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 (http://grannysu.blogspot.com/search?q=Sago)
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.