“The Road to Redemption—runs through West Virginia” notes Affrilachian poet Crystal Good in her poem “passing wrong.”
During last week’s two-day strike, I read Crystal Good’s book of poetry, Valley Girl. Good is going to be at the WVELA conference at the end of March, and that is the main reason why I picked up her book. As I ponder the poems now, I have a new appreciation for her work. Partially, I appreciate it for what I can use in my classroom, but even more, I appreciate it for the voice she gives to West Virginia. This is a book about being a woman, about being a woman of color, and about being a West Virginian. Like any good piece of literature, it describes a way to survive.
Valley Girl is a poetic personification of the Mountain State—a state that has been misused, abused, ignored—yet still rises in strength and beauty. Good says, “The Road to Redemption—runs through West Virginia.” Our state’s resilience can offer a model to the world. Wild and free, yet strong and smart.
Though Good’s work was published before #55strong, I can’t help but remember how West Virginia offered that model to the country last year as we started the chain of teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and now Las Vegas and Detroit. The “road to redemption” begins here.
Crystal Good offers a voice for our students. She writes of experiences unique to Appalachia, yet shows the paradox of being a mountaineer, where we can “walk like thunder”1 and “turn graceful”2. We can be homeboys and rednecks. We can be “country before country was cool”3. Good especially offers a voice for our students of color, our students who so seldom find themselves in literature, and even less so in literature or portrayals of our state.
Though I’ve only had the opportunity to use Good’s poem “hot pass” in my classes, many of her poems are ideal for imitation or discussion. I hope to use more of these in the coming weeks.
Poems for Imitation: The numbers note the pages in Valley Girl where you can find the poems.
“Hot Pass” (1):
This is a poem that I first heard about at WVELA 2018. It is a poem that focuses on place and identity. It is reminiscent of “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyons, but with West Virginia spunk. As an imitation poem, this is a great exercise in imagery. Students can identify phrases, places, objects, and actions that demonstrate their identity.
This is a poem of our social media age, ending with the line “What’s on Your Mind,” as Facebook asks us every time we log in. According to Good, this poem was written before the whole of America was on Facebook. “44” has a bitter edge as she talks about the Facebook profile of her son’s absent father. As an imitation piece, students could describe a person’s fictitious online profile. While I think that I would likely have my students make this a personal imitation, this could also be used in the context of a novel or short story. Students could write a social media poem for a character in the text.
“not a poem #2” and “not a poem #3 (30-31)
These poems are definition poems, defining “Moss” and “Randy” respectively. Randy Moss is mentioned several times in Valley Girl. I did not know who he was until about an hour ago (spoiler, I’m not a native WV girl). After reading Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I’ve used definition poems for several years now (shout out to Kwame Alexander who will also be at the WVELA Conference this year). Definition poems are a fun and simple exercise in connotation in which students essentially make a found poem using several dictionary and personal definitions for a significant word. To imitate Good’s poems, students could focus on names of local celebrities, or write a definition of their hometown (Good is from Rand, WV, which makes me think these poems might also be referencing her hometown).
Poems for discussion:
I loved many poems in this work, but the below three I think provoke the most discussion, especially in relation to the history and culture of West Virginia.
“WV mourning” (32)
I found this to be the most thought-provoking poem in the collection. In this piece, Good personifies West Virginia as a prostitute or a stripper. The woman in the poem falls victim to the lies of an outsider who “tell[s] her she was valuable/ a hot mountain brown suga mama,/ smart.” She believes him when he says “I will be good to you; I can take care of you/ that will never happen to you,” yet “she wakes with another broken heart.” Despite her broken heart, she is strong and is not defeated. She “wear[s] resilience and tears like stickers on a hard hat.”
Though this poem is not appropriate for younger students, this it opens a discussion about West Virginia’s history of being violated by big corporations, whether it be mining, logging, or the current opioid epidemic.
“Passing Wrong” (28)
I love the imagery in this poem. Good writes of the contrasts of Appalachia. A place where “Tunnels/ carry Old Regular hymns/tolls- fight past/ church marquees.” Appalachia is a place where “Courage wash[es] travelers’ feet/ clean in pot holes.”
“Valley Girl: a poem for Pia” (5)
The titular poem for the collection, “Valley Girl” continues to discuss the struggles of West Virginia at the hand of big corporations. Living in West Virginia is “living to exist third world/ United States. Somewhere in the middle East, / just West ‘by God’ and getting’r dun.” She laments the generational poverty that still exists, that the “Coal miner’s daughter is now chemical plant step kid” and “Pharmaceutical pesticide love child—downsized without support.” You can hear Good read her poem here.
Crystal Good is a treasure. Hopefully I’ve encouraged you to pick up her book. If you’re attending WVELA 2019 (WHICH YOU SHOULD BECAUSE IT IS GOING TO BE AMAZING), you’ll have the opportunity to hear her in person.
- From “stomp the earth” pg 24
- From “pivot” pg 4
- From “country cool” pg 3
WVCTE wants to know what you’re thinking. What great poetry have you read lately? Have you read or used poems by Affrilachian authors in your classroom? Reach out to us on Facebook, or on twitter @WVCTE.
Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE Executive committee and has been teaching at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County for the past 7 years. She is a graduate of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Though not a WV native, she loves to call this place her home, especially since recently becoming a first-time homeowner. Currently she teaches AP English Language and 10th grade Honors. Jeni loves books and coffee and exploring new places. If given a million dollars, it would probably be spent buying more books, or perhaps a pet unicorn. On second thought, the million dollars would probably pay of college debt and replace the pink stove in her fiancé’s kitchen.