by Mike Templeton

Urban Appalachians, by definition, exist in two worlds. We are of the urban world, and we are of the mountain regions that have historically defined Appalachian people. Our poets and writers frequently evoke this state of being in two worlds at once by offering us images that are paradoxical, beautiful, and at times heartbreaking. Sara Moore Wagner offers poems that capture urban Appalachian experience precisely because they straddle at least two different and at times conflicting worlds. Hers is a poetry that resists categories. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is proud to be a sponsor of the launch of her Hillbilly Madonna on Sunday, November 6, 2022, 3 pm at Roebling Point Books Newport location (601 Overton Street).

To get to the heart of Sara Moore Wagner’s poetry and her story as an urban Appalachian, it seems important to explain what we are not talking about. Her poetry is not the songs of Bluegrass players on the front porch and peaceful nights among the mountains, and Sara Moore Wagner’s story is not the folksy tale that fits a tidy narrative. Her poems are of contemporary urban and even suburban life, and these poems grow out of a life that has seen much of what we celebrate of Appalachian culture and much we often do not care to look at. Yet, because Wagner is an artist of such caliber, we cannot find categories to easily explain her life or her poems. She defies such simplicity quite deliberately, and perhaps this is what we celebrate most about contemporary urban Appalachian poets and artists.

There are two dominant theories of what constitutes “Appalachian poetry.” There are those who see it as verse that is evocative of the close ties the Appalachian people have historically had to natural and rural life, a kind of pastoral pigeonhole for Appalachian poets. Then there are those who insist that Appalachian poets are best at depicting the struggles and difficulties the Appalachian people have lived with, a political or topical approach to the poetry of Appalachia. These are overly simplistic categories that leave out far too much, but they come up frequently in studies by smarties who like to explain how everything is supposed to work.

Wagner exists in both of these camps, but she situates her poems in a world that is at times uncomfortably close to us. If we take some opening lines from two poems in Sara Moore Wagner’s new book, Hillbilly Madonna, we can see what we are in for. The first poem in the collection, “Fit to be Tied,” opens with the pastoral: “The moon is suddenly there/ in the dusty blue sky just like the smooth/ flat stones we throw into the pond,/ sitting in tall grass.” But just a few pages in we are confronted with the poem “Pending Charges” which opens: “The woman who gives birth/ in the Burger King bathroom, a ball/ of heroin on the floor next to her,/ sees her infant floating face up/ in the toilet.” We have not just lost the pastoral; we have forgotten it ever existed.

I asked Sara Moore Wagner about these ideas and themes, and she explained that much of it comes from her life of being pulled in at least two directions. Her ability to convey nuance, complexity, and even points of view that are not her own come in part from a life in which she was pulled toward and away from her Appalachian background. She explained that “my mother was from West Virginia, but always seemed to stress that this is not who we are. My dad lived a very urban life but embraced the Appalachian part of himself and seemed to embrace the stereotype.”

This is a common experience for many urban Appalachians who grow up with a vague awareness of being Appalachian while also feeling a need to hide this part of themselves. This comes through Wagner’s poetry, and it is something she has become more aware of with maturity and age. “I am grateful for [Core member] Pauletta Hansel for helping me find where I fit into the narrative of Appalachia,” Wagner told me as she began to explain how she sees herself within this nebulous idea we call urban Appalachian that can be paradoxical and even conflicting.

It is through poetry that Wagner captures these conflicts and paradoxes. In dealing with such difficult ideas and themes, Wagner told me that some of it does come from her life experiences. The problem of heroin and addiction we saw depicted in the poem cited above comes in some part from the time in which she came of age: “Drugs were around quite a lot when I was younger. I grew up during the time of the Oxycontin addiction crisis,” Wagner said. But some of what emerges in her poetry is from the imagination of a genuinely observant and creative artist.

Sara Moore Wagner says of her creative process: “Our eye is not necessarily the self. We can blend people together into a character.” Wagner continued: “We can gloss—jump over time to get to a larger idea of truth.” This is everywhere evident in her poetry. Her previous collection, Swan Wife, was described as “beautiful and dangerous.”  Her poems do not shy away from the troubling truths of our times. But they do show tremendous empathy for these difficulties. She reminds us at the end of one poem, “We are the Farmer’s Daughters,” that amid such horrors and struggles, “It is important to be here, to keep on.” It is to help us “keep on” that we have poets such as Sara Moore Wagner. That the urban Appalachian experience is continually renewed is in part due to poets like Sara Moore Wagner who both capture these experiences and create them.

Sara Moore Wagner’s new book of poetry Hillbilly Madonna is available in November from Driftwood Press and locally at Roebling Point Books. We can hear her read from her new collection at the book release cosponsored by the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition to be held at Roebling Point Book/Newport (601 Overton Street) on November 6 at 3:00 P.M. where she will be joined and introduced by the UACC Core member Pauletta Hansel. A link is provided below. Sara and Pauletta will also read together on Thursday, November 3, 2022, Noon at Northern Kentucky University’s Landrum Auditorium (Room 506) in a public program called (Girl)Hoods and Hollers.

Sara Moore Wagner’s website can be found at this link:

Roebling Point Books is at this link:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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