Starts with the wind, distantly howling and scraping blindly through skeleton trees, rolling down the mountain, gaining momentum, darkly drawing the night closer, slaps against our clapboard house, squeezing creaks and moans, twists frame and rafters, foundation footings.
A sudden silence, quietly slides like mercury under doors, window panes, along hushed floors, climbs my footboard, slips under the corners, quilted covers, curling around my toes, settling among bare-boned ankles, siphons what little warmth can cling to me.
Sometimes I have a good day of teaching. In one of my classes, I am currently teaching how to do a research paper. I usually choose modern American poets as the topic because it does not require a huge amount of reading to get into a writer's work, and there is such a huge list to choose from. In one of my general level classes, a student chose Nikki Giovanni as his poet. He had been having some trouble getting into researching her biography and finding a poem to critique, until he came across "All Eyez on U." "Hey Mr. Hampton!" he said to me. "Did you know that my poet wrote a poem about 2Pac?" "Oh, yeah." I acted like I forgot. "What does she say about him?" He then warmed up a little more to reading about her life, especially once he realized that she wasn't one of those "boring dead white guys." Today in class he very animatedly told me that he just found out she had a tatoo on her arm that said "Thug Life." He was pretty impressed by that. I can't take the credit for his inspiration into poetry, though. All I did was point him in the direction I thought he would like to go.
A good collection of Nikki Giovanni's poetry is entitled Love Poems, which includes the tribute poem to 2Pac Shakur.
This photo was taken along the Boone Fork Trail near Blowing Rock, NC, which loops around Price Park just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The resolution would have been better if I had my digital camera with me. This is just a scan from 35mm film. I love the fall, the leaves changing, the weather getting colder, the smell of woodsmoke from someone's chimney on the air. Even the sound that falling leaves make as they scuttle across the driveway or tumble over one another is elating.
And only one so far. I would like to say that it was my world-renowned knowledge of Appalachian Culture that got me the job. In reality, it was probably because my e-mail address had the word "hillbilly" in it that I was approached by a French magazine for English language learners to write an article. Today in English, a magazine out of Paris written for French-speaking people learning English, wanted me to write about "hillbillies" and the "mountains" of Appalachia. The editor, who was British, specified to focus on not just the place but the people as different from the rest of the U.S. He mentioned that everyone in his office thought of the Rockies when American mountains came to mind. I tried the best I could to explain it clearly to someone who had never visited the U.S. I also wanted as best as I could not to perpetuate the hillbilly stereotype, but to identify it as an economic and social class marker, a scapegoat for which most world cultures have an equivalent. The following article was published last November of 2006. The hardest part of writing this I remember was converting all measurments to the metric system. Them crazy Europeans and their precise measurements!
The Appalachians: My Hillbilly Home
When my grandfather was a young boy, he would sometimes follow the smell of an oak wood fire into the Buck Woods where the old-timers secretly made moonshine – corn whiskey, to be precise. They were mighty suspicious of visitors, but since my grandfather was too short to shoot, they let him watch. My grandfather also liked to eat the sour mash they fermented to make the alcohol and the men would sometimes give him a cup of this “shiner’s porridge”. Whether he got drunk from this or not, my grandmother wouldn’t say. It would seem too “hillbilly” to her, I suppose. Hillbilly wasn’t a name to use in polite company, but it was there, the stereotype of the Appalachian Mountains: the lazy, bearded man in dirty clothes, sitting outside his log cabin with his dogs, no shoes, no teeth, a moonshine bottle in one hand and a shotgun leaning against the wall beside him. Or the woman: barefoot and pregnant, a child on one hip. That was the image that came to everyone’s mind when they heard I was from the mountains, because that is how the rest of the country saw us. I talked different, I acted different, and I ate different food. When I opened my mouth, people automatically wanted to deduct 100 IQ points. As I grew older, though, I learned to be proud of who I was and where I was from, and learned to love that which made the Appalachian Mountains different from the rest of the United States.
Small is beautiful They barely cast a shadow, as mountain ranges go. Only a few peaks reach over 1,800 meters. At a distance, their gentle and forested hills may seem mundane for travellers accustomed to the Rockies or Alps, but the Appalachians are a unique island of tradition surrounded by the ever-changing waters of pop culture and progress. From their deep cultural heritage to the rich colors of the autumn foliage, their history and scenery are worthy of discovery. Stretching 2,570 kilometers from Newfoundland, Canada, to Alabama in the southeast, they are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, having eroded from Himalaya-like peaks to their present size. The first to discover and settle the area were the American Indians. Later, the Scotch-Irish settled in the coves - some say it was because the area reminded them of the highlands they left behind. Many were devout Presbyterians, but they also brought their love for fiddle music and making whiskey.
Families and Feuds What makes people from Appalachia different than the rest of the country could best be summed up in three factors: family, land, and time. There are stronger ties to family and tradition here in the mountains. Vendettas have been declared over blood ties - the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud is an example. In my area, there was a feud between the Allen family and law-men that finished in a shootout at the court, today called the Carroll County Courthouse Tragedy. Families stick together around here, for good or bad. People also feel a closer tie to the land in the mountains. There is a sense of belonging to the mountains, of them defining who we are. What part of the mountains someone is from can be just as important as the sports team for which one cheers - so West Virginians, for instance, are fiercely loyal to their state. They have to be because of all the jokes that get told about them. Time is viewed a little differently here in the mountains, and there is a friendliness and hospitality that is found more in the Appalachians than elsewhere. Whenever I leave the mountains and visit places like New York City, for example, I realize how much I miss expressions such as “Thank you” or “Excuse me.”
Not one range, but many The Appalachians are really not one but several mountain ranges, each with distinctive geographic and cultural differences. To the north there are ranges such as the Adirondacks of New York and the Poconos of Pennsylvania. These are wonderful places to visit, don’t get me wrong, but being from the South I am naturally inclined toward the Southern Appalachians such as the Blue Ridge Mountains, which run from Virginia through North Carolina. They get their name from how the dark green of the summer forests look blue in the distance, rather as the nearby Smokey Mountains get their name from the blue-gray haze that veils the summits. Autumn is one of the best times of year to visit them, as the leaves lose their green color, revealing deep reds, oranges and yellows. When it comes to recreation, camping and hiking are popular activities. Practically every park or national forest has miles upon miles of well-maintained trails and campsites. One of the most famous is the Appalachian Trail - a 3,478 kilometer footpath crossing 14 states from Maine to Georgia. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are also favorite pastimes with many world-class rapids here. Believe it or not, winter offers opportunities for skiing as well – the season is much shorter than in northern Appalachia or the Rockies, but places such as Beech Mountain in North Carolina and Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia offer comparable conditions. “Spelunking,” or cave exploration is another popular recreational attraction. Kentucky is most famous for Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest recorded cave system in the world. More than 570 kilometers have been explored and mapped.
Bluegrass and Country The Southern Appalachian region is also rich in the cultural legacy left by our Scotch-Irish ancestors. From the settlers’ love of music developed two styles that are distinctly American: Bluegrass and Country. Though not as internationally popular as Rock ’n Roll or Jazz, they all originated from the same old-time sound. From the beginning, the Scotch-Irish fiddle was accompanied by the banjo, an instrument used by African slaves. Guitars were added much later, as well as the mandolin. The music was used as a means of entertainment at dances, and of storytelling, passing folk tales down to younger generations. Only later did Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe give it a title, after the blue-hued grass of Kentucky. Once called “Hillbilly music”, the name "Country" developed as record companies tried to meet an urban demand for a traditional sound of rural, “country” people. The birthplace of country music isn’t in Nashville, but in Bristol, Tennessee – the place where the famous Carter Family, whose tight harmonies defined the genre, first recorded their songs (recently made famous by the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Today, Country and Bluegrass music has experienced a renaissance, both mainstream and in smaller circles. Festivals such as Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, celebrate country and bluegrass greats new and old every spring.
The Moonshine Boys They were called the Robin Hoods of their time, roaring down the backwoods roads and over bridges, their big engines heralding their approach. With moonshine bottles rattling together in the back, they outraced the police with their hard-driving skills, delivering their cargo to the big-city bars and bringing the money home to support the family. Called "moonshine" because it was made by the light of the moon, this illegal whiskey-making was a profitable enterprise at a time when jobs were scarce. So, to avoid getting caught, young men would rebuild their car engines to enhance performance and outrun the police. Soon, they began to argue about who had the fastest car, deciding the contest with late-night races around a farmer's field. This is the unlikely origin of one the USA's largest spectator sports: Stock Car Racing. Better known today as NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – memorize this and you win the admiration of thousands of fans!), it originated in the Appalachian region. The Dukes of Hazzard television show and movie attests to this legacy.
Don't Believe What You Hear Over the years, the stereotypical hillbilly image has been romanticized in historic figures such as Davy Crockett, or seen as comic in television shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, and even portrayed as evil and monstrous in movies such as Deliverance, where sadistic and depraved hillbillies harass, torture, and sexually molest a group of canoeists from the city. Don’t worry; the only things I’ve ever encountered canoeing and rafting around here are mosquito bites and a sunburn. In reality, every society has its hillbilly. For the English, the lower class of ridicule was the Irish. For the French, it was the Belgians. For us hillbillies, it is the summer tourists from Florida who don’t know how to drive in the mountains, but that’s another story. Many people laugh when we call the Appalachians “mountains,” and I can understand that, having myself traveled through the Rockies. But what the Appalachians lack in height, they make up for in depth -- of history, culture, and charm. To the rest of our country, they are like the wise and eccentric uncle of the family. Besides, to call them “hills” seems too condescending. Certainly, when I am on top of Mount Mitchell, with miles and miles of mountains rolling like waves around me, I can’t help but feel like I am standing on top of the world.
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[Insert shameless self-promotion here] By the way, I'm available for freelance writing if any editors are interested!
This past weekend I fellowshipped with poets and writers of the Southern Appalachian Writers' Cooperative (SAWC for short) at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee. It was a fantastic time of socializing, reading work, and workshopping our writing, and, of course, swarping. We had about 12 or so people there, smaller than last year's group, but had some wonderful new members attend for the first time (I hope to see you guys, er, gals again Jenny, Jennifer, and Susan, at next year's gathering, or sooner). Unlike other poetry workshops I have been to, the small atmosphere and camaraderie to me tends to foster a trusting, relaxing, and fun. In my 12 years of writing I've discovered in me a regional, Appalachian voice that feels at home with this loosely knit group of writers and varlets. I've been going almost every year since 1999, and until the group is overrun by terrorists (or Republicans) they will always be considered my family of writers.
I also took a scenic drive to Tennessee via the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smoky Mountains. I took some great pictures at Graveyard Fields in which the fall colors seemed to pop out of the landscape, seen here. These photos hardly represent how they actually looked, though. Even though it was cloudy, the oranges, reds, and yellows shined like sunlight.
Also, at Jennifer's request this weekend, I have posted below one of the poems I read this past Saturday, "Grandma's Kitchen." If you don't like the poem, you can blame her (ha ha).
In 1979, my father took our family to a theme park called Land of Oz. I was only five at the time, but I remember how much I enjoyed it. I remember the costumed characters, Dorothy's house, and the witch's castle. What I remember the most was the yellow brick road, made of yellow glazed bricks. Located on top of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, a ski resort town, the theme park eventually closed in 1980. It is now owned by a real estate company that turned it into a summer home, gated community.
A couple of weekends ago my wife found out that, for one weekend a year in October, Emerald Properties and the town of Beech Mountain host Autumn at Oz, in which they open what is left of the theme park and invite food vendors and merchants who sell Wizard of Oz memorabilia.
My wife and I took our daughter, but thankfully left our 8-month-old son at home (it was chilly and wasn't stroller accessible). The leaves had just begun to change color, so it was beautiful. The chairlift for the theme park had long been dismantled, so we took a hayride to the top (they also had a bus). The first thing I noticed when we got to Dorothy's house and the farm was how smaller everything looked now. Of course, I didn't expect it to be just like it was when it was open 27 years ago, and some people might have found it a disappointment if they were expecting that, but we had a blast. I loved it because I was reliving a fond childhood memory. My daughter loved it because of all the people, actors and visitors, that dressed up as characters from the movie. Some of the original attractions of the park are all but abandoned, like the cowardly lion's den or the hot air balloon (seen here). The yellow brick road, made of bricks that had been pottery-glazed yellow, had been patched over the years with yellow spray-painted bricks, but the magic was still there. There was a time or two that we had to wait in line, as the crowds backed up, but the scenery was beautiful enough that I didn't care. I picked Beech nuts for my daughter and I to nibble on while we waited. Afterwards, we drove to Valle Crucis to get a snack at the original Mast General Store, and do some shopping.
For those interested in the former theme park, the Appalachian Cultural Museum in Boone, North Carolina, part of Appalachian State University, has an exhibit and information on how Land of Oz and Tweetsie Railroad (still in operation) brought commerce to the mountains in the 1970s.
Both public television and public radio are in danger of severe government cuts and possibly a total cut of funding that, without it, could mean the closure of rural and minority radio stations and public television stations that cannot afford equipment for the government-mandated switch to digital broadcasting, for example.
You might be saying, "So what? I don't watch PBS or listen to any radio station below 92.1 on the FM band, much less AM. Why does it matter? Just raise money in other ways instead of using taxpayers' money to fund something most people don't listen to." Well, it should matter to the 80 million public television viewers and 32 million who listen to public radio. Public broadcasting is one of the few journalistic and artistic outlets that is free from commercial influence (media conglomerates who dictate what can be broadcast or what musical artists can be played) and political influence (Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives two-year advance appropriations, a firewall between public broadcasting's programming and the undue influence of Government).
Now, I'm no politician or expert on the runnings of the government, but the way I see it without this funding, these monies allocated to public broadcasting, it will be all about the money, and nothing else. Those who will suffer the most are small television and radio stations who offer needed public services to small, rural communities. Already the majority of all media and broadcasting is controlled by commercial giants such as Disney or McDonald's, and major record labels dictate to radio stations what musical artists they can play (see Don't Buy It: Get Media Smart ). Isn't the government supposed to protect and ensure our freedom of speech and freedom of the press, especially from itself and the Capitalist economy it promotes?
Please click on the link to the right, or check out Tell Them Public Matters and make your voice known to your senators and congressmen and women, and tell them public broadcasting matters!
Evening rushes in on blue sky veins, throbbing parallel lines of life pushed against the sharp autumn sunset. They spill their secrets to the horizon, bleeding oak red over the shaded hills. Leaves fall limp to twilight’s breath, sink slowly to the ground as slit wrists. Its tepid bath grows a moonless dark. The winter stars slip through the drain when I’m not looking.
from Iodine Poetry Journal 7:2 (Fall/Winter 2006/2007) 17.
On Sunday night, the History Channel broadcast a two-hour program on the Appalachian people called Hillbilly: The Real Story, hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus. Considering the title, I expected a piece on the historic, social, and economic influences on the Appalachian region and how it shaped our country's perception and stereotypes of us. It was very informational and entertaining, and focused on many of the important events that shaped the region. They could have easily called it The Appalachians, however, as the direct mention and explanation of hillbilly stereotypes was sparse. They also neglected to mention what I felt were key components of our region and culture.
There were many good segments to the program, the origins of the Scotch-Irish settlers, and particularly the piece on the Overmountain Men and the Battle of King's Mountain, which was fought against the British in 1780 in Cleveland County, North Carolina, not far from where I live. There was a very lengthy piece on Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain in Mingo County, West Virginia, in which union mine workers marched in rallying protest against the autocracy of big coal companies (see Denise Giardina's novel Storming Heaven). I was surprised, though, that such a lengthy piece neglected to mention how coal company speculators tricked landowners into selling the mineral rights to their land, or the current coal mining practice of mountaintop removal. Perhaps that would have been too political or controversial for them. There was also an interesting and respectful piece on snake handlers and their religious beliefs, which is unique to our region. Moonshine making and stock car racing got a considerable nod. The story mainly focused on the Flock family racing team, and I was disappointed there weren't mention of other moonshine-runners-turned-racers such as Junior Johnson. There was also a considerable segment on the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its creation of the Fontana Dam, the tallest dam east of the Mississippi, and how it affected the economy after the Great Depression.
In the end, I felt the program ran out of time before it ran out of things to discuss. The last three minutes or so barely mentions the history and influences of Appalachian music on popular music today. No mention of the Carter Family or early "Hillbilly" music, or the birthplace of Country music, Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. Throughout the program there were a peppering of explanations as to how and why the mountain and Hillbilly stereotypes were created, but not enough explanation to suite me. This program could have easily been a two or three part series. If I could pick one thing to criticize the most it's the lack of detail in how the media, the sole culprit, perpetuated the Hillbilly stereotype even today . I learned some things I didn't know, though, and I would recommend anyone to watch it whether expert or novice on the subject of Appalachia. There are far worse things to watch on TV these days.
The show will run for a few more nights: September 24 12:00 AM, September 27 8:00 AM, September 27 2:00 PM
Billy Ray did have an astute thing to say in conclusion, that the Appalachians aren't just a part of America, but that "We are America." Still, if I were an outsider watching this program, I would conclude that the Hillbilly stereotypes were all true, as this program merely explains and, I think, reinforces them.
It was that time of year again when I cleaned up my summer garden, pulling blighted and dried up tomato plants, shriveled vines, and sundry weeds to pile in the compost. I watered and watered and hardly got one tomato that wasn't split or blossom-rotted, so it felt good to wipe the slate clean, to discard the frustration and failings of a dry summer. Now that the rains are returning, my plans were to put out some cool weather crops like spinach, cabbage, and fennel.
It had been a while since I did something with my four-year-old daughter, so I took her with me to the back yard. As much as I enjoy playing Barbies or Teddy Bear dress-up, I savor the times when I can do work outside that doubles as play time for her. I got out her pink wheelbarrow and plastic rake and shovel, along with my own wheelbarrow and yard tools, and began pulling up the tomato cages while she yanked up clumps of grass. It takes twice as long when she helps, but I wasn't in a hurry as there is still plenty of daylight in the afternoons. When we were finished, we carted it all off to the compost pile at the edge of the woods. Then it came time to till. She was right in there with her yellow plastic shovel, hacking at the dry ground and throwing dirt in the air over her shoulder. I wanted to tell her to let me soften the ground with my mattock first and then she could make little rows for the seeds, and tried explaining to her just that. Her efforts were futile, but she was having too much fun.
Her efforts reminded me of how many times I concern myself so much with getting to the end result, that I don't enjoy the process of doing it. My grandpa told me as a child many times that I wasn't doing something right, then make me watch while he showed me the correct process. He meant well, of course, but by then I had lost all interest in what I was doing. Sometimes, there are more ways of doing things than the right way or the wrong way. For my daughter, it was the "fun" way, maybe the "longer" way, but not necessarily the "wrong" way. So I gave her some room and let her sling that yellow plastic shovel. While I tilled the rest of the garden, I gave her room to dig her little four-inch-wide hole, where I later let her plant some cilantro. There will be time when she's older for lessons on spacing and planting depth, and all those other little nuances of gardening.
I was so high that summer - - - - - The world was unclouded and bright - - - - - - - - -Taking hits off the Holy Spirit - - - - - - - - - at the Chapel Woods campfires - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -Getting ready for the bridegroom - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -Trimming our wicks, we knew - - - - - - - - - He was coming with sound of trumpets - - - - - - - - - And we would forever stand atoned. - - - - - For those who repented of their sins, cast their earthly vices aside, - - - - - were the first to get stoned.
from Iodine Poetry Journal 9:2 (Fall/Winter 2008/2009) 40.
Walt Whitman worked for a while as a teacher in series of windowless, poorly heated, one-room schoolhouses for almost no money. While teaching at one school, he wrote to a friend, "How tired and sick I am of this wretched, wretched hole! — ... O, damnation, damnation! Thy other name is school-teaching." --- from The Writer's Almanac
There's an old saying that goes, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, write." Or there is the other adage, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Though I don't always like my job (and who doesn't hate their job at times), I have a problem with people who believe this. In one aspect, I sometimes wish I could devote my entire day to my writing. I feel I would not only become better at it, but would eventually find a publisher and be able to sell my work. However, I have a family to support, and no guarantee that weeks and months and years of writing would produce a New York Times best seller, thus pulling me out of the grips of poverty. So I teach. People who have never taught have trouble understanding that it takes more than knowing something to teach it. I know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about some things, but getting in front of people who generally have no interest in what you are saying to begin with, and present this lesson of information in such a way to be both interesting and entertaining, is a daunting task. Then there is the issue of maintaining discipline in the classroom. Some teachers are such pushovers that students can get away with anything and, therefore, learn nothing. There are also some teachers that are so strict that flexibility and creativity are stifled and learning becomes a military drill that most students buckle under and give up. I would say that managing behavior and discipline in class is three-fourths the job of teaching in a public school, and if that can't be accomplished it doesn't matter how brilliant of a mind the person has. I can do any job that someone throws at me, and I have done many (dishwasher, busboy, pizza delivery, meat clerk, landscaping), but the hardest job I have ever worked at is what I am doing now, teaching. And its the hardest jobs that one must love in order to keep coming back to it day after day.
So as much as I agree with Whitman's sentiment above, I will have to say that I do "do." I live, I write, I teach.
Flea markets, you either love them or hate them. If you live in Hillsville, Virginia, however, it doesn't make much difference. In a town where the average population is 2,700, come Labor Day weekend the number of bodies soar to 650,000 -- that's on average the number of people who visit every Labor Day weekend to brave the crowds, mud, and shopping buggies (and the occasional motorized scooter) all in the name of a good find.
I spent seven years of my childhood in Hillsville, Virginia, and learned early on the history of its Labor Day flea market. Starting as a gun and knife show at the VFW building and parking lot, over the years it spilled across West Stuart Drive down what's called Hunley's Field. Like a kudzu vine it twisted its way up both sides of the street to the downtown area of Hillsville and another large section called Bowman's Field. If you walked every aisle in town it would take you all day. If you walked every aisle and looked at even half of the booths and vendors it would take you all weekend, and even then you might not see it all. In middle school, my friends and I would ride our bikes into town and ditch them behind the elementary school, then proceed to walk around for the remainder of the day looking at stuff. We mostly bought cheap Rambo-style survival knives, ninja throwing stars, coins, baseball cards, or comic books. Today a few friends and I meet every year to walk the rows and look for interesting items (seen above: Alan, Marty, and me). Of course, there is a lot of the same junk, and some outrageous prices for that junk, but there are also good finds to be had, and some pretty odd finds as well.
A few years ago my friends and I began scoping the booths for the oddest items we could find, seeing who could come up with the strangest, kitschiest, most outrageous item imaginable, or whatever tickled our funny bone. My friend Alan discovered a toy vendor who had something called The Battery-Powered Squirrel, in its original box. Underneath the title it boasted "with secret mystery action." Well, we just had to find out what that secret mystery action was, but the guy would only open the box to let us look at it. Inside was something that looked like roadkill. It's natural animal fur was peeling away from its metal body. The guy wanted $125 for it. Needless to say, we didn't buy it, but we've been on the lookout for it again ever since. This past Saturday we came across two items, a ceramic bank of Santa Claus holding a kitten riding on the back of a pig -- $100 (Alan would have bought it if it had one less zero in it) and a mechanical toy in its original box called The Happy Naughty Chimp (no secret mystery action, though). I almost bought it, but thought my children would just be scared by it. Marty found a captain's hat, but wouldn't buy it even though I told him I would put on a wig and be Tennille. We topped our morning's search off with lunch at the local Mexican restaurant, the Rio Grande. Some chimichangas and a pitcher of Dos Equis hit the spot, and gave us inspiration to walk around for a few more hours. No Battery-Powered Squirrel was to be found, but there is always next year.
A pioneer-island in a world that has no use for pioneers – the unsplit rock of Fundamentalism, calomel clan-virtues, clannish vices, fiddle tunes and a hard God. --Stephen Vincent Benét
Don't call us backward. We walk in the same direction as you, just not in such a hurry to discard the old for the new. We're content with our pace, thank you.
Sure, while you may have been the first on your block to listen to your records in stereo, to install an 8-track player in your Pinto, to fill your CD tower with the latest music, we were already making our own, hewing out tunes on fiddle, dulcimer, and banjo, not from woofers or tweeters, but from our own hands it flowed.
Restless and discontent city-folk with your throw-away culture, media-stoked and commercially corrupt, defiling your identity, defining yourselves with store-bought trinkets, and what you can't buy right away, you rent, no money down and take years and years to pay. I'm sorry, but that's just not our way.
And we aren't so out of touch that we don't know about microwave ovens and bread machines, but biscuits rise better in four hundred degrees of cast iron and oak kindling. Microwaves are good for warming coffee, but not cold kitchens in winter. As for chopping firewood, my callused hands can deal with the splinters.
Tradition is our identity, and change does come slow, I'll admit. But when it does, we don't forget how we were raised, preserving, passing on the memories of the way things used to be. You say it's not your bag, and that's just fine with me.
One of countless scenic views along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Rough Ridge is just about a mile north of the Linn Cove Viaduct (near Linville, NC), and a short (albeit strenuous) hike up a trail. Spring and early summer is the best time to visit, as the white Mountain Laurels and pink Rhododendrons are in bloom, seen here. Late summer and early fall are also great times as the rare Blue Ridge Goldenrod and Heller's Blazing Star are in bloom, both on the Federal Endagered Species list. I'm hoping to head back up there before the leaves start changing color to get some more photos.
I just read an interesting article in the Winter 2007 issue of the Appalachian Journal about a trend in media and popular culture towards the portrayal of the Hillbilly or rural stereotype. Back in the late '60s, there was a huge movement in pop culture toward the portrayal of mountain and rural life, for good or bad, as seen for example in television shows such as Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw, not to mention the extensive advertising of Mountain Dew's "It'll tickle yore innards" or "Get that barefoot feeling," ending, I believe, with the cancellation of the Dukes of Hazzard in 1984 (at the hands of a ratings battle with Knight Rider, a sleeker, more modern hot rod). Since then, the media's fascination with rural, redneck America has been in a lull. According to Douglas Reichert Powell, the author of this article, the country, rural, hillbilly stereotype is making a comeback, a renaissance if you will.
With the popularity of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there has been a revisiting of rural stereotypes in movies and television. Powell's main focus is on the television show My Name is Earl, which milks both the noble mountaineer stereotype (country folk are essentially good people) and the hillbilly fool (country folk are ignorant, white trash, and laughable) There is also the hillbilly as monster and sexual predator stereotype (see movies such as Deliverance, A Face in the Crowd, and Baby Doll), but that could be a whole other discussion by itself. I tend to agree on most points with Powell's argument, but I feel that the stereotypes are no more in the forefront of the media today than they have been in the past 20 years, or at least I feel he didn't quite make his point in the article. Stereotypes have always served the same purpose -- to allow society to recognize an individual by attaching a group label. Granted, stereotypes always contain kernels of truth. There are people in Appalachia with bad oral hygeine who married their first cousin and live in a trailer with three or more dogs under their porch. But that doesn't mean it's fair to attach those characteristics to everyone who lives in Appalachia. I agree the most with Powell that when shows such as My Name is Earl try to challenge a white trash stereotype, there is an irony there that "[the media] need[s] the legibility, the recognizability of the stereotypes they propose to undermine in order to get the audience undermining the stereotypes with them." Despite how bad stereotypes are, then, they serve a purpose and are necessary, even for the purpose to turn right around and challenge or destroy them. Though Powell did use the term "hillbillyland" in the first first sentence of his article, he didn't give credit to the author who coined the term, J.W. Williamson, and wrote the book on hillbilly stereotypes in the media, Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains & What the Mountains Did to the Movies (1995).
I close with this final thought. If the masses of America need stereotypes, simple labels, to define an individual or a character in a television show, what does that say about the imagination of the American public?
Source: Powell, Douglas Reichert. "'Bluewashing' the Mountaineer: A Recent Television Trend" Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review. 34:2 (Winter 2007) 206.
I'll be the first one to admit that the people who tend to admire poetry the most are also poets themselves. Sometimes a clever metaphor or allusion is lost on those who are not used to reading poetry. Poetry tends to be more concise, to say more with fewer words. Like eating Campbell's condensed soup straight from the can, poetry can be a little strong for many palates. From my high school students, to my parents, to even my wife, poetry is not something that is usually read. It wasn't always that way, though. At one time, poetry was included in newspapers and popular magazines. Many poets became household names, such as the Fireside Poets of the 19th century, or such poets as Robert Frost or Maya Angelou. I wonder, though, if the fault lies entirely with the modern, technology-savy-yet-unliterate average Joe or possibly with poets themselves.
In an essay written by John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, entitled "American Poetry in the New Century," Barr declared, "American poetry is ready for something new because our poets have been writing in the same way for a long time now. There is fatigue, something stagnant about poetry being written today." Poetry has been largely absent from public life, whether the classroom, bookstore, newspaper, or mainstream media, they all have "a morale problem," that poems are written only with other poets in mind. For that reason, according to Barr, they do not sell. He thinks poets need to write poetry that is more robust, resonant, and above all, entertaining. In one section of the essay entitled, "Live Broadly, Write Boldly," he urged poets to be like Hemingway and seek experience outside of the poetry circles or academia establishments. Take a safari, run with the bulls, go marlin fishing, just get out and experience life. That is what he believes the public will connect with -- real life.
I think Billy Collins is such a successful poet (having sold over 500,000 books of poetry) because of this, besides the fact that he is good at what he does. He comes to the reader unpretentious with poems about everyday occurences that end up being slightly more than that, and leaves us with something understandable to think about. I am no Billy Collins (watch him to become a household name someday), but I strive in my own writing to appeal not just to the poet but to anybody willing to take the time to read a poem. Am I successful in this? I think the jury is still deliberating on that.
Source: Goodyear, Dana. "The Moneyed Muse." The New Yorker. February 19 & 26, 2007. 122-135.
This past weekend’s reading of SAWC members at Malaprops was a success! Granted, only 20 people were in the audience, seven of them being those of us who were reading our work, but we had fun and I think the rest of the audience enjoyed it too. It was also a good opportunity to promote our new issue of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, our yearly literary journal.
Several of us stayed at Jim Hinsdale’s house the night before, and drove up from Tryon to Asheville Sunday morning. We did a little walking around beforehand. Jim Webb (of “Get In, Jesus” fame) bought a pair of sandals at Mast General Store. Dana Wildsmith made a comment on the friendliness and energy that seemed to exude from the passersby on the street. Asheville is an eclectic city, you have to admit. As we were walking back up the street toward the obelisk, we were stopped by a girl who honestly admitted she was having a bad day and hoped one of us would buy her a beer. So floored by her frankness, Jim gave her a few dollars and told her he hoped her day got better.
We decided a beer was a good idea, so we popped in to the bar across the street from Malaprops, where Frankie Finley and Jim Minick were also meeting us. I’m not a big drinker (anymore), but I was a tad anxious, so a tall ale was just what my nerves needed. Hilda Downer and Jane Hicks were waiting in Malaprops when we arrived. Jim Hinsdale was also there with his wife Kay, and he opened the reading for us. I read three poems, the first one being “A Picture’s Worth,” which is included in the new issue. I think I did well. I might have tripped over a word or two, but I didn’t care (thank you, C2H5OH). The events coordinator at Malaprops said we were welcome to schedule another reading like this next year, so I guess we passed the audition, so to speak. For anyone who would like to pick up a copy of volume 12 of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel for only $5 (or back issues for only $4), please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or our editor, Frankie Finley at: email@example.com. By the way, check out the cover art. Frankie’s partner Beth is a landscape architect and artist., and did an excellent job.
“And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass, seeing that thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve and hast given us such deliverance as this;” Ezra 9:13
When John Boorman directed Ned Beatty to drop his pants and squeal like a pig for local actors pretending to be some crazed mountain men, dirty, bent with bestiality (“If there were ever any degenerate red-necks, they are these two”), did they think that somewhere in those twisted hills, those hollows of American darkness crawled the real thing, toothless crackers, moonshine-drinkin’ hillbilly inbreds whose sole desire was to gleefully molest unsuspecting city folk, young men who just wanted to canoe a little white water?
No Shucking The Corn, no Old Joe Clark, just wicked crackling, sharp cutting chords, banjo strings plucking in the background, over the rapid’s roar. As the water carried them, they paddled urgently, with fearful and tense bodies, peering into the forest’s edge, surrounded on both sides with the unfamiliar, therefore evil. You know he’s coming for you, Lucifer of the mountain laurels, Beelzebub of the brambles, while Eric Weissberg picks his way through brand-new Pioneer surround-sound speakers. I never knew a banjo could make such a harrowing sound. Paddle faster.
Not Yay, or Yipee, which can denote sarcasm, but a full-fledged Yeeeeehaw (or maybe Yahooooo would be better, which comes from deeper in the throat and belly when yelled). I got an e-mail from the journal Appalachian Heritage that they liked one of the poems I sent them. "The Night I Met Franklin Graham," will be published this fall. For those who have never heard of the publication, it is an Appalachian regional literary magazine (some people say the Appalachian literary magazine) out of Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The college was founded on the belief that anyone from the Appalachian region deserves a college education regardless of socioeconomic status, so every one of its 1,500 students admitted gets a 4-year-tuition scholarship. Its programs also focus on preserving and promoting regional culture through literature, history, the arts, and so on. So it's even more of an honor for me to be a part of that, however small that may be.
I'm also excited about next Sunday. Our literary band of varlets, the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC), will be having a reading (including little ol' me) at 3 pm at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. Many writers will have books to promote and I believe our latest issue of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel will be available as well, showcasing samples of everyone's work. As I've mentioned before, I'm a little nervous. I'm used to audiences of high school teenagers who usually only pay attention to half the stuff I say. It's a little different reading poetry to a group of adults, when people are trying to catch every word and nuance I utter. I haven't decided what I'm reading yet, either. Maybe I should just break the ice like Carl Sandburg used to -- arrive wearing overalls and a checkered work shirt and play some folk songs on my guitar first (to hell with what Robert Frost said about playing tennis without a net). Now, if only I knew how to play guitar.
I know I shouldn’t gloat. Most people don’t get 8 weeks off for the summer. As a teacher, however, I really believe it makes up for the grief we have to put up with from administrators, parents, and students for the rest of the year. Therefore, I’ve learned to savor each day and make it count. Last week I took the family on vacation to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which for me isn’t really much of a vacation now that we have an infant and a preschooler [Didn’t get to stop at Hill-Billy Village this time around -- Shucks! (see May 25th entry)]. They had fun, so I guess that’s what counts. This week, though, has been wonderful. This morning, for instance, I got up at 6:30 and fixed me breakfast – grits, toast, and coffee. Then for the next two hours I listened to public radio while writing and revising some poetry. I made breakfast for my daughter, who woke up wanting to watch Barbie Rapunzel. Then I cleaned the kitchen, straightened up the house, and washed a couple of loads of clothes while the wife tended to our newborn son. By that time, it’s late morning and I’m ready for whatever the day has to offer. Of course, by middle of August I’ll be going stir crazy, ready to get out of the house and back to work. But that’s six weeks away.
One of my favorite contemporary poets, Komunyakaa has some very astute things to say about modern American poetry, about what it is and what it should be.
"There's a sameness about American poetry that I don't think represents the whole people. It represents a poetry of the moment, a poetry of evasion, and I have problems with this. I believe poetry has always been political, long before poets had to deal with the page and white space .... [I]f you were to take many magazines and cut the names off poems, you would have a single collection that could be by any given poet; you could put one name on it, as if the poems were all by one person. True, a writer can say almost anything in America and have it completely overlooked, yet I think we should have more individual voices." from "Lines of Tempered Steel: An Interview with Vincente F. Gotera," Callaloo13:2
At least I don't remember. I was busy enough teaching her to use the potty last year and brush her teeth, that I can't rightly recall. Yesterday evening I was watering my garden when my 4-year-old daughter ran in front of me, trying to get under the sprinkler. I didn't want her to get wet and dirty in her good clothes, so to get her out from under me I told her to go catch fireflies. I pointed toward the edge of the yard, where it was shaded by the woods. The lightning bugs were just beginning to blink. She took off down the hill, hunching low and looking in the taller grass with her arms outstretched. No sooner had I watered a few tomato plants when she came running up to me. "Look what I caught, Daddy!" She had not one, but two little fireflies in her hands. She even had her hands cupped carefully enough not to squish them. I told her to point her finger up, and we watched them climb to the highest point of her hand before taking flight and disappearing into the growing darkness.
Light is given out in unequal measures, doled out hastily and without favor. It is taken back sometimes just as quickly as the setting sun or a final breath.
It screams through morning curtains, cold, hungry, and wanting to be held, sings with the sweetness of a mother’s caress, and dances from windowsill to front porch steps.
The warm air holds its reflected glow, sunning bicycles in the front yard, burns red as a scraped-knee afternoon, as driveway stones sweat in the humidity.
Serendipity is the cool kiss of evening, while amber rays wink around tree branches. It sifts through rusty back porch screens, and rests with content like old lacquer on ladder-back chairs.
But the rising moon has a sad green glow, shining through door cracks with a wave of dismay. It washes cold around the footboard with deference, and as the tide retreats back from where it came, it settles on the skin like a froth of quilted lead.
I've had a fascination for anything hillbilly ever since I first dived, head-first, into a Coca-Cola cooler and pulled out a cold glass bottle of Mountain Dew with the outhouse, pig, and gun-toting mountain man logo. Even in the 1980s, bottling companies were still reusing them. My grandmother used to work as a cashier at a gas station/general store out in Woodlawn, Virginia. Oftentimes I would stay with her at the store, walking around the aisles or sitting on the front porch with a bottle of Mountain Dew and a candy bar. Down the mountain from where we lived, in Cana, Virginia, was a produce stand and tourist stop called Mountain Man. Its sign had the same bearded man with a frayed hat. I haven't been there in years, so I don't know if it's still there, but they used to have regular bluegrass music performances from a flatbed trailer.
I later learned that back in the 1960s there was a trend for anything country or hillbilly -- usually for comic effect. This trend gave birth to the Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and the Dukes of Hazzard. Advertisers also jumped on the bandwagon, and many businesses in the Appalachian region touted "hillbilly" in their names. I know of several, some I've been to and some I've only seen in postcard pictures. My new favorite is Hill-Billy Village in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. In the midst of the fancy laser tag, bungee jumping, go-cart racing, there is a little oasis of yesteryear. It was the first tourist stop on the whole strip, before anything else was there. Sure, it's run down today, but if you want a coonskin cap, Indian moccasins, or a rebel flag T-shirt this is the place to go. And if you follow the signs to the very back (sorry, no photographs please) you end up on their back lot where they keep a replica of an old cabin and moonshine still. It is oooold, but has a kitschy quality to it. If you are in the area and like kitschy, then you have to go to Hillbilly Golf in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, as well. The whole miniature golf course is built on the side of a hill. You even have to ride a trolly to the top, it's so steep. My wife is rolling her eyes right now. Some people just don't appreciate good hillbilly culture.
(Note: This blog entry is not intended in any way to stereotype, degrade, or trivialize mountain life in the Appalachians or Ozarks. There are many folks that believe the Appalachian American is the last ethnicity that is still safe to make fun of without reprecussion from the politically-correct minded. I feel that if there is to be any fun made of mountain folks, it should be done by mountain folks themselves. This is why Jeff Foxworthy can tell Redneck jokes, because he is one, and why I feel justified in doing the same. And if you come to my house, I'll show you my shotgun to prove it.)
To become a published writer, one has to submit, and submit, and submit. It is good to know the type of poetry a journal or magazine publishes in order to estimate if your style or particular poem might be what they are looking for. More often than not, it's not. So I usually have work sent out to several places at a time. When one comes back rejected, I usually either evaluate why, maybe make some tweaks to them if its been several months since I read them last, and send it back out, or just take the same hard copies out of the returned rejection and into a new envelope ready to send somewhere else. One must not get discouraged.
Recently, however, my work hit a new low. I sent a group of poems to the magazine Now & Then, which is a regional and Appalachian magazine that publishes poetry among other things. I read a few issues of it the last time I was at the library. The upcoming theme was "wildness." I picked several I thought were fitting of the theme. I mailed it on May 10th. I got it back on May 16th with my original cover letter and a small note from the editor at the bottom dated May 13th that stated my poems weren't what she was looking for. Now that may be, but talk about rejection! My poetry spent more time in the mail than it did on her desk waiting to be considered! Well, at least I can now consider sending them elsewhere, instead of waiting months to a year for notification.
While eating a funnel cake I saw him, walking down from the uphill side of Main where factory houses are stacked like cards. That day he must have felt a little out of place with the starched collars and tourist faces of the Harland County Apple Festival, tall, gray hair in a cowlick, wearing work boots and overalls without a shirt, looking like he had just awakened from a third-shift-induced slumber.
I sat on a curb as he crossed the street to a hippie vendor counting change. "Where are your ham hocks?" he asked, clearing sawdust from his throat with a loud hawk, looking red-eyed and clearly confused.
"We sell hammocks, man – woven by Mayan Indians," the vendor replied with a faint smile and a nervous tug on the shirttail of his sweater.
He spat on the ground beside him. "I read your sign from my front porch, walked all the way down the hill..., aimin' to get me some ham hocks." Hands in his pockets, the long-haired vendor only shrugged his shoulders and smiled again.
The old man walked out into the street among the crowds of balloons and baby strollers, squinted his eyes at the vendor's sign above, and scratched the stubble on the end of his chin. He walked up to the booth once more, stooping to get under the canvas awning. "So you don't sell ham hocks then?" he asked again in a querulous voice.
"Nope," the vendor answered with finality and, almost mockingly, asked "What are ham hocks?"
With a look like a slap in the face, the old man backed away, bumping clumsily into a young couple eating candy apples. I turned to sneeze, blowing powdered sugar off my paper plate, but lifted my head in time to observe the old man slip behind the vendor's booth unnoticed by others, hook the toe of his brogan around a corner pole. The falling canvas captured the hippie and two customers as a cowlick head of hair sauntered away, disappearing behind a bee-swarmed dumpster.
The date is finally set for SAWC's (Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative) poetry reading at Malaprops in Asheville, NC. After a few changes in schedule from last mention, it will be held on Sunday, July 15 at 3pm. All in all, seven of us will reading, which is a good number for the 45 minutes they are giving us. Our illustrious co-coordinator Frankie gets all the thanks for setting this up for us. Though Asheville is not far from where I live, some folks are driving from as far away as Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia. I'm excited about going, and it will be great to see old friends that I normally see only once a year. I'm a little anxious as well because public reading has never been my strong suit when it comes to sharing my writing with others. Mainly it's the reading aloud to strangers; I've gotten better about reading in front of people whom I know.
Several of our folks who are reading even have books to promote, seeing Malaprops is a bookstore. Though I don't have one of my own to tout, SAWC's newest edition of our journal Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel is coming out soon, and might possibly be ready to share with our audience. I have a poem that will be in it entitled "A Picture's Worth," that I will probably later post after it is published. Though SAWC may not be a nationally-known group, I feel a part of something larger than just the mountain South. I'm in a community of like-minded people who enjoy writing, Nature, the Appalachians, and who aren't afraid to stand up for social injustices of the region.
For more information on SAWC (like the history, or our mission statement), see the links list on this blog site.
A student in my American Literature class was interested in writing his research paper about James Still, an Appalachian author from Kentucky, but couldn't find any poetry of Still's on the internet. "Jack" is a self-proclaimed "good ol' boy" who had no interest in poetry before, but I convinced him to look into poets like James Still and Jim Wayne Miller because they wrote about such things as hunting and the outdoors. That piqued his interest a little, so I brought a copy from home of Still's Wolfpen Poems for him to skim through. After looking through the slim volume of poetry, he gave it back with a page bookmarked for me to photocopy for him. I can't remember the poem right offhand, but I immediately noticed the page edges, especially his bookmarked page, were covered in dirty, greasy thumbprints. I looked at his hands, which were calloused and stained from where he had been working on something in Masonry class before. I was taken aback at first, my out-of-print copy smudged with reddish orange, but I got to thinking how James Still would probably welcome the stains. Whether it was red North Carolina clay or black coal dust from Kentucky, it wouldn't matter. Still' s writing reflects his connection to the earth, as in his novel River of Earth, just as those smudges were inextricable from the pages of my book. He apologized when he realized what he did, but I did the best I could to play it off as not a big deal. Maybe James Still will leave a lasting thumbprint on him.
Somewhere between Rolling Rocks and morning light, between neck and collar bone, piecemeal tokens of flowering purple affection, touched lightly with a morning buzz and your limp arm over my wrinkled consciousness.
Somewhere between Sunday morning and sausage biscuits, the cashier at Hardee's with a careful glance, feigning apathetic eyes over the rim of her thick glasses, hands us our tray, gives away what she really thinks of missing buttons and my lipstick collar, concealing gleanings of that glaucous night before.
We sit, wondering and knowing in a window booth, silently chewing the sobering direction. Clarity advances with each church-bell chime from First Baptist down the street, like a grandfather clock, and our seconds together compete against throbbing temples and an almost soothing indifference, telling us our time has been eaten to tabletop crumbs.
I left you my phone number and you left me no choice but to leave you, back turned, at the steps to your apartment. Neither one of us knew where it would go, or end, from free beer and an invitation. After a week of turning away, my memories turn a lighter hue in compliment with the blood-shade bruises in the mirror. You fade to pallid skin in my mind.
I love my job, but sometimes it can suck the life out of me. I love to teach, but sometimes it is hard to be inspiring when I am faced with the uninspirable. Some teachers say they feel like they are throwing pearls before swine, or that teaching high school students these days is like polishing a turd -- no matter how you try to make it shine, you just get shit on you. Personally, I would like to give more credit to the teenagers of today, but sometimes it is hard. I remember having good teachers and not-so-good teachers, but I always found something in what I had to learn each day to take interest in. If I didn't, that is when I lost touch with what I should be learning, and my grades suffered as a result. Many teenagers today, as I see it, are so used to instant entertainment and instant gratification that they seem to not care about something if it means they have to put forth effort to pay attention. I'm sure some may think it is the teacher's job to be entertaining, but I could wear a clown suit and juggle dictionaries and students would still be unimpressed. For example, I read a poem the other day by James Dickey entitled "Cherrylog Road", about a man who waited in a rusty, kudzu-covered junkyard for his lover to meet him, that I was hoping they'd catch the sexual innuendo in the lines:
I held her and held her and held her Convoyed at terrific speed By the stalled, dreaming traffic around us So the blacksnake, stiff With inaction, curved back Into life, and hunted the mouse
Since most of the time their conversations somehow revolved around sex, I was hoping to catch their interest, to give them something they could go, "Aha, I know what he's talking about there (wink, wink)!" Istead, I get the pat answer that I get almost every time, "I don't get it." I didn't even get a Beavis and Butt-head response of, "Uh, Huh, Huh. He said 'stiff'."
Maybe it's just me, that I'm an ineffectual teacher. I want students to use their brain and think about the meanings of stories and poems, but so many times I find all they want is for me to tell them what it means. They don't have the patience, don't care about the discovery, that Eureka moment when a story, a poem becomes their own because they make meaning of it on their own. Well, tomorrow's another day.
Hello Sound waiting to arrive back around down into the cracks where the limestone yawns great gulps of ancient air underground previously accustomed to drops whispering from mineral tongues touching kissing for a thousand years in darkness crystalline Sound Echo
in Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review 33:3-4 (Spring/Summer 2006) 265.
It's official. I've been to my first Civil War reenactment. Like many people, I was skeptical at first, wondering if it would be historically accurate and legit or just a bunch of boys running around in confederate uniforms waving the stars and bars, pretending to shoot each other. Instead, I got an informative lesson in the history of my county. Stoneman's raid was a campaign lead by Union Calvary Commander, Major General George Stoneman. In the town of Morganton, NC, where I reside, this raid consisted mainly of burning records at the courthouse and plundering homes for staples, but they did encounter confederate troops, and a skirmish occured. That's about all I know, without offending some stoic Civil War buff with my inaccuracies.
I planned this outing with my whole family, but my wife didn't want to take our newborn son where loud cannons and muzzle loading rifle fire would scare him, so I took my four-year-old daughter. It was difficult explaining what we were going to see, but she got the idea. "Like the Dollywood shows where they pretend on stage, but it's outside?" She asked for confirmation. We didn't go for the full day's festivities, where they demonstrate how to cook over a campfire or how to pitch a Civil-War era tent, but got there just in time to watch the main show. The audience congregated on a hill overlooking farmland and pasture of the historic Bellevue Plantation. Men in blue uniforms emerged from a grove of trees and met some men in gray uniforms, and the shooting ensued. My daughter wasn't too impressed until a large cannon was wheeled onto the battlefield pulled by two horses. Before I could even warn her, she had her fingers in her ears. Boom!! Black powder smoke billowed in the breeze. "Who is the good guys and who are the bad guys?" A classic question she asks whenever we watch a movie together. I told her as diplomatically as I could that there wasn't a good or bad side, but that people from North Carolina would probably be in gray uniforms. Then I got to thinking, I wasn't sure which side I would be on. I definitely would not be pro-slavery, so donning a gray uniform would be out of the question. Most mountain farmers were too poor to afford slaves, anyway. However, I wouldn't want some Union battalion of troops ransacking my house and property for food and valuables, either. Did they have conscientious objectors back then? I wondered.
The outing wasn't complete without a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which my daughter ate like it was cotton candy. The only thing she didn't like about our father/daughter outing was that they didn't have a pink and purple horse with sparkles. I imagined Major General George Stoneman charging on his pink and purple sparkly horse. I told her I agreed. That would definitely have brought new meaning to the term "shock and awe!"
It’s that time of year to start preparing my garden for planting. When I was growing up, a garden was my mother’s way to get me out of the house. Gardening is still one of my favorite activities to do outside, something I also hope to pass on to my children. I’ve always wanted one of those monster gardens that you see in people’s yards, a half acre and pristinely kept with rows of every garden staple imaginable – corn, tomatoes, squash, okra, and beans. The first year my wife and I had a house with a yard I tried that, but found with a newborn daughter to take care of at the same time the task was too much, especially with the virulent weeds that seem to spring from nowhere. Then I came to realize that those folks that planted the half-acre garden were retired, thus explains the extra time they have to take care of them. Before my daughter was old enough to walk, I had her out in the garden. I would let her pick cherry tomatoes and gnaw on them with her little half-grown front teeth. Last year I let her plant her own garden and pick the seeds at the hardware store. She chose yellow and red sunflowers and tomatoes. This year, at my wife’s request, I have scaled down my garden further to one patch of ground about 12 feet by 12 feet behind the woodshed, so that my time will not be divided between gardening and our newborn son. My daughter and I are sharing the spot, and have decided to plant nothing but tomatoes – the usual steak and cherry tomatoes, but also some heirloom varieties (one of them grows yellow with green stripes and another turns deep purple when ripe). There are those moments when parents wonder if anything they are doing to raise their children is working. Then there are those Zen moments, when out of the blue your child does something right without being asked or given instructions. I brought my daughter outside today to help me pull weeds. I expected her to maybe pull a few weeds or scratch around with her red plastic toy rake. Instead, she began loading her little Radio Flyer wheel barrow up with piles of weeds I had previously pulled. “Where do I dump these, Daddy?” She asked. I pointed down to the edge of the woods, and from there she did the rest all herself. Occasionally she would say to me, “This is hard work,” as she hauled off another pile of weeds, but the smile on her face as she did it just filled me with more joy than if I had grown a whole produce market on my own. Maybe one day she will think I’m old-fashioned, and my taste in music is out of date, and she will want to do everything opposite of what I taught her. But perhaps some things will stick, like the joy of getting your hands dirty, creating life from dirt, or just the enjoyment of doing something with her dad. As long as she likes tomatoes, maybe some things will remain.
After the wave of pain rushes through your veins and out your heavy hands it is replaced by a feeling more formal than black suits and ties or eulogies in cold blue skies dirt as stiff as your heart’s stubborn beat that questions each day since century’s last week
Walking down the stillness of the ground and the air, the road skirting around the bare-limbed hills disregards the line of cars or the growing field of granite stones rows of mossy weathered scars
Time leads us by the still hours when we remember as frozen plastic flowers become faded, outlived recollect nothing of the sun’s glow but only the visiting chill of those who won’t let go
There is one venue of sharing my work that I haven't much experience with -- reading my poetry to a public audience. When I first began writing in college at Appalachian State, we would workshop poetry in small circles. That was ten years ago, though. Since then, the only group I have shared my poetry with, other than submitting poems to journals, has been with the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) at their yearly gatherings. I have read poems to my wife, but that doesn't count. I love her, bless her heart, but she admits that she doesn't "get" poetry. So I didn't marry her for her talent in literature critique. Recently, I got word from a co-coordinator of SAWC that she has gotten an evening at Malaprops in Asheville, NC, for our group to read their work. How exciting is that!? Now, for those who aren't familiar with the bookstore Malaprops, it is a pretty prestigious center for writers of the region. It's going to be one evening in June sometime between the 22-24th. I'm excited, but also a little intimidated. I mean, who am I to go reading my work in front of audiences who are used to hearing poets like Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Lee Smith, and Ron Rash? I wish I had some credentials, like a chapbook or something to promote with my reading. Still, maybe people will just appreciate a writer sharing their work with other people.
The first time you saw me without my dungarees was down by the creek. You were wildcrafting and I was skinny-dipping, washing bales of hay dust from behind my ears. In your arms you held a basket of Yellowroot, which you dropped in teary-eyed laughter at the sight of my backside. When you told me I was as white as two buttermilk biscuits, I drew close my arms, bronzed from the elbow down, concealing what pale skin I could that almost glowed in the clear water.
I couldn't count the times when my grandmother said the same thing during childhood baths. I sat in the wash tub, embarrassed, with a sponge and a bar of lye soap, watching the water turn cloudy while she always made sure I cleaned behind my ears, standing above me in her gingham dress.
But you hung yours on a rhododendron limb along with your bloomers and, with a cannonball splash, jumped into the swimming hole beside me, making sure to soak my clothes on the opposite bank. I smiled astonishingly, wondering what rock you had been sunning yourself on for your back to be so tan, so unbroken by modesty, and remembered how Grandma never cared much for buttermilk biscuits.
in Appalachian Broadsides 15:3, 27 April 1998, and The Broad River Review 36 (Spring 2004) 19.
Since my son was born a little over two weeks ago, I haven't had time to sit down to work on any new writing. It's not that I have a daily routine for writing like the more serious or dutiful writers, the ones that make a career out of writing. Right now my career job is being a father and husband when I'm at home. But I've learned that it's okay. I've gotten over the fact that the more my family grows the less time I have to write the way I was accustomed to in college, sitting down for hours on end. When my daughter was born almost four years ago, it took me some time to adjust that I couldn't seriously sit down in quiet and concentrate on writing. I began carrying around pad and paper to jot down ideas that would pop into my head while doing the laundry or right after tucking my daughter into bed, or I would grab the nearest scrap of paper and writing utensil to jot down a few lines to a kernel of a poem, saving the scraps in an envelope to work on or revise when I had more time. Being left handed makes it hard to bottle feed my son while writing, so I have been having to learn all over again how to channel the creative energy without feeling it's being stifled.
One thing I have been learning to appreciate more is living life. Though writing is a big part of me, I have to remind myself when I get frustrated at how little time I have to write that life is what inspires us all to create, to write. Playing Barbies with my daughter or taking my newborn son out in the warm sun of the front porch doesn't rob me of creative time or energy, but fortifies me. If I had to choose today between being a successful and famous writer and being a successful and loved father and husband, I would drop the pen and pick up a Ken doll. Thankfully I feel I can do both and feel satisfied. I guess it's a balance, all in good measure.