As many of our readers know, tmr, despite its moniker, actually makes its home at Virginia Tech, but you might not know that VT is located in Appalachia. When you think about Appalachia, you probably don’t think of show stopping women writers. Well, I’m going to change that or at least I’m going to try.
Chances are that you haven’t encountered a lot of Appalachian writers; often, this is because there is a tendency to project misconceptions about the region onto Appalachian writers and their work. I’m very familiar with these stereotypes because I am a native West Virginia, and when I was young and pretty dumb, I believed them. At least I did until, as an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to take Appalachian Literature with WV poet laureate, Irene McKinney.
Being in Irene’s class, at least for me, was very much like being in church. Every day we would all shuffle in and she would preach the good work of Appalachian Literature. Irene referred to the authors we read as “rednecks, hicks, hillbillies, or mountain folk,” saying these words as though they were honorable titles. I had come to class expecting a semester of pastoral, apologetic writing that lauded the quiet, simple life, but the pieces we read were not simple or quiet and they were surely not apologetic. They were loud because they had important things to say. They were also sad and sometimes a little bit angry because they came from a place of poverty, discrimination, displacement, and environmental destruction. Before she passed away in 2008, Irene McKinney helped me understand the worth of Appalachian writers and their work, and I hope that her work will do the same for you, but in addition to Irene, I’m going to tell you about a few more amazing female, Appalachian writers, just to be safe.
Irene McKinney grew up on a farm in West Virginia and frequently drew from her experience as a self-proclaimed hillbilly to write poems that earned her substantial critical acclaim from such organizations as The National Endowment for the Arts and The Bread loaf Writers Conference. McKinney also served as professor emerita at her alma mater West Virginia Wesleyan College.
McKinney’s poems exist in a space that expertly bridges the real and the imaginary, entering the life of rural, working class Appalachians through the land that sustains them in such a way that the human world and natural world often become one. McKinney published five collections of poetry during her life, all of which I would highly recommend. However, if you want a taste from each collection, might I suggest Unthinkable: Collected Poems 1976-2004?
Adrian Blevins is a Virginian poet who has taught at both Hollins University and Roanoke College, but who currently teaches at Colby College in Maine. Blevins won the Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award for her first chapbook The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes and has continued to win a variety of awards for her full lengths collections of poetry.
When I read poems by Blevins, I feel like the very voice of the mountains and the people who live in them come together to expose the secrets of Appalachian life. Blevins uses this expertly crafted, lyrical voice to access truths about relationships and ancestry. Although I love The Brass Girl Brouhaha, I heard Blevins read from her newest collection Live from the Homesick Jamboree at AWP and ordered it immediately.
doris davenport is a performance poet whose work is influenced by growing up in the Appalachian foothills of Georgia. Although poetry is davenport’s primary genre, she had also penned essays dealing with race, class, and sexuality that will leave you speechless. davenport currently teaches at Stillman College in Alabama.
davenport’s poems latch on to detailed images and often tangible objects to move through different times and different spaces in an effort to help push the reader towards a new way of understanding. More often than not davenports work involves finding paths to both explore and celebrate her existence as an African American, lesbian, poet from the south. davenport has eight books of poetry, but I am still partial to her first book, it’s like this, but I also like her newest collection 65 poems.
Ann Pancake, a native of West Virginia, is not only an expert novelist, but also a fine short story writer and essayist. Pancake’s work is focused around the exploration of modern life in rural West Virginia with a specific focus on the effects of poverty on working class families and young women. In addition to writing, Pancake has taught writing in the US and abroad.
Pancake’s debut novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been utilizes authentic Appalachian vernacular, sparse dialogue, and unflinching imagery to discuss the devastation of mountain top removal by examining the affects it has on characters in a small southern West Virginia town. I read the novel six years ago, and the images and characters are still with me.
Maggie Anderson was actually born in New York, but moved to West Virginia with her parents when she was a teenager. Anderson went to college in West Virginia and has mostly remained in Appalachia throughout her life, teaching at various schools and colleges in the area. Anderson’s poetry has received a number of awards including fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Art’s Council. She has also been honored by Emory and Henry College and Kent State.
Using visceral, physical language, Anderson explores Appalachian existence through poems that feel so present it seems like you are a part of the action. Often the words are direct, even plain, but the images are anything but. Anderson has published six books of poetry, but if you can’t decide which read first, consider Windfall: New and Selected Poems.
Crystal Wilkinson, a Kentucky native, is a founding member of Affrilachian Poets, a writing collective that promotes the creative work of African American Appalachians. Wilkinson is not only known for her spectacular poetry and fiction, but for her ability to teach and foster Appalachian voices. Currently Wilkinson is the Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College.
Wilkinson’s latest short-story collection Water Street uses startlingly authentic dialogue and vulnerable, expertly crafted characters to offer the reader a chance to experience the day to day struggles of African American’s living in the rural South. The humanness of the characters and their relationships along with the seamless flow of the language kept this poet enthralled until the end. Also make sure to check out Wilkinson’s debut collection, Blackberries, Blackberries.
If you really can’t get enough of awesome, Appalachian lady writers, check out these anthologies Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Writers, and/or Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women’s Poetry.