EDITOR’S NOTE: There are many dynamic duos in the world and in the culture. Batman and Robin. Macaroni and Cheese. Lennon and McCartney. Martinis and olives. This story presents for your consideration a dynamic duo of West Virginia poets, which has for years and across continents shared what John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate of England, declared was “the chief end of poesy” (see below for what that is.) Marc Harshman is West Virginia’s longtime poet laureate while Doug Van Gundy is director of the MFA program in creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. The fortuitous conjunction of an inspiring hike in the West Virginia hills and a fiddle music lecture by Van Gundy was the seed-bed out of which resulted a years-long collaboration the poets dub “Running With Whiskey.”
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: When did you encounter one another and a lightbulb went off: “Hey. We’re both poets! And he plays cool Appalachian music? And we could take this on the road?!?’
DOUG VAN GUNDY: Marc and I have known each other for a decade or more. We had that moment of recognition right away and started spending time together and sharing poems with one another right from the start. After we’d gone hiking in Pocahontas County, Marc wrote a poem inspired by both a fiddle tune and the place we were hiking, “Yew Piney Mountain.” When I came to Wheeling to do a lecture on fiddle music, I asked if Marc would be willing to read his poem while I played the fiddle tune as a finale to the evening. It worked beautifully and people loved it, so we thought: “That was great! What else can we do collaboratively like this?” That was the germ of the whole ‘Running With Whiskey’ show.
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WVVILLE: How often have you performed together over how many years and where? You are an overseas act, right? What has been the reaction abroad?
MARC HARSHMAN: We’ve done this show well over a dozen times, beginning in my hometown of Wheeling, WV, in Christmas 2017, and then further afield in such places/venues as the American Studies Association conference in Cincinnati; Poetry Out Loud celebrations; Taylor Books in Charleston; and the anniversary celebration for West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. And, then, overseas at the Cwtsh Community Arts Centre, Newport, South Wales, and Red House, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. What I most recall from our readings in Wales was the deep warmth of the response and the repeated comments that our Appalachian experience resonated very closely to that of the coal fields and mountains of south-eastern Wales.
DOUG VAN GUNDY: The commonality with Wales was remarkable. A women came up to me after one of the readings and said: “I never thought I’d ever hear a poem with acid mine drainage in it.” Making those kinds of small connections is a big part of why this show is so rewarding. It’s one of the reasons we want to keep performing for people both here and elsewhere.
WVILLE: Do you mix it up, from poetry gig to poetry gig, and under what operating principle? And if you had to give a mission statement for your collaboration what might it be for each of you?
MARC HARSHMAN: We do mix it up a bit depending upon the venue and the request. For instance, with our performance celebrating the anniversary of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy we both made sure to include certain poems and stories in which we addressed environmental issues. However, at other times, speaking for myself, I just get tired of a certain poem and try another, perhaps a new one in which I’m hesitantly confident and eager to “feel” an audience’s response.
DOUG VAN GUNDY: Yes. Marc’s feelings echo my own. Also, sometimes one of us will make a change and the other will remember a poem of their own which might be in conversation with the new poem. I always want our poems to be in dialogue. Marc, what’s our mission statement?
MARC HARSHMAN: One I often borrow — and which I especially like for our collaboration — is this from John Dryden, first Poet Laureate of England and playwright, (1631-1700): “The chief end of poesy is delight.”
DOUG VAN GUNDY: Perfect.
WVVILLE: Poetry is perennially — at least in America — a constant, often frustrating, search for shards of audiences and keen attention (one hopes) to the work. What say you to why poetry remains important to the life of the world and the spirit, especially in parlous times like today with warmongers, autocrats and climate apocalypses bearing down upon us with every headline?
MARC HARSHMAN: Myself, feeding off my use of the Dryden quotation as one way of seeing “mission,” I would reiterate just that. That poetry does remain one way of bringing joy into our too often joy-less lives. Beyond that, however, poets with reputations far loftier than my own have said the following regarding the importance of poetry for the life of the world:
W.S. Merwin: “I think there’s a kind of desperate hope built into poetry now that one really wants, hopelessly, to save the world. One is trying to say everything that can be said for the things that one loves while there’s still time.”
Or this from Galway Kinnell, with whom I share the belief that poetry may “… be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what’s to come.”
As for the life of the spirit, I have said somewhere that I believe our language holds the power to challenge and persuade, comfort, inform and, ultimately to reveal truths about who we are. It is, then, my hope that through our poetry the best of who we are may be both preserved and advanced. Of course, at the end of the day maybe it’s best to simply phrase it as a poem, like this from Sonia Sanchez:
“Let me wear the day / Well so when it reaches you / You will enjoy it.”
I like to think a poet’s words can reach that “you” and that joy may come of that contact and make us all the better for it.
DOUG VAN GUNDY: I’ll add one small quote to Marc’s excellent examples, from William Carlos Williams: “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” Poetry exists for a couple of reasons, in my opinion: to communicate, to commemorate, to illuminate and to delight. We could use all the communication and delight we can get right about now.
WVVILLE: Shouldn’t you two itinerant poets have a cool punk-rock name? Like The Traveling Couplets? The Archetypes? Two Poets and a Soundtrack? The Blank Verse Collective? Help me out here …
DOUG VAN GUNDY: I read in an interview with the remarkable singer-songwriter Gillian Welch that she and her musical partner David Rawlings play together in a band called “Gillian Welch.” Maybe Marc and I are like that. I feel like our collaboration and friendship are foregrounded and celebrated when we perform under our own names.
MARC HARSHMAN: I’m afraid, despite Doug’s own full participation in the punk scene and my having learned chords in my folk guitar days from a famous rock’n’roller, we both resist a name change. We just love “Running with Whiskey,” if for no other reason than the very phrase helped birth us. And for that we’re both very grateful.
POETICS: 3 Poems by Doug Van Gundy: July 1, 2022: ‘These are the hours I love the best, / when the golden light of summer has climbed / to the top of the abandoned building next door / and all of the neighborhood / cats have come out from the woodpile / beneath the back porch to carouse and fight …’
POETICS: 3 Poems by Marc Harshman: June 26, 2022: ‘A fiddle tune bearing, rough-shod, / the memory of the village: / sunlight on stucco, / leaf-plastered paths in autumn, / spectral sheep / in moonlight and bracken, / the lilt of the market tongue, / ancient beyond telling …’
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STORY INDEX FOR JULY 2, 2022 WestVirginiaVille.com
1 | EDITORS/NOTE: About our ‘Memoirs of Daily Life’ Issue : To devote so many pages and pixels to writers, poets, and memoirists, and their dispatches from the front lines of their lives — or the imagined lives of characters — is not to step back from More Important Things. Poetry and prose are no less a form of truth-telling than the best investigative reports.
2 | FIRST/PERSON: Turtle Rescue Out on Pluto Road | by Joseph “Billy” Corduroy : “The first time I tried to save a turtle on the move it peed — or pooped, I’m not sure which — in my truck. I had stopped when I saw a box turtle in the middle of Pluto Road one afternoon maybe ten years ago. I hit my brakes right there in traffic. Fortunately, there was none ….”
3 | 5 QUESTIONS: For Two Poets Who Keep Running With Whiskey : How did West Virginia’s longtime Poet Laureate plus an MFA Creative Writing professor-poet-musician end up “Running With Whiskey” around West Virginia and the world? We have questions, they have answers. Plus, of course, poems.
4 | SHORT/STORY: “Salena” | by Jay Brackenrich : “Salena had never had anything beautiful, certainly never anything perfect. The nuns wrapped her in perfect clean blankets. She had a little cotton shirt, perfect. They asked for the name of the father. She said, “I don’t know.” They entered ‘Unknown’ into the blank box.”
5 | READINGS: “Montani Semper … Snapshots from an Appalachian Family Album” | by Ty Bouldin : Take a read on a WestVirginiaVille.com experiment in publishing longish excerpts from worthy, well-written books with a West Virginia connection, like “Montani Semper …”
6 | POETICS: 3 Poems by James Cochran : ‘She says Jesus / has spoken to her, told her not to drink coffee / or Redbull, that black tea is okay. / I feel jealous of such direct communication / with a higher power, then wonder if I would / stop drinking coffee if Jesus told me to …’
7 | FIRST/PERSON: A few highly personal words on choice | by Anonymous : “Three pregnancies. No choice in any of them. I have never chosen to get pregnant. I was foolish, I was sucker-punched, I was surprised. I was naïve, I was savvy. I wasn’t ready, I was ready. Such a basic right that everyone deserves. CHOICE.”
8 | POETICS: 3 Poems by Marc Harshman : ‘A fiddle tune bearing, rough-shod, / the memory of the village: / sunlight on stucco, / leaf-plastered paths in autumn, / spectral sheep / in moonlight and bracken, / the lilt of the market tongue, / ancient beyond telling …’
9 | MEMOIR: Why trappers with bloody hides wanted in my house | by Connie Kinsey : “One morning, I stumbled down to the kitchen when I heard a noise. There standing was an unkempt man holding bloody hides and smoking a cigarette. “Excuse me?” “I’m looking for Frank …”‘
10 | POETICS: 3 Poems by Doug Van Gundy : ‘These are the hours I love the best, / when the golden light of summer has climbed / to the top of the abandoned building next door / and all of the neighborhood / cats have come out from the woodpile / beneath the back porch to carouse and fight …’
11 | PICTURE/SHOW: Traces of Faces in West Virginia Places | by Douglas John Imbrogno : Here is a selective round-up of people snapped doing their thing on the streets, in the alleys, and in the cigar bars of of West Virginia’s cities, towns, and outback.
12 | WATCH LIST: Here are some things to look at, West Virginia-wise | Check out this version of variations on “Country Roads” by the Kanawha Valley Community Band which channels Aaron Copeland; plus a video of a crazy fitness guy sledding around Charleston WV; and more.