One of the most eloquent, defining voices in Moundsville is Marc Harshman, a former Moundsville resident, grade school teacher, storyteller, children’s book author– and the ninth poet laureate of West Virginia.
Since earning that title from Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in 2012 — after the death of Irene McKinney — Marc has traveled widely around the state to support poets, novelists, journalists and other artists. “Although we are a small state, it’s hard for me to imagine any state with a greater pool of accomplished artists—painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, as well as, of course, writers,” he said in an interview with Zach Davis for Fluent Magazine.
Working with Marc was a treat. He was generous with his time when we met with him at his home in Wheeling last spring. We turned on the camera, and talked for two hours, on religion, small towns, economics, class, race, poetry, politics and American history. He even read us some poetry for us which we couldn’t fit into the film but released as bonus features.
Marc hit a lot of sweet, smart notes during our conversation, which is why he is featured so prominently in the film. Clearly, he had been thinking for decades about the stuff we had to ask him.
And, luckily for us, he really, really loves West Virginia, in a way that’s deep and thoughtful and true and impossible to fake.
For example, this poem is from his book “Woman In Red Anorak”, published by Lynx House, which you can order here:
SMALL TOWN, WEST VIRGINIA
after Tomas Tranströmer
Town is closed today.
Smokeless chimneys, rain-slicked and empty streets.
I don’t know why.
It hasn’t asked much of me lately.
Like a fever, perhaps, it will pass, open again tomorrow.
The sun glints on the damp pavements
and a few windows shine
in the dark face of the warehouse.
I haul myself up the ridge
to where my words race, then tumble, soundlessly
over the cliff.
I hold myself close, and listen,
and with my back to the wind,
lift my arms, and try again, say
the word feather, say the word soar.
The quiet answers with its own names.
I should do this more often,
and whether or not the peopled world below
goes on or not,
this older world remains
as these sun-drenched warblers testify
with their reedy whistling.
I should more often do, at least, this much.
I should this much do, as if even the least of us mattered.
I lift up a stone and watch it soar.
I can almost see where its feathers begin . . .
That book won the 20th Annual Blue Lynx Prize. “In Marc Harshman’s prize-winning collection,” the publisher says, “actual war, age, and disaster mingle with dream and hallucinatory sadness to produce an edgy sweetness few American poets have managed to give us.“
That edgy sweetness is tinged with hope. This poem is from a book called “Believe What You Can”, published by WVU Press and available here.
JACKSON POLLOCK AND THE STARLINGS, MOUNDSVILLE, WEST
The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. — Jackson Pollock
The starlings have again held their revival here.
The sidewalk below their power line pulpits
is stippled with rose and ivory starbursts.
A few linger near yet this morning, whistling,
as if they were unaware
of their art, unaware
of the limits of transcendence,
of the neighbors’ lack of appreciation
of mulberries, of art, of starlings with a purpose.
May we all be starlings with a purpose. Thank you, Marc.
John W. Miller