Gals and Ghouls: the Spooktacular Susan Sheppard

Born in Clarksburg, I grew up in West Union, a small town in Doddridge County. I’m a graduate of Doddridge County High School.  I married at a young age and moved to Parkersburg. I was then, and still am, trying to balance my three primary interests which are writing, art and topics of a spiritual nature.  I’m the author of “The Phoenix Cards,” and several other non-fiction books.  I was the winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Poetry Prize in 2005.

Tell us a little about your writing background. When did you know you wanted to write?

I knew I wanted to write in first or second grade. I was interested mostly in poetry; however, I also wanted to write fiction and non-fiction.

Who would you say among authors living and dead are your favorites and why?

Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Louise Erdrich, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Rumi, James Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dylan Thomas, Sharon Olds, Jayne Anne Phillips and others. I think for the most part these are writers who are led by sensation and feeling in their works. Others are gothic or speculative.

How have any of these authors influenced your own writing?

I would say they all have.

Do you have a writing group? Describe.

Yes. Now three years old, we have a poetry group who meets weekly in the old Dils Department Store in downtown Parkersburg. We call ourselves the “Sacred Way Poets,” but we’re not a religious group. We named ourselves after a street in nearby Marietta called Sacra Via, or Sacred Way. In Rome, the road was called Via Sacra, a very ancient road.

Explain your connection with Celts and how did you come to write your poem, “The Green Children”?

Well, I’m part Celtic but also Native American. However, since I write in English (which is not Celtic, but…) I cannot help but be influenced by the magic and legends of the British Isles.  The concept of fairies is, of course, great fun. I think I naturally gravitate toward the Irish imagination, which is dark, foreboding and magical.  Many of my ancestors came from Ireland but my other forebears, according to DNA testing, have been in North America for 12,000 years.  The poem is based on an old English tale about two green children who were found wandering. They were unable to speak and one died. The other child survived and eventually the green color left her skin.

“Where the sky broke open/ to reveal the furnaces of heaven”—what does this line mean in your poem “The Green Children”?

When clouds part, the sky looks like it’s on fire, sometimes like a furnace, which of course can be beautiful, maybe off putting.  Also, I had a vision once of heaven being like a turning wheel of fire. When the soul passed through this fire wheel, any negative residue of earth was burned off and the soul then became cleansed. If the soul was too dense, too weighted down by earthly life, then it was best they return to earth and try it all over again. I suppose that means I believe in reincarnation. There is always a mystical dimension behind everything I write.

Tell us about your latest project.

My latest project is the film “White Zombie 2014” that I wrote the screenplay for. It is a re-imagining the old 1932 movie starring Bela Lugosi. This is not your usual zombie film. It was directed by Arthur Leo Collins and will be released by RagNbone Productions located in Youngstown, Ohio. I also created “The Creative Writer’s Inspiration Deck” which is searching for a publisher, and I am always writing poetry.

Who is Scarlet?

Scarlet Elisabeth Sheppard is my amazing daughter who is a writer and an actress. She helped out with the West Virginia Writer’s Conference for a few years and is a popular young lady. Scarlet has the ability to lift the mood of any room she walks into. She is in her last year at Columbia College in Chicago.

Respond with poem or prose to the following scenario:

A woman is sitting by Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. The Poe Toaster, the mysterious man in black who for decades left three roses and an unfinished bottle of Martell cognac at Poe’s grave on Poe’s January 19 birthday comes no longer. She is going to start a new tradition, not in January, but on All Hallows Eve. What will her tradition be?

If I was the woman sitting by Poe’s grave (which I have done twice) I would start the tradition of having people dress in the costumes of Poe’s characters on Halloween and play the “exquisite corpse” poetry exercise (after all, it was developed by the surrealists in Paris who were so influenced by Poe’s writings) for an hour or so.  Later we would get a Ouija board and suggest the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe send messages to us from the beyond, and maybe, if we get lucky, perhaps his spirit will even write out some new poems. At midnight we would embark on a ghost hunt of the catacombs of the Westminster Church where Poe is buried. (He isn’t buried in the catacombs; his grave is visible from the street.) We would end the night with a toast of hot chai tea because Poe died from his addiction to alcohol. I don’t think his memory is best served by bringing in the thing that killed him. Of course, Halloween was not really celebrated during Poe’s time. The idea of Halloween was brought to America’s shores by the Irish in the 1840s and Poe died in 1849. But that wasn’t enough time for Halloween to become a tradition.


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Granny Sue is back in the house and ready to tell a tale!

Susanna Holstein of Jackson County, West Virginia is a writer, storyteller and ballad-singer. Appalachian culture and folklore is at the heart of her both her oral performances and written work. Prior to attending college, Holstein was a stay-at-home mother and subsistence farmer, raising tobacco, sorghum, cattle, hay, truck crops and poultry as well as five sons. She began work (and got her Social Security number) when she was 31, and worked as a rural mail carrier, security guard and a teller at a greyhound racing track before returning to school. She began college at the same time as her oldest son, graduating from West Virginia State College as an education major, and went on to obtain a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of South Carolina. After 20 years as a librarian in Kanawha county Holstein, retired in 2011 to concentrate on storytelling, writing, homesteading and her many grandchildren.

The poem you submitted, “Sago,” pairs the tragedy that happened at that coal mine and the occasion of your mother’s death. How did you come to pair both those sad events?

My mother’s death and the Sago mine disaster occurred within the same week. Mom died on December 28th, 2005, and the Sago mine collapsed on January 2nd. The day of the funeral, January 3rd, we heard on the news that the miners had been rescued, and it seemed as if our own grief lightened a little that at least those families had some respite from their grief. As you know, the news was a mistake: instead of twelve survivors and one killed, there were twelve dead miners and one survivor. I have always felt a connection to the Sago mine victims’ families because we were all grieving at the same time. Later, I visited the memorial to the miners at Sago. It’s a small community, off the beaten path, very lovely countryside. The memorial is a large, dark oval of granite with the names and pictures of the lost miners carved into the stone. I took a photo of the memorial and was startled to find that my reflection was captured in the center of the stone. That seemed to tie me even closer emotionally to the place and to those men I never knew. I wrote about that visit and posted the photo on my blog (


The ending of Sago is, “ . . . and coal trucks from the Sago mine roared past, loaded with coal.” Can you speak to how that scene made you feel and what it made you think?

It made me feel as if nothing had happened there, that the past was simply erased and life

went on. And yet there was the stone with those men’s faces. How could people continue to do everyday things, especially to return to mining coal in the same mine, with the reminder of such great loss right in front of them daily? I struggled with that thought in 2007 when I visited Sago. I was angry at the insensitivity of the world, and I wanted to rail against it and lash out at those who could simply go on with life, passing the memorial as if it wasn’t there. I was speechless with anger, grief and helplessness as I watched those trucks spewing road dust on the granite stone.

Yet I know people must work. Life must go on. Dishes must be washed, lawns mowed, bills paid, coal mined, jobs done. Finding a way back to the joy of living is a long and lonely journey. Visiting the memorial was my tribute to those men and their families. The poem was my attempt to put all those emotions into words. I later learned the bitter truth of what it takes to continue living when we lost a son in 2010. I mean, what else can we do but go on? And yet, I still feel a chill at the memory of those trucks roaring past the monument to the lost miners.


As a storyteller, do you include any mining stories among your repertoire?

A few, and as time passes I find that I am adding more coal history to my stories and songs. Currently, I am working on a program of coal-mining stories and songs with retired coalminer and storyteller Fred Powers.

My husband comes from a coal-mining family, you know. His father, uncles and grandfathers were all miners in a little coal camp called Olcott on the Kanawha/Boone County line. His memories are a mixture of happy childhood experiences and hardship. He remembers playing hide-and-seek in abandoned coal camp houses, blasting house coal from old mines, riding coal trains for fun, swimming in Coal River, and community baseball games. He also remembers once picking up Jay Rockefeller who was working as a VISTA volunteer in the area and was hitchhiking along the road.

There are other memories not as happy: the day men came to tell his mother that his Dad had been hurt in the mine (one of several times this happened), waking up in a shivering cold house with ice on the water buckets, not having enough food, coal dust on his mother’s roses. I tell some of those stories now, and some of them have become written stories. While it is not my heritage, I do not think anyone living in West Virginia can say they are free of any impact from the coal industry. It is part of life here even in the areas where there is no mining, even for those of us with no family working in coal. The blood in this Mountain state runs black.


Who or what contributed to your decision to become a storyteller, enjoying many venues in the state and area?

It was like many roads all meeting at one crossroads, really. As one of a family of thirteen children, we were always telling stories and making up games. Our parents told us stories of their growing-up years, and we read the old My Book House collections of folktales, myths and legends over and over. We made up games based on stories, and we often had Family Entertainment Night, where those who wanted to would “perform” in front of the rest of the family to appreciative applause. We even had a stage door, the sliding pocket doors of our living room. As I got older, I became more shy and less inclined to speak in public. My first husband and I moved to West Virginia when I was 23; we had four young sons, and we moved far back in the hills in a place with no electricity or telephone. I spent a lot of time alone, working on our land and reading whatever books I could get, and I read a lot of classic literature during this time. I wrote long letters to my father about the things we were doing—building our house, clearing land, planting gardens—and he shared them with others. Everyone said I should be a writer, but I did not think of it as writing. Now I wish I had those letters; they were a window into who I was then and a time in my life that was happy and rich with experiences.

Later, at 36 years old I started college. It was a nightmare at first, especially getting up in front of a class to do an oral report. Every class required it, though, so it had to be done. After graduation I became a librarian and went on to get a master’s degree in library science. In that profession, people expected me to read aloud, and then teachers also began to request that I tell stories. I began learning a few, and then at a library conference I saw storyteller Andreena Belcher perform and I was hooked. It was as if I had been traveling toward that moment on a road where the end was hidden around a curve. But once I rounded it, I never looked back.


Do you publish poems often?

No, very rarely in fact, at least in print. I am not very good about submitting my work. But I do publish them from time to time on my blog, Granny Sue’s News and Reviews, and I also post them on my other blog, Mountain Poet.


Do the stories you tell feed poems and other types of writing?

Yes, and vice versa. One case in point is a story I wrote titled “Yellow Roses.” I saw a young man in grimy work clothes come out of a store with a bunch of yellow roses. He did not look happy. I wondered about him all evening, and finally wrote a poem called “Yellow Roses” about why he might have been buying the roses. I still wasn’t satisfied, and finally had to write a story that explained, at least to me, what he was doing and why.  The story has won several awards and was selected for publication in an anthology called Self-Rising Flowers by Mountain Girl Press.

When I tell stories I try to paint pictures with words, body language, gestures, eye contact and voice so that audience can see the story as a video in their minds. When writing, I find I must use more words than when telling stories orally to paint those same pictures. I also find that I am more aware of my choice of words and how to use them for maximum effect. Writing poetry is an excellent exercise for a storyteller or a writer because it hones that word-selection skill. So the three arts really feed into and from each other, bringing different but useful tools to whatever I am working on at any given time.


Who is your hands-down favorite storyteller, and is that person a model for you?

She has passed away unfortunately, but Kathryn Tucker Windham of Alabama was a classic. She was very simple in her telling, very much a front-porch teller, but her humor, wit and grace were evident in every story. She is my role model for storytelling, the kind of teller I seek to become. Another role model is a woman I never met, Ruth Ann Musick. Her collections of stories from ordinary people are extraordinary and a gift to our state. I will never be able to emulate her work, but like her my interest is in the stories of the everyday people, not the people always in the news. I want to hear stories from people like Walter Carpenter who at 93 years old can still vividly describe his life along the Ohio River, and Ray Adkins who told me stories of growing up on Big Laurel Creek in Mingo county, and Frank Slider who showed me places in the outback of Tyler county and told the stories to go with the places we saw. These are the true stories of life, the ones I am interested in, and I believe that interest was kindled by Musick’s books.

Do much of your stories and poems and other writing concentrate mainly on West Virginia and its culture?

Almost all my writing and storytelling is rooted in this place. This is what I know. I was born in northern Virginia, but I believe I really grew up when I came to West Virginia. She raised me.


Write to this prompt, either in story or poem format:

Write about why you think the West Virginia or Appalachian cultures (or both) should still be written about, considered, remembered.

The old ways still speak to me, and I believe that wisdom passed down still has relevance for today’s and future generations. A famous person once said that to know where we are going we need to know where we have been, and why. The history of our mountains should be the foundation on which we build plans for our future. Sadly, I do not think those in power agree with that view, and we seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past yet again as new and different interests (currently the Marcellus gas drilling) find ways to exploit our resources.

That is the macro view, and although I am deeply concerned and affronted by the inability of some to see how their actions will affect the well-being of our state for years to come, it is the micro view that most touches my heart; as I said earlier, the workaday people who struggle and strive to stay even, much less get ahead. It is in these people and their stories that richness resides.

The woman who raises a garden and puts up food for her family, cares for aging parents and works as a school volunteer knows what it means to really live. The man who can fix his own truck, provide firewood to heat his home and work long hours away from the ones he loves knows what living is really about. The musician who plays night after night on his own porch for the pure pleasure of the sound, the women who gather to quilt or cook for a community dinner, the writer who finds a lonely place to capture the tumult of our way of life: all of these touch beauty as they seek the heart of these mountains.

Our young yearn to leave; those who left ache to return. Our roots, once sunk, grow deep. We know what the word home means and what it takes to create and preserve it. That rootedness and commitment is rare in our fast-paced country, and yet it is the very basis of America’s history; home is the foundation of our values, ethics and mores. Writing and telling about this place, about this way of life, is an invitation to the weary to take heart, re-evaluate, and find the peace that we find in these hills we love.


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Ladies and Gentlemen: Llewellyn McKernan

Bio:  Llewellyn McKernan has a Master’s Degree in English from the University of Arkansas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from Brown University. Her poems have been published in the Antietam Review, Southern Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Appalachia Heritage, Appalachian  Journal, Now&Then, Kestrel, and others. Llewellyn McKernan’s poems have also been published in three chapbooks: Short and Simple Annals: Poems From Appalachia, Llewellyn McKernan’s Greatest Hits, and Pencil Memory. The full-length one is called Many Waters: Poems from West Virginia. Another full-length one, The Sound of One Tree Falling: New and Selected Poems, will soon be published by MotesBooks. McKernan is also the author of four poetry books for children: More Songs of Gladness, Concordia; Bird Alphabet, Standard Publishing; This is the Day and This is the Night, C.R. Gibson. She has received eleven writing grants, among them fellowships from the American Association of University Women, the West Virginia Humanities Council, and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts. Her poems have won eighty-five prizes, awards, and honors, and have been published in thirty anthologies. She lives with her husband, John McKernan, on a rural route in West Virginia.

  • Your poem, “Time and Change,” is really quite sad.  Was this poem based on a real incident?

It’s based on my own experience. It’s about my dog. I called her Pupette from the time she was a puppy until her death when she was only three years old. One morning she was as lively as ever, but when I came home in the afternoon, I found her lying still on the grass in our front yard. She had only recently died because her eyes still had a little life left in them. But she didn’t have a mark on her. We live just off Route 10, where heavy traffic rolls up and down the hills all day, so Pupette could have been hit by a speed-demon driver and crawled home to die.  But there was a man who lived about a mile down from us on Route 10. He did not like dogs.  He was paranoid about dogs. He had even killed one he considered dangerous who had come on his property. But I had talked to him, and I thought he had understood that Pupette was a friendly loveable pet and wouldn’t hurt anyone. But maybe he wasn’t convinced. He wouldn’t have shot her. That way I’d have known that he killed her. But he could have poisoned her. That’s anonymous. No one would ever know who did it or why. That possibility made me feel awful…  But even worse—her death was so sudden I was stunned; then grieved and lonely because she had been such a good friend, loyal and loving through all the good and bad times in my life. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I had to write a poem about her. It took a long time, but eventually I wrote an elegy called “Time and Change,” and I am grateful to editors, Cat Pleska and Michael Knost, for including it in Fed From The Blade:  Tales And Poems From The Mountains.

  • Is there a form of poetry that you prefer? How many different forms of poetry do you like to tackle?  (ex. elegy, lyrical, free verse, villanelle).

I mainly write in free verse because my poems come to me in that form. Each has a rhythm which I hear in my head and which determines pace and pause in the poem from beginning to end. I also love words that rhyme or off-rhyme (words whose vowels or consonants rhyme) but within the line, not at the end. Somehow these harmonic pairs come naturally to me throughout the poem so that as it grows on paper, the unbroken rhythm and the repetitive sounds not only formally control the content but lend a musical quality to it, one which I hope creates a kind of pleasure in readers and keeps the flow of meaning from getting stuck or monotonous or bogged down in rhetoric. Stanley Kunitz (a wonderful poet who lived and wrote poems until he was a hundred years old) described the process this way: “I choose to write by and for the ear, without pre-imposed conditions. I trust the ear to let my rhythms go where they need to go. The ear is the best prosodist.”

Sometimes, though, I’ll try out a poetic form just to see what happens. I once began a villanelle, but discovered when I finished that the only thing I had kept intact was the device of alternating the two lines in the first stanza throughout the rest of them. But I didn’t care. I got a real poem out of it and that was the important thing. The same thing occurred when I tried to write a ghazal. I won’t describe in detail what this complex form requires; I’ll just say that the only formal element I kept was the two-line stanza. But because I experimented with that form, I wrote a poem in which the word “Appalachia” was the center and circumference for all the others. The first poem is called “The Hollow,” the second one “In Appalachia,” and both appear in my first chapbook titled Short and Simple Annals.

In conclusion I guess I’m a lousy prosodist, but a lucky poet to get something valuable out of my attempts to write in a poetic form.

  • Who were your influences?

I like to think my influences are varied as the shifting colored patterns of a kaleidoscope. There are so many, but here are a few.


tree frogs

drizzle-sizzle sound of rain

wind given flesh by what it blows against

twenty-year-old and new poetry workshop

forty-six-year-old and new marriage

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Emily Dickinson’s poems and portrait

my father’s illness

my plucky, buster-brown, over-the-top daughter

always shifting surface of Four-Pole Creek

April snow

wonderful friendship of West Virginia writers and

others throughout Appalachia


my mother’s intense will to live

my niece’s death from ovarian cancer

Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”

His “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Rage

Rage Against the Dying Of The Light”

all Bob Dylan songs

songs in the Old Cokesbury Methodist Hymnal

quote by Colette, 20th century French writer: “Look long and hard

at what gives you pleasure.  But look even longer and harder at what

gives you pain.”

quote from Life’s Little Instruction Book by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

“Judge your success by the degree that you’re enjoying peace, health,

and love.”

  • If there was one poet, living or deceased, you could talk to, who would it be? Whatwould you most want to ask?

I would like to meet Emily Dickinson. She was brilliant thinker. I’d like to sit and just soak in some of the wit and wisdom she lavished in letters to her kin and friends. As for my contribution? I’d tell her that her best poems, and there were many, sounded like they could have been written in the 20th century. That’s how far her work was ahead of her contemporaries.  I’d also tell her how sorry I am that she had to endure so much pain and sorrow during her brief life (56 years) and that I have an infinite admiration for the fortitude and fierceness that spun her terrible experiences into golden poems. And the question I’d ask her is “Why did you become a recluse who always wore white?”

It’s serendipity, I guess, how the above question made something I read yesterday take on a new significance.  I was reading the ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes, and suddenly verses 7 and 8 jumped out at me. “It is now that God favors your work. So at all times let your garments be white and spare not the perfume for your head.”  What if it were these verses that had made Emily start wearing white?!  She came from a family of pious Protestants who would have known the Bible from “Genesis” to “Revelation.”  She would have, too.  Some of her poems indicate that she had quarrels with God about nature, human nature, and the nature of the divine, but these debates only meant she believed in Him (you don’t argue with someone you don’t think exists). Perhaps she read verses seven and eight, and realized that her ever-increasing thirst to write more and better poems was a heavenly blessing so, in return, she always wore white.

Whether this theory is true or not, I like to think of Emily Dickinson alone in her home, wearing white, and as she walks about her room, everything (especially her poetry) soaks up the scent of her lavender and rose, mint and mystery.

  • What poets in West Virginia do you read? 

I read the works of West Virginia poets like I generally read other poetry and prose—when I suddenly have an intuitive feeling that it’s necessary for me as a writer and human being to read a certain work. This hunch comes with a kind of urgency that makes me follow up on it at once.  I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Marble Faun, when I was searching for an imaginative answer to questions about human good and evil. And, sure enough, the novel provided one (it was not conclusive, but it expressed in character and plot the whole perimeter of the problem).  This kind of thing happens with poetry, too. It happened on the national level with authors like Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Sylvia Plath, Susan Woods, Louise Gluck, and others.  I read their works at certain times when I felt that I was the most receptive to what they said and how they said it, when the content and the craft taught me what I needed to know as a person and poet. That’s how I read West Virginia poets, too. Ones like Ethan Fischer, Irene McKinney, Louise McNeill, Eddy Pendarvis, Laura Tracy Bentley, and others. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and I’ve read other West Virginia poets that are first-rate and worthwhile to read. But there’s something special about those that arrive like a gift on my doorstep. How, I wonder, did the giver know it was the one that right then was the right present for me?

  • Are you originally from West Virginia or elsewhere? 

I was born in the 40’s in the family home six miles away from a small town called Hampton, Arkansas.  But I consider West Virginia my true home because I’m a poet, children’s book author, and teacher who has lived and worked in Huntington, WV, for over forty years.  My husband, John McKernan, is a retired Marshall University English professor, and in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, I myself from time to time taught at the university as an adjunct English professor. Both of us have lived in West Virginia longer than any other place on earth.

We live on a rural route in a brown wood-frame house, with a creek bordering our front yard and a hill rising up in the back. I have a pine-paneled study with five windows that look out on the hill, where squirrels quarrel and deer graze, chipmunks scurry, redbirds and gold finches fly, and sometimes a coiled black snake suns itself in the grass. Most of the time I compose my work on the computer in the study. It’s large and the view expansive and the natural world is close by—a scene quite similar to the one that surrounded me when I first started writing poems. I lived in the country then, too, on a farm, only I was ten years old and sat on the steps of a big porch, all of nature spread before me, writing slantwise with my trusty pencil onto blue-lined notebook paper, for I was often alone and had to entertain myself ( my parents and sister were too busy and practical to pay much attention to a little daydreamer like me).  My only friend was a pencil and a piece of paper, the place where I dared to express the thoughts and feelings bubbling up in me, and where I dreamed that someday I would find a reader who would understand my poems and like them.

When Marshall University hired my husband as an Assistant Professor of English, and we moved to West Virginia, I found many such readers. That’s another reason I consider this state my true home, for its people soon became like family members who finally listened to me. Every writer needs an appreciative audience, and I found it in this state, and it has kept me writing and getting my poems published throughout my career.

It was also in West Virginia that I had a baby girl and experienced in her birth something like a rebirth myself. I realized that the habit of writing poems I’d cultivated through childhood and adolescence, college and graduate school, was for “better or worse” my true vocation. And since I wanted to make it “better,” I went to Brown University in Providence, RI, and got a Masters in Creative Writing. Then I returned to Huntington. What I learned getting that degree became the foundation for the long years of my trial-and-error poetic apprenticeship, which continues to this day. But all the moment by moment writing experiences happened and keep on happening in this state. If “home is where the heart is,” writing poetry is always “home” to me, and I’ve written more poems in West Virginia than anywhere else on earth.

*The thoughts and feelings I’ve expressed in this answer have been explored more fully in “Letter From A West Virginia Poet,” an essay that was published in Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers, edited by Joyce Dyer, and published by The University Press of Kentucky, and also in my “Introduction” to The Sound Of One Tree Falling: New and Selected Poems soon to be published by MotesBooks. (It will be distributed world-wide by Ingram and sold through local or online booksellers.)

  • Please write a short poem using this scenario: You are walking on a downtown street in Huntington.  No one else is about.  A flock of pigeons flutters up suddenly when you turn a corner.  Then you notice there are no cars anywhere.  No people, no birds either. You catch sight of yourself in a store window and what you see stuns you.


What’s familiar is the downtown street in Hunter,

the flash and flock of its pigeons, the guttural

enigma of their speech; also the store windows

that teach me how much can be found

behind glass.

What’s strange

is what remains inside the pane, the clinical

data of my own darkness,

my reflection its momentary figure

of speech and

stranger still

how I lose my pink skin

when I borrow my shadow’s, how

its small skeletal hands

hold so much that can

never be fathomed.

*I’m glad I got this prompt. I took some poetic license, but I think I got a real poem out of it, which is the most important thing. My poem does follow the general outline of the prompt. First it emphasizes the familiar (as the prompt does), narrowing the focus to the street, pigeons, and store windows. Then it emphasizes the strange (which the prompt does next), and ends, I hope, with a kind of surprise which the last part of the prompt required.

*This prompt also inspired a flash fiction piece. But before I submit it to the public eye, it needs a whole re-vision, which means looking at each line as if I’d never seen it before.

* If you want to leave out the paragraphs on this page, that’s fine with me.

  • Oh Llewellyn, I think it’s best to include. 🙂


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Next Up! former WVian John Mugaas, now a resident of Montana, talks about his muse and how he came to write about the USS Arizona: tune in! You’ll be glad you did!


My birth,1942, childhood and teenage years took place in Dillon, a small town in the southwest corner of Montana. After high school, my college career stuttered along ingloriously and I attended two different schools before transferring to, and, finally finding my groove at the University of Montana where I captured two degrees: B.A. in Zoology, and two years later an M.A. in Zoology. Serendipity struck, and Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota awarded me my first faculty appointment, a one year temporary Instructorship in Biology and a two year appointment as Research Associate. Two years later, Washington State University accepted me into their Zoophysiology Ph.D. program, and seven years after that, on Friday, August 13, 1976, I graduated. Southwestern at Memphis (now called Rhodes College) hired me for a three year temporary appointment as Assistant Professor of Biology. During that time I also collaborated in a kidney/endocrine research project at University of Tennessee Medical School. In 1979, West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine awarded me a tenure track appointment as Assistant Professor of Physiology; I taught there for twenty seven years and retired in 2006 at the rank of Professor. Upon retirement, I was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus. Since retirement, my wife and I have pursued our mutual interest in Natural History topics, and I continue to devote time to creative writing. In spring, 2012, we moved back to Montana to be near our grandchildren in Bozeman, wishing all the time that they lived in West Virginia, a place we had come to love.


In the 8th grade, for a class assignment, I wrote an essay about a camping trip I had taken with my dad to an alpine lake. The lake perched precariously on the lip of a small hanging valley at the edge of tree line, and three jagged rocky peaks formed a protective arc around its backside. For three days, that little valley became my Valhalla. While writing that essay, I had my first encounter with the almost out of body experience associated with trying to describe, with just the right words, what I had experienced. At that time, I read every Zane Grey novel I could lay my hands on. His ability to use words to make me see, feel, smell and taste the beauty and perils of the Utah deserts deeply impressed me, and I wanted to make those mountains and that lake come to life in the same way. When I finished the piece, I couldn’t believe what I had experienced in writing it, or what I had written. Even though I felt proud of what I had produced, I almost did not hand in my essay. Who would believe I had written it? But I didn’t have time to rewrite it, or to write about something else, so in it went, right on time. Then, to my horror, a couple of days later the teacher read it to the class. He then said something to the effect, “Kid Mugaas, I didn’t know you were so romantic.” And this got a big laugh. This teacher had also taught my older brother—hence the title “Kid.” For someone as withdrawn and timid as me, that kind of “praise” was almost unbearable.

I knew nothing of the muses, but in retrospect, I believe that was my first encounter with one, Euterpe, perhaps, the muse of song and Elegiac poetry. The muses, still unknown to me, struck me twice in high school, both times in my senior English class. During my freshman year of college I tested into an advanced English class, where, each week we were assigned a creative writing exercise. Happily, the muse struck me almost weekly, and I was lucky enough to have two of my pieces published in the school’s literary magazine. During my graduate school days I finally learned of the muses from my mentors, and I could finally assign a causal agent for that peculiar out of body feeling that accompanies almost any form of prolonged creative concentration. During my years of scientific work and writing, a muse also helped, but was of a different sort. That muse seemed to be associated more with curiosity and questioning, problem solving, experimental design and data analysis than the mechanics of writing papers. Toward the end of my scientific career, my wife encouraged me to enroll in the first short story writing class offered by Belinda Anderson in Lewisburg. As I struggled to write that story, the first I had attempted in over 40 years, the muse that had swept me off my feet in the 8th grade, once again gripped my heart, and has been a close friend and intimate dance partner ever since. I’ve also found that writing under the influence of the muse demands disciplined revision to pull the active voice, clarity and excitement out of the passive chaos of a first draft, and to find those action verbs that make it sparkle. Unfortunately, the muse does not just hand those items to me, she only helps me find the discipline to do that work and practice those skills. Then she nags me to keep writing. There is also no guarantee the muse will induce me to  produce a piece that anyone but me likes, which is okay, because I write primarily to please myself. But, by the same token, I am pleased and honored when someone reads something I’ve written and tells me, like Cat did for Arizona, that they would like to publish it—that is as good as dancing with the muse.


What prompted you to write about the USS Arizona?

In one of her writing classes, Belinda Anderson used the Hero’s Journey as a model for how a story could be structured. She asked each of us to write a story using that model. We had to create a hero and present him or her with a call to action, describe our hero’s reluctance to accept the call, and create a circumstance that causes him/her to finally accept the challenge. A day or two later, the evening news featured a story about a man who had served on the USS Arizona at the time the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. He survived the attack and continued his navy service during WWII on a different ship. He had recently died, and his ashes were being interred in the hull of the Arizona. The solemn beauty of the ceremony touched me deeply and I felt compelled to reeducate myself about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona. I found a web site that detailed the complete history of Battleship USS Arizona, the Japanese attack, survivor lists, casualty lists, known living survivors, pictures of the attack, and first-hand accounts from Arizona survivors. By bed time I had my hero—a member of the USS Arizona’s crew killed in the attack, and I had his call to action as he and his shipmates began their eternal journey.

This story unfolded in my mind as though it had been placed there at some earlier time and I was just playing it back. I spent several days, sequestered away in my office at work, ignoring my responsibilities, writing it out longhand in a tablet. That draft was rough as a cob and I needed to work on some historical details, but I had the story I wanted. When I submitted the first typed copy to my writing class it was more or less a failure—no one understood it, and Belinda said it was not a story, that it read more like a touching sermon. I used feedback from the group and Belinda, to help me revise what I had produced. Over the years, I continued to clarify, shorten and refine the manuscript until it achieved the form published in Fed from the Blade.

Why did you choose to write about the sailors’ crossing over?

In my research, I found that it was not an uncommon practice for those Arizona crew members who had survived the attack to request that, upon their death, their ashes be interred in the hull of the ship. I also learned that almost all of those killed in the attack were left entombed in the ship. Those two facts made me wonder, what compelled the survivors to join their shipmates in this common burial ground?  I began to envision a story that treated the entire crew of the Arizona as a spiritual “band of brothers.” I imagined that the sudden catastrophic destruction of most of them had spiritually “fused” all of them together, survivors and those killed, and demanded that they would, in the end, share in the attainment of their spiritual rewards. And what immediately came to mind was to have those killed during the attack, cross over as a group and collect the survivors as their lives ended. I also wanted to use the concept that the spiritual world and physical world are separated by a “veil,” and to use that as a prop in the story.

What kind of responses have you had to this piece?

Most of my friends and relatives who have read Arizona have made no comment. One friend, a former navy man (post WWII), told me he really liked it, and was passing his copy of Fed from the Blade around to the members of his church choir so they could read it. I think most people are uncomfortable with a story that deals with the salvation aspects of the afterlife; it’s basically a conversation stopper.

The style you use is literary; that is with great attention to language, image, rhythm of words and sentences. Why did you choose to write the piece in this style?

Dying is a very personal experience, and I wanted to portray it as the natural consequence of life. What leads up to dying may be horrible or benign, but the actual moment(s) of death I chose to represent as a beautiful surrender. Once you have died, all known experience comes to a halt, and what happens next is anybody’s guess. My guess for this story was that there is some protocol and process associated with the afterlife that is common to all who die, and that these events prepare your spirit for its next life. To effectively separate that side of the veil from the chaos of the mortal side, I felt compelled to use an almost poem like prose.

Did you have any relatives either connected to the USS Arizona, another battleship, or a relative involved in WWII?

None of my relatives served in the navy, before or during WWII. I had several relatives that served with the army during WWII. On my mother’s side, her brother, Mike, spent the war as an MP at US Army facilities in California. Her cousin, Albert, an Army Infantryman, fought in the Pacific theater. Albert was wounded on Iwo Jima, but recovered in time to be trained for the invasion of Japan. Whenever I asked him about the war, he would say only that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan saved a lot of American soldiers. My father didn’t pass the Army physical, so he did not serve. But two of his brothers did. Both of them fought in Europe. One brother, Einar, was with the Army Engineers and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I don’t know any details about the other brother’s war experience.

What other types of writing do you do?

I’m working on a novel. Hummmm, sorry, that’s such a cliché, but (blush) it’s true. It’s about half completed, and has been sitting in a file folder, buried in a box, for several years. But last winter I exposed it to the light, read it and still liked it, so this fall I will endeavor to finish it. For my short stories, I like to think that I’m not married to any genre and that I would like to write at least one story in every identifiable form. Plus, I have two young adolescent characters I’ve used in some short stories, “Buddy” and “Charlie,” that I would like to include in other stories. Family history—I’ve spent a lot of time this winter writing some of that.  Poetry? Drama? So much to do, so little time, sigh.

Who or what inspires you to write?

Foremost, I would have to say that Belinda Anderson has been my biggest inspiration to write fiction. Had I not taken her classes we would not be having this conversation. Her constant positive encouragement and example has made all the difference. And then there are those authors whose stories have inspired me: Zane Grey, Charles Dickens, James Jones, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Service, John Steinbeck, Herman Wouk, Kurt Vonnegut,  John Irving, Farley Mowat, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, J. R. R. Tolken, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx and Denise Giardina. And then there is that part that I can’t explain, that just wants to write, that is always cozying up to the muse.

Describe the place where you write (the most).

In Lewisburg, West Virginia, when our last child left home, we turned his bedroom into an office and I wrote there. It was in a daylight basement, and his room had a big window that faced west onto a part of our yard where I could watch the annual cycle of our rhubarb and asparagus. Prior to that, I wrote at the kitchen table or on a card table in a corner of the living room. In Bozeman, Montana, we have commandeered one of our bedrooms for office space and I do my writing there. My desk faces a large window that looks east, so it catches the morning sun and keeps my circadian clock set.

Please respond to this prompt:  By chance, you are introduced to a sailor who survived (on another ship) the Pearl Harbor attack. Write a brief fictional scene about a conversation you might have with this very elderly gentleman.

My friend, Ed Martin, 94 years young, and a WWII army veteran, meets me at the door of his home. A thunder boomer rumbles, deep and throaty, from somewhere around Kate’s Mountain; a parting comment from the brief rainstorm that just ended; the third or fourth of the day.

“I heard you drive up, so I thought I’d save you the trouble of knocking,” Ed says, opening the screen door to welcome me.

“Hi, Ed, thanks for the call. I’m glad you caught me, I haven’t been home much today, and I can’t tarry long. Lynn is at the Greenbrier Clinic. When she’s through, we’ll head for Greenbank. We have a meeting there this evening.”

We shake hands, and I step past him into his newly remodeled kitchen.

“Cups are on the counter next to the coffee pot, help yourself, if you like,” Ed says.

“Ummmm, Betty has been baking,” I say.

“Yes. There are fresh brownies on the coffee table in the living room, complements of the Chef, and her chief bottle washer. I also chopped the walnuts.”

I walk to the coffee pot and fill one of the sturdy white mugs before following Ed to the living room.

The touch of apprehension I felt on the drive to Ed’s is now full blown. My hands are like clammy ice cubes. I quickly pass the coffee cup from one hand to the other and wipe the palm of my free hand on the butt of my jeans.

I enter the living room behind Ed; he steps aside and sweeps his hand in a gallant gesture toward a small man sitting in a motorized wheelchair next to the couch. The man’s blue grey eyes are sharp and clear and look directly at me. The tip of his prominent, slightly bulbous nose and the tops of his cheeks are lightly laced with webs of red veins. His thin pale lips barely reveal his wide mouth. The freckles on his too white skin are pallid with age. They suggest his white hair had once been some shade of orange. He is clean shaven, and except for the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, his face is remarkably free of wrinkles. A thin wattle of loose skin runs like the prow of a ship from the tip of his jutting chin to the open collar of his pastel orange sport shirt. He is otherwise clad in a light blue seersucker sport coat, unbuttoned at the waist, sky blue pants and brown suede slippers.

“John, I’d like you to meet Mr. McG_. Mr. McG_, this is my friend John Mugaas, the author of the story you just read. John, as I mentioned on the phone, Mr. McG_ served on the USS West Virginia when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

Mr. McG_ rises unsteadily to his feet as I walk around the coffee table to greet him. He keeps one hand on the arm of the wheelchair and extends his other one toward me.

“Ed’s being way too formal, John. Just call me D_. It’s nice to meet you.”

His hand is dry and smooth, and his grip, soft, mostly a gentle squeeze from his thumb. It reminds me of my late Uncle Frank’s handshake, and others who suffer from severe arthritis in their hands. “It’s a pleasure to meet you D_. You’re the first person I’ve ever met that was actually at Pearl Harbor during the attack.”

D_ smiles, releases my hand and eases himself back into his wheelchair. “There aren’t many of us left,” he says, and sighs.

I turn and acknowledge the other mutual friends Ed has assembled, Monica, the owner and operator of the Wylie House B&B, and her father, Carl, a WWII navy veteran.

“Hi, Betty, those brownies sure smell good.”

“Thank you,” she says with a smile.

I reach out and squeeze her hand. Ed directs me to a spot at the end of the couch next to D_’s wheelchair. I slide behind the coffee table and sit. I set my cup on a coaster and reach for a napkin and brownie.

“D_, what brings you to White Sulphur Springs?” I ask.

“My son brings me to the State Fair every year. We usually stay at the General Lewis Inn, but we were late contacting them and could not secure a reservation. However, my son did some calling and we were fortunate enough to find a room at Wylie House. I think that will be our destination each year from here on in.” D_ nods and smiles at Monica, and says, “Monica is an excellent hostess.”

D_ shifts positions in his wheelchair, and continues, “I usually spend each day at the Fair, but the weather today looked too unsettled, so I stayed behind. I’m not as waterproof as I used to be. And it’s lucky that I did, because I met Ed at Wylie House this afternoon. He came there with some tomatoes and zucchini for Monica and Carl. He found me sitting on the porch reading the paper.”

“Do you come to the Fair just because you like it, or is there another reason?” I ask.

D_ laughs and says, “A little of both. I judge the quilts, and then I stay on until after the draft horse pull.”

“Betty is a quilter,” I say.

“Yes, and a very good one,” D_ says, “So I couldn’t resist Ed’s invitation to come over and meet her. As you can see, we’ve been examining some of her work. Monica quilts also, you know, and she has shown me some of her pieces as well.”

“You must be a quilter also.” I say.

“Oh my, yes, and a tailor, too. I’ve made my own clothes for years.”

I glance at Ed. He has a bemused look on his face.

“Mother was a seamstress, and Father was a bee keeper and carpenter. Mother taught me to sew at a very early age, and I helped her do tailoring and quilting. Father had trained my older brother in the craft of bee keeping. My father died when I was 10. He was killed in a poker game by a man he accused of cheating. Father was a good man, but he could never resist the lure of a card game, especially poker. He didn’t drink, but he loved the pasteboards. After Father’s death I continued helping mother, and my brother took over the honey business. People in Charleston that were managers and such in the coal and chemical industries were willing pay for the services of expert people like my mother, and they were also willing to pay a good price for honey. When the depression hit, things became more difficult, but we managed to pay our bills, keep our home and raise a big garden. There were advantages to living on the edge of Charleston in those days.”

“Do you still quilt?” I ask.

“Look at these hands. Arthritis has made them useless. But up until 10 or 15 years ago I could still manage a needle. Now I do machine quilting. Quilting saved my life more than once. It has brought me only good things, and I’ll always be involved with some part of it.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Betty says, “But does anyone need more coffee? I’d be happy to fill your cup if you do.”

No one asks for a refill, and D_ continues, “When the war ended I went to college. I earned a degree in business and opened an independent insurance agency in Charleston. People had money, they had possessions and the insurance business boomed. It wasn’t long before I had good people working for me and I could devote more of my time to quilting. In fact, I hired a manager to make even more free time for myself, and, of course, my wife worked with me on the quilting.”

“When did you join the navy?” I ask.

“1938. We had paid off our mortgage by then. Mother’s seamstress work and the bees kept up with our expenses and provided a little extra. I wanted to see the world, especially the oceans. I was 20 years old and had never been out of West Virginia. But every chance I got, I was in the library reading National Geographic, and I was just dying to go everywhere. So, mom and my brother gave me their blessing and the navy took me.”

“When were you assigned to the USS West Virginia?” I ask.

“May, 1939. The Pacific fleet had been gathered to Hawaii, and my orders put me on the USS West Virginia as a radio man. I was proud and excited to be on my State’s namesake. In 1940 and 1941 we spent long periods of time at sea doing tactical training, and then basing in Pearl Harbor. I fell in love with Hawaii. I spent as much shore leave as possible at the Bishop Museum learning about Hawaiian culture and history, and then touring Oahu to see places I had read about.”

“Where were you when the attack happened?” Carl asks.

“I was on the bridge of the West Virginia. Things happened very fast. We were struck by seven aerial torpedoes and started sinking. Arizona exploded and went down like a rock. We were moored close to her. Both ships were leaking fuel. The fuel coated the sea and when it ignited it surrounded both of them with walls of fire. At some point, bomb fragments raked the bridge. They fatally wounded the Captain and mangled my legs. I lost consciousness, and woke up in the hospital. A couple of days later they took both of my legs off just below the knees. That ended the war for me.”

“How long were you in the hospital?” Ed asks.

“Two years, counting rehab time. I met my wife, Alamea, there. She was Hawaiian and worked as an aide in the amputee ward. She came from a family of traditional artists that made and designed Kapa.”

“Pardon me, D_, what is Kapa?” Monica asks.

“Kapa is the Hawaiian version of Tapa. It’s a cloth made from paper mulberry tree bark. It’s made by pounding the bark’s inner layer into thin sheets. Island cultures all over the Pacific make it. She would bring items of Kapa that her family had made to the hospital and show them to us. The designs on them were beautiful and she would explain their significance. I was quite taken with her. I needed some way to get her to spend more time with me, so I told her about quilts and quilting. One thing led to another and I worked up a deal with her to fashion some of her Kapa into a quilt. In the process, I taught Alamea how to quilt so she could help me. We fell in love. Well, at least I fell in love, but by the time we finished that quilt, we had stitched our hearts and our lives into it. She said she loved me, but I had a hard time convincing her to marry me. She was 10 years older than me, and a widow with an 8 year old son. A native Hawaiian man, that her family liked, was wooing her. Her family did not like me. I was a double amputee from the mainland without much of a future; a white man that posed a threat to the stability of their family.”

“Ed, that sounds like the perfect plot for a novel,” Monica says.

D_ laughs. “Maybe I could contract it out to you, Ed. Quilting in Paradise by Ed Martin as told to him by D_ McG_.”

D_ continues, “But, I’m persistent and patient. Near the end of those two years, we were married, and, at the end of my rehab, Alamea and my new son came home with me to WV. Because of sugar rationing, my brother’s honey business was booming, but that’s another story.”

Ed’s phone rings. He stands and goes to the kitchen to answer it. When he comes back he says, “John, Lynn says she is ready. It’s too bad the two of you can’t join us for dinner, but I’m glad you got to meet D_ and hear some of his story.”

I stand, reach over and take D_’s hand. “I’m sure sorry I have to leave. It is a pleasure meeting you. I hope we can continue this discussion sometime in the future.”

“We can,” D_ says, “Why don’t you and your wife come to the Wylie house tomorrow morning for breakfast? In fact, Ed and Betty, why don’t you come too? I think 8:30 would be a civilized time to get together. Is that ok with you, Monica?”

“That would be lovely,” Monica says.

“Good, we can continue our conversation, and I have some questions for you, John,” D_ says. “And, John, I’ll leave you with something to chew on until tomorrow. The thing to remember is, that in spite of tragedy, triumph, war, or whatever other interruptions come your way. . . life, the important part, anyway, goes on, regardless of those distractions.”

I depart, excited and looking forward to tomorrow’s breakfast.

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Beverly Bisbee writes evocatively about her mother in “Holding Memories”

Beverly Bisbee wrote a moving tribute to her mother titled “Holding Memories.” She recounts how she and her family felt closer to their mother through evocative objects she owned.

Beverly Bisbee, a veteran writing enthusiast, poet, and amateur photographer, taught most of her years in the State of Maine, but has returned home to the Kanawha Valley where she is a member of two area writing groups, West Virginia Writers, and admittedly, though somewhat embarrassingly, a popular social media where she can continue to encourage writers of all ages. A graduate of the University of Maine, Bev attended the prestigious Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont, and graduated with a master’s in Computer Education from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Treasuring the writing camaraderie, she understands that all writers are in the process of becoming better, and tries to inspire others to use writing as documentaries, as therapy, as art, and as a way of being.

Please respond to the following questions and prompt:

Your piece, “Holding Memories” is structured through the motif of evocative objects; that is, objects that belonged to your mother that evoke powerful memories of her. What gave you the idea to write about your mother this way? 

“Holding Memories,” written within a week after my ninety-five year old mother had passed, was my need to record my childhood images of her.  I retired early to be her 24-7 caregiver for the last seven years of her life, and I wanted to preserve more than medicine bottles and hospital visits.  The bar of soap transported me from bathing her elderly body to her gentle caring for us.

How has your family reacted to writing about your mother in this piece?

Family members were happy that I captured her love for us in this way.  The essay stirred a conversation about their memories of her, as well.

Are you a native West Virginian?

Yes, and am honored to call Charleston the home of my youth.  Like many others, after being away for many years, I have settled in again among these hills, entertaining memories from the 50’s and 60’s as inspiration for more writing.  The location itself is a calling, especially the East End with our beautiful Capitol on the Kanawha.

If so, what area and for how long has your family lived in the region?

Both sides of my family are rooted deeply in these mountains. My father’s family, descendents of John Hart, the New Jersey Signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived in Randolph County, mostly in Elkins.  The Nutters, my mother’s family settled in Nicholas and Greenbrier Counties.  Together, my parents chose Charleston for the opportunities the area provided.  My ancestors on both sides were proud West Virginians, and that pride has continued within all of us.

Where else are you from?

The State of Maine also influenced my writing progression.  Senator Ed Muskie once observed that of all the states, Maine and West Virginia were the most alike.  Politically, they share common challenges, but for me, having taught in Maine for over thirty years, I observed a way of life that was self-sustaining, reflective, and inclusive.  Maine, my home-away-from-home, welcomed my muse and me simultaneously.  Like West Virginia, Maine nurtures creativity.

Do you pass on family memories a lot? What kind? What occasions do you find yourself telling family memories?

My favorite gathering has always been when we gather around the oldest relatives listening to their stories, especially when they include descriptions of family members long gone.  Playing off each other’s comments will spur them on, teasing one another and breaking into giggling fits.  What fun!

I enjoy retelling about the Quinwood horse that got into the moonshine up in Squat ‘N Dodge and meandered into my grandparents’ house!  Also, I share the story about Daddy striking out Babe Ruth in 1935 at an exhibition game in Richmond.

As the very elderly are leaving us, there are photos to sort, family items to disperse, homes to close.  Sentimentality and sadness lurk together within me; my generation needs to accept the archivist role before precious memories are lost!

Are there others in your family who write?

Yes.  My paternal grandfather, Cam Hart, wrote a column for a local newspaper in Elkins, and my mother’s cousin, Dennis Deitz, wrote a series called Mountain Memories.  Another member of our family writes the Jillian Kent Ravensmoore Chronicles, a Regency series that started with Secrets of the Heart.

As a little girl, I loved watching my father at his mahogany desk writing to his sister in Annapolis.  Their letters were long, descriptive, and done in beautiful penmanship, keepsakes, for sure.  Mother told me that she and a friend used to write their letters to each other in rhyming lines.  Recently, following Mother’s death, I found a stack of my father’s love letters to her, tied with a yellow ribbon!

There are others, too, who have writing circling within them and share their writing plans with me.  My family is a writing community in itself.  Both my son and daughter write well. Yesterday my daughter emailed me her poems and asked for my response.  She writes a column for a weekly paper in central California, creates documentaries, and constructs scripts and grants.  “Talking writing” is a normal way of being for us.

What other genres of writing do you practice?

Poetry remains my chosen mode of writing, but I enjoy writing essays, too.  Recently, I have started a couple of short stories.  As an educator, I have had success with writing grants, and writing letters and emails to legislators to help persuade them to pass an important program.  Thomas Paine taught us the power of the pen, didn’t he!

What authors inspire you?

As expected, Emily Dickinson’s poems are the heritage of many young girls, and I find myself, going back to her poems frequently. When I discovered Elizabeth Bishop’s writing, both poetry and prose, I began to study her with more involvement.  Her essay in the New Yorker describes a sound so well that you think you can hear it!  Lingering in the poems of Whitman, Wordsworth, and Longfellow will evoke new images for my own writing, and I used to carry Ferlinghetti, e.e. cummings, and William Carlos Williams’ books to explore, especially Williams’ epic, Paterson, about the city’s industrial changes over time.  Some may be surprised that Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, is inspiring, a master of concise wording that presents a complicated idea. Jane Austin is among my fiction favorites because I find her complex sentence structure fascinating.  Her writing reminds me to pay attention to my sentences, structure and variety.  Bill Roorbach’s Thoreau-like nature writing motivates me to write about my own surroundings and the people who characterize those locations.

Stephen Dunn’s poems are a study in comparisons, and I once wrote a poem about his writing when he won the Pulitzer Prize.  As I read Mary Oliver, I like her play with words, and her advice to poets.  Oliver’s poems are good examples for beginning writers, for she tells it as she sees it using crisp details.  I am reading Maxine Kumin’s essays, which I find more appealing than her poems. The lives of poets are as inspiring as their products, I find.  For me, Robert Frost also holds a special place, but that goes without saying for most of us poets.

Can you name West Virginia authors that also inspire you?

Perhaps some would think it is a stretch to pair both Cynthia Rylant and Barbara Smith as two favorite West Virginia writers, but I find that their use of nouns are reminders of Williams’ theme, “No ideas but in things.”  Barbara Smith inspires me to be more observant in my home state, and perhaps she, in part, influenced my essay in Fed from the Blade.  Objects were part of the memory aura when thinking about my mother.

I loved Irene McKinney, especially hearing her read with such personality and opinions, and I am one of many who misses her presence.  Getting to know the work of our new West Virginia poet laureate, Marc Harshman, I find a momentum in his wording that inspires me to consider the tone of my own transitions.  Showing subtle movement in a poem leads the reader toward understanding a deeper inference.

Reading a book of poems illustrates the life of the poet, and it is with complexity and subtle revelation that Cheryl Denise shares her transformation.  Her gentle observations and poetic storytelling let us see ourselves as nature’s reality.  I find her poems inspiring me to get closer to the truth in my own writing.

Do you hope to publish books some day? If so, what genre would it be?

Yes, I hope to publish a book about Laidley Field, now the University of Charleston’s football stadium.  Strange as it may seem, my affection for the field and its surrounding neighborhood has been drifting through my thoughts for a long time.  The years Laidley has served West Virginians offer specification and emotion, as well as an evolution similar to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson.  Capturing the surrounding neighborhoods and the quintessential characterization of the area, presents a challenge that I find captivating.  Combining poetry and prose might be a way to solve construction plans for this project.

Also, I would like to write a poetry book about the similarities of Maine and West Virginia.

As an educator, I have a major project in mind, a book to inspire beginning teachers of writing.  As Jesse Stuart’s To Teach, To Love  inspired my career, I would like to pass on my experiences about sharing this love of teaching writing.

There’s everything in the world to write about; it is not a matter of finding a subject, it is simply a matter of what to choose first.

Where do you see yourself fitting within the West Virginian and/or Appalachian literary tradition?

Therein lies my confusion. Being away for many years poses a problem, that of being accurate only to the culture here.  Becoming more familiar with the region’s literary tradition requires more reading, more observation and listening. Writing in the various dialects, like Belinda Anderson, would be difficult for me because I grew up in the city and not in the rural areas where colorful expressions were more frequently used.  Yet, I have to remember authors like Anna Smucker, who writes about the northern West Virginian steelworkers, and Phyllis Wilson Moore whose massive pile of research has accumulated stories about the African Americans in West Virginia.  Perhaps the West Virginia Writers will offer a June workshop to define and discuss the Appalachian literary tradition, and the subcultures that melt us all together. We are more than the stereotypical image, and I hunger for more knowledge about each county and the heritage that has been given to us collectively and geographically.

Please respond to this prompt:

Write a flash nonfiction piece, 2-3 paragraphs, about this scenario: You are at a flea market. There you find your grandmother’s rolling pin. Write about her and that pin.

Traveling to Grandma’s hometown always created a stir in my youth, an excitement that continues each year to call me to the Old Timers’ Reunion.  The Seniors Parade and the Brick Church Picnic cause much laughter and old friend greetings, but it is the Town Center Flea Market that holds my interest every summer.

Advertized as the best source of homemade quilts, farm tools, and antique kitchenware, I arrive early to the town park and take my time strolling toward the exhibits.  On the way, I nearly stumble and catch myself before falling into a resident’s display in front of a decaying, Victorian home.  My clumsiness shakes the table and a rolling pin drops on my toe, striking a pain strong enough to make me stop and nurture the hurt.  The old lady apologizes at the same time as I do.  I pick up the rolling pin to hand it to her, but notice initials near the end, and immediately recognize its original owner.  Buying the treasure at once, I mention to the seller that the rolling pin was my grandmother’s who used to live on Main Street.

“I’m Miss Lizzy.  Your grandma taught me to bake using this ole roller, bake well ‘nuf that I opened my own bakery.  She’d come help me, but oh, was she particular! Wash your hands, wear a clean apron, put more apples in ‘em pies!  I never could pound that bread dough enough, couldn’t pinch the pie top to make her happy, couldn’t make the cookies big like she wanted them.  But she was a prize, and when she went, I closed those doors. I kept this ole roller ‘cause she said her hubby burned in those initials ‘cause she was the best baker in this whole state!  Reckon you should have it, ‘cause you look like you could be just as bossy.”

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Come on Home with Christine Roth!

Christine Roth has deep roots in Appalachia, especially West Virginia.  Her family stepped off the boat in Pennsylvania and headed to the heart of the Appalachia region. She has lived in West Virginia most of her life. Even when she moves away, Christine always seems to find her way home. She currently lives in South Charleston with her husband, grandmother, and their three furbabies. An English Instructor at Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College, Christine is now putting together her first chapbook of poetry as well as working on family stories for publication.

What inspired you to write the poem for Fed from the Blade?

The poem I submitted to Fed from the Blade was actually written over two years ago. I was living in Minnesota at the time with my husband. It was during a fall night when the poem first came to me. I was homesick for mountains. The land there was so flat, and I found myself missing my mountains, missing the colors that we see here in the fall. I just felt this ache inside.  Eventually, that ache became the poem on paper. When I heard that Fed from the Blade was looking for submissions, I pulled that poem out and began fine tuning it. I just had a feeling it would be a fit for the anthology.

Do you write poems or prose most often?

I am about even when it comes to writing either poetry or prose. Lately, I have found myself leaning more towards prose.

How long have you been writing creatively?

I have been writing since I was around 9 years old. I love books and that love was developed at a young age. My stepmother heard the stories I would make up or the playacting I did with my stepsister.  One day I would be a model but then an hour later I was a fashion model who turned mad scientist. She eventually put a pencil in my hand and a notebook in front of me. I started writing and haven’t stopped.

Does where you come from inspire you in any way in your writing?

Where I come from does inspire me. I learned recently how to tell a story from pictures, and I began to see my family in another light. I believe my heritage is an inspiration for me.

Who is your favorite writer? Why?

I can’t even begin to pick a favorite writer. It is like picking a favorite writing journal for me to start writing in. I really love West Virginia authors. I find their writing refreshing. As for graphic novels and horror, Tim Waggoner and Robert Kirkman are my current favorites.

What are your long-range plans for writing?

I would love to be published eventually. I am working on publishing independently through ebooks.  Right now, I am looking at more workshops so I can fine tune my craft.

Describe your writing “place” and then describe your “dream” writing place.

My writing place is everywhere. I have found myself composing while in the shower, in class, and when driving. My ideal writing place would be a room with lots of windows for light. I want this place where I can see mountains from my windows. Plants, a comfortable but sturdy chair, and a selection of writing journals never seen before. An old-fashioned desk, almost like a library table, and a several fountain pens. I lean towards the old-fashioned more than the newer.  I still write everything out by hand before I even think of using a computer.

Write to this prompt: Write a poem describing your future self as a writer.

The Future, a Legacy Left


The two children grow, not knowing much of their past

Of their aunt, the writer, the teacher.

On her death bed, she does leave them something

and it is not just creativity.

She leaves books.

Books filled with stories, pictures,

a record of who she was, who their family was

Who they are and who they might be.

Taking those long, heavy lessons in their arms,

the adults leave, carrying their aunt’s legacy.

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Joshua Robinson, time for the sweet romance and the paranormal, all rolled into one!

Joshua S. Robinson grew up a math and science geek and still works full time as a systems engineer, but found that writing offers him a much-needed creative outlet. His short story “The Messenger” won first place in the 2012 WV Writers genre fiction category. “Last Letter” is his first publication. He lives in Morgantown, WV, with his wife, Anna.

Have you ever written a ghost story before?

Before “Last Letter,” the only other ghost story I remember writing was a short piece from seventh grade or so. In that story, the ghost of a murdered man lured his killer into the woods for revenge.

Since “Last Letter,” I find that ghosts pop up quite a bit in my story ideas when I’m brainstorming or freewriting. Typically they aren’t malicious or harmful; I’m more interested in how a ghost can convey truth to the living, providing some insight about the world or the person.

Have you ever seen a ghost or experienced something paranormal? If so, what?

Unfortunately, no! I’m certainly open to the experience, though. The closest thing to a paranormal experience I can claim is occasional deja vu.

What inspired you to write “Last Letter”?

First, I owe Karin Fuller a shout-out here. I met Karin at my first WV Writers conference in 2011, and I was telling her about my frustration with the novel I was working on. She suggested I try writing some short stories, and when submissions opened up for what would become Fed From the Blade, I took her advice.

As for the story itself, I honestly can’t remember. I think the story chose me. I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be set in a small Appalachian town, and the idea of a heartbroken, blue-collar main character grew out of that. I wanted to write a love story, but I wanted it to be a little unusual. Once I figured out that there had been a fight and the girl had died before they could reconcile, the story just took off.

How has the reception been to your story? What kind of remarks have you received?

Just being selected for the anthology was a huge honor! I’ve received a lot of positive comments, and I find it really interesting how some people read it as a ghost story while others read it as a tragic romance. I like when people say they found it both sweet and sad, because that’s exactly what I was going for.

How long have you been writing?

I think writing is something I’ve always enjoyed, but I didn’t get serious about it until recently.  I grew up playing a lot of video games, and for many years I wrote down ideas with aspirations of making games. I eventually came to realize that what I really wanted to do was tell stories.

So about three years ago, I started working on an outline for a contemporary fantasy story that had originated from a game idea. I planned to write a draft during National Novel Writing Month, but a couple weeks before the event started I literally woke up in the middle of the night with an exciting new idea. I ran with that, churned out an 80,000 word draft, and discovered that I really love to write!

What other genres do you like to write?

I’m kind of all over the place! It really just depends on the day. Most of my writing tends to fall back toward romance of some kind, whether it’s funny, sweet, sad, or paranormal. Sometimes I lean toward darker stories, too. Lately I’ve been trying some poetry, as well.

Who inspires you to keep sitting at the computer and writing creatively?

My wife, Anna, is incredibly supportive of my writing. She both inspires and encourages me, and she’s the first to read everything I write. I’m very lucky to have her in my life, and she’s the reason I like to write stories about love overcoming all things.

I’ve met some incredibly talented friends through WV Writers, Morgantown Poets, and other groups/workshops. Being around other writers fills me with positive creative energy and enthusiasm to keep going, even when I’m in a slump.

And then there are all the characters living in my brain who keep nagging me to finish their stories!

Are you a native West Virginian? Does where you’re from influence what you write?

I am a native, and I’ve lived in northern West Virginia all my life. I believe all personal experience influences my writing. Most of my inspiration comes from taking my own experiences and amplifying them or asking questions. If Anna and I hadn’t gotten together in high school, would we have found each other later? (I like to think so!) If I had grown up in my hometown as it is now, and not as it was 25 years ago, how would I be different?

West Virginia is unique and diverse and interesting. We cherish her beauty, take pride in her resilience, and empathize with her strife. We have a rich culture that appreciates and celebrates storytelling as a way of bringing us together. Those of us who have been lucky enough to live here know these things, and I want that heritage to come across in my writing.

Write to this prompt:

You decide to take a stroll in a cemetery, just to observe the names on the tombstones. You come upon one with the name “Joshua Robinson” engraved on it. Who do you think was that Joshua and what kind of life do you imagine he had? 

( I’m going to deviate slightly from the prompt to draw from a real experience.)

I pasted the link into the instant messenger window, along with the words, “Check this out! So weird!” Then I clicked the button that whisked the message away, through the great and magical Internet to Anna’s computer screen.

Anna replied a moment later with, “Ok…?”

“Look at the wife’s name,” I sent back.

“Ew, that’s creepy!” she said, followed immediately by an inquiry as to how I found this bizarre information. I explained that I had been taking a break at work, and while surfing the web I stumbled upon a grave finder website. It was obviously meant for people doing genealogy research, but being the weirdo that I am, I searched for my own name. It didn’t surprise me to find quite a few results, but one struck me as particularly interesting.

In a cemetery in Reading, PA, a husband and wife rest side by side: Joshua S. and Anna M. Robinson. Joshua was born in 1867, Anna in 1874, and in 1894 they had a son, Charles, who lived only three months. Joshua died at age 40 in 1907; Anna, at age 87 in 1961.

I told Anna I’d like to go see that marker sometime, and I couldn’t seem to get any work done as I was completely distracted thinking about this couple. Specifically, I wondered how they might be similar to or different from my wife and me. Joshua was seven years older than Anna, so they obviously weren’t classmates. I imagined them meeting at a church picnic or some similar function. It’s entirely possible that he fell in love with her in a horse drawn carriage, just as I did with my Anna.

The picture on the website showed a relatively fancy looking monument, so I assumed they were comfortable financially. Maybe Joshua worked for the Reading Railroad. I imagined him in an office, working long hours on freight contracts, wishing to be home with his beloved Anna.

He died young, and I wondered what caused it. Maybe he worked himself too hard and had a heart attack. Maybe there was an accident in the rail yard. Or maybe he was sick all his life, and that weakness was a contributing factor to their son’s brief life.

I imagined lying on my deathbed with Anna beside me, talking about the wonderful experiences we shared, comforting each other over our grief. I told her not to worry, that she’d be all right. Her tears coated my cheeks when she leaned down to kiss me goodbye, whispering that she’d always love me.

I shook my head to bring myself out of the tragic scene. We aren’t them, I thought. And they’re not us. I wondered why I was so intent to project myself onto this other Joshua. I considered my own mortality, and realized that I was hoping for these deceased Robinsons what I hoped for Anna and me: a life filled with love and happiness, with shared dreams and laughter, and without regrets.

“I love you sweetie : x,” I typed into the messenger window.

Anna responded immediately with, “I love you too, joshers :*.”

I smiled, took a deep breath, and got back to work.

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