By Lee Chottiner
Think of Wheeling and you think of steel, nails, cigars, gas, coal and history.
Poetry, though, is not a word that quickly comes to mind.
“Wheeling is a small town,” said Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s poet laureate who makes his home here.
While poetry has the power to influence hearts and minds through rhythm, meter and metaphor, it has become something of a marginalized genre in modern times, competing with novels, short stories and memoirs for the eyes of readers.
That said, poets from Wheeling and the Ohio Valley have written themselves into literary history, often drawing upon their regional roots for inspiration.
With that in mind, Harshman and other local lovers of verse want to make sure that the valley’s poetry tradition doesn’t, as Dylan Thomas wrote, “go gentle into that good night.”
Their efforts are paying off, as Wheeling experiences a small, but noticeable, poetry resurgence:
• The Ohio County Library begins the Wheeling Poetry Series, Tuesday, Sept. 29, at noon, when Kentucky’s poet laureate, George Ella Lyon, will read at the downtown library. The series will bring to town some of the finest Appalachian poets who are writing today.
Sean Duffy, the library’s programming, publicity & archives coordinator, credited Harshman for the series.
“Marc came to me. He wanted to showcase poetry by having regular poetry readings,” Duffy said. “We have done things like the Wheeling Film Society and have seen some success with that. He wanted to do something with poetry and that seemed like a good idea to me.”
“Marc is well connected and knows a lot [of poets],” he added. “We thought he could get some better known poets to come, particularly if we marketed it as a series.”
• The same day the Wheeling Poetry Series kicks off, a new monthly spoken word series at the Blue Church – The Word – will hold its first show at 7 p.m. at the church, 12th and Byron streets. Lyon is its first guest as well. Harshman and Scott Hanna, assistant professor of English at West Liberty University (WLU) will be hosts for the series, which will present fiction writers and stand-up storytellers, as well as poets. There will also be an open mic for amateur writers and poets.
“The more events we have like this [at the library and Blue Church], the better to support this kind of writing, Hanna said. “It makes people aware that poetry is really a genre that can raise people’s consciousness and understanding of a region and what’s going on there.”
• 3rd Fridays at the Artworks, hosted by Andrew and Patty Croft, already offers an occasional spoken word component, including open mics and readings by Harshman.
• West Virginia poet Doug Van Gundy will speak and perform his work on Oct. 21 and 22 as part of WLU’s Hughes Lecture Series, which regularly brings poets to the area. More details are to be announced.
Could all these programs lead to a burgeoning poetry scene?
Harshman is optimistic, noting the library already attracts strong turnouts for guest writers at its Lunch with Books series.
“That tells me, because of the good attendance at that particular program, there is a healthy atmosphere for literature here in Wheeling,” he said. “I’m just happy to do my small part to encourage further ventures this way.”
Father, son, Pulitzer
The Ohio Valley has already given the world some incredible poets, first and foremost being James Wright.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and half of the only father-son team to receive that award (his son, poet Franz Wright, also won it), Wright grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and wrote about the Ohio Valley in stark terms. Among his best-known works are At the Executed Murderer’s Grave, A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack, and In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.
One critic, James Seay, said of Wright’s work in the Georgia Review: "His most abiding concern has been loneliness. It is the one abstract word that recurs most frequently in his work. In a sense, the theme of loneliness gives rise to, or is somehow connected with, most of Wright's other thematic concerns."
And Edward Butscher, writing for the same publication, said that a "pattern" of “despair and celebration, ritual damnation and ritual salvation,” runs through Wright’s poetry, “the agony of human existence miraculously made bearable by nature's . . . eloquence."
For 25 years, the Martins Ferry Public Library sponsored a poetry festival named for Wright, but more on that later.
Several other poets with national reputations who drew from their Ohio Valley roots are: Maggie Anderson (not an Ohio Valley native though she lived in Marshall County), Timothy Russell (Weirton), Keith Maillard (Wheeling) and Richard Hague (Steubenville).
“There is a literary history in this valley, certainly,” Harshman said.
The next generation
If there is literary history in the valley, is there also a literary future?
The seeds for it are sewn. WLU, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Bethany College all have English departments that are engaging young writers. Hanna, who wrote his dissertation on regional poetry, hopes these departments will produce a new generation of poets, all drawing from their unique Ohio Valley experiences to stoke their own work.
“I’m hopeful that’s the case,” he said. “I always try to emphasize the importance of regional identity as valid material for poets to write about.
“As far as potential writers who would stay rooted in the valley,” he continued, “I’m not sure how I can project that, but we have recently added an emphasis on writing and we have a writing and rhetoric major here at West Liberty, which seems to have attracted a lot of students so far.”
Meanwhile, Harshman is bringing poetry to an even younger audience. He’s convinced that good poetry, in all its forms, can speak to school-aged children, provided they’re exposed to it.
“It’s the blessing of my appointment as poet laureate that I’m now able to visit schools with my poet hat on,” he said, “and I absolutely relish that.
“I think I have a great program,” he continued. “I really try to choose pieces that are both accessible and yet still have some real meat and grit to them, and I’ve never seen them fail. The kids are enthusiastic; they wish to do it. I follow it up with hands-on workshops devoted to either poetry or prose and the kids run with it. They really do.”
Defunct poetry festival
There was a time when poets with national reputations, and their fans, would flock to the Ohio Valley – at once a year.
That time lasted from 1980 to 2005, the lifespan for the James Wright Poetry Festival, which the Martins Ferry Public Library hosted.
The festival attracted giants of verse such as Gerald Stern, Judith Vollmer, Toi Derricotte, William Greenway, Joy Harjo, Roland Flint, Gibbons Ruark, Linda Pastan, and Billy Collins, who would become poet laureate of the United States.
According to Yvonne Myers, director of the Belmont County District Library in Martins Ferry, as the Martins Ferry Public Library has since been renamed, the festival attracted people from all over the world.
“We knew most of the people who came to the festival were not the locals,” she said. “A lot of people flew in from different places, even from Japan or Australia, because they were doing a dissertation on Wright, so we met a lot of interesting people.”
The weekend festival included readings by guest poets, workshops, open mics, readings of Wright’s work (of course), not to mention social get-together’s at Wright’s old watering hole, Dutch Henry’s, which, like the festival itself, has gone out of business.
It wasn’t for lack of interest that the festival’s run came to an end, Myers said.
“Basically, it stopped because many of the people who were part of the festival retired and moved away, so they kind of disbanded it basically,” she said. “I wasn’t really happy about that because I thought we could continue, and maybe someday we will. If you give it more time, people may say, ‘hey why don’t we start that up again?’ There’s no reason we couldn’t.”