“Poetry has always been aware of the huge possibilities, expectations—a blank page or computer screen, there exists infinity, a field of possibilities…” ~ Crystal Good, West Virginia & Quantum Physics: Small Things Matter (TED Talk- Lewisburg)
As stated in part one of this three-part series, some artists of Central Appalachia are more than artists. They are story-keepers: makers of poetry, of song, and images that impact reality and inspire change in our region. Story-keepers keep our most revealing stories—those told about us by us inside their work.
Poet-activist Crystal Good, singer-songwriter Jeff Ellis, and writer-photographer Roger May, each a focus of this series, produce unique work informed by place and stories of its people. Crystal Good, poet and native West Virginian, story-keeps in poetry. Why language, I asked. Her reply:
“John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word. Poetry and language are about creation. If you are not creating, you are dead.”
Mainstream media—the stories of outside observers, often give Appalachians a one-note, simplistic story about an all-white, ignorant, fatalistic, and backward-thinking population. Good boldly defies stereotype.
Good is an Affrilachian poet, an African-American Appalachian, a term created by Frank X. Walker, one of the group’s founders. Good says, “[Frank X. Walker] created the word because the dictionary said that Appalachia was an all-white mountainous region. It was necessary to give voice to the many forgotten faces of Appalachia. What is misunderstood about the word is its inclusiveness.”
She tackles regional issues such as mountaintop removal, industrial disasters, and gender while keeping the stories of Appalachian women and African-Americans inside her work. For example, her poem “Black Diamonds” (see her performance here) is about the widows of coal miners, specifically of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
These two groups go unheard, their stories underrepresented in the mostly white, often male-dominated canonical collections taught in Appalachian Literature courses. In mainstream modern American Literature courses, these groups are almost entirely invisible. Good and the Affrilachian poets impact this marginalization.
“Most folks seem to know stories about the mine and miners, but we know less about the women of the coal fields and even less about the black coal miners and their families.”
She gives life to those silenced voices with her own voice, sometimes performing spoken-word poetry on camera. When asked about this medium she responded, “We live in a multi-media world […] How can poetry meet people where they are? People are on YouTube.” She added that people often say they “get” her work best when she speaks poems aloud.
When spoken, the lines rise from the page, transfused with Good’s breath, into a visceral, living thing. The lines pulse with a “heartbeat.” She says her underlying message of one of her most well-known poems, “Boom, Boom,” (watch her performance here) is about more than strippers and strip-mining, but about West Virginia’s aliveness. While so many leave the state for greener pastures, Good stays, fighting both in the political arena as Social Media Senator and in her poetry, reminding Appalachians our state still has a heartbeat.
In “Boom, Boom” Good beautifully parallels the desperate, cold realities of strippers with the realities of mountaintop removal mining or strip-mining. The girls in the poem strip off their clothes, their dignity a high price for a flimsy reward, just as West Virginia is stripped almost naked of her mountains for a similarly flimsy reward.
Good is the author of one poetry collection, Valley Girl. Jeff Biggers, of the Huffington Post, describes Valley Girl as “…a beguiling read, at once bold, disarming, plucky and feisty, unabashed in its spoken word hip hop dares and verbal ‘pivot,’ and deliberate in its narrative storyteller verve; it wonderfully carries on the legacy of Good’s fellow Affrilachian Poets…”
While Good says she doesn’t believe it’s an artist’s responsibility to produce work that shapes or reflects the reality of our region, her work inspires the people of West Virginia and Appalachia, as she says in her Lewisburg TED Talk, to “take a look-see,” to study ourselves and our region’s problems honestly, fearlessly.
In her lecture she uses basic quantum physics theories as a portal to comment on Appalachia’s reality and possibilities.
She says, “The people of West Virginia are the ones doing the observing—have the potential and power to open the box […] but we need to fearlessly open the box and have a look-see.” She goes on to say, “…the state [West Virginia] was born in and still is in a state of superposition, where all things are possible.”
She asks us to look “inside the box,” a direct call-to-action from the people and region that inform her work. When asked if she is a poet-activist, she responded, “I didn’t choose activism as a creative path. I chose to be creative and in that my creative ideas tend to synthesis from causes and issues I care about.” And evidently, what Good cares about most is West Virginia and story.
Good keeps West Virginia’s stories safe, in a space where old battles and new harsh realities of Appalachians are reimagined into living, breathing art, poetry with spit-fire, continuing the tradition of men and women, (like Mother Jones) who fight back in Appalachia. And like Jones, Good has high hopes for our region.
“I come from a land where we string echoes together. I come from a land that people don’t often look to, but I want people to start looking at our state with a sense of possibility.”
Crystal Good is the Irene McKinney Memorial Scholar, and in 2016 she received her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She frequently hosts poetry readings and writing workshops at universities and coffee shops through Appalachia. Currently, the artist is working on her second book, hoping to release it in 2016. (Crystalgood.net)You can follow her on twitter @cgoodwoman
Andrea Fekete is a poet and novelist born and raised in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, granddaughter to Mexican and Hungarian immigrants. Her debut novel, Waters Run Wild (2010 Sweetgum Press) is a work of historical fiction about the coal mine wars of West Virginia. It was warmly received by local and national publications including The American Book Review and New Letters Magazine. The novel has been featured in various university and high school literature courses. She has one poetry chapbook, I Held a Morning (2012 Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared in such publications as: Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, The Kentucky Review, The Montucky Reivew, The Smithville Journal, The Adirondack Review,ABZ, and in collections such as Wild Sweet Notes II among others. She has a few college degrees related to writing and sometimes teaches writing and literature and resides in West Virginia. Follow her current writing projects on FB at http://www.facebook.com/andreafeketewv.
Read More Work by this Author:
- Informed by Place and Inspiring Change: Three Story-keepers of Central Appalachia, Part One: Jeff Ellis