The work of Kari Gunter-Seymour, poet laureate of Ohio, is a cheer for the life she and her people have been given, in “a place so deep inside America it can’t be seen,” as she declares on page and in person.
White oaks thrash, moonlight driftsFrom ‘I Come From A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen’
the ceiling, as if I’m under water.
Propane coils, warms my bones.
Gunter-Seymour was the keynote speaker at the inaugural Appalachian Foothills Festival of Literary Arts this past Friday night in Portsmouth OH. Organizer Amanda Page told me she chose Gunter-Seymour because she’s “both a poet and an advocate for Appalachia.” Page is a Portsmouth-born writer who was inspired by our Moundsville film on PBS to make a doc of her own about her hometown, Peerless City, which I’ll be writing more about soon.
Both movies are attempts to give people in the Rust Belt and Appalachia voices, without voiceovers or outside experts, that tell a story that is deeper than the national political narrative.
And that’s the song of Gunter-Seymour, who is from Albany, in southeastern Ohio. She writes about the veterans in her family, Bible-loving mothers, her favorite dog, Hank Williams and McDonald’s. This is loyalist, patriotic literature to the tune of lived community and shared experience instead of blood and soil.
It’s art that might knock a country’s wars or a town’s employer, but will always stand up for soldiers and workers. “Appalachians are people who serve their country more than anyone else,” she said Friday during her keynote address.
Gunter-Seymour is a ninth-generation Appalachian, and while she sings about her people, she is also full of righteous outrage. “We know hard-working people were preyed upon,” she said. “And we had just survived big coal, and then big pharma came along.”
In that world, it’s important to hang on to all the things that make life rich and precious, like your favorite dog on its last day.
We shared a Mc-sandwich, an order
of fries, a contented fried chicken
patty belch wriggling free as she nodded off.
We took the long way around to the Vet’s.From ‘The Good Life Gives No Warning‘
Or a description of her dad, who loved Hank Williams.
He died hard, my daddy,
not like Hank, addicted to morphine
and booze, but he was blue,
and Hank knew the blues.
Tonic tunes, Daddy called them.From ‘Hank Williams’ Last Ride’
This is work that speaks to people, and it’s getting a well-deserved audience. In 2021, Gunter-Seymour won a $50,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is also the founder of the Women of Appalachia project, which aims to get more women of diverse background involved in spoken word and fine art.
Gunter-Seymour’s is also an important and eloquent voice about a region’s struggles with poverty. After current Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman trophy, Gunter-Seymour wrote a poem to the Athens News, titled “Geaux Jeaux”, which helped raise thousands of dollars for a local food pantry.
Until you’ve fed your kids Kraft Mac’n Cheese
from the mark-down bin at the Dollar Store,
for the sixth time in two weeks, made with
water instead of milk, worried sick
about what’s happening to their insides,
a dented can of carrots, past
the expiration date, a luxury.
Until you’ve worked two jobs and still
can’t climb above the food stamp line,
never mind proper heating or running water.
and you’ve put your six-year-old to bed hungry,
again, wondering if there is any way you can
take on a third job and still see your kids.
Until your daughter asks to pack her lunch
because she’s made fun of for being subsidized,
so in desperation you take time off work
to stand in the food pantry line, in the cold,
children in tow, only to be informed
it was a tough week for the pantry, too.
Until you’ve put your children on the school bus,
dressed in mended clothes from the New-2-You,
sized for children meant to be more filled out,
and they’re labeled white trash
and no amount of scrubbing can remove
that stain, and dreams of college remain just that.
Until a boy from your neighborhood picks up
a football and throws it so far thousands
of people notice, and thousands more
will eat high on the hog, because
the proof of a person lies in their honor,
and glory rests not in the moment,
but extends itself in supplication.
Of one of Gunter-Seymour’s poems, “The Weeds In This Garden”, poetry judge Ciona Rouse wrote that it was “earthy and rich, like the soil so deeply characteristic of this region.” Gunter-Seymour, said Rouse, “takes us outside and indoors, into the world and into our bodies and minds.”
John W. Miller
Photos: Kari Gunter-Seymour at Appalachian Foothills Festival. By Carla Bentley/Bentley Stories