Wednesday, October 2, 2019

What? Poetry can have a social life?

Chris Green

The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race and Radical Modernism by Chris Green

Chris Green sees his work at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, which he has directed since July 2012, as the most important he has yet undertaken. He is a professor, poet, activist, and administrator who love and serves Appalachia with all its many cultures and people, as well as all the many peoples of the United States and the world. He grew up in Lexington, Ky., and attended the University of Kentucky (UK) where Appalachian Studies and creative writing answered his need to write poetry, know the world, and fight for justice. He went on to earn his MA in English from Appalachian State University, and his MFA in Poetry and MS in secondary education at Indiana University, where he studied the wily ways of poetry and post-colonialism.

After working as a poet in the community, he completed his PhD on multicultural American poetry at UK. He moved to Huntington, W.Va., where for a decade where he professed English, Appalachia, and world change. While there, his monograph, The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism, won the 2009 Weatherford Award for the best non-fiction book about Appalachia. Chris also co-edited Radicalism in the South Since Reconstruction, a collection of scholarly essays, and edited Coal: A Poetry Anthology, a collection of 98 poets designed for non-academic readers, a book that one reviewer concluded was “significant and lasting contribution to Appalachian literature, and maybe more importantly, to the literature of a world coming to terms with how our resources and the ways we use them transform our lives.”

His is the author of the book of poetry is called Rushlight.

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Review and Interview by Melva Sue Priddy


The series Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics published Chris Green’s book as one of the first three books published in 2009, and his book became a winner of the 2009 Weatherford Award for Best Non-Fiction Book about Appalachia.

I’m just now finding this book. Why so late?

I attended the 42nd annual Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School, which happens in July every summer. A week long residency in Knott County, writers have been gathering at the forks of Troublesome Creek to explore the intricacies of fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, poetry, song, publishing, and to fellowship. It is a community of supportive writers, without competition. For more info, see Appalachian Writers Workshop. While the Appalachian Writers Workshop began in 1978, the Hindman Settlement School’s history of supporting Appalachian writers started many decades earlier. This year, Chris Green gave the Appalachian Literature lecture each afternoon. Chris is Berea College’s Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center; Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies; and Department Chair of Appalachian Studies. He brought his passion into each lecture. The fourth lecture, based on his book, covered a lot of ground in a very short time.

Before listening to the lecture, and then reading this book, I’d never questioned how publishers chose the books they would publish. Call me naive, but I was unaware of the underlying motives of publishers, presses, and the people in the business. I thought one could be a better fit with some presses or journals, but I had no idea really. This was an eye opener for me.

In The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race and Radical Modernism, Chris Green looks specifically at the people in the Appalachian areas who became known as “Anglo-Saxons,” the development of presses in New York, and the agendas of the founders of those presses, and then the writing and publishing of four “first books” of poetry: Jesse Stuart’s Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (E. P. Dutton, 1934); James Still’s Hounds on the Mountain (Viking, 1937); Muriel Rukeyser’s U. S. 1 (Covici-Friede, 1938); and Don West’s Clods of Southern Earth (Boni & Gaer, 1946). Heads up: This is a scholarly book, well researched and explained for those delving into it’s pages. I was interested in the book for it’s contents and writers discussed but also because of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Me Too movement, and recent studies in Whiteness and the hidden biases of having grown up white.

“Part I Appalachia, Race, and Pluralism” looks at the myth of white Anglo-Saxon progenitors, how and why that was cultivated, when in fact many ethic peoples lived in Appalachia. Before coal was discovered by the big mining companies, and wanting that coal was the deciding factor, immigrants from England were just one of many cultures living in the mountains, which included: Native Americans, Jews, Blacks, Southerners, Italians, Irish, Scots and new immigrants. After the Civil War, people where anxious to read about unknown pockets of ethnic groups living all across the United States. While local color tended to stereotype groups of people living in the mountains to better fit into a white middle-class world view, seldom was one race or ethnic group more important or less important than another. Pluralism and equality were more evident in the mountains than local color writing witnessed.

“Part II The Social Life of Poetry” is divided into four parts, taking one poet at a time, their influences and development as writers, and exploring how each author developed his/her style as they interacted with presses, their points of view, and audiences. Green builds on his discussion as he includes each consecutive poet. For me, the book unfolds as a mystery and the second part is the most interesting, but I could not have understood its significance without reading "Part I.” Before reading The Social Life, I was familiar with all four authors: I studied Stuart in elementary classes, as most Kentucky students did in the 1950s and 1960s; I found Still when I attended Berea Collage, and I taught his poems, short stories and the novel River of Earth to secondary English classes (Still even visited my classrooms one day); Rukeyser showed up in anthologies and feminist writing in college; and West was the one I was least familiar with because his politics had kept him out of most class studies when I was in school. American education has made many mistakes in an effort to melt the pot of pluralism; we are finding our way back to those mistakes, though this isn’t the topic of this review / interview, but it’s worth saying aloud. All four poets are worth reading and studying.

I learned that all three men, Stuart, Still and West, attended Lincoln Memorial University and then Vanderbilt; they knew each other and kept in contact after college and they championed each other's work. All were from working class white families. Stuart and West had roots in what became known as the Appalachian area, while Still was from Alabama and considered a transplant as he lived his adult life in Knott County, Kentucky. Stuart is considered the first major writer from the mountains to win national acclaim. In contrast, Muriel Rukeyser’s Jewish family was considered middle class; she grew up in New York, attended Vassar for two years, took classes at Columbia University, but she had to drop out when her father’s concrete business went bankrupt. Of the four poets, Rukeyser and West were more politically motivated, attempting social change with their writing. I was unfamiliar with Rukeyser’s and West’s earliest works.

All four poets had different audiences and approaches to exposing those outside the mountains to Appalachian culture. Stuart wrote about his life experiences to an audience of his own people as well as people interested in mountain culture. His first book of some 700 “sonnets” were accessible, although considered a bit stereotyped today (…“he knew how to spin a tale that his readers were hungry to believe”). Still wrote in a more polished way, geared to educated people outside the mountains about the people he knew in the mountains; few if any people in Knott County read Still’s first book when published. Rukeyser, herself an outsider, used her journalistic background to address an “ideal audience [of] educated urbanites” with poetry of witness about inhumane treatment of people; she wanted her readers to see themselves as complicit and motivate action. She wrote “Book of the Dead,” the first section of U. S. 1, after her investigation of the Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, deaths of over 800 miners (most of whom were African American) from silicosis between 1930 and 1936. West, likewise, wanted his audience to move toward political action; trained as a preacher of Social Gospel, he “mobilized all his skills as a poet (and an activist and organizer) to help create a society where the working and lower classes could join together across categories of work, race, gender, or locality to struggle for political, social, and economic rights.”

All four poets, liberal leaning in varying degrees, found publication through New York liberal presses run by Jewish men largely educated at Harvard. That presses were in NY didn’t surprise me. What I didn’t know was that the presses all promoted something about American’s citizenry, and Chris Green helped me sort that out: “They were all mobilizing associations with mountain whites, and three were promoting a vision of America with many cultures; Jesse Stuart’s publisher promoted [the popular] Western Europe.”

There is so much complexity in this work, which happens anytime you stir human beings into the mess we really are. The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race and Radical Modernism is worth reading and studying.

—Melva Sue Priddy

How did you choose these four poets, and how long did you work on The Social Life?

CG: I chose them because they were the first poets publishing about Appalachia with truly national presses. I first met & read James Still and discovered Don West when I was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky around ’88 to ’90. In 2001 (or thereabouts), I wrote an essay about Don West and Muriel Rukeyser, the later of whom I read in graduate school, and compared their books and audiences. When it came time for my dissertation, I expanded and included Still. Near the end (in 2004), I realized I had to include Stuart, but my dissertation chair told me to do that later. I wish I had included one other poet—Louise McNeill—whose first book came out around the same time and was part of yet another readership/perspective, but publishers already wanted me to drastically cut down my word count.

You make note several times in writing The Social Life that all along there were people who resisted cultural homogenization, starting with your introduction. You also state that “‘Appalachia’ is a discursive construct.” I find this to be so interesting in light of what is happening in our world today. Obviously, the coal companies wanting cheap access to mine the mountains were a big part of making the mountain folk look dangerous and off balance. What were other influences?

CG: Oh so many! The then coastal elite’s reaction to the “back woods” people who were the pioneers; after the Civil War, people in the deep south felt betrayed by the mountains and people in the North thought of mountains as being southern—a real catch 22; then after the tremendous damage caused by the Civil War and the fight over scarce resources that the country needed for the industrial revolution resulted in feuding, it was the new role of education and the managerial class, which those in central Appalachia had limited access. The list goes on and on and on.

You state that although the popular image most readers held of miners was of a white miner covered in black coal dust, “…in 1931 black miners—mostly from the South—represented 22 percent of all miners in the state, with immigrants constituting another 17 percent.” That’s 39 percent of miners who were not Anglo-Saxon. Why was that perception so different from the actual?

CG: Media representations were operating under the pressure of assumptions about who lived in central Appalachia, coming from legends of the feuds and the cultivated, essentialist mythology of Anglo-ancestory, which I [discuss more] in the first chapter.

You comment in The Social Life on the absence of of Appalachians from studies of race history and the role of whiteness until the last twenty years or so. How would inclusion have moved both studies of race and whiteness further along?

CG: It would widen the sense of who is on the same side, of who needs to stand together, and of who has been (and often continues to be) the victims of the devilish dynamics of American capitalist ideology. The issue would turn from “Whites vs. All others” into an issues of class and power.

You state several times that poetry wasn’t making money for publishers in the 1930s, that presses took risks in publishing an unknown writer. Has much changed? Can you say something about how national publishers choose poetry to print today?

CG: Not much has changed. Presses have to have authors who sell and financial support (from donors, government, and foundations) in order to do worthy work as a press, because anyone can bring out a book, but most small presses are not capable of marketing them, even if they do a good job creating the book (which all too many do not).

National publishers do things for one reason: profit. However, obviously, there is not much profit from most poetry. What poetry adds is cultural capital, which can then be converted to a set of associations lending a press prestige and respect, hence increasing profit. There are some houses with national reputations who serve masters other than profit, but they are few and most of them can’t dare to risk their resources in poetry.

You state of Still: “Through his familiarity with Hindman and the Atlantic, Still reproduced conventions that allowed middle-class readers to recognize his work as authentic then validating those institutions [and that he] became part of a reinforcing circuit of discursive production regarding middle-class Anglo-idenity.” Do you think Still was aware of this at the time of his first publication? How did this influence readers’ awareness of race and class in the minds of non-Appalachian people?

CG: Still held the Atlantic as THE model of good literature, and later became aware of venues with different aesthetics and audiences. Was he aware of its specific audience? Perhaps not overtly, but implicitly, reinforced by virtue of his college study. His growing awareness was amplified in comparison with his friends (Don West and Jesse Stuart).

Writing about West and the causes he championed, you state, “The New York Times Book Review demonstrates that the world of readers who valued poetry in the North was not necessarily cognizant of the complex, oppressive political realities in the South. Nor could they hear poetry as Southerners did.” Can you say more about how Southerners heard poetry; and has that changed over time?

CG: The Southerners who read West’s books were deeply familiar with the nearly debilitating complexity of race relations, but they also saw, knew, and lived paths forward. They knew there were many parts of the South against which poets from the Fugitives specifically denied and that the Agrarians decontextualized in their moves toward white racial domination. In short, people who read that book knew what the score was: and the people who were reading it were not in colleges.

The way Southerners—and the nation—have heard poetry since was through the deaf and dumb practices of the new criticism which became all the rage in higher education for the next fifty years (and still lives today), but with the generational rise of southern African American poets (such as Margaret Walk, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Nikki Finney) as well as with the rise of Appalachian poetry, Southerners are more likely to see themselves.

West published Crab-Grass in 1931, years before Clods was published. Why did West’s publishers promote his second poetry book as his “first” book?

CG: Clods of Southern Earth [1946] was definitely promoted as his first, and it was West’s first publication with a truly national press. Saying it was his first book gained cultural capital in two ways: first, for many, working-class people outside the cultural establishment, that this was a first book made it feel more accessible; second, for some in the cultural establishment, such a long collection might gain credence for seemingly having come out of the blue as it did.

If I’m not mistaken, part of West’s popularity (of Clods) was due to his publishers promoting paper backs and book of the month clubs, and West’s dispersal of his book free, hundreds at a time, plus his image as one of the working class. I was touched by stories of how, long after distribution, sharecroppers and other working class people still had their copies of Clods. What can you say about renewed interest in West’s work, today, long after the FBI considered him and his work dangerous because of his connection to Communism?

CG: The core issues that West fought for—the equality of all people’s and their repression for profit is now a view more widely held. The great danger we face now is the rise of white fascism, driven by the destruction of the working classes wealth by the very white capitalists who stand to profit from racial conflict. Thus, my colleague is bringing West’s Clods of Southern Earth out again but now accompanied by a truly multicultural group of contemporary poets. The work of coalition building across ethnic and racial difference is easily fragmented because we rally more quickly to the defense of people we identify with while people, whose seeming difference is rooted in the ground of this nation’s most base, crass, and violent exploitation, is easy to rekindle and amplify.

Rukeyser wrote poetry of witness. What would you say to poetry writers today who are interested in poetry of witness?

CG: Go where things to which you are close are happening. Dare to know people and become close; dare to help and to stand in the way of bulldozers. Dare to throw your assumptions aside and listen. Then write. And read those poems to your friends. Publish them on broadsides, in newspapers. Stand with other poets of witness and bring your friends, your issues, your people, your causes together. For if we can’t stand together, if we are forced apart because of a false essentialism and defensiveness, then the game is over.

I learned so much reading this book. Chris, what did you learn, in the process of researching and writing, that most surprised you?

CG: That it all made so much sense. That poetry was so deeply a part of the social sphere and that it was so shaped by (and shaped) issues of race and whiteness. That coalitions of blacks and white in the South were fighting together against the evils of racism long before the 1960s. That my work as someone who loves poems let me see the deep beauty and integrity of each poets’ poems.

Melva Sue Priddy, a native Kentuckian, earned degrees in English/Education from Berea College and The University of Kentucky, before earning an MFA. Her poems witness survivance and growth, bringing to light truths that arise out of felt experience. In addition to poems, she creates gardens, quilts, and some rustic woodwork. Her poetry can be found in ABZ, Accents Publishing’s LexPoMo, Blood Lotus, The Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Motif Anthologies, The Single Hound, and Still.