Book People Talk to Book People: Marianne Worthington and Melissa Helton

Marianne Worthington (photo credit: Derek Hammers)

Marianne Worthington is co-founder and editor of Still: The Journal, an online literary magazine publishing writers, artists, and musicians with ties to Appalachia since 2009. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, CALYX, Chapter 16, Ethel, and CHEAP POP, among other places. She received the Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and artist’s grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Berea Appalachian Sound Archives Fellowship. She co-edited Piano in a Sycamore: Writing Lessons from the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop and is author of a poetry chapbook. Her poetry collection, The Girl Singer, was released in late 2021 from Fireside Industries, an imprint of University Press of Kentucky. Marianne grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and lives, writes, and teaches in southeast Kentucky.

Melissa Helton

Melissa Helton earned her MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University and her work has appeared in Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Norwegian Writers Climate Campaign, Shenandoah, Still: The Journal, and more. Her chapbooks include Inertia: A Study (Finishing Line Press, 2016) and Hewn (Workhorse, 2021). She has received grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and won the George Scarborough Prize for Poetry and the Emma Bells Miles Prize for Nonfiction. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she has called southeast Kentucky home for over a decade. She is a dual citizen in the United Kingdom.

  1. First, can you talk about the big transitions that are happening with your careers?

Worthington: I’ve been teaching college students since 1984. First at Ball State University, and then in 1990, we moved to southeastern Kentucky to teach at University of the Cumberlands (formerly Cumberland College). My husband and I have been teaching together all our married lives which isn’t so unusual, but our degrees are in the same academic area, so we’ve been in the same departments together as well. We are going to retire at the end of this spring semester (April, 2022), and we cannot wait. People keep saying to us, with some alarm and pity: “oh, you’ll be so sad when you’re no longer teaching” or “oh, what will you do with yourself?” We are the happiest we’ve ever been to leave a long career in academia, and we have plenty to do to keep us busy. I plan to keep teaching online, and I’m also working to set up some independent teaching opportunities related to creative writing. I’ll also continue to serve as an editor for Still: The Journal, the lit mag I co-founded in 2009.

Helton: Since 2004 I have taught English, writing, and humanities at community colleges and universities in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Now, I’m excited to leave the classroom to work for Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, KY. HSS has a long legacy of community outreach and education programs, including food production, dyslexia intervention, traditional arts and music, and regional literature. I’ll be helping develop programming for high schoolers to get them writing their own poems and stories, culminating in a youth version of the renown Appalachian Writers Workshop that has been a mainstay in the writing community for decades. Increasing the number and diversity of voices we have telling Appalachia’s reality through writing is a way to correct the injustice of our region historically being described by outsiders or ignored altogether. I’ll also help develop programs for high schoolers to get them involved in gardening and agriculture, including a summer internship for those who want to consider food production for a career. In a region where we need to create new career options outside of healthcare and extractive resources, getting young folks excited about food production gives them options, improves their food availability, and can impact the health of their family and community. I am very excited to create programs that will help young Appalachians see they have power, they have options, and that what they have to say, create, grow, and make is important not only to themselves, but vital to our whole region and its future.

2. Describe your new books that are out now.

Worthington: The Girl Singer is my first full collection of poems, published in November 2021 by Fireside Industries, an imprint of University Press of Kentucky. Fireside Industries is a partnership the Press has with Hindman Settlement School (see Melissa’s answer to #1 above). This partnership was forged by one of my mentors, Rebecca Gayle Howell, who ushered in and edited the first titles under this imprint. Currently, Silas House is the editor of the Fireside Industries catalog. Both institutions have been important to me, and I’m delighted to have published a book with them. The Girl Singer is part family history, part storytelling, part music, and part nature walk. I wanted to write poems about my particular place, family, and the persistent power of women as artists. I wanted to offer lyrics toward community, encircled by women who swept the paths to my love for words, music, and artistry/performance. Some of the poems are elegies for lost family and places; others are reflections on our tenacious natural world. Some of the poems recite the mythologies of women in early country music (and beyond). Since music was a big theme and an intention of this collection, I tried to bring music into all the poems, whether the poems are connecting with Appalachian wildlife, reflecting on bloodlines and kin, or speculating on the lives of famous girl singers of the past. More than anything, though, I wanted to reclaim the term “girl singer,” which was often used to subjugate and diminish women’s contributions to music and write poems that turn “girl singer” into a phrase of power.

Helton: I have a new chapbook out January 2022 called Hewn. It is through Workhorse,

a Kentucky press that focuses on publishing and promoting the voices of writers who also have day jobs and cannot write fulltime. Hewn is a collection of poems that explore queerness and polyamory, as well as its interaction with place. The poems span from Midwest locations like a Lake Michigan shore in Wisconsin to Appalachia and a trail of woodsmoke down a holler. I am one of those who didn’t realize their queerness until later in life, and these poems explore that realm of being in your 30s and 40s and figuring out who you love and desire and in what ways, and doing so through ethical nonmonogamy. I’m excited for this collection because plural sexualities (bisexual, pansexual, etc.) are the majority of the LGBTQ+ community, but we are usually ignored, erased, or shunned even from within the queer community itself. Add onto that the stigma of polyamory in a culture that prizes, promotes, and demands monogamy (though rarely actually practices it, let alone in a healthy way), I’m glad these poems are out there. We need to hear these stories from those living them, not from an external fetishizing or condemning gaze. My hope is that other queer and/or polyam readers can see some of their own reality reflected and that in general, we expand our understanding of love and partnership. Big dreams for a small collection, but I can’t help it.

3. Talk about your reading habits. (One of you is a more voracious reader than the other.)

How does reading connect to your writing?

Worthington: Well, as anyone who follow Melissa Helton on social media knows, she is an insatiable reader, and she not only reads books, but she listens to books. I tend not to listen to audio books because I almost always become distracted from driving while trying to follow the threads of an oral story. I also don’t think my reading is a varied as Melissa’s is (she will read anything!), but I do try to read poetry every single day, even if it is just the daily poems I receive via email from The Slowdown, the Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets, or Poetry Daily. Honestly, some days that is all I can manage to read. During August I participate in the Sealey Challenge, a poetry-reading challenge invented by poet Nicole Sealey, that encourages you to read a book of poems every day in August. But I tend to read more poetry than other genres anyway. I read many and varied online lit mags and have subscriptions to a few print journals. I’m a slow reader, so reading novels or longer works often takes me a while, but I usually have a novel going. Right now, I’m reading Emma Donoghue’s novel The Pull of the Stars and Janisse Ray’s new nonfiction collection Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World beyond Humans. Because I teach media writing every semester, I also read a lot of journalism, particularly news, profiles, trend features, and reviews. Sometimes my reading connects directly to my writing, particularly if I am engaged in research reading. But often, reading just motivates me to write. I usually start a writing session by first reading something.

Helton: I blame the Vanderbilts and moving to Appalachia, actually. I always loved reading, but it was a casual love affair, maybe a book or three a month. We moved, and I suddenly had an hour commute through the mountains, and I began to listen to a lot of audiobooks. Then, when we went to the Biltmore estate, I learned Mr. Vanderbilt kept a reading journal from the age of 14, and I thought that would be cool. Once I started paying attention to what I was reading, I noticed they were mostly modern, mostly white, mostly from the US. I began to deliberately diversify my reading, expanding into more translations of non-English books, more queer and BIPOC writers, those writing a 100 years ago, and genres I never picked up, like graphic memoirs and plays. Between that, joining the “booktok” side of Tiktok (@elilovesbooks) , and all of my friends, teachers, and colleagues in the Appalachian writing community publishing books, I usually read about 100 books a year (2021 is closer to 130). We can only live one life, right? Through reading we can glimpse into so many more. Usually I’m working through an audiobook (love the Libby app with my library card) and several print books. Right now I’m reading Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (a sci-fi world of Chinese culture and mythology), Finna by Nate Marshall (poetry about being Black in the US), and The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (the subtitle says it all: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century). Reading fills my conscious mind and creative mind with people, data, experiences, ideas, and imagery. How can those not manifest or influence the writing coming out? How can any writer not be a reader?

4. How does living in a particular place influence your writing?

Worthington: I live in a very small town, but my neighborhood is one of the most populous, and probably the most varied. We live at the head of a holler on a small plot of ranch houses built in the 1980s. Some of my neighbors live in houses like mine, some live in much bigger, finer houses, some live in trailers, some live in shotgun houses. We are flanked by the ridges of King Mountain, so even though we are at the highest point of the holler, it feels like we’re in a valley. Patches of woods and a creek surround us, and the Cumberland River is at the foot of hill. And even though I’ve lived in this place for 32 years, it was only during the (ongoing) pandemic that I really got to know my neighborhood’s diverse geography and ecosystems. I’ve spent the last two years working from home, and that has motivated me to write more. I’ve probably written more in the last two years than I have in the previous 10 and being rooted in a particular place has certainly shown up in my writing. I also write about the place where I grew up—Knoxville, Tennessee—and I’ve been working on a poem for a while now about paying tribute to Knoxville, but I keep coming back to how badly Knoxville smelled when I was a kid, so it’s turning out to be not such a pretty elegy, but that’s okay. It will be a truthful poem for my “scruffy little city” on the Tennessee River.

Helton: I grew up in the Toledo suburbs, there on Lake Erie’s shore. We had things like big libraries and museums, giant sunsets and sunrises, slow rivers, and a Midwest, blue collar pathos. Now I live along a thin creek that rages after rain, mountains that are older than I can imagine, more trees than people, and a surrounding conservative and religious community I don’t fit into easily. My first college degree was in environmental studies, so the landscape always threads through my writing, and that sets the tone for a poem. Big, wide corn fields, lake, and sky has a different energy than a trickle of river over stones and hill in the mossy shade. Here in the mountains, I can’t see far so I look in and down. I’m sure than manifests in the poems. Also, I’ve come to my queerness, have been deconstructing the white supremacist and sexist teachings I was programmed with from our American culture, and have been raising children during the time of Trump and COVID, and have done so in a community with a very different worldview than me. As a result, my poems have grown more political and critical of the US and its culture as I’ve aged.  Would these poems have been different if I lived elsewhere? Probably.

5. What are you currently working on?

Worthington: ha! You mean that pile of poems I’ve got that isn’t a book yet? Oh wait, you mean that other pile of creative nonfiction flash essays that keeps spilling into the poetry? Well, I had this conversation with a poet friend very recently. So many poets I know seem to be so confident in what their next project will be. But that is not something I’m very good at. It’s hard for me to say “I’m going to work on writing about this subject or this theme or this issue so I’ll have a new poetry collection.” And I want to figure out a way to combine genres so that I can write poetry and nonfiction. I tend to write what comes, rather than have a very specific plan, but I do see some themes emerging in my work, which I hope to carry forward. One theme is to continue exploring my own ecosystem, and to be much more mindful and responsible for the state of our planet. The other big theme I’m exploring: the ways that various auto-immune illnesses have plagued and shaped my family and identity (rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, vasculitis, pernicious anemia, lupus, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, just to name a few). I do know that caregiving and vicariously witnessing how these diseases have ravaged my extended family really opened my eyes to our ableist, classist, racist, society and to many of the evils of healthcare in our country. Right now, these two themes seem unrelated, but who knows what will happen?

Helton: I feel like Marianne, with stacks of writings that are not quite sure of their purpose yet. One project I have been circling has been my family’s history with immigration and citizenship. My family began coming here before the US existed, in 1635 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And the last one to cross was my father in 1961. As my mother and I have been doing genealogical research, I’ve been reflecting on my family’s connection to all these points of US history, the land theft and genocide of the indigenous people, the slavery era, westward expansion, world wars, to now. What does it mean to be American in my family when those branches that’ve been here for centuries twine with those fresh off the boat? Another project (which feels separate but may be an extension of the first project) is looking at my lost ancestral cultures. My father was from Nottingham, but we have very few English traditions. Through this genealogical work, I see that I’m also Dutch, Irish, and my DNA says “European Jewish.” I’m exploring all that. What does it mean to say I’m X if the only evidence is buried eight generations back? For example, my mother’s grandparents came from Norway in 1904 and the push to assimilate was so strong that their own children did not know how to speak Norwegian and no traditions survived even one generation after immigration. So I’m exploring that theme through Norwegian idioms. They have a saying that translates directly as “I bite the grass,” which means to give up or surrender. How could that not be a poem?