Several of your poems are tributes to friends that have passed on. These are deeply personal, and yet resonate with me and probably every other reader who has experienced loss. The poem about Joe Barrett is particularly rich. Would you tell me more about Joe, and about this poem? Do you think death is a more frequent theme in Appalachian writing than in the work of writers from other regions (and if so, why?
As I have always told students in my workshops and creative writing classes, the more personal you can make your work, the more universal it will be. Your audience will understand. Human animals all have the same experiences. Death is one of the tough ones. I’m not sure it is more prevalent in Appalachian writing compared to other regions, but it probably is more poignant and dramatic. The circumstances of death (to play on a Barbara Smith title) here are many, varied, and oftentimes public. The hard part about it is bringing it back each time you present it. It is not as easy as it looks. Even in the overall Appalachian agrarian society, where we recognize and understand the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth, we struggle with the loss of loved ones.
Joe Barrett was a brilliant poet from Richwood, WV. He and his wife Joan were very close friends to me. The poem is completely true. Joe and I made some sort of connection. He had attempted suicide. He struggled with what he thought was the bleakness of life on this planet. I, on the other hand, saw things much differently. Joe called me the optimist aboard the Lusitania. But we had that connection, that spark of familiarity with something deep inside both of us. Joe died in Lexington one night. I had tried to call him that night, but no one answered the phone. Ever.
Selecting works for this book must have been an interesting process. Can you tell me something about how you chose the poems included in My People, and about the photos you chose for the book?
Well, it was a process, but maybe not so interesting. I wanted to have a full collected and new works project, with a recording. I was way overdue for a book. My first two chapbooks were published in 1986 and 1996. So I just went back through both of those and picked out some of what I wanted to reprint. That made up just under half of what is in the new book. Then I went through the good stuff I had done since 1996, and threw it in there.
I worked on the arrangement a lot, with some much appreciated help from Sherrell Wigal. I think it kinda/sorta makes sense. The book starts with my WV heritage poems, moves into some nature poems, some life observation poems, some loss poems, and then some political poems, with some silly poems and other things scattered throughout. I think it tells a pretty good story of my poetic career.
Click Play Song to hear Kirk and Sherrell perform "The Ground of Eden" in tandem.
What change, if any, do you see in your work as you grow older?
I’m much more patient with myself, and much more prone to edit carefully before I think of something as finished. I pay particular attention to the craft of it. It can be complicated. Every sound and pause really needs to be considered. I didn’t do that as a young poet. I just laid it out there.
|View behind Kirk's camp|
Some of your poems, like “Have They Now?” reflect the environmental issues in West Virginia both currently and in the past? Do you see yourself as political, or as an activist? Why write poems that address these issues?
My poem “The Campfires of the Hunters” was published many years ago in the “Activism in Appalachia” issue of “Now & Then” magazine. Until then, I didn’t see myself as an activist, although I always spoke out against what I thought were unjust issues, especially environmental and exploitation issues. West Virginia seems to have more than its share. Maybe it is because we are isolated by geography and outcast by politics. West Virginia was the only territory lost or won as a result of the civil war. Its creation, always legally suspect, was more of a convenience for politicians and resource extraction businessmen than it was a product of a good governance decision. West Virginia is the youngest state and has the highest average elevation of any state east of the Mississippi. Important things, like rivers carrying water down both sides of the Eastern Continental Divide, start here. Although the industries and politics of the state don’t seem to care, I believe we as a people care deeply about what we have here, and we fight (losing mostly) to preserve it. How can we not create poems, songs, stories, art, music, dance that address these issues? How else can we tell ‘em what we think?
Who would you name as your mentors, and who has most influenced your writing?
Louise McNeill, Shirley Young Campbell, Muriel Dressler, Boyd Carr, Sherman Hammons, Maggie Hammons Parker, Jim Wayne Miller, Bob Snyder, Michael Pauley and Joe Barrett were among my mentors. There are others. I was extremely lucky to have John McKernan as a creative writing teacher at Marshall University, and to be included in the Guyandotte Poets group along with John, Bill and Ruth Sullivan, Llewellyn McKernan, and Bob Gerke. Being a part of that group certainly shaped and sharpened me as a serious poet. The Bing Brothers and the tremendous community of WV musicians have had a great influence on me. Louise McNeill and Sherman and Maggie Hammons have been my greatest influences.
Your latest book is actually a book/cd combination titled My People Was Music. Do you have any other publications still in print or available for sale? Where might readers find more information about you and your work? Do you have anything new in the works yet—I know My People was just published, but wondered if you had any other projects on the fire.
I have published two other chapbooks of poetry “Field of Vision” Aegina Press 1986, and “Tao-Billy” Trillium Press 1996. Both are out of print, but I think some are available on Amazon or through other online book sellers. I also co-edited, with Barbara Smith, the anthology “Wild, Sweet Notes – Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry”. That is still in print and available everywhere.
I don’t know where readers might find more information about me. Being a WV poet doesn’t exactly make you famous.
Nothing new in the works poetry-wise. I am on the Board of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace foundation in Pocahontas County and we are working to get Pearl’s original manuscript collection, which has been behind closed doors for 42 years, out into the public. And of course I am continuing my work with Allegheny Echoes and my relationship with West Virginia Writers, Inc.
Do you have any book signings/readings scheduled? If so, when and where?
Yes, thanks for asking. I will be in Morgantown,WV at the MAC for Morgantown Poets on July 17th, at Taylor Books in Charleston, WV at Noon on July 19th, at Empire Books in Huntington, WV at 4pm on July 19th, at the Lewisburg WV Literary Festival August 1st and 2nd (times tbd), the Marlinton WV Library on September 12th (time tbd) and at the Clarksburg WV Library for National Poetry Month in April of 2015 (time and date tbd).
I’m also working on readings/signings in Beckley, Parkersburg, Wheeling and Berkeley Springs. I’ll be happy to go anywhere anytime if anyone knows of any other opportunities.
Oh, and listen for cuts from the CD to be played on the Whiskey Wednesday weekly radio show on East Nashville Radio, and on WVMR Mountain Radio (Allegheny Mountain Radio) in Frost, WV.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you! I do appreciate it.
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.