Creating West Virginia: Through poetry and action Crystal Good builds community
by Beth Newberry
Crystal Good’s poetry readings aren’t for a lazy listener. They are a patchwork of history lessons, current-events coverage and literary word play all sewn-up with an electric and provocative performance. If you’re asleep, she’ll wake you up. If you’re sitting down, she’ll get you on your feet. If you are already standing, she’ll get your hand in the air while you’re yelling, “Amen.”
From her poem “Boom Boom”:
“Them boys say West Virginia girls are gold/
Them boys should know better/
cause in West Virginia there ain’t no gold/
just black, black coal.”
Watch Good perform the full poem.
Good, who has performed as a member of the Affrilachian Poets in such venues as Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. and the Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan, says of the poem: “I see the mountain as a woman. This poem is about strip mining as much as it is about gender. A heavy equipment operator working on an above-ground mine site is doing what he feels he has to do — sometimes life doesn’t give us many options, and sometimes the consequences of few employment options are more than we expected. It’s hard for a stripper to reclaim her reputation – it’s impossible to put back a stream or a mountain top once it’s gone.”
Like many Appalachian and Affrilachian artists, Good, who works as director of brand experience at Mythology Marketing in Charleston, also sees herself as a community activist. She is a volunteer and board member with Create West Virginia, an organization that works to build creative communities as part of the new economy. In conjunction with Create West Virginia, Good founded The Block: An Urban-Rural Youth Connection, an innovative project that uses technology, poetry and dialogue to foster cultural exchange between young people. Components of the program include Skype conversations and a “commonography” project in which participants exchange their personal stories of daily life and compare the experiences.
The root of the project is an educational moment from her past. “I said to my grandpa, ‘I’m getting out of here. It’s backwards, and there’s not even a Target.’ And he said to me: ‘You don’t know where you are from—you need to learn the facts,’” Good recounts. “I started getting into facts and history of West Virginia, and I really fell in love with the state.” Good is “back home proud,” a key element of being an urban App, even if you live outside the mountains as Good has. The former model lived in New York; Dallas and Atlanta before returning to the Charleston area.
Good’s Block Project educates young people about educational and life opportunities and their Appalachian heritage. “We want them to value where they live and to not be afraid of the other side [of life beyond the mountains],” Good says. Through the exchanges with youth in Harlem, “our kids locally saw value of living on the same street with their auntie and grandmother, of riding bikes on the streets and knowing stories of the neighborhood.” “They gained pride from what they learned in the contrast” to their peers’ experiences, she adds. “but they said ‘Those kids are just like me,’ and that broke down there fears.”
Good is a member of the Affrilachian Poets poetry collective, a group of African-American poets and writers, as well as other writers of color, formed in the early ’90s by poets, living Lexington, Ky. The group responded to the stereotype of Appalachia being a region with solely White citizens. Frank X Walker coined the term, a mashup of “Appalachian” with the word “Africa.” Good first saw the word, Affrilachia, as a student at West Virginia State University, after searching the Internet with the terms African American, Appalachia and writer. Good said of her discovery of the word: “I was relieved, encouraged, energized and then challenged. I knew there are black people creating in West Virginia and black people in Appalachia, but who are these people? How do I find them?”
She quickly sought out the group’s members, even facilitating their appearances and readings at her alma mater. She was inducted into Affrilachian Poets three years later. The naming of an experience invisible to others—like being African American in the region or even an urban dweller in the region—because it does not fit a stereotype, can be a revelatory and in many ways revolutionary experience. And poetry is a path to these kinds of discovery, says Good. “It’s always a risk putting yourself out there. I have more confidence if I have something I stand up for, and poetry lets me do that.”
Learn more about Crystal Good and her poetry collection, Valley Girl, through her Website http://www.crystalgood.net.