Monthly Archives: August 2013

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!

Life:

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.

Writing:

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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