Eric Douglas Published

W.Va. Poet Laureate Talks Poetry And Literature In Appalachia


Poetry is not just about Shakespearean love sonnets. It is about the close observation of the world around us. And it is a big part of Appalachian culture.

Marc Harshman is West Virginia’s poet laureate and an advocate for poetry and Appalachian literature. He spoke with Eric Douglas about what poetry means to West Virginia.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: Tell me about poetry’s significance in West Virginia, in Appalachia, as an art form.

Harshman: The same time I was appointed poet laureate in 2012, there was a new laureate, appointed for the entire nation of Canada. He wrote, “Poetry has existed since the beginning of humanity, our ancestors gathered around the fire and tried to communicate with mysteries bigger than themselves.” That’s still what we do with poetry. We write with the hope that there’s someone at the other end of our poem.

And that strikes me as so quintessentially Appalachian, if we just change those words slightly and broaden it to storytelling, because we have always been a people in this region that is in touch with a place where we tell stories about ourselves, about our history, to try to make sense of life. And that seems so in tune with what the Canadian poet said that we write with the hope there’s someone there at the other end, we write, to communicate with mysteries bigger than ourselves.

Douglas: Sometimes people will hear the word poetry and they think it will be so dense and obscure that they don’t understand it. To me poetry in Appalachia is the stuff of songs, is the stuff of murder ballads, is the stuff of storytelling, is the stuff of that oral tradition.

Harshman: Along with that comes a keen attention to the little everyday things. Wendell Berry, who has written as persuasively as anybody I know about what it means to live in this region we call Appalachia, has said that the regionalism he adheres to is simply defined as local life aware of itself. And that seems to me, so very true.

Louise McNeil, former poet laureate of West Virginia, said once in her wonderful book, which I recommend to everybody called The Milkweed Ladies, it’s a book of her reflections on this region, that “there were the triangular prints of the rabbits,” or I love this, “the little field mice tracks like delicate lace woven across the snow.” That’s someone who lives in a particular place. That’s not fancy language. That’s not anything anybody can’t understand. But it is close observation, it is paying close attention.

That is what I think the best poetry, and let me expand that, the best literature out of our region does, is pay amazingly close attention to place, close attention to voice, some of the characters and some of our novelists and short stories from the region are just amazing. The way they capture voice for these people

Poet Laureate Marc Harshman
West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman reads a poem published in the New York Times last winter.

Douglas: Let’s discuss regional literature in the bigger picture. What’s the effect of Appalachian regional literature?

Harshman: Our state, as small, relatively, as West Virginia is, we have more players on the national stage, it seems a disproportionate amount, in all the best ways. There’s just an amazing wealth of writers of all stripes who are really writing at the top of their game. They’re being published by some of the finest presses in the U.S.

We have everything from a remarkable cabinet maker, cabinetmaker poet, writing poems that are being published by one of the finest university presses in the country. In this generation, we had a steel mill worker winning the Terrence De Pres Prize. We have a young woman raised on a farm south of Parkersburg, who’s writing, translating, doing photography, is fluent in all the languages of Northern Europe, including Faroese and Icelandic. We have another woman who’s an internationally recognized theologian who’s also publishing books of poetry abroad and in the U.S., another who’s a champion fiddler.

There are two young people, both out of Marshall County, who have published major books on the national stage. And not to mention all the amazing people staffing some of our best colleges and universities.

It’s such a diverse range of voices. And we can expand that easily to the, to the broader Appalachian stage.

Douglas: The thought I had as you were running through that list is that these are people who work with their hands and do things and write poetry.

Harshman: But you’ll notice I did say many fine folks from the universities and colleges because some of those people who make their living working with their hands have nonetheless also interacted with the superb teachers in our universities.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.