West Virginia Book Festival

Louise McNeill exhibit opens Saturday

Louise McNeill. Photo from the West Virginia State Archives, via the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

As we prepare to open the month of West Virginia’s statehood sesquicentennial, what better way than with a salute to a former West Virginia poet laureate?

On Saturday, the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University will premiere its exhibit remembering Louise McNeill during its Friends of Folklife Gala, from 4 to 10 p.m. McNeill served as poet laureate from 1979 until her death in 1993.

It’s fitting that the Folklife Center recognize McNeill. For one, she used to teach there when it was plain old Fairmont State College (as well as at West Virginia University, Concord College and Potomac State College). For another, the West Virginia literary map put together by those at the Folklife Center is titled “From A Place Called Solid” — a reference from McNeill’s memoir, “The Milkweed Ladies.”

Judy Byers, the center’s director, told West Virginia Public Radio’s Ben Adducchio about the choice:

“That is what I think the writers of West Virginia, be they poets, novelists, be they historical non-fiction writers, I think that is one of the strong, thematic undercurrents that you will find in their writing …  A place called solid, a place where the values are rich and sincere. A place where out of struggle, out of friction, out of suffering, has come a great state.”

State Poetry Out Loud finals this weekend

If this man is in town …

… it must be time for the state Poetry Out Loud finals.

That’s actor (and Beckley native) Chris Sarandon, who will be hosting the finals for the sixth straight year on Saturday. He’ll be joined by West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman and jazz duo Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola.

But since you can’t have finals without semifinals, those will be held on Friday. According to the state Division of Culture and History, there will be 30 high school students from 23 counties participating, and Charleston poet Crystal Good will be there. The top 10 students will advance to Saturday’s finals.

The state winner will get $200 and a trip to the national Poetry Out Loud finals at the end of April, and his or her school will get $500 to buy poetry books; the runner-up gets $100 and his or her school gets $200. Last year’s competition was won by Bruce McCuskey of Nitro High School.

Below is a list of participating students and their schools. If your local school isn’t involved, well, there’s always next year.

Aeesha Ranavaya, Cabell Midland High School, Cabell County

Dayja Legg, Capital High School, Kanawha County

Kristen Hensley, Chapmanville Regional High School, Logan County

Katherine Vandall, George Washington High School, Kanawha County

Levi Wells, Greenbrier West High School, Greenbrier County

Grace Pritt, Hurricane High School, Putnam County

Anna Rubenstein, Nitro High School, Kanawha County

Dallas Hopkins, Ripley High School, Jackson County

Tyler Hammack, Roane County High School, Roane County

Kaelyn Miragilotta, Sherman High School, Boone County

Jared Workman, Spring Valley High School, Wayne County

Peyton Humphreys, Wahama High School, Mason County

Caitlin Fowlkes, Winfield High School, Putnam County

Sarah Jones, Wirt County High School, Wirt County

Madeline Richmond, Woodrow Wilson High School, Raleigh County

Olivia Hrko, Bridgeport High School, Harrison County

Sabrina Dahlia, East Fairmont High School, Marion County

Zela Wyrosdick, Fairmont Senior High, Marion County

Luke White, Lewis County High School, Lewis County

Bronwyn Clagett, Lincoln High School, Harrison County

Timberly Robinson, Lyceum Preparatory Academy, Ohio County

Mackenzie Roberts, Magnolia High School, Wetzel County

Ashley Feliz-Redman, Martinsburg High School, Berkeley County

Autumn White, Meadow Bridge High School, Fayette County

Joshua Stretch, Monongalia Technical Education Center, Monongalia County

Tim DiFazio, Morgantown High School, Monongalia County

Amelia Sark, Richwood High School, Nicholas County

Jessica Kimble, Tyler Consolidated High School, Tyler County

Rory Morgan Williams, Webster County High School, Webster County

Jalen McCrary, Wheeling Park High School, Ohio County

Top photo by Tyler Evert, state Division of Culture and History

Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, 113 pages

Edited by Cat Pleska and Michael Knost

Woodland Press, 2012; $14.95

“Fed from the Blade” is an engaging collection of 28 crisp stories, tales, and poems fresh from the imaginations of authors of West Virginia, all members of West Virginia Writers Inc.

As a longtime member of the group, I searched out a copy in the vendors’ arena at last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival. As I purchased a copy, I learned 170 submission were culled before the collection took shape. The result is an enjoyable variety of prose and poetry with an intriguing title.

The title was a sticking point until the co-editors, Pleska and Knost, attended a poetry reading and heard poet Sherrell Wigal read her powerful poem, “I Am the Daughter.” One of the poem’s phrases, “fed from the blade,” resonated with them and a title was born. Wigal’s poem opens the collection and sets the scene for a baker’s dozen of eclectic poems. The anthology closes with the poignant poem, “New Choir Choice,” by Ethan Fisher.

Sandwiched among the poems are stories and tales of all descriptions. “Pee Wees’ Playhouse,” by Belinda Anderson, provides a wry humorous touch. If you’ve ever tried to outwit a persistent bird or yard critter, this story will bring back memories of the perks and quirks of living close to the craggy mountains and their abundant wildlife.

Maybe it’s the fog or the hollows but whatever the reason, West Virginians do spooky stories really well. Some of the tales in the collection are downright hair-raising scary. “Hallowmas” by Edwina Pendarvis offers a startling twist and ranks right up there with “The Tell Tale Lilac Bush,” a classic West Virginia ghost tale. “Splinters,” by G. Cameron Fuller, and “Puddles,” by Karin Fuller, are haunting tales in the style of Davis Grubb.

No West Virginia collection would be complete without well-told stories of families, tributes to coal miners, buzzard watching, rock climbing and caving. The anthology offers these and more.

“Fed from the Blade” is sure to find its way into classroom and living rooms. There it will showcase talented contemporary writers of West Virginia. Hopefully, it will encourage even more writing right here in the mountains.

The book is available from the Woodland Press, local book stores and and via the Internet.

Marc Harshman

In May, Marc Harshman was named West Virginia’s seventh Poet Laureate by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, replacing Irene McKinney, who died in February. A resident of Wheeling, Harshman will present his inaugural reading since his appointment at the West Virginia Book Festival on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 12:30 p.m.

In addition to reading his poems, Harshman will reflect upon the rich legacies of Louise McNeill and McKinney, the Laureates who most immediately preceded him. Harshman’s program is sponsored by BB&T.

Harshman is also a storyteller and author of 11 children’s books. He is a recipient of the West Virginia Arts Commission Fellowship in Poetry, has won an award from Literal Latté and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has degrees from Bethany College, Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh. His storybook, “The Storm,” was a Smithsonian Notable Book, and he has new children’s books forthcoming from Macmillan/Roaring Brook and Eerdmans.

Charlaine Harris, best-selling urban fantasy novelist; Craig Johnson, author of the “Longmire” series of mystery novels; and Tamora Pierce, author of 28 fantasy novels for teens, have already been announced as part of the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation; Pamela D. Tarr and Gary Hart; the Friends of The Library Foundation of Kanawha County; West Virginia Library Commission and West Virginia Center for the Book; BB&T; Books-A-Million; and William Maxwell Davis. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

A roundup of recent award-winning books

It’s awards season when it comes to books (actually, one thing I’ve learned since doing this blog is it never stops being awards season). We talked a couple of times about Newbery Medal winner (and former West Virginia Book Festival headliner) Jack Gantos, and here’s a few honors that we didn’t mention when they happened.

| Earlier this month, the National Book Critics Circle came out with their annual awards, and one of the winners was profiled on this blog last year. Dawn Miller wrote about “Liberty’s Exiles” by Maya Jasanoff (the NBCC non-fiction winner) as part of an Independence Day weekend look at those colonists who stayed loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution.

Other NBCC awards included fiction winner Edith Pearlman for her short-story collection, “Binocular Vision”; biography winner John Lewis Gaddis for “George F. Keenan: An American Life”; and poetry winner Laura Kasischke for “Space, In Chains.”

| Pearlman was also a finalist for The Story Prize, one of the nation’s foremost prizes for short fiction. On Wednesday, that award went to Steven Millhauser, a former Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the great writers living today, for his collection “We Others.” (You know how we hear about Herman Melville’s failure as a writer during his lifetime, or how Vincent van Gogh couldn’t sell a painting to anybody, and we wonder how contemporary people could have been so dumb? In 100 years, people are going to wonder how everyday audiences of the late 20th/early 21st century didn’t give a lot more recognition to Steven Millhauser.)

BTW, Millhauser is also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, to be announced next week. The other finalists include some literary heavyweights: Don DeLillo, Russell Banks, Kiran Desai and Julie Otsuka. Of course, we here at WVBF:TB have a soft spot for this award, as it was founded by Mary Lee Settle, the “grande dame” of West Virginia literature.

| Teju Cole, who was a finalist for the NBCC fiction award, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, given to a debut novelist, for “Open City.” The book is an open-air rumination by a Nigerian medical student as he wanders around New York City.

| Two books of regional interest to West Virginians were named co-winners of the Gilder Lehmann Lincoln Prize, given each year for a book (or other work) about Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. One of them, “Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union” by William C. Harris, talks about Lincoln’s efforts to keep the border states, including Kentucky and Maryland, in the Union during the first three months of the war.

The other winner, “Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally” by Elizabeth D. Leonard, is a biography of Joseph Holt of Kentucky, who served as judge advocate general in Lincoln’s administration. Holt was, according to the book, a staunch Unionist surrounded by secessionists and a slave-owner who came to support emancipation.


Coming up: The Virginia Festival of the Book

The Virginia — that’s Virginia, not West Virginia — Festival of the Book is coming up later this month. A larger event than ours, it runs for five days and holds events all over the city of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia.

It’s mostly free, but there are a few sessions that you have to pay to get into; one of those features former West Virginia University basketball great Jerry West (who, I am compelled to mention, was presented free a few months ago at your West Virginia Book Festival).

Other presenters from past West Virginia Book Festivals include mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb (one of our early headliners) and Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker. There are several events that might be of interest to regional historians, including a couple of programs tied to Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary and one called “Moonshine, Mountaineers, and Motorcycles: On the Crooked Road Then and Now.” That last includes Charles Thompson, the author of “Spirits of Just Men,” a book that tells the story of moonshine in 1930s America through the lens of Franklin County, Va. — which is about 50 miles southeast of Monroe County, W.Va.

Unlike last year, I won’t be going to the Virginia event. If I were, the one event I would not miss is the one that includes Chad Harbach reading from his debut novel, “The Art of Fielding” (which I’m partway through now).

The Virginia Festival of the Book runs from March 21 to 25. If you love reading and writing and you’re looking to spend a day or two in a beautiful city with like-minded people. I highly recommend it — just like I’d recommend that denizens of the mother state take a day or two in October and come check out our event.

Nitro High School student Bruce McCuskey (center) poses after last weekend's Poetry Out Loud finals with hosts Chris Sarandon and Amber Tamblyn. Photo courtesy W.Va. Division of Culture and History.

Bruce McCuskey, a Nitro High School student, went old school to win West Virginia’s Poetry Out Loud competition last weekend.

At the annual poetry recitation contest, McCuskey read “Preludes” by T.S. Eliot, “The Last Laugh” by Wilfred Owen and “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerald Manley Hopkins. He takes home $200, and his school gets $500 for poetry books. He’ll also represent the state at the national Poetry Out Loud finals May 13-15.

This is the second year in a row that a Kanawha County student has won the state prize. South Charleston High’s Anthony Braxton won last year.

Another Kanawha County student, Capital High School’s Dayja Legg, was the runner-up. She gets $100, and Capital High gets $200.

The West Virginia finals of the Poetry Out Loud competition — the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation — will be this weekend at the Culture Center in Charleston.

The event merits not one, but two stories in the Gazz section of Thursday’s Gazette. Amy Robinson talks with actor and Beckley native Chris Sarandon, who’s coming back for his fifth year of hosting the event, and clearly seems to be enjoying the duties.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said. “Unless I’m working, I’ll be there. It’s an extraordinary event.”

Sarandon also notes that since he started coming to the state finals, more young men have been taking part. Last year, South Charleston High School student Anthony Braxton became the first male student to win the state event.

Chris Sarandon and Anthony Braxton after last year's West Virginia Poetry Out Loud finals.

A newcomer to this year’s event is actress (and published poet) Amber Tamblyn, and Bill Lynch talked with her. She tells him she’s been a fan of poetry for a long time:

She started writing poetry when she was 9 years old and began publishing while in her teens. She did not make a huge splash on the literary scene, but that was never the point.

Amber Tamblyn

“My mom used to take me to Kinkos,” she said. “I would publish chapbooks and sell them at school for a dollar.”

Better than whatever money she made was holding those books in her hands, Tamblyn said. She loved to see the hard copy of what she’d done.

This weekend’s event is hosted by the state Division of Culture and History. The early rounds of the state finals are at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday at the state Culture Center Theater. The finals are at 1 p.m. on Saturday.

“Possession”: A romance, and much more

For the past two years, I’ve relied on my female colleagues here on the blog for a Valentine’s Day post. So I guess it’s my turn — but honestly, I’ve never read a lot of romance, and I wasn’t sure what to write about.

But while scanning our bookshelves for inspiration, I came across “Possession,” the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt. It’s a romance; it says so right on the cover: “Possession: A Romance.” It’s also a mystery, and a work of historical fiction, and an academic satire, and — well, it’s a fantastic book.

The novel opens with second-rate scholar Roland Mitchell in the library, finding heretofore unknown letters from the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Mitchell figures out that the letters were written to proto-feminist poet Christabel LaMotte, so he enlists the aid of LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey in discovering the truth, which could rewrite everything the world knows about the eminent poet Ash.

The most remarkable part of “Possession” is the way Byatt creates two love affairs that are totally believable, and mirror each other in many ways, but are completely products of their age. The brief, passionate romance between Ash and LaMotte is Victorian in every respect: their conduct, their letters, and their adherence to the societal mores that eventually keep them apart. Bailey and Mitchell, meanwhile, fall haltingly into their own modern relationship. We know the first romance didn’t work; will the second?

When it came out in 1990, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda gushed about “Possession” like he has few other books. He began his review, “Critics are paid to offer informed, careful judgments, full of erudition or good sense or both, but sometimes all we really want to say is ‘Wow!'” He ended his review by exclaiming, “What a love story! What a book!”

What better book to pick up for Valentine’s Day?

Irene McKinney: 1939-2012

As many readers of this blog already know, Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s poet laureate for nearly 20 years, died over the weekend at the age of 72. Several others have already given tributes and said what Irene meant to them, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t remember her as well.

Irene was part of a few West Virginia Book Festivals over the years. That includes the 2010 festival, where she was one of the featured presenters and, according to several people in the room, really gave a powerful performance.

Thanks to friend of the blog Vic Burkhammer, who shot video of the event, and posted it to YouTube, you can see part of the event for yourself.

Several of Irene McKinney’s poems are available online, including one with a sadly appropriate title: “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia”:


Maybe because I was married and felt secure and dead
at once, I listened to my father’s urgings about “the future”


and bought this double plot on the hillside with a view
of the bare white church, the old elms, and the creek below.


I plan now to use both plots, luxuriantly spreading out
in the middle of a big double bed. —But no,


finally, my burial has nothing to do with marriage, this lying here
in these same bones will be as real as anything I can imagine


for who I’ll be then, as real as anything undergone, going back
and forth to “the world” out there, and here to this one spot


on earth I really know. Once I came in fast and low
in a little plane and when I looked down at the church,


the trees I’ve felt with my hands, the neighbors’ houses
and the family farm, and I saw how tiny what I loved or knew was,


it was like my children going on with their plans and griefs
at a distance and nothing I could do about it. But I wanted


to reach down and pat it, while letting it know
I wouldn’t interfere for the world, the world being


everything this isn’t, this unknown buried in the known.