How Moundsville, WV Made A Poet — Interview with Paterson Prize Finalist Carrie Conners — Even in Hard Times, “Joy and Humor and Life Keep Happening”

Carrie Conners was born in Moundsville, WV in 1979, and is now a professional poet who teaches at La Guardia Community College-City University of New York.

This week, her collection Luscious Struggle (which you can buy here or here or here) was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize.

Growing up on Jefferson Ave, a stone’s throw from the prehistoric native American burial bound and the state prison, was an ideal formation for a poet.

In second grade, Conners said, her class was assigned to write a poem about the mound. Most of the kids rhymed words with the subject, going round and round on their way to the top.

“I wrote a two-page dark thing about Indians who were buried there,” she said.  Around that time, she started reading Stephen King: “I got interested in the macabre because of the mound and because of the penitentiary.”

In addition, Conners’ mom worked with West Virginia state poet laureate Marc Harshman, a star of our documentary, and he remains a mentor.

Even living in New York, Conners is a proud West Virginian. “I get annoyed at the way people in West Virginia are portrayed as lazy” or not smart, she said. “People are hard-working, even if it means helping others when jobs aren’t available.” Like other writers with ties to the region, she “hate-read” JD Vance’s stereotype-laden Hillbilly Elegy. “I grew up with some of the cleverest people I know.”

Not surprisingly, even though Conners left Moundsville for college in Pittsburgh when she was 18, a bunch of her poems sound notes from her hometown. “Growing up in Moundsville was a gift,” she said. “I could never not write about it.”

The region has a rich language and storytelling tradition, said Conners. “And my dad was a steelworker, so I heard a lot of colorful language growing up.”

For example, here is Sex Ed:

After my mom declared You’re just showing off when I asked at 12 years old if my bras had shrunk in the dryer I started going lingerie shopping with my former babysitter. On break from college, she’d pick me up in The Banana, her decomposing Volkswagen Rabbit—one day the turn signal wand snapped off in her hand at a Stop sign by the old Fostoria factory—and she’d drive us to the Stone & Thomas in Wheeling with my mom’s credit card in my pocket. As our thighs fused to the black vinyl seats in the summer heat, she’d tell me about college parties with stolen nitrous tanks this guy’s dad’s a dentist, a history professor she dated his stomach is flat, not washboard, just smooth, so sexy, raking a hand through her blond hair, more Malibu than Moundsville, WV and I’d pretend to understand. We’d stop at a dive bar to get vodka cranberries in Styrofoam to-go cups with bendy straws, bartenders never questioning my age, half a foot taller than my chauffeur, before greeting the hairsprayed sales ladies with their frayed tape measurers. She’d dare me to try on red satin or black lace and we’d laugh in the fitting room, mock the sale ladies’ judgmental stares at her cutoffs with the hole in the ass revealing a peek of her Jockey’s, and she’d push me to pick at least one that wasn’t beige cotton. After, we’d visit her boyfriend, a mortician her parents didn’t like, sometimes at the funeral home while he was preparing a body for viewing, Metallica blaring from the radio, more often at his apartment where they’d pop open beers, kiss, try not to openly resent the girl preventing them from doing more, while I read the liner notes of his record collection, always made more nervous by the charge between them than the corpses, by the way he’d pick her up and spin her around so fast for too long, because I had never loved anything so hard in my short life that I needed to grab it, try to make it fly.

“It’s easy to write depressing things about Moundsville,” said Conners. “But joy and humor and life keep happening. You’re always going to teenage girls laughing about silly things, people falling in love, like normal life.”

She worries about Moundsville and its elderly population coping with the coronavirus, and about the lingering impacts of deindustrialisation. “There’ve been so many jobs and factories lost,” she said. “People’s dignity takes a hit. Even as a kid, you would sense how important having a job is to people.”

These days, living near Elmhurst hospital in New York, Connors and her husband hear sirens and helicopters. She’s been advising students to write as much as possible, even if not for imminent publication. “Writer write stuff down, writers document,” she said. “As I tell students, your perspective matters.”

In Moundsville, for a young Conners, that meant paying attention to the humans around her, even those inside the prison walls:

Resolution: New Year’s Day, Moundsville, WV 1986

Sauerkraut and black-eyed peas cooking in the kitchen
on New Year’s Day, hopes for a spell of good luck.
Nana said each pea you eat adds a dollar to your name in a year’s time.
Dad called them dirt beans, said he’d rather eat his wallet
Good for nothing anyway, but forced down a bowlful this year.
Laid off six months, little girl wearing hand-me-downs
There’s your trickle-down economics.
Mom looks out the window, sees the state pen across the street,
bites the inside of her cheek, stares hard enough to raze it to the ground.
Kids called it Castle Grayskull, gothic turrets like the He-Man lair.
Behind those walls another holiday dinner is underway.
Prisoners, more tense than usual, file into the cafeteria,
for once not thinking about what’s ground up in their food.
A guard still sweating out last night’s whiskey
doesn’t hear the footsteps of the two prisoners charging from behind.
The shiv pinching into the skin of his neck sobers him
quicker than an ice bath. They strip his gun, cuff him
to an old food service worker shaking with fear and age.
The new man in charge bellows like a circus master
at a guard locked out of the caf, demands good, hot food,
decent medicine, a pizza, and some women,
to tell Governor Moore that they are men, not dogs.
Long a cons’ prison, most of the cell locks picked,
men walked the halls freely, making up for the 5X7 cells
a judge deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
Once where you wanted to end up, now too crowded,
100 men over capacity, new sadistic warden
serving three cold meals a day, closed down the Sugar Shack,
the rec room where men played cards, threw dice,
painted nightmare cartoon characters on the walls.
On day two of the riot, reclaimed, it’s the site
where one of the leaders forces a guard-turned-hostage,
to watch him cut the heart out of a suspected informant
It’s amazing how this little thing will keep a fellow alive.

Sirens cry through the town louder than midnight’s din
of whistles and kids drumming on pots with metal spoons.
Mom steers her children to the basement after a statey knocks
on the door, tells Dad about the riot across the street, to stay home,
just like the mill did too many weeks ago.
Resolved to keep things calm, Dad plays Candyland with the kids,
Mom calls the relatives to lie that everything’s fine
while on the television a prisoner spokesman says
We don’t know why we have to sleep in 10-below-degree weather in winter,
We don’t know why we have to sleep in 110-degree weather in the summer.
We don’t know why we can’t wear our hair long or grow a mustache or beard.
They say, ‘Act like men and we’ll treat you like men’; but it’s all talk.
All we want is to be treated like human beings, like the people that we are.

John W. Miller

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