Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: My People Was Music by Kirk Judd

West Virginia poet Kirk Judd's latest collection of poems, My People Was Music, was published by Mountain State Press. He will be presenting from his work at two events this week, and at many others in the months to come (see dates at times at the end of this post). Those who attend will find that rather than reading his poems, Judd recites them from memory--he is that close to his work and his words, and for listeners it is a memorable experience. He gives voice to the mountains and her people, to her music and traditions in compelling lines that resonate with the language of his home.

Kirk graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog, and we covered so much ground that I will be presenting the interview in two posts. You may want to begin by listening to his poem, The High Country Remembers Her Heritage, which most people call by its first line, My People Was Music.

Play Song

High Country is a perfect introduction to Kirk and his work. Here is the first part of our conversation:

First, tell me a little about yourself: where you’re from, and maybe a bit about your West Virginia roots. How did your people come to live in West Virginia?

I am from Huntington, in Wayne County.  Most folks think of Huntington as being Cabell County, and it mostly is, but there is a little part, called Westmoreland, of the city that is in Wayne County.  I’m from there.  I grew up about 2 blocks from the Ohio River and about a mile from Camden Park.  My family is from Eastern Kentucky.  My parents moved to Westmoreland from Ashland, KY because my Father’s job moved there.  I am the first generation born in WV, but my Appalachian roots are deep.  Both sides of my family have been here (mostly in Kentucky and Virginia) for many generations, going back to the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars.

You don’t “look” like the stereotypical poet: no beret or black clothing! And I know your work history would not make me think immediately of a poet. Tell me about that history and what it brings to your writing.

My “poet clothes”, as Sherrell Wigal calls them, are bibbed overalls.  I’ve been wearing them since high school.  I worked for 23 years at the Ashland Works of ARMCO Steel, now AK Steel.  It was a fully integrated mill, working 24x7 year-round, with over 4000 employees.  It was like a little, self-contained town.  I then worked for 1 year at the Wastewater Treatment facility for the City of Huntington, 7 years for Special Metals (INCO Alloys) in Huntington, and 11 years for Lockheed Martin, starting at the FBI Fingerprint Facility in Clarksburg, WV and winding up with offices in Rockville, MD, Gaithersburg, MD and King of Prussia, PA.  I travelled a lot during the last several years I worked for LM.   I think the fact that I was working out in the world, and experiencing things outside the academic world, lends a certain perspective to my work. 

Your style of presenting your poetry is unique, I think. You don’t read it, you recite it, and you often have a musician playing as you perform. Can you talk about how you came to this style, and what impact you think the music has on the performance of your work?

I was brought to poetry, or poetry was brought to me, like many of us, through the sound of it.  Nursery rhymes, children’s books, fairy tales, etc.  Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” was a particular favorite.  Those all live in your ear, not on the page.  So I’ve always known that poetry is an oral tradition, not exclusively a literary one.  Poetry is meant to be heard.  I believe the only way to convey a poem is to give it everything you put into it.  When you present it, you have to be in the same place you were when you created it.  You really have to mean it.  That ain’t easy.  Especially when, as most poets do, you have a deep, personal connection with the poem.  You have to use all your skill as a presenter to translate that connection to the listener.  That’s not reading a grocery list.  That’s performance. Music is just a natural fit.  I think most of us have a sound track to our lives running in our head.  If we don’t, we would like to.  I think I’m very lucky to have the natural rhythms of the Appalachian speech patterns in my voice.  It fits so naturally with music, especially traditional music of the region, that it always sounds good together.  I don’t write with the performance of music in mind (although I have written a couple of songs), and I don’t recite my poems with the music.  I can’t listen to the musicians when we are performing together, and they can’t listen to me.  It is just two art forms being performed at the same time, so I’m not sure the music has any effect on the performance of my work.  I do it the same way with or without music.  But it sure is neat when it works, and it always works.  I’m not sure I’ve figured out exactly why it does, but I like it.

I would like to say a word about the musicians on the CD.  They are so good, and so giving of themselves.  It was a complete joy to work with them.  I started putting my poetry together with music 35 years ago, and it has been a pleasure for me to perform with many great musicians over the years.  The folks on the CD - Mike Bing, Tim Bing, Danny Arthur, Bob Shank, Dave Bing, and Pops Walker, have generously given of their extraordinary talent to make this recording with me.  Their touch and timing is incredible.  It was, and is always, magic.  I can’t thank them enough.  And the same goes for Sherrell Wigal, who does a dual-voice piece with me on the CD.  She is a great poet and performer in her own right, and I am indebted to her for agreeing to be a part of this.

Your poems reflect your deep connection to the mountains, people and culture of West Virginia. Talk a little bit about that and how the way of life in this state impacts you as a poet. Why do you think West Virginia/Appalachian cultures should still be written about, considered, remembered?

I am a West Virginian.   West Virginians are connected to this state in ways that are sometimes hard to explain, but always have been apparent.  The whole State is pretty much a small town, and we care for ourselves, our neighbors, our land, and our culture in ways larger and more diverse states can’t envision.  We are who we choose to be.  We choose to be here.  And most of us have been here a long time.  I believe we are loyal to our roots, and we understand the value of honoring tradition and folk ways.  From the beginning of time, we as human beings have forgotten as much or more knowledge than we’ve gained.  There are some things we should not lose, and I think one of the jobs of an artist is to help us remember.  I fell in love with the high mountains of WV years ago.  They didn’t get exploited until the 1920’s, when the technology of the Shay engine enabled the timber industry to get the big trees out.  Until then, it was pretty much an unspoiled, forgotten wilderness left here in the middle of the bustling industry of the rest of the nation.  I was lucky enough to get to know the Hammons family of Pocahontas County, who were here long before any “progress” made inroads.  They really were pioneers, with stories, songs, music and culture from another way of life, and I could talk to them!   I understood immediately that I was seeing, hearing and experiencing valuable things that were going to be lost.   So I write and tell stories about it. That type of preservation is still taking place in WV and other parts of Appalachia.  We should not lose what we have a chance to keep.

Let's end today's post with another poem by Kirk Judd:

A Small Glow

There is a small glow,
Just visible,
Just there
Around your granddaughter's smile,
The bunting on the fencepost,
Your wife's shoulder,
That apple in that basket,
The whole damned mountain in September.

You can see it...
             YOU can see it
Because your mother taught you-
Look at everything.
And then
            Look a little more.

Author Meredith Sue Willis had this to say about Kirk's work: "Perhaps my favorite thing about this book, however, is that it comes with a cd recording of Judd performing his works with a number of well known musicians and once with a mountain clogger. He also collaborates with one of his poems and a friend's poem. All this is wonderfully communal, poems brought to vigorous life with his strong, flexible voice carrying us on, lifting us up. Kirk Judd's performance poetry is a national treasure." Read the whole review here.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of our interview. To hear and see Kirk Judd in person, plan to attend one of his upcoming events: 

Morgantown, WV: Morgantown Arts Center for Morgantown Poets on July 17 at 7:00pm
Taylor Books in Charleston, WV at Noon on July 19th
Empire Books in Huntington, WV at 4pm on July 19th 
Lewisburg, WV Literary Festival August 1st and 2nd (times tbd), 
Marlinton, WV Library on September 12th (time tbd)
Clarksburg, WV Library for National Poetry Month in April of 2015 (time and date tbd).

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.
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