SOMEONE IS WRITING THE REAL WEST VIRGINIA
by Mary Ann Bragg
An artist in Provincetown, Massachusetts named Jay Critchley has a knack for provocation. He once parked a perfectly legal sand-encrusted car in a big parking lot downtown, a statement in part about the town paving over a harbor-front beach because of the need for more parking for tourists. Another time, he offered the abandoned, underground septic tank in his backyard as a summer rental and theater space at a time when the town was in trouble with the state about its housing density and the disposal of human waste.
I live in Provincetown but I’m from West Virginia. I’ve been thinking of the simultaneous provocation and balm that literature, like art, can have on moments of social and economic crisis. In Provincetown, year-round residents are disappearing as more and more houses are bought as second homes, thoroughly and exquisitely renovated, and then occupied in the summer only. In my hometown, Madison, West Virginia, streets have emptied out as an economy built on coal mining weakens, in part due to worries that burning fossil fuels overheats the planet. I want to paste a poem on the front of the beat-up house down the street from me in Provincetown where, in the last few months, shade trees have been cut and an architect’s sign has been planted out front. Here’s the possible poem:
Many Of Us Newcomers
Beat-up blue van, that unshaved guy, stomach out,
sold drugs, someone said. So respectful, almost silly,
I once ran into him at the airport in D.C., “my spouse”
fuzzy-haired, rotund. Missing too the owner, gray as sleet,
house sold, orders pizza now from high tops, blurts out:
“I didn’t know they were going to cut down the trees.”
Swimming pool rumored, he says; permit yellows in front
window, grimaces at Bay Colony rental. Biggest antique
on the street, misshapen, white, added on and on and
on, ivy rife, dirt driveway in lumps, electric power
wired for empty, architect sign the only dignity. That man,
gray as sleet, knocked on my door once: “I built this house.”
So who next? Dead mouse on the path to the beach, chicks flee
pocket park, gate beyond: respect private property.
In the empty Ben Franklin store in Madison I want to read a poem, and invite other writers to read. My poem here might be something like this:
Everything That Falls Apart
I want that cotton pantsuit, paisley, upstairs
gifts wrapped, girls’ department at Cox’s, far end of Main Street.
But no. Homemade, very nicely homemade. Braces
tightened I tear through Piece Goods, Saturday in the city
sister strollered, Butterick seams cut and ripped, hot
cashews hoarded in mittens, the Trailways bus leaves from Andy’s.
I could unfold metal chairs for the reading, and bring a cooler full of drinks, make it low-budget, and maybe people would come, people whose hearts are breaking, people who might like to hear what someone else is thinking.
I’ve been studying the poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg. The poem, published in 1922, is about a World War I soldier on the Western Front; morning breaks, and then a rat runs across his hand. Rosenberg was one of the English soldiers in the war whose poems contain real and gritty details, rare for the time, about the overwhelming loss of life and the harsh and unromantic conditions of warfare. The poem isn’t Rosenberg unloading his emotional pain on the page. It’s not a distraught diary entry. The poem’s tone is restrained and almost ironical, mysterious and delicate in its conversation with the rat, until near the end when you come to understand how afraid, how mortally afraid, the soldier is.
I want to write a poem like that.
Earlier this year, while I was waiting for my mother at a doctor’s appointment in Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, I walked a few blocks downtown, jaywalking when I wanted to, except there were no cars. This was on a Friday in the middle of the day, but it was like a Sunday morning. I kept walking toward a bookstore that I know on Capitol Street. I stepped inside. The place was busy and vital with literary magazines, coffee, comfortable seats, and shelves and shelves of books. I always go to this bookstore. I always buy more than I can afford. The bookstore is a beacon, a balm, and a statement. Someone has taken a stand with books and coffee right in the middle of an economic and social crisis with coal.
I live in Provincetown because it’s more welcoming of gay people than most places and I’m gay, and because the town is surrounded by the ocean and I love the beach. But I live in West Virginia too. I write short stories about West Virginia. I wrote this essay. In Matthew Neill Null’s essay, “No One is Writing the Real West Virginia,” Null argues that readers and publishing companies crave, “from a place like West Virginia, its most lurid and preconceived fantasies, as well as simple characters hopelessly shackled to their id.” He points to American writer Laura Albert who has continued to gain notoriety for her fiction published under the pseudonym J.T. LeRoy. Her novel Sarah (2000), written in first-person, is about an androgynous 12-year-old boy in West Virginia who adopts the persona of his mother Sarah, a truck stop “lot lizard.” For Null, what the wider readership wants from a place like Appalachia is a teen-age boy dressed in women’s clothes turning tricks at a truck stop. Readers, Null says, want “snake-handling Pentecostals” not United Methodists—a genre that Null calls “meth-lab trailer porn,” and he says that’s what’s being published.
Part of Null’s unspoken argument seems to be that Albert doesn’t have any apparent ties to West Virginia, and instead just overlaid her fantasies about mountain life on the harmless victim, the state of West Virginia, and that she shouldn’t do that. Albert was outed in 2005 and 2006 as the writer behind the J.T. LeRoy books and part of a literary hoax involving her boyfriend’s half-sister making public appearances as J.T. LeRoy. I read Sarah when it was first published because, like Null, I was curious and glad to find out more about a West Virginia-born author who was getting noticed at the highest levels in book reviews. My impression of Sarah then was a sense of the characters in a whirl of motion with no recognizable details of the state where I grew up.
I started to read the book again recently, and pretty soon came across a small detail about one of the state’s poorer counties that resonated with me as true. I can’t tell whether Albert has ties to West Virginia. She works in nonprofit development in San Francisco, according to her website. But writing about Sarah now has made me also think of the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005), which has more details of West Virginia children fending for themselves. I’m reminded of what Null says about the appetite among readers for rural clichés blown out to fit their fantasies. I read The Glass Castle when it came out and had a hard time swallowing the truth of those details. Still, the memoir has done well in sales, notably as a New York Times bestseller for more than six years, according to publisher Simon and Schuster. While Albert doesn’t say much on her website about her background, Walls does in her publisher’s bio. She grew up in the Southwest and in a mining town in West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College, worked as a journalist in New York and now lives in rural Virginia.
I see West Virginia more and more in literature. It might be Null’s novel Honey From The Lion (2015), about the brutality of a rebellion against the state’s logging industry at the turn of the century, from which he read at a bookstore in Provincetown. It might be Jacob Knabb, writing an essay in Vice about the end of the coal economy in Boone County, where he and I grew up. It might be Emma Copley Eisenberg’s short story in Cutbank about a young woman’s move from a hilltop in West Virginia to Philadelphia. It might be Dean Marshall Tuck’s short story in Fugue about a lot of things: the history of Chief Cornstalk, the collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River, a father’s love for his daughter and an apparition called “Mothman.” There aren’t any boundaries, though, when it comes to a writer claiming a place as home. We don’t get to say who can write the real version, and what details are allowed. Writing the real West Virginia might mean you don’t use the words “West Virginia” at all. Maybe it just means you as a writer were born there, or your parents or grandparents are from there, or you drove through the state once and some details stuck with you, or whatever. Albert can write what she wants, and so can Walls and anybody else.
There are no boundaries either when it comes to reading about the place we call home. I have found the real West Virginia in The Country Girls by Irish novelist Edna O’Brien and in Sister Carrie by Indiana-born Theodore Dreiser. Both novels are about young women leaving their rural hometowns behind permanently for a life in the city, which is my story of departure in 1984 from West Virginia to Boston when I was twenty-six. I read Sister Carrie first, in the late 1990s, and even then it took me a while to realize that the story of Caroline Meeber (“Sister Carrie”) heading by train in 1889 to Chicago was a tale of rural flight and more importantly that rural flight was even a phenomenon that could be written about. The Country Girls, which I read two years ago, meant even more to me with its underlying themes of a young woman’s emerging independence and sexuality in the 1960s. The scene where Caithleen first arrives in Dublin with her friend Baba reminded me, with a jolt, of the wonder and uncertainty of first arriving in a city that could be your future. Both novels have scenes where the young women stay in cramped quarters with relatives or with families that provide supervised housing. It was the same for me, staying with my girlfriend’s aunt and uncle just outside of Boston, taking over her uncle’s bedroom with all our stuff and then asking to stay longer than we expected, until we found an apartment. We too went out looking for jobs shortly after getting to Boston, as Sister Carrie and Caithleen did.
In a different way, I also found the real West Virginia in the poem “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, a Missourian who was writing from England around 1920. I was reading the poem during the time I was in Charleston to take my mother to the doctor’s office. The details of a hopeless lower-class life in London, the typist lighting her stove and laying out food in tins, the ruminations of the old man Tiresias, and the overall tone of most of the poem captures, for me, the bleakness of the emptied-out storefronts in my hometown. But at the same time the poem doesn’t end in ruin, in part because of the use of Sanskrit at the end, which to me means something like: Rely on your history for strength.
I’ve found the real West Virginia in tangential ways too. In an earth science class it suddenly occurred to me as we studied tectonic plates that the tall rock shaped like an hourglass on top of a mountain in Lincoln County, West Virginia, that my uncle had shown me and my cousins one day, could possibly date back to a time when the Northern Hemisphere was covered with tropical swamps, when the vegetation would eventually be buried and over millions of years turn into beds of coal. In the Charleston Gazette-Mail, too, I’ve read about the boulders at the foot of Ice Mountain in Hampshire County, the talus, where cold and dense air sinks into the crevices in winter, where ice forms, guaranteeing over generations that by the Fourth of July families in the area would have plenty of ice to make ice cream.
I find myself thinking longer term, reaching back in geological time to when rocks formed and reaching forward to a time when, for example, global warming could drastically change the cycles of ice-making at Ice Mountain, and all of that leaks into my writing about West Virginia. So too does the life of Anne Newport Royall, one of the country’s first newspaperwomen who lived with her husband, a Revolutionary War soldier, in the unincorporated town of Sweet Springs in southeastern West Virginia. There’s a roadside plaque there for Royall, who in 1827, after her husband died, published her one novel, The Tennessean; a Novel, founded on Facts, before turning to travel writing and eventually journalism. In that early novel, a colonial fairy tale filled with stock characters and fantastic coincidences, you can see what her values are—to take care of those who have no voice—and how those values extended into her later career in newspapers. I take that to heart: Royall’s consistency in values across a lifetime of writing. A much greater influence has been feminist and poet Adrienne Rich, in particular her book What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993). I can remember first reading the book and feeling something quaking inside me. Rich’s message was simple enough. You can write a poem. Writing a poem can save your life. Writing a poem can be a “keenest joy.” Your own life is valid material, and as poets “we must use what we have to invent what we desire.”
At the time, I only half-understood what that meant. But as I flip through Rich’s book now, I find an airline ticket from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Houston, Texas, where I wrote what I think was my first poem, “And So It Goes,” about eating Thanksgiving dinner in Galveston, Texas, with complete strangers because my sister had been called away from the table to an emergency at work. Tucked in Rich’s book is also a newspaper clipping, one I had cut out about a woman in Madison, West Virginia stealing a refrigerator from her landlord when she left in the middle of the night without paying back rent of $200. I have an early poem entitled “Madison Woman Runs Off With Refrigerator.” I have an early poem entitled “Ennui,” about sitting at an office desk in tight pantyhose, and another entitled “Mr. French Thinks I’m The Secretary.”
All of those early poems were written in New England, but they have West Virginia in them, and they suggest themes that have emerged in my writing more fully over time: economic hardship, being stuck in unproductive work, alienation between men and women, alienation between cultures, desperate acts and a failure to act. Now, twenty years later, I’m asking more of myself and I’m asking more of other writers like Null and Knabb. They both see doom in West Virginia’s future. Knabb’s essay “A Portrait of Coal Town on the Brink of Death” ends with statements about how “powerless” he is to do anything except burn down a coal company’s billboard. Null’s assessment of West Virginia is: “We’re at the end of our road. By century’s end, half of West Virginia will be a moonscape of blasted rock, drilled and mined and stripped to nothing, all to produce cheap energy for the very people who have looked down on the place as backward; the rest will be a green playground for the wealthy, on the level of Jackson Hole.”
I don’t agree.
It’s our duty and responsibility as writers to address our concerns more and more fully, “to invent what we desire,” as Rich says. I can write a poem about the cracked Art Deco facade of a vacant beauty salon in Madison but I could also organize a one-day literary festival in the old Ben Franklin store across the street. A literary festival would be a surprise and provocation, an in-your-face response to the gloom of a Main Street hardened and hunkered-down with the strain of a bad economy. A literary festival would be a balm, a commitment to something as ephemeral as a poem and a statement of confidence in the potential of Main Street.
Of my neighborhood in Provincetown, I could write an essay about the depressing proliferation of “Private Beach” signs, and the new “No Dogs” sign down the street in a newcomer’s yard that actually shows a dog with a turd coming out of its butt. But as a writer, I can do more. I must do more. I could write a series of stories of Provincetown natives who have sold their houses for unbelievable amounts of money and moved away. I am thinking of excerpts I read of Voices From Chernobyl by Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich, which retold interviews she’d conducted as personal stories. I could write other stories from the perspective of those out-of-towners who might buy a house in Provincetown, and pay a crazy amount for the privilege, but then find that no one is very friendly on their street, and maybe they didn’t mean to disturb the neighborhood in the way that they did. What if a series of Alexievich-inspired stories start a town-wide conversation about alienation in Provincetown, and how we live in a guarded way, protecting our driveways from U-turns and telling drivers with out-of-town license plates to slow down yet we welcome the benefit of summer rental income and rising property values.
The problem with writing something down, something like this essay, is that then you have to act on it.
I’ve been thinking too of a writing workshop for fourth-graders. I hated fourth grade. It was a turning point. I got an “F” in conduct. Someone “got their period” and I didn’t know what that meant. But I wish I’d had the chance to do some creative writing, where maybe the germ of an idea about how to provoke, how to be a balm, how to do both, might have pushed to the surface. No one in my fourth-grade class was thinking of going to college to be a writer or to major in literature. But what if a fierce young writer could be nourished?
Mary Ann Bragg is working on her MA in English at UMASS Boston.
Image credit: “Building For Sale, Madison, West Virginia” © Mary Ann Bragg