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In Autumn 2020, in the worst of the pandemic, The New York Times asked poets laureate from across America what the people in their states had to be thankful for in that difficult year. At the link is the response of Marc Harshman, who has been poet laureate for the state of West Virginia since 2012. In a WestVirginiaVille “5 Questions” interview, we caught up with the poet and his poetry from his home in Wheeling WV.
5 Questions with West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What did the New York Times request of you in writing a poem out of West Virginia? And how did this specific work, “Dispatch from the Mountain State,” then come about?
MARC HARSHMAN: Basically, the newspaper requested in light of “this extraordinarily difficult year and in advance of Thanksgiving” that I reflect upon what Thanksgiving might mean in the context of my particular state. This was a request sent to poets laureate across the nation. I’m not really sure how many eventually responded. Over a dozen, I’m sure. I believe I had about a week’s advance notice so — flattered as I was to be asked — I did, at first, debate whether to accept the challenge. The initial ask was for a prose reflection and that’s very tough work for me. But I was given the option of writing a poem and thinking in poetry is always easier. So I just started scribbling. You see the results.
WVILLE: When did you first start writing poetry in your life? And when did you have the “a-ha” moment: “Wait. I’m a poet.” Or did you ever?
MH: I first wrote poems when I was in grade school. I can vaguely remember one written in the dialect tone of James Whitcomb Riley, which a teacher savaged. Thankfully, I survived her ill manners. I don’t think I’ve ever had an ‘a-ha’ moment that I was a writer of any sort. It is, as they say, a vocation, something I feel deeply called to do, can’t imagine not doing it. And try very hard not to think about publish-ability, but only about whether it pleases me in approaching meaning and/or music.
I want to do everything I can to support my fellow writers throughout the state — not just poets, but prose writers, as well, both fiction and nonfiction.
WVILLE: How did you come to be Poet Laureate of West Virginia and what has the role meant to you personally? Do you have a license plate that says ‘poetlaureate’? But seriously, how do you view the role — and is it a lifetime sinecure since you have filled it for awhile now?
MH: I still do not know how I came to be appointed Poet Laureate of West Virginia. I just got a call one day from a secretary in the Governor’s office and that’s how it began. There are no stated duties. But since I was appointed, I have seen it as my responsibility to try and get “poetry” out into the larger world as much as possible. I want to do everything I can to support my fellow writers throughout the state — not just poets, but prose writers, as well, both fiction and nonfiction. Also, I feel like it’s my duty to spread the net even wider, to do what I can to support artists of all kinds throughout West Virginia. Although we are a relatively small state, it’s hard for me to imagine any state with a greater pool of accomplished artists working here — painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, as well as, of course, writers. And it’s simply a real pleasure to be able to shine a light on my amazingly talented colleagues. Regarding your other question: my two predecessors, Louise McNeill (14 years laureate) and Irene McKinney (18 years laureate) served as the state’s poet laureate until their deaths.
VIOLETS The light falls green along the sloping hill with its meandering streams of purple. I try hard to be there by being here, to make some things mean something. The TVs are coming on, their erasure of so much I used to know. A friend has thrown all her dreams into the shithouse and wanders in circles in a small room on the edge of town. Another sits by a window translating conversations between Lincoln and Kennedy, adopting stray cats, the occasional man, spending weeks creating stories that might lead them all home. My watch circles inside a loop larger than I can imagine. There are memories hanging from its arms, piling up, one on top of the other, trying to slow its inexorable tick. Who’d have thought they weighed so little? I cup a few of my smaller dreams in the palm of my hand, hold them up to the airy light I know by faith is destined to extinction. The violets have begun to sing now, a small drop of rain in each of their throats. from "Woman in Red Anorak," Marc Harshman, Lynx House Press, 2018
WVILLE: What roles does poetry serve in the long arc of humans speaking to humans, in your view? And what would be your advice to aspiring poets, insecure in their skills and publish-ability, but knowing they absolutely must write poems?
MH: I think we often tell aspiring writers to look to inspiration. But, that’s very tricky. I think it best to begin by saying I feel called to the work I do as a poet, as in the old-fashioned sense of that word ‘called,’ as in vocation, the way a priest is called to give over their life to something he or she may not quite understand. I start with that.
Although perhaps once I could, I can no longer recall what it meant not to be writing poems, can no longer imagine not writing them. So, with that out of the way, yes, there are brainstorms when something magical seems to happen, a lightning bolt carries a certain idea or word racing out of my skull, down my arm, and into my fingertips and onto the page. If we want to use the word inspiration for that, sure, go ahead. No predicting those moments, however, but there can be a lifetime spent preparing for them.
And that preparation is the work, this vocation.
The modernist painter, Chuck Close, famously said: “I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show and get to work. If you’re going to wait a around for the clouds to open up and lightning to strike you in the brain, you’re not going to make an awful lot of work.“
There is something else, though, that I must say. Much as the work is there to be done, much as I must show up and stay open to inspiration, there is also my obligation as an artist in the larger world, in society, to be a political being, if you will. W.H. Auden speaks cogently to this:
In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens…~ W.H. Auden
That is, a person is not only tasked with work but also remains open to play. I think this observation remains true — and so my responsibility is to be that Homo Ludens, a person open to play, to creativity. My artistry, then, is not “for” so much as it is some kind of allowance “of” the creative spirit to manifest itself through my work, and nudge the world closer to what’s best beyond just myself.
And, though they might not at first seem related, I believe this play to which I’m called is also linked to a responsibility to my readers, as well as the larger world in general.
At the end of the day I believe the best counsel I might offer — certainly to a younger poet — is to love what you do from the deepest place in your soul. Understand that this will bring you hurt and pain, frustration, anger, loneliness, despair. But with luck you will know it can also galvanize in you a sense of purpose, make you giddy, shine a light in the dark, and just possibly might keep your head above water when you feel that all is going down. Or simply acknowledge, as I try to do, that you surrender to your passion and then trust you’ll keep finding a handhold on that cliff in front of you.
At the end of the day I believe the best counsel I might offer, certainly to a younger poet, is to love what you do from the deepest place in your soul.
WVVILLE: What poets have been influential in your life and career?
MH: Beyond the many Appalachian writers I know and count as friends, I would point to the early influence of the Beat poets, Ginsberg and company. The Black Mountain poets, Charles Olson and company, as well as Denise Levertov, Jane Cooper, Etheridge Knight, and Linda Pastan. There was, however, through a curious turn of circumstances several British poet that would come to have a large influence, including my friend, Gael Turnbull, as well as George Mackay Brown, R. S. Thomas, and Elizabeth Jennings.
WVVILLE: Ask yourself a question — and answer it.
MH: Someone once asked me what was my idea of happiness? (I think for an interview for WV Writers, Inc.)
MH: A warm summer afternoon outdoors, clouds and sun, with a cup of tea, the music of Delius or Germaine Tailleferre or Bill Evans, poems by Edward Thomas or Lorine Niedecker, new mown hay scenting the hillside, a painting of Samuel Palmer or Rothko or Joan Mitchell in the dreamscape, a remembered word from a past lover or a friend returned with happy news from those lands beyond.
RESTLESS In spectacular sunlight the old woman’s fingers never stop: knit and purl, knit and purl, they work an invisible and resilient yarn. I wonder what she is making or, rather, when it was, and where. Perhaps it was that elm-shaded porch in Apple Valley during the war where letters were read and hours spent matching headlines’ foreign names to that Atlas next to the Bible, the Bible in which already two new death dates were recorded that year: brother Oliver thirty-six, son Richard nineteen, Oliver in the North Atlantic, Richard on an island in the Pacific, Peleliu, less than a fraction the size of her small county in rural Ohio. Such size puzzled her, seemed unfair, unseemly. Maybe that’s why she was so good with her hands, rarely dropping a stitch, producing perfect sweaters and scarves and afghans. But I think now it’s nothing so elaborate as a sweater, only a pair of socks, practical, simple, what the boys needed. And maybe her hands are simply searching another pattern, that one we all reach for wishing to bring the dead back from dying, to bring them back who’ve gone away from us, away from the touch of hands that once could mend anything if there was enough yarn, enough light, enough time. from "Woman in Red Anorak," Marc Harshman, Lynx House Press, 2018
MARC HARSHMAN Publications
Among Marc Harshman’s many publications are: “The Shadow Testimonies,” Salmon Press, Republic of Ireland (forthcoming); “Woman in Red Anorak” (poems), Lynx House Press, 2018; “Fallingwater” (co-athor with Anna Smucker), Roaring Brook/Mcmillan, 2017; “Believe What You Can” (poems), The Vandalia Press, 2016; “One Big Family,” Eerdmans, 2016; “Mountain Christmas,” Quarrier Press, 2015; “All That Feeds Us” (poems/chapbook), Quarrier Press, 2013; “Green-Silver and Silent” (poems), Bottom Dog Press, 2012.
His work is included in a host of anthologies including: “A Gathering of Poets” (Kent State, London& Kent, OH); “Old Wounds, New Words” (The Jesse Stuart Foundation, KY); “Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry About School (University of Iowa); “WILDSONG: Poems of the Natural World” (University of Georgia); “FIRE AND INK: An Anthology of Social Action Writing (University of Arizona); “FROM THE OTHER WORLD: Poems in Memory of James Wright (Lost Hills); “Poems for a Liminal Age” (SPM Publications, London, England); and “Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia.” (Vandalai Press, West Virgina University).
MORE ON POETS & THEIR POEMS:
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PHOTOPOEM: “When Hay Bales Speak to You”: feb11.2021: Let’s talk hay bales. I have, perhaps like you, been spying hay bales most all my life. Yet, in all that time haven’t met a hay bale. Up close. The other day, I had my chance.
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READINGS | A Stroll Deep into a West Virginia Marsh: july10.2020: If it’s true we are mother, father, sister, brother, related all to all, maybe that’s one way to comprehend and befriend the ten thousand things. The hundreds of voices, cries, and songs rising from this manifold marsh.
POETICS| An Almost Heaven & James Brown Upbringing: june12.2020: I was raised on Almost Heaven and Hee Haw/Taught to love God and the UMWA/I was an odd little Black girl/Growing up in the coalfields of West Virginia …
DON WEST | Part 2: “May It Be So”: june6.2020: Long before it became fashionable, Don West fought the passive hillbilly stereotype by pointing to mountain labor’s traditions of struggle and solidarity.
DON WEST | Part 1: Not An Easy Path: june6.2020: Don West was not a warm and fuzzy person or “a creator of comfort. He was a ceator of action.” It could be uncomfortable, but the labor activist and poet left a legacy to be explored in a WVPB documentary that debuts Sunday, June 7, 2020