By Mike Templeton

It has only been two years since the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition put the spotlight on Sara Moore Wagner and her collection of poems, Hillbilly Madonna. Her accomplishments in that time make it seem she has always been a part of the urban Appalachian literary landscape. Wagner’s new collection, Lady Wing Shot, published by Lynx House Press, was released earlier this year. In this collection, Wagner focuses her poetic eye in a specific direction, which paradoxically opens our eyes to a view that is as large as America itself.

Lady Wing Shot is genuinely singular in how Wagner creates her own mythology while working with a figure of American mythology, meanwhile punching holes in mythologies in general. Lady Wing Shot creates what is often called a mise en abyme; think of the image of the Quaker on the Quaker Oats box who holds a box of Quaker Oats that has an image of the Quaker holding a box of Quaker Oats, on into infinity. Most poems center on Annie Oakley, both the historical person and the figure of American mythology. Within this, Wagner weaves images of the mythology of a plain Midwestern kid. And in pulling just the right strings with all of these ideas, she unravels all of them in order to weave her own mythology in poetry.

The opening poem, “Annie Oakley as a First God,” sets out the mythological and historical contexts for the entire collection. Wagner is a poet of her times, as well as her place and heritage. Her poems reflect the world as it is, no matter the historical references. Imagery of the young Annie Oakley on the Ohio frontier are deceptive in their simplicity: “She was Midwestern clay/dirt, full of stones and fertile—compact/ and rugged. Small, child-like, a new/ frontier.”

The young Annie Oakley is both a metaphor for the historical Ohio and the Ohio of today. We have banked our lives and our futures on the fertile, compact, and rugged soil that turns out the soybeans and corn on which a global economy is built. Twenty-first Century Global Empire is contained in a minute image of a nineteenth-century child and the frontier that was once Ohio. That Sara Moore Wagner’s poetry can lend itself to these kinds of readings is one of the reasons her poetry makes an impact both regionally and beyond. Her poetry is anything but the quaint sentimentality of the stereotypical Midwesterner.

In “Ohio’s Other Annie Oakley,” the veneer of myth and the promise of American dreams come right off. In this poem, Wagner tells us of strip malls, old bowling alleys, and a very real murder that is part of her family story. Here we find memories of “My mother and her sisters, 1970s tall and lean” who “sipped/coke through straws and timed their shots,” only these shots are not the gunshots of Annie Oakley. They are shots in the bowling alley where they racked up “Strike for strike.”

 Here we also find the image of a tired mother who encourages her young daughter’s dreams as she tucked her into bed. “The whole world is yours,/ sleep, then get up. You are what you love, she tells me.” Maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t. Scenes of an idealized Ohio childhood stack up against scenes of devastated lives, all within the dreams and mythology of life in the American Midwest. These poems invite us to watch as myth, life, truth, and dream all get caught up in a poetic whirl. Sara Moore Wagner is a poet who can control language and theme in ways that reach just up to a chaotic edge without ever losing control.

Family, life in the Midwest, being a daughter of urban Appalachia, and even the mythology of America itself—all of this seems to get caught up in Wagner’s imagination and find its way into poetry. Lady Wing Shot, with its own mythology at its poetic heart, contains something of an epic poem. “First Myth of the Wild West” emerges about half-way through this collection and takes us through scenes of hunters, open range, promise and waste, and Romantic ideals against realistic horrors. But this mini-epic knows where to lead us as it sums things up by refusing to sum things up. How like our world to leave us with “Expansion and revolution, metamorphosis,/ one thing and then the next.” Change, gradual and explosive are all there is.

Wagner has certainly been busy producing this collection, but also with stacking up the awards for her poetry. Lady Wing Shot won the Blue Lynx Prize for poetry and her previous collection, Swan Wife was awarded the Cider Press Review Editor’s Prize in 2022. Her achievements brought her to the position of Managing Poetry Editor of Driftwood Press, which previously published Hillbilly Madonna. Wagner told me she and the previous poetry editor had “such similar personalities and aesthetics and taste that when it was time for him to step down to focus more on teaching, he asked me to take over! Now, I’m in charge of the poetry side of Driftwood.”

Wagner is enthusiastic about her new role as an editor: “I select the books, poems for anthologies, manage my team of poetry editors/readers, and I write the craft interviews,” she explained. The job also calls for her to take an active role in bringing poetry collections through the full publishing process. She calls her position with Driftwood “a dream role,” and that sounds just about ideal to me. Editorial work, family (she is a mother of three), and writing her own poetry keeps Sara Moore Wagner plenty busy.

Sara Moore Wagner is an urban Appalachian poet at the forefront of the ways poets and other writers are shaping urban Appalachian culture. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is proud to claim Wagner as one of us even as she has emerged as a poet of contemporary life.

Lady Wing Shot is published by Lynx House Press, and is available at this link: Wagner will lead an online workshop on writing biographical poetry in celebration of Lady Wing Shot on April 23; you can register for this workshop and for Pauletta Hansel’s April 9 workshop on creating poems from family stories here:

Sara Moore Wagner’s website 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 Chief of Birds: A Memoir, available from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iff Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s Cultural Directory. He lives in West Milton, Ohio with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city and the country snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur above, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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