The poet Ezra Pound once observed: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” That is about as apt and succinct a description as you can find of what an encounter with a superb poem feels like.
When I conceived of devoting an entire issue of this monthly WestVirginiaVille web magazine to poets or poems with some connection to West Virginia I didn’t realize that when all was writ and done it would end up being quite so ambitious.
And … um, large.
But when you buy pixels by the barrel the sky’s the limit. Yet, once I started inviting some poets to send me a poem (plus a few writers who might not self-identify as poets but whose work I admired) things snowballed.
Then, I got invited to Bob Henry Baber’s resurrected poetry fest on Baber Mountain in the West Virginia outback this Summer. The event featured all-poetry-readings for two straight days, way the heck out in the green, green hills of earth. (On the last few miles of twisty-turvy gravel road to the mountaintop, the sole thought in my head was: ‘This can’t be right …‘ Which, I should note, is going to be the title to a song, poem or travel guide to West Virginia’s backcountry someday.)
It is an experience I recommend. Sustained encounters with poetry, I mean. Preferably in the fresh air, far out in the rolling hills. In our case, having a Dachsund/Corgi mix in the audience was an added benefit.
At that gathering, I met and heard John Burroughs read, the recently named National Beat Poet Laureate of these United States, as selected by the National Beat Poetry Foundation. Yes, that is a thing, as the wake kicked up by the Beats back in the 1950s and ’60s crests onward. John turned out to be a delightful poet and fine human being. And — it’s a small world, after all — a native of Richwood, W.Va., it turns out.
Well, now, that called for poems from him for this special edition. Also a Q&A, via our interview series: “5 QUESTIONS: With U.S. Beat Poet Laureate & WV native John Burroughs.” John’s answers trace the life arc of a sickly, un-athletic boy, bullied and desperate while growing up in these Appalachian hills, whose encounter with poetry, he says, “ended up saving my life.” And — oddness of oddness —this West Virginia native now has a full-time poetry writing-and-touring career. (Is that even legal?!)
I once said I don’t want to be anyone but me, man, really but then I tend to forget I’m you and he and she and the world is a poem and whether or not we write a word we’re all part of it and each other (from "John Cage Engaged and Uncaged" by John Burroughs)
On Baber Mountain, I was also blown away by the poem “Appalachian Freshwater Pearls,” by a guy named Owen P. Cramer. Owen is a man who’ll quickly note he is “not a poet or Appalachian” in the paragraph bio I ask of him when seeking permission to re-print this piece. (He adds that he IS married to a quite celebrated poet, Pauletta Hansel, who also read on Baber Mountain and whose work I recommend to you.)
I should note about WestVirginiaVille’s mission statement & modus operandi: I choose people to profile and works to publish or reprint which “have some connection to West Virginia.” What this means is that a person need not be a West Virginian to have work featured, if that work reflects something about the state. Or was staged/birthed/inspired by or reflects something in these hills.
All of that is to say two things.
“Appalachian Freshwater Pearls” is one of the most dead-on channelings I’ve ever read of the oligarchic, loot-the-premises-and-head-to-the-bank mentality, which has long savaged daily life in West Virginia and Appalachia-at-large. There is not a note out of place in this ventriloquist’s incisive, mordant depiction of the unfeeling world view of men say, for instance, such as Donald Blankenship and his oily ilk:
I will give nothing for your mountains. You don’t respect them. You have no sense of the history or the culture of your land. Even your own people have abandoned those mountains. Shame on you for being who you are. (from "Appalachian Freshwater Pearls" by Owen P. Cramer)
And, then on the next day in a porch session before we all went our separate ways, Bob Henry Baber read “Teena’s Story (for Don West).” The poem was inspired by an encounter with a real-life woman whose father was, first, damaged for life while coal mining. And then — quite literally — killed by coal. (The dedication in the poem’s title is apt, by the way.)
Witnesses said he was crushed by block coal spilled from the wreck, and died within minutes of internal injuries. "Coal" was the last word he lipped. (from "Teena's Story (for Don West)" by Bob Henry Baber)
The poems by these two men that weekend rang in my head like a conversation and confrontation. Or maybe a debate. I felt I had to put them into the same publication, since they are opposite ends of a spectrum, joined by blood, sweat, tears, life, and death, loss, wealth, poverty, and domination.
The good stuff. And the bad, of course.
And, so, that is how I hope this wide-ranging, special edition of WestVirginiaVille functions for any reader who spends some time with it. (Especially if that Orange Wannabe Tyrant finally goes down for the count — and you require a soul-nourishing break from the torrent of news and social media craziness to follow: You’re welcome here!)
The way I see it, there are all sorts of conversations, reverberations, and an odd, enlivening repartee going on as this issue canvasses a huge range of written poems and performed poetry. “Teena’s Story: For Don West” and “Appalachian Freshwater Pearls” are, for example, in conversation with Crystal Good’s epic poem “BOOM BOOM,” from her 2012 debut poetry collection “Valley Girl.”
And, too, part of the mission of this edition is to underscore the ancient storytelling craft (which is maybe the oldest human artform?) of live tale telling. In this case, you can experience two takes — one of which I had a hand in crafting — of Crystal performing this essential poem, which belongs in any canon of contemporary West Virginia poetry. I’ll leave you to experience the piece in her words, literally and actually. But below is what the poet says of the roots of “BOOM BOOM.”
“I see the mountain as a woman. This poem is about strip mining as much as it is about gender. A heavy equipment operator working on an above-ground mine site is doing what he feels he has to do — sometimes life doesn’t give us many options and sometimes the consequences of few employment options are more than we expected. It’s hard for a stripper to reclaim her reputation — it’s impossible to put back a stream or a mountain top once it’s gone.”
All three of the above pieces, as well as every other work in this issue, are in deep, thoughtful conversation with the dazzling, luminous poetry of Irene McKinney (1939-2012), who served as W.Va. Poet Laureate from 1994 until her death.
Allow me to make a pitch to you — whomever you are reading this right now. Read Kate Long’s extended piece on the poet, her poetry, and worldviews through to its finish: “‘A farm woman wrapped up with a world-class poet’: Irene McKinney in her own words.”
The article and its nine poems will be of special interest to writers and wannabe writers. But any human being — if you are interested in becoming more wakeful, heartfelt, and grounded in the natural world and your natural self — will, I think, come away renewed and refreshed from spending 10 minutes with this most remarkable person.
Kate’s piece is drawn from an even longer “In Their Own Country” profile of the poet from a 2002 West Virginia Public Broadcasting series that showcased 14 acclaimed writers in West Virginia. This great series will be repurposed into its own website in 2023. See the story for details and free subscribe to this magazine for notice of its release.
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As I read the profile, I kept noting down brilliant, bulls-eye things Irene McKinney kept uttering that I wished to preserve for future reference. The woman was a walking, talking Delphic Oracle for getting to the heart of the matter. As in:
“That facade that we present to the world is necessary, as a kind of social lubrication. Yet I think it’s very, very dangerous if we forget what the self is, the sort of bare, naked self beneath that facade.”
And her to-die-for poetry is a bugle call to the wisdom of lodging in a place that speaks to you and learning how to speak out of that place:
“So many poems I was reading were about city life or didn’t seem to take into account the rural world in any way. Or if it did take into account the natural world, it was just kind of like a decoration. It was something in the background. But to me, the natural world was in the foreground.”
Which, speaking of wakefulness, sums up life at its best enfolded in these West Virginia hills, with the natural world ever “in the foreground.” PS: ATTENTION, YOU PARACHUTE NATIONAL MEDIA ADLED BY CARICATURE ASSASSINATION: “All we are saying is give West Virginia a chance …”
Two other extended Q&A’s in this issue (we bought a LOT of pixels this month) feature two intriguing individuals, who are exceptional writers, thinkers, and doers. Regular WestVirginiaVille readers may recall a prior Q&A in this mag’s “FIVE QUESTIONS” series with John Berry. That chat concerned “Where Sky Meets Eternity,” a documentary tracing an ambitious game-of-artistic-telephone, resulting in the show “Passages” at The River House, a community hub for the visual arts and music in Hampshire County, WV.
John and I started trading poetic riffs with each other, after that. I was delighted to receive in the mail one of his objet d’art handmade chapbooks, “The Broken Poem and Other Strange Ideas About God.” We are featuring “The Broken Poem” from that publication. It is part of a gloriously fun and inquisitive ongoing poetry series on how God, who was a little bored, created the universe, along with a little help from his BFFs Gravity, Darkness, and Silence, while accidentally creating things such as admiration and thunder along the way. Below is an exceprt, but you’ll learn lots more from reading my Q&A with John: “5 QUESTIONS: Creating the universe with God, Gravity, Darkness & friends”:
The words whirled in God’s hands. ‘COME ON, BABY! MOMMA NEEDS A NEW PAIR OF SHOES!’ God was not unused to games of chance. ‘SEVEN COME ELEVEN ALL GOD’S CHILDREN GO TO HEAVEN!’ God boomed, inadvertently inventing Thunder as Silence and Darkness and Gravity made uneasy faces.
Meanwhile, a hotshot, youthful freelance colleague of mine from back in the days when Triceratops and Brontosauruses roamed in West Virginia newsrooms still flush with cash — D. Scott Miller — crossed my social media radar screen this year. We reconnected after too many decades beyond those days when he was, no doubt, ‘shocking the bourgeoise‘ — this was the early 1990s in West Virginia, after all — writing about Hip-Hop in the pages of the state’s leading newspaper.
Check out the arc of his career and his poetry in a double-barreled introduction — “A Poetry Sampler by D. Scot Miller” and another intriguing Q&A: “5 QUESTIONS: From West Virginia to the San Francisco Bay and beyond.” Here is a West Virginia native whose work and thought is worth knowing more about, and which has kept its edge ever since he was a college student in Institute, hungry for a more inclusive education:
“I was considered transgressive at the time, as well, particularly in the position that Hip-Hop music was more than a fad, but a growing culture infused with poetry that had the potential to change the world.”
Echoes and reverberations continue. So this former Dunbar guy D. Scott Miller landed at Beat godfather Lawrence Ferlighetti’s legendary bookstore, City Lights in San Francisco, and in his influential presence. Meanwhile, Richwood kid John Burroughs went on to become Ohio Beat Poet Laureate for two years before ascending to his current national Beat beat.
(Check out my 1995 interview with Ferlinghetti when was headed to West Virginia, a poetic icon to generations of creatives. Plus, I admit I never slept with Allen Ginsberg — although I did get stoned with him as a bunch of us did one evening round a bonfire sat a long ago W.Va Writers Inc. conference in these hills.)
This issue also includes the sublime poem “Not All That Much” by current W.Va. Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, who assumed that position the year W.Va. Poet Laureate Irene McKinney died in 2002. Marc hosted a celebration of the life and work of McKinneyin 2013 (see the video at the end of Kate Long’s profile). He has gone on to publish his own rich, evocative body of work, including the gorgeous new chapbook “The Dark Hills of Home,” from which this issue’s “Not All That Much” derives.
I lean against the gray birch, or sit on the white sandstone, or kneel in the faded leaf litter, and pray without thinking God or prayer, pray by simply staying put, letting time fall away from me, letting thought fall away from me until it's just me, and this, these things that don't seem all that much but are. (from "The Dark Hills of Home" by Marc Harshman)
The issue also includes three completely different, yet complementary poetic meditations on lost youth, aging, friendship, and the inexorable, sweetly painful passing of time. These are: “The Garden You Called Eden” by Julie Pratt; “Bound Stone” by Colleen Anderson; and “The Revolt” by Connie Kinsey. James Cochran adds in a poetic Appalachian travelogue, “Watoga 2021,” whose ending image of a white pony hurtling through outer space in a state of comfortable equanimity is my current role model for daily life.
I’ve tossed in my own poem, “Fiery Thoughts,” which itself confronts some of the contrary complexities of being a non-simple human being, arcing between upstanding and not-so-upstanding personas. And, in the interest of advancing the cause of online, multimedia poetry, check out “VIDEOGRAPHIC POEMS: 3 to Go,” part of a series of short, multimedia poems. I have been experimenting with the form (and am seeking fellow travelers).
Finally, a shout out to you high school-age poets and wannabe poets, plus their teachers, principals, friends, and family supporters. James Cochran, with a little help from the University of Charleston and other area institutions, has whipped into shape the launch of a high-profile youth poetry program: “Kickstarting a Youth Poet Laureate Program in West Virginia’s capital city.”
And thus, two words, in closing.
Well, a few more, If you enjoy WestVirginiaVille, please support this web magazine with a donation and also free subscribe at: westvirginiaville.substack.com. I am trying to keep this publication uncluttered with ads (though you are welcome to advertise and sponsor pages in a judicious way— just pitch us.) I also don’t wish to turn on a paywall and put some content behind a subscription screen, although that may happen some day.
I am making this up as I go along, with a lot of help from friends and fellow multimedia travelers, and maybe a little light therapy. As I have said before, WestVirginiaVille.com (a project of AmpMediaProject.com) is a media art project. Help me keep the media artistry flowing. This particular issue took a huge chunk out of my month to craft, assemble, edit, and promote. And we have no visible means of support except for your donations. Vote with your donations, so I can stand up at some future live WestVirginiaVille-sponsored event and cry: “You like us. You really like us!”
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