by Mike Templeton

The setting for A Reading of New Work about Appalachia, readings by Gurney Norman and Pauletta Hansel was about as close to ideal is I could imagine. Roebling Point Books & Coffee is a small independent book shop and café, a rarity these days. This is the type of place that invites you to grab some coffee and a book and spend some time in one of the comfortable stuffed chairs in the center of the shop. The place was filled to capacity to hear Pauletta Hansel, Appalachian Poet and Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Core member, and Kentucky writer Gurney Norman, 2009-2010 Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and author of the collection of Kinfolks stories, read from their recent works. This kind of turnout is a reassuring sign that interest in the poetry and prose of Appalachia still has a strong following in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. 

If a theme emerged it had to be the persistence and weight of memory. And I do not mean that kind of memory that places a rosy lens over the past, nor do I mean memory of a strictly historical kind. These poems and stories brought the past to life and situated the past in the contemporary with all the good and bad that comes with it. Pauletta, reading from her book Coal Town Photograph, animated the image at the center of her title poem with the full meaning of an old coal town and memories of miners while the poem placed these memories of the same old coal town as it exists today. The poems she shared present reflections that grab memories of the beauty and struggle of times past and places them squarely in the reality of the present day. From childhood memories of ubiquitous gardens to present day observations of an Appalachia scarred with drugs, Pauletta’s poems held us in a place that contained the past and the present.  

It was absolutely fitting that Pauletta introduce her mentor and teacher. Giving us a brief overview of his work and his influence on hers, she handed the lectern off to Gurney Norman. He began by telling us about his early connection to Covington, Kentucky. He followed his older brother, someone who would figure large in Gurney’s readings, from Hazard to Covington when they were both teenagers. His brother worked construction and Gurney worked at a local shoe manufacturer until he decided to rerun home for football season. Gurney lived right up the street from Roebling Books.

From the opening story of “Welcome to New York” to his deeply personal memoir of the death of his older brother, Gurney treated us to humor, tragedy, and a story within a story as he recounted how his mother managed and worked a 40-acre hillside farm, dressing out hogs, growing enough food to feed the family throughout the year, and taking care of the household. The pride in the strength of his mother, a woman of the Appalachian hills who did what was needed to be done, was clear in language of the tale and in Gurney’s own voice as he read. It was in the flow of this story that Gurney gave me the central idea for the readings. He described being “lost in the living moment.” This is precisely what we were given in this reading. We were all invited to be lost in the living moment, the past animated and alive in the present. 

Gurney’s readings were clearly evocative of what would become the urban Appalachian experience. From the story of wandering the streets of New York to his deeply personal memories of his brother making his way in Cincinnati in the story, “Jerry,” we were treated to powerful details of young Appalachian people making contact with the urban world that was just beyond places like Hazard, Kentucky. 

Gurney finished his reading with something that sounded to me like more of a poem than a story. “Allegiance” is a pledge to all that is dear to Gurney Norman. I would feel justified in quoting the entire text, but for the sake of space I cannot. The piece begins: “I pledge allegiance to Rockhouse Creek in Letcher County, however far I roam. I pledge to always visit my family’s graves, mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins scattered throughout the hills.” With this we were invited to be lost in the living moment with the memories and stories of Gurney Norman. These are the family ties of an old Appalachia offered to us to who wish to carry on the Appalachian stories in our own ways. 

Looking ahead to the Writing Our Roots Cincinnati Area Young People’s Writing Contest, we invite young people to tell their stories in their unique ways. Today’s reading provides a great segue from the works of two writers who are masters of telling the stories of Appalachia to a new generation of Appalachian writers. Cosponsored by the Urban Appalachian Community coalition, the Young People’s Writing Contest will provide a forum for younger urban Appalachians and others  to write their experience as it unfolds today. The contest is open to young writers aged 13-23.

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