first version of this poem and just sent it to them as a funny thing. Then I decided, well, it's an interesting concept. I'll just make a poem out of it.
LAMB: And this sketch by your granddaughter right here, I assume, is the Carter family who you leave around your grave site.
CARTER: Well, it's maybe a preacher with part of a funeral ceremony. There are a lot of very nice things you can say -- "pass on to the heavenly reward" or "going to meet his maker" or "no longer with us" or "having passed away" -- but they couldn't... These professors couldn't even bring themselves to say that I was going to pass away or go to meet my heavenly reward or go to meet my maker. They just said my level of participation would be reduced.
LAMB: With you being a former president, do you have to think about your eventual departure more than most people would?
CARTER: Well, as a matter of fact my wife and some of my staff do, because they work out very complete funeral ceremony plans in advance. We've really kind of inherited what president Ford has done. So there are some things that you have to decide before a person's demise, or before the former president's level of participation is reduced, so that you can handle that in an orderly fashion. So there are a lot of plans that have to be made.
LAMB: Is that hard to do?
CARTER: I haven't been participating in it. I've let my wife be the ultimate judge on what should be done. And there's a professional staff associated, I think, with the Marine Corps who know the history of presidential funerals and processions and the display of the body and how much is done within the Capitol building and how much is done different places.
LAMB: Is your family, by the way, buried in Plains?
CARTER: Yes. My first ancestor buried there was born in 1798, and Rosalynn's first ancestor was born in 1787. And since then almost all of us have been born and died in Plains.
LAMB: There's also in here a poem about your ancestors and the civil war, if I remember right.
CARTER: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: What's that? I'll find it while you talk about it.
CARTER: It's a poem that derived from letters that I found in an old trunk where the report comes back from the battlefront that one of my... In my great -- let's see -- great-grandfather's generation, they had a platoon, a company of soldiers that left my county, 126 members. And when they went to Savannah, they still had about that many. When he wrote the letter, they only had about 36 members left. And he wrote a letter that ended, I thought, in an intriguing way. He said, "I am well, but not satisfied," which I thought was a nice line to use, so I built a poem around that.
LAMB: "The More Things Change," and then you have this illustration right here. What is that?
CARTER: The illustration is of an old trunk that I guess is all over the south and, I guess, the north, too, where people store the letters of their ancestors from the civil war.
LAMB: What kind of poetry is this? And do you study poetry and all the different kinds?
LAMB: Are they all the same kind of poetry?
CARTER: No, I think they are varied. Beginning about five years ago, I studied textbooks about poetry and the different kinds of poetry, the different kinds of meter and whether they rhymed or not, open verse and so forth, and all sorts of poetry books that analyzed what famous poets were saying and how they said it and the words they chose. My favorite poet of all times is Dylan Thomas, but I don't have any ability or inclination to try to emulate his poetry. I think in general the poems are fairly simple in structure.
LAMB: But they don't rhyme, most of them.
CARTER: Some of them rhyme in a subtle way. You have to kind of look for the rhymes. Slant rhymes are kind of off rhymes. A few of them have a more obvious rhyming. When I first started, I felt that every poem had to rhyme, and I soon got away from that. At times I just make the last two or three lines have some sort of rhyme, and some of the later poems don't rhyme at all.
LAMB: One of the things I'm discovering is how hard it is to find the poems -- the Dylan Thomas one. You write about Dylan Thomas at Westminster?
CARTER: Yes, in Westminster Abbey. When I was president, I went over to London for the summit conference, economic summit conference. And I wanted -- Dylan Thomas had always been my hero in the poetry field. I thought he was the best poet of all -- I wanted to go to Laugharne in Wales to visit his home place, and something happened. The prime minister asked me to go to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne instead, so I had to skip my visit to Wales then. I've been since. So I went to Westminster Abbey and I asked the archbishop, who was my host -- I was president of the United States; I had a group of White House reporters follow me around, always -- and I asked him where Dylan Thomas' stone was.
He said, "We couldn't have Dylan Thomas commemorated here; you know he was a drunkard," and so forth. And I said, "Well, look, there's Lord Byron, who was gay. There's Edgar Allen Poe, who was a drug addict. You got other people here. Why not Dylan Thomas? I think he's the greatest poet of this century." So I went back to the White House, and I wrote a letter to the screening committee, or whatever you call it, at Westminster Abbey, and told them I thought Dylan Thomas should be included. It was almost four years later before they finally accepted Dylan Thomas to be honored in the poet's corner in Westminster Abbey. They asked me to come over for the ceremonies, and I was unable to go.
It was a few months after I left the White House; I wasn't doing any traveling. So BBC came over and interviewed me in depth about Dylan Thomas. The reporter was quite skeptical about my knowledge of Dylan Thomas, so he asked me all kinds of questions, and I answered them. He asked me to quote a few lines from Dylan Thomas poems, which I was certainly able to do. So they played that tape at the dedication ceremonies. And later a group of people came from Wales over to Georgia and brought me a replica of the Dylan Thomas stone that's in the floor at the Westminster Abbey. Caitlin, Dylan Thomas' wife, by the way, read the news reports from that trip to Westminster Abbey and wrote me a nice letter thanking me for mentioning her husband.
LAMB: When was the first time you proposed to your publisher that do you a book of poems?
CARTER: It was about four years ago, and they said, "No, no way," that they didn't think they wanted to publish a poetry book by me, and they said that my poems that I submitted were not suitable for a book, so I backed away for a while. As a matter of fact, I didn't exactly back away. I took a poem out of a current issue of "New Yorker" magazine, which to me was completely garbled. I mean, there was no redeeming feature that I could see in this poem. It didn't make sense. It didn't have any rhyme. It was not beautiful. The choice of words was not notable. So I cut the poem out and sent it to the publisher of Random House Times Books, and I told him if New Yorker could publish a poem like that, I saw no reason why they couldn't publish my poetry book. I didn't push it anymore.
But later I felt that I got three or four poems in final form, and I began to send my poems to different periodicals around the country, to quarterlies and monthly magazines dedicated to poetry, and some of them were rejected and some of them were accepted. I asked them not to comment on the fact that I was a former president, just to put my name and not say who it was. And increasingly, the poems got favorable reviews from, you know, inside those places. And I eventually got up the nerve to put about 45 poems together. And then when I resubmitted them to the publisher, they offered me a minuscule advance and decided to take a chance on the book.
LAMB: Where's this painting from on the cover from the book?
CARTER: That's an original painting by a very fine Georgia artist named Butler Brown. When Butler discovered that I was going to have a book of poems, he offered to do the cover painting for me, and I like his painting very much.
LAMB: Where is it?
CARTER: Where is the painting?
LAMB: Where is the location that he painted?
CARTER: I think it's just a rural city from middle Georgia from about where Plains is, and it commemorates the way the countryside looked where many of the poems were written.
LAMB: What are you going to do with the original painting?
CARTER: It'll either be in my home or at the Carter Center.
LAMB: Now where was this picture taken on the back of the book?
CARTER: That was taken at the Carter Center when I was .... When they finally decided to do the book and they were just looking for a back cover, and this is one they've used in the advertisements in the "New York Times" and in the "New Yorker" magazine and others.
LAMB: Where did you write these poems?
CARTER: Mostly at home.
LAMB: In Plains?
CARTER: Yes. At my word processor. Some of them I would write to a great degree on trips in airplanes or other places when I was away from home. But the final versions, most of which were maybe 20 generations away from the original version, were usually done on my word processor.
LAMB: Are there any presidents in history that wrote poems, other than you?
CARTER: I have heard it said that John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln wrote poems, but I have never seen any of their poems. I've asked two or three people lately who were poetry critics if they had read the poems of the two previous presidents. They said no. But that has been a story that has gone around that Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams did write poems. I don't know.
LAMB: In the front of the book you list all the other books that have you written, and I counted eight.
CARTER: Yes, I think eight's right.
LAMB: And I remember "Why Not the Best"...
CARTER: That's the first one.
LAMB: ...Which was put out around the time you ran for president.
CARTER: Yes, I wrote that in 1975.
LAMB: How many of these did you write entirely yourself?
LAMB: Every word?
CARTER: Every word.
LAMB: It's all yours.
CARTER: Every word.
LAMB: Is it easy? Hard? How would you describe it?
CARTER: Some of them have been very difficult. The book, "Blood of Abraham," I had to do a lot of research on what was happening in the Middle East all the way from the time of Abraham to the present time. And I actually went to the Middle East and interviewed the Israeli leaders and the leaders in Lebanon and the Palestinian leaders, and Syrian, Jordan, so forth. That was a very difficult book.
"Keeping Faith," which I wrote as a memoir -- when I left the White House, I had about 6,000 pages of typewritten diary notes, and I had to go through, and for the first time looked at those notes and extracted from them a history of my four years in the White House, combined with the official history, a lot of things that were publicized. That was a laborious process, but the book was a very good seller.
And then my most enjoyable book was a journal where I kept the record of climbing mountains and learning how to fly-fish and some of the experiences I've had outdoors, which is my favorite place to be. So there were varying degrees of difficulty. "Turning Point" described really historical moments in our country where we derived the benefits from the one-man, one-vote ruling and in effect wiped out what we call the county unit system at home, which was the basis of white supremacy, and democratic party supremacy, and that was a book that was a difficult one to write.
So this has been the most difficult, I think, of all. I put more time in this book than any other. In fact, since I published this book, since I started writing this book, I've published two other books. One is "Turning Point," I just mentioned, and the other is "Talking Peace." "Talking Peace" is a very important book, I think, for young people. It's written for college students and for advanced high school students: the origins of war, a tabulation of all the existing conflicts in the world, and a fairly good description of negotiating and mediating techniques, and how that applies not only to the resolution of armed conflicts between nations but also even tensions or armed conflicts between kids on the school grounds and what might be done about it.
LAMB: If we found you in the spot where you were writing, we'd find you at your home in Plains ...
LAMB: ... in front of a word processor.
LAMB: What time of day do you start this process?
CARTER: Five a.m. I'm much more productive very early in the morning, so when I have a poem that I can't make come together, or a word I can't think of, or how to juxtapose two words that fit, my mind is much clearer, I'd say, between 5:00 and 8:00 in the morning. I generally have breakfast with Rosalynn and talk about things of the day when we are at home. And then I work on the word processor maybe three or four more hours that day, maybe six or seven hours during the day. I can do that much. And then my mind kind of stops working well. And I have a very nice woodworking shop about 20 feet from my computer, so I go out and build a piece of furniture or go out to my farm or walk in the woods or do something like that.
LAMB: How much time do you have -- those of us that see you through the eyes of the news broadcasts get the impression that you're always going somewhere, traveling, negotiating or whatever. But how much time do you actually end up spending then in this kind of world in Plains and quiet where you're writing?
CARTER: I would say at the most two or three days a week. We try to be home when we can on the weekends, or when I am in Plains I teach Sunday School, and I make a lesson outline. Last year, out of the 52 Sundays I was there, 36 times -- about two out of three Sundays. The rest of the time we might be in Bosnia or a country in Africa or in Russia or somewhere else working on Carter Center projects.
LAMB: In the dedication up front in this book you start off with a dedication to your father, then your mother, then Rosalynn, and then to Rachel Clark.
LAMB: We started earlier by showing that Rachel Clark illustration. You say, "...Whose dignity and grace were heightened by a world in which, although apartheid reigned, she even managed to excel, and to others of her race and mine who suffer now from prejudice, and back then were forced by law and threats to tolerate their plight in silence." Who is she?
CARTER: Rachel Clark was a very small queen-like black woman who lived as our next-door neighbor. She had an extraordinary impact on my life. She was a friend. When my mother and father would go off on vacation, which they would at least once a year for a week or two ... they were avid baseball fans and their vacations consisted entirely of going either to Chicago or New York or Philadelphia or St. Louis, to where there would be a doubleheader and a series of baseball games. That was their main enjoyment in life. While they were gone away, I stayed with Rachel Clark and her husband, Jack Clark. She was ...
LAMB: Is she alive?
CARTER: No. She died recently. She was 92 years old and died within the last few years. But she had a lot of impact on me, and she would take me fishing and she would teach me how to pick cotton more rapidly, and she would kind of help me in my row if I was getting behind. And she was kind of a philosopher. And she was so competent. She could outwork and outperform anyone on the farm. And she was so queenly in her demeanor -- although she was very small and very quiet -- none of the white people even considered asking her to do menial labor.
They would not ask her to clean up their homes or to cook for them or to take care of their children or to wash clothes and things of that kind. But she didn't have to refuse. But there was something special about her. And people from all around -- I guess, maybe five miles around -- all knew about Rachel Clark. She could pick more cotton in a day than anyone else, or she could hoe cotton or peanuts or corn better than anyone. She could stack more peanuts on for curing than anyone else. She was just a superb person. And that's why I wanted that poem to be the first one in the book.
LAMB: And the longest.
CARTER: It's the longest, I think, yes.
LAMB: And at the end you say, "In later years, I'd visit Rachel's home in public housing." Where?
CARTER: In Plains. Her husband died. Her mother, who was named Temah, a biblical name, died -- Rachel is, too, of course -- and Rachel moved into the government housing project in Plains, and she lived alone, respected and almost revered by people that knew her. And she would walk around the street. And when I went home from the White House, one of the first things I always did was to kiss my mother and so forth, and I'd go and find Rachel, and share experiences. She always had some advice for me. I was president. I mention it very subtly in the last line, "in Washington, where I was working then." That means the White House.
LAMB: A poem later, "the county boss explains how it is," in the middle of this poem... And by the way, what's this illustration right here?
CARTER: That's a barn burning. And when Sarah drew that, I don't think Sarah had ever seen a barn. One of the threats that this county boss had made to enforce his will was that anyone who disagreed with him or who didn't vote his way, their barns would likely burn down.
LAMB: In the middle of this poem you have this sentence: "politics is hard."
LAMB: Would you like to explain that?
CARTER: But what he is saying is that he has to run that county, and he claims he runs it in a benevolent way and that all the accusations against him for fraud and for starting those ... are unjustified. But if people don't agree with him, they'll suffer the consequences.
LAMB: Do you agree with that? "Politics is hard?"
CARTER: Well, politics is hard. It's a brutal environment, but also gratifying.
LAMB: When were you most gratified?
CARTER: I guess when I won the election to be president, or when I was elected governor. My most ... I guess by far my most difficult election was when I ran for the state senate the first time. I wrote an entire book about this. That's when we had the one-man, one-vote ruling.
LAMB: Here's one. “To One Now Gone Who Always Let His Hunting Partner Claim a Downed Bird.”
LAMB: What's that one?
CARTER: I guess among my best friends in the world was a top leader in the city of Atlanta, whose father was a famous mayor, Ivan Allen. Ivan Allen was my hunting partner. He was a generous person who would always try to take upon himself the troubles and burdens of his friends. He was very helpful to me every time I got in trouble. Amazingly, a couple of years ago, Ivan Allen took his own life, and I wrote that poem at the time, and I tried to explain that there was something special about this man. And only after the book came out did I share the poem with his family. I sent them a copy of the book and told them to look on that page.
LAMB: What was their reaction?
CARTER: Beautiful. His wife, Margaret, wrote me a letter, a very emotional letter about how much the poem meant to her.
LAMB: At the end you say, "there has to be a special place for him who held in more than he could bear, to shield the rest of us from care, a rarity who showed us what agape means."
LAMB: Well, that's why I said that, because I was asking people before we started how do you pronounce that, and I got "a-gape," and I want to ask you what "a-gah-pay" means?
CARTER: Agape is...
LAMB: You used it more than once.
CARTER: Yes. Agape is one of the great words for love. In the Greek language, there are four words for love. In fact, C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book called "the four loves." Agape love is unselfish love. It's love without recompense, it's love for an unlovable person. It's sacrificial love. It's the kind of love that Jesus Christ exemplified in his own life. And I think that Ivan Allen, my friend, showed his friends what agape love meant.
LAMB: You use it more than once in your poems.
CARTER: Oh, really? I didn't remember.
LAMB: There's another time, or maybe in the introduction.
CARTER: Yeah, perhaps.
LAMB: "The Ballad of Tom Gordy."
CARTER: Yes. That's a true story, by the way, and a very interesting story. My uncle, Tom Gordy, my mother's youngest brother, was in the U.S. Navy. He was on the island of Guam when the Japanese captured Guam a month after Pearl Harbor, and he was taken prisoner. His wife and three children came down to live with us in Georgia. They were from San Francisco, and all during the war they stayed there in Georgia. After two years, the Red Cross notified Dorothy, Tom's wife, that he was dead. And when she got that horrible news, she moved back to San Francisco. Almost all of her family were firemen. And after about a year, she remarried a family friend.
At the end of the war, they found Tom alive. He had been made to work on a railroad, a 12-mile-long railroad that hauled coal from a mine down to a central railroad point, and he was emaciated. He had been beaten and abused. He only weighed 85 pounds. He was suffering severely from phlebitis, varicose veins, and he came back in a debilitated state. My mother and Tom's other sisters and his mother convinced Tom that Dorothy had been unfaithful to him, although she married a year after she was informed that he was dead. And Tom was too weak, I think, to overcome that influence of his family, so she offered to have the marriage annulled, and Tom refused to do so -- her second marriage annulled. And eventually he remarried, and they both lived a very happy life toward the end.
But when I was a young submarine officer on an island near San Francisco, I went and found her family, and I went up and knocked on the door. I had a wife, Rosalynn, and one child only then, and I left my wife and Jack, my eldest son, two blocks away so they could see the door. I didn't know what was going to happen when I knocked on the door. I did knock on the door, and there was an uproarious celebration that I would come and visit them, as Tom's nephew, and that's what the last ... It's written, as you can see, in a ballad. It's the only ballad in the book.
LAMB: What's a ballad?
CARTER: A ballad, I think, is a four-verse kind of rhythm that you can sing, like an ancient epic poem.
LAMB: And when did you write it?
CARTER: I wrote it about three years ago, three or four years ago.
LAMB: I mean, did you go through the 44, 45 poems in here -- and you say you started this a couple of years ago -- did you go back...
CARTER: I started about five years ago.
LAMB: Did you call experiences in your life back and then start to write a poem? How did you decide what to write about?
CARTER: Well, I guess I started poems in kind of spurts. If I had a day or two at home, which is not all that often, then I would try to think of some things that I wanted to express and that I thought were interesting or that were heartfelt, and I would concentrate on those poems, about three or four poems, and revise them and put them aside. When I remembered it, I would print off a copy off my computer to get a version -- and I guess for about 20 of those poems I have all the intermediary phases of it, from the original thoughts to the final version, and someday I'll put those in the presidential library so historians can see, you know, how a former president wrote poems -- but then I would read them to Rosalynn, I would share them with Miller Williams and Jim Whitehead, who are experts at poetry. They would give me advice on what was wrong with the poem, primarily "this line doesn't work" or "the poem has extra words in it" or "this word doesn't fit," and then I would revise the poem.
LAMB: Would you tell us more about Jim Whitehead? I know Jim Whitehead and Miller Williams are in the dedication.
LAMB: Who are they?
CARTER: When I came home from the navy ... excuse me, when I came home from the White House, my brother Billy had had some friends from Arkansas and from Tennessee. One of them was Tom T. Hall, who is a well-known country songwriter and singer. And Tom T. Hall had two poetry friends from the University of Arkansas. One was Miller Williams, who I think was Poet of the Year in 1990, and Jim Whitehead is also a well-known poet. And they came down, and Billy had asked him to write a poem about me and my presidency.
So he had a party, they all had a good time, and each one of those poets read their poem about me, both of which have been published in their book since then. Later, Billy died, and his wife, Sybil, opened a cafe. And in order to publicize the cafe to some degree she had Tom T. and the two poets and a few other people come down and do readings, and invited about 200 people to come in and listen to the poetry reading in Plains, Georgia. And by the way, eating supper, I talked to Whitehead and Miller Williams, and told them that I was infatuated with poetry and had been for many years but didn't know anything about how to write poetry. I had been to engineering schools and done my graduate work in nuclear physics. I didn't have much background in literature.
It turned out that Miller Williams is a co-author of one of the most widely used textbooks on poetry writing in college, called "How Does a Poem Mean," and he agreed to send me a copy of that book. So I began to study that and got some other books about poetry writing, and that's how I got started. But they're the ones sort of through whom I've shared my poems, and they've given me advice. The only thing I haven't ever let them do is to write anything for me. They can only give me negative suggestions. They say, "This line doesn't work," or, "This poem is too long," or, "The rhythm is off," or, "This word doesn't fit. And they've encouraged me to go back and not only look at the current-day usage of a word, but also the original derivation of a word: what is its original meaning and does that original meaning fit the expression of the word in a poem? So they forced me to reexamine my own poetry.
LAMB: You also, in the dedication ... and for a short book, this is a long dedication with a lot of names. Did you think that out, by the way?
LAMB: About why you used so many names for dedication? Was that on purpose?
CARTER: Well, you know, I could have written the dedication. Actually, the dedication is written in iambic emphasis, rhythm. If you read it, you can read it like poetry, and I could have put it in open verse form. I could have thanked all of these people who had an influence on my life in prose, but I decided to do it in the dedication in this form.
LAMB: There are two pages, and we were just showing the audience what the two pages look like.
LAMB: One other member on this list that I wanted to ask you about is Hyman Rickover.
LAMB: Who was he, and what influence did he have on you?
CARTER: Except for my own father, Hyman Rickover had more influence on me than any other man I've ever known. When I was a young naval officer, I was in submarines.
LAMB: What year?
CARTER: I went into the submarines in 1948. I had to wait two years after I finished Annapolis; that was the law then. And I served in submarines on a fleet-type boat, and then I was the first officer assigned to the first ship the navy ever built after the Second World War, a killer submarine, and there's a poem written about life on a killer submarine. And then I went to work for Rickover. I was in charge of the crew that built the second atomic submarine. And Rickover was not dissimilar from my father. Rickover demanded my utmost effort, and never was constrained to congratulate me when I did a good job, but was eager to point out my shortcomings and defects. And he inspired me to do better things with my life than I would otherwise have done. The first book I ever wrote in 1975, "Why Not the Best," the title is derived from my first interview with Rickover.
LAMB: Was he tough?
CARTER: There's no way to describe how tough he was, yes. And I think that the chief executive officer of General Electric company was just as nervous when Rickover was on the way to Schenectady, New York, as I was. Rickover was very tough, but fair. I think he was the finest engineer who has ever lived, and personally responsible for the evolution of nuclear power as a peacetime use.
LAMB: Does the personal toughness of an individual, does that work? Did he scare you?
CARTER: Yeah, he scared me.
LAMB: I mean, have you ever used that with others?
CARTER: My three sons say that I used it with them, but usually I'm a lot more easygoing than that, and certainly with advancing age I've become a lot more mellow in my attitude towards others. I would think that most people would say that I have a gentle approach to other folks now.
LAMB: But does being tough work?
CARTER: I think so. In a final mediation or negotiation, you have to be extremely tough. You have to know exactly how far you can go and go no further, and you have to use the maximum degree of persuasion to induce a recalcitrant party to accept your proposal. Yes, I think you have to be tough.
LAMB: A poem here with this illustration by your granddaughter, who you say is now 17?
LAMB: Is she going to go on to be a professional?
CARTER: I think she's still ... she's in a very advanced high school in San Francisco that has a very good art department, so I don't have any doubt about it. By the way, that poem is the only sonnet in the book. I found it is very difficult to write a sonnet.
LAMB: What's a sonnet?
CARTER: A sonnet is a classical format for a poem that was used repeatedly by Shakespeare, and which has a very specific framework both for emphasis on words and rhythm and length of lines and a style of rhyming. It's a rigid form from which you cannot deviate. I still call it the sonnet.
LAMB: I can still remember -- and you can tell me where I can find this -- a memo that was written by Ham Jordan in 1972 . Tell me if I'm wrong about this -- in December, and it ended up in a book that I remember reading that laid out your campaign in which Plains is kind of like the staging area. Do you remember the memo?
CARTER: Well, I remember the memo. I didn't realize it had been published in a book, though.
LAMB: I think Marty Schramm had a book out.
CARTER: Well, he might have. There were about 30 books written about that remarkable campaign, and maybe Marty Schramm did a book. I didn't remember that.
LAMB: Can anybody ever do that again, use a small town in a place like Georgia?
CARTER: Well, Hope, Arkansas, is not much different.
LAMB: Yeah, but you didn't go back there all the time. You didn't have trailers with network cameras in it and all.
CARTER: Plains is now and always has been the center of my life. When I was even in the navy, you know, there was a magnet pulling me back to Plains. As I said earlier, both my ancestors and Rosalynn's who were born in the 1700's were buried there, and we've got the same land that's been in our family since 1832. And you know, both of our families are there, so there's a strong magnetism pulling us back to Plains. So Plains is the center of our life, and I doubt that very many people in this modern fast-changing technical mobile world has that intensity of attraction to a small town, where a husband and a wife both are from there and feel compelled, you know, pleasantly, to go back.
LAMB: How far is it from Atlanta?
CARTER: By airplane it's 120 miles exactly due south. By road it's about 130 miles.
LAMB: Takes how long to drive?
CARTER: Well, we allot three hours to go from Plains to the Carter center, and that allows one stop to go to the restroom without rushing. To go from Plains to the airport, we allot two hours and a half.
LAMB: If one travels, if someone goes to Plains right now to see you or to see the town, what's there?
CARTER: That picture in the sonnet is exactly what's there now. It's what was there in 1900. That's it.
LAMB: Do you own things there now still? Do you still have a farm?
CARTER: Yes. I own all the land that we've ever owned, a couple of thousand acres, and we own a house on a farm that's -- it's just barely inside the city limits of Plains.
LAMB: Is there a tour that one takes now?
CARTER: Yes, there is.
LAMB: People telling you that "Jimmy Carter is from here" and all that?
CARTER: Exactly, yes. It's run ... the park service... Plains is now a national historical site, and the park service is developing some of the tourist attractions there. But there's a guy that owns Billy Carter's old service station who has a tour -- I think it cost $5 -- and you can go around and visit 20 different sites in Plains that have something to do with me or our family.
LAMB: What's this illustration about?
CARTER: That's an illustration from a poem called "Peanuts" that describes life in a small town during the 1930's, and that's me with a basketful of peanuts that I'm taking to Plains to sell. I used to walk down the railroad track about two miles and a half to Plains and sell 20 bags of peanuts for a total of $1 and walk back home.
LAMB: Let me read this paragraph.
LAMB: "Almost ignored, an omnipresent boy, I learned how merchants cheat, which married men laid half-a-dollar whores, not always white, the same ones touting racial purity and klansman-sheeted bravery at night." What's that all about?
CARTER: Well, that's actually a fact. In the first place, as a 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-old boy, omnipresent on the Plains streets every day, the adults learned just to ignore my presence, and they would say things and do things as though I was not there. And some of the men would talk about their sexual exploits. Some of the ones that were more -- I would say -- disreputable or whatever, would brag about going down to Albany, Georgia, 35 miles away, to a whorehouse and having sex with whores, some of whom were white, some of whom were black, and the same men would be the ones most likely to be mentioned as members of the Ku Klux Klan, and this was an unpleasant facet of the Plains city life. At that time, Plains had about 500 people total population.
LAMB: Has all that gone away?
CARTER: So far as I know it's all gone away. Except the physical town is there, and it's a little bit larger, as a matter of fact, in total population than it was back then.
LAMB: One of the last lines here is "long before I was 10 years old I learned to judge the whole community."
LAMB: How has that followed you through your life?
CARTER: Well, you didn't read the rest of it, because I thought it was kind of humorous.
LAMB: The last line: "I knew the good folks were the ones who bought their boiled peanuts from me."
CARTER: You know, one time during the campaign I said that. I can't wait until the psychiatrists get hold of this book. But one time during the campaign I was making a funny statement. I said, you know, "It's not good for us to judge people." I think I said it in a church. I said, "But I know how to judge people. I learned how to judge people when I was 8 years old. I used to sell boiled peanuts in Plains, and I very quickly learned how to judge everybody in town. The good people were the ones that bought boiled peanuts from me, and the bad people didn't." It was a joke. But later, two psychiatrists got hold of that quote and just psychoanalyzed me, you know, as being a twisted or depraved or thinking that I could judge people by whether they did me favors. So I'm sure that when psychiatrists get a hold of this, or psycho-politicians or whatever they call themselves, get a hold of this series of poems, they're going to have a field day.
LAMB: Were you at all surprised by the reaction to the book of poems so far?
CARTER: Pleasantly surprised, yeah. The reviews have been beautiful. The only negative comment I read in an otherwise very good overall piece -- I think it was in "Newsweek" -- the critic said that I shouldn't have included the poem to Rosalynn, because it was so personal and emotional that in effect it embarrassed him to read it. But that has turned out to be, I think, the favorite poem in the whole book. When I sign books, and I sign maybe 1,500 or 2,000 at each bookstore, a lot of the people will open the book to a certain poem and ask me to sign it there instead of in the flyleaf, and a surprising portion of the women want me to sign the Rosalynn poem.
LAMB: Here's "A Reflection of Beauty in Washington," but it's the illustration that I also want to show. Has your granddaughter been here often?
CARTER: I don't think she's ever been here.
LAMB: How does she figure out to do something like this?
CARTER: Well, she knows what the capitol looks like. Actually, I was in the White House, and we were on the roof of the White House -- I think the White House shows up there, yes -- and I think the poem is one of the most beautiful of all. It's a very simple poem about our going to the roof of the White House one night. My youngest son was an amateur astronomer, and he wanted us to look at a constellation, and we were aggravated because you couldn't see the stars very clearly because of the Washington city lights, and all of a sudden we heard this primeval sound coming from the north, and there was a beautiful flight of geese going over Washington, and the city lights were being reflected from their breasts, and it was one of the most memorable and beautiful sights I've ever seen, and that's what I wrote the poem about.
LAMB: You have a poem that has the heading "Some Things I Love," and things like "my in-basket empty," "a good new book."
LAMB: Now, fiction, nonfiction?
LAMB: Best book you've read in the last few months? Most interesting?
CARTER: Well, the fiction book I've read recently I liked is by a Danish writer, "Smilla and her Knowledge of the Snow," ice and snow. I think that one of the most interesting nonfiction books I've read recently is "The Quark and the Jaguar," which is a book about scientific discoveries. And the recent book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt I found to be interesting.
LAMB: "The end of the six-mile run in the rain."
CARTER: That's right.
LAMB: Some things I love?
LAMB: Why? You still run?
CARTER: Yes, still... I ran this morning, sure. I run whenever possible. When we're traveling overseas, my wife and I run every morning quite early. We get up early, we run when it gets daybreak, and we generally get through before sunrise, and we then can go through the rest of the day in restaurants and in meetings and on airplanes, and we still enjoy running.
LAMB: "Grandchildren coming in our front door. The same ones leaving in a day or two."
LAMB: What's the best thing that somebody can say about you?
CARTER: Best thing?
LAMB: Yeah, as you travel around, I'm sure people say things to your face that you like to hear and maybe some things you don't like to hear, but what do you want to ... I don't want to say, "be remembered by," but what do you like the most?
CARTER: I don't know. It's hard to say. I think historically I'd like to be remembered for things that we did that contributed to peace and human rights. I'd like people to understand that I have been honest and truthful, that I've loved the simpler things of life. I'd like to be remembered as a good grandfather; we have nine grandchildren. Those are a wide range of things I'd like to be remembered for. I was an outstanding farmer at one time. I produced the best seed peanuts, I think, in this country, perhaps in the world. I was very proud of that. I was a good submarine officer. So in the different phases in my life I've wanted to be remembered for different things.
LAMB: Do you plan to write another book?
CARTER: I'm writing another book right now, and as I say, I've published two books since this one was begun. Whether I'll have another book of poetry, I don't yet know. I've got seven or eight poems now that are in the development stage, and so I've continued to write poetry. I really enjoy this. I've been amazed really at how much of a self-revelation comes from a poem. You know, I start writing a poem about things that I want to treat superficially in a way, and before I know it, I've kind of explored the inner depths of my soul and my consciousness and my memory and revealing things that otherwise I would never have told anyone.
LAMB: This is what the cover of the book looks like, a book of poems, "Always a Reckoning" by Jimmy Carter. Thank you very much for your time.
CARTER: I've enjoyed it very much.
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