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Appalachian Poets Confront “StereoType”

This week we explore not only mass media portrayal of Appalachians, but the ways Apps respond to stereotyping. Contributor Abby Malik reports on how six writers dismantle stereotypes and misconceptions through their creative work and public art. 

By Abby Malik

Artist Theo Edmonds began Saturday night’s “StereoType: Unexpected Appalachian Stories” at the University of Kentucky in Lexington by telling the audience: “I think you’re going to be in for a very interesting and unexpected evening of Appalachian stories.”

That was evident before the program even began. A look at the careers of the six scheduled performers promised absolutely nothing except an unpredictable and electric evening, in which the city of Lexington was well represented.

Since 1991, with poet Frank X Walker’s co-creation of Affrilachian Poets, Lexington’s literary scene has hummed with the voices of like-minded urbanites who embrace and celebrate the shared diversity of their Appalachian roots.

Poet Eric Sutherland founded the Holler Poet Series. Photo by Natalie Baxter.

About five years ago, Eric Sutherland began Holler Poet Series, a monthly poetry and music convergence at downtown’s Al’s Bar. Holler just celebrated its 44th performance, and each session features a mix of open mic performances followed by readings from well-known writers such as Silas House, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, among many others.

Saturday night’s “StereoType” was an explosion of Walker, Sutherland and Edmonds, along with Hope Johnson, Dale Marie Prenatt and Pauletta Hansel, all discarded the notions of a homogeneous Appalachian landscape through stories of family, race, sexuality and identity. The readings were accompanied by keyboard and guitar from UK music professor Kevin Holm, which gave even more life to the poets’ words.

“False stereotypes are so pervasive and entrenched,” Walker said. “I think not selling the region’s true diversity hurts the worst, because the truth could explode almost all of the stereotypes.”

Hansel began the night with “Coal,” a look at her native Jackson, Ky., where she grew up “before I knew coal was something more than grit and fire in the belly of the house.” The effects of coal mining on Appalachian environments were a theme sprinkled throughout many of the night’s poems. Hansel is currently editor of Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. She lives in Cincinnati.

In “Kentucky Is My Body,” Sutherland’s oneness with his homeland was extended beyond the borders of the Bluegrass state into the other areas of Appalachia coping with the same change. Sutherland absorbed (and embraced) the good and bad of his surroundings, “translating to blank page my time here in this body” as he shifts from “wildflower blooms” and “natural gas” to “another and another and another church” and “a gun rack locked in a spare bedroom where beautiful quilts lay spread across peaceful beds.”

Prenatt, a Buffalo Creek, W.Va., native, appeared before the crowd, her voice slow and accent delicious: “This poem is a true story. It is called ‘Intervention.’”

In this tale, Prenatt is comforted by a Church of God’s Brother Earl and its Pastor John after wrecking her Volkswagen one night into a roadside ditch. Passersby with good timing for Prenatt, the two men stay with her for hours until a tow truck arrives. Unlike Sutherland before her, Prenatt seems thankful to have encountered “another church.”

Johnson, a Lexington native and UK graduate student, has a soft voice that made the rustling among the crowd stop until she had finished reading. She continued Sutherland’s “I am” theme and defined herself in “Watercolor” in terms of her Appalachian roots and experiences, and in this case, discussing the Affrilachian idea of a more diverse Appalachia than stereotypes allow.

Poet Hope Johnson reads from her work. Photo by Natalie Baxter.

“I am rainwater drizzling between black bark and white chalk / I am tiny pieces of coal falling from the back of Papaw’s old, red pick-up truck / I am freckles sprinkled across generations of slaves,” Johnson, who has roots in Harlan County, Ky., softly told her listeners.

Edmonds, a poet, artist and performer, also described himself as a “Scotch-Irish-Cherokee child of Appalachia.” His works explored the idea of nature versus nurture, along with the role of freewill in determining self-worth “in the conformist-based culture of the American South.”

His material on Saturday night flowed with song, spoken word and imitation fire-and-brimstone preaching, his passionately changing identities as varied as those he described in his performance piece “Sing”:

“Sing like a skinny Chinese school girl who just won a pie-eating contest over at that gay bar in the East Village / Sing like a pretty Puerto Rican boy who eats sharp-lipped words through the pieces of another man’s desires / Sing like a Cherokee warrior / Sing like an unborn field slave.”

Walker’s fiction excerpt, “The End of Innocence,” was told from the perspective of a naive “barely four”-year-old boy and analyzed the themes of family and sexuality.

It is indeed a “very interesting and unexpected evening of Appalachian stories,” as the poets took listeners outside their comfort zones and into the poets’ own.

“I saw four generations on the front porch / When the fourth is old enough to leave, they will / They will leave home, no looking back,” Sutherland said in “Down Home Hound Dog.” But these six poets are looking back, thankfully, so that we all can also look forward.

Abby Malik hails from Ashland, Ky., and has great fun with social media and public relations at Kentucky Educational Television (KET) in Lexington. She’s been published on several PR trade websites and in the Louisville magazine Underwired and The Courier-Journal. She blogs at Muttled, hoping someone will help her figure out whether to introduce a dog into her life.

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