Friday, April 29, 2016
Last night, April 28, 2016, my wife Candice and I traveled from our house in West Liberty, KY, to the Hazard Community And Technical College campus in Hazard, KY, for the 2016 version of Kudzu "Evening With Poets". We went there primarily to see West Virginia author and University of Iowa Writer's Workshop alum Marie Manilla read. I have become quite enamored of her work after having read her novel, "The Patron Saint Of Ugly" and beginning her short story collection called "Still Life With Plums". Hazard is only about 65 miles from our house and for us that is a reasonable drive to see an event which interests us both. Marie Manilla was one of five established women writers in Appalachia who were being featured at the reading. All had been published in this years edition of Kudzu, the campus literary magazine of HCTC. The other featured writers were Darnell Arnoult, Shawna Kay Rodenberg, Carrie Mullins, and Marianne Worthington. All are established writers to one degree or another and all write well, one or two even better.
The evening was a positive event and the writing which was presented was well above average. All of the aforementioned women have had numerous publications and most have at least one book in print. This year's edition of "Kudzu" was a special edition focusing on women in Appalachia and achieved its goal. The magazine also contained writing from Pauletta Hansel, the current and first Poet Laureate of Cincinnati, an alumnus of The Southern Appalachian Circuit Of Antioch College in Beckley, WV. There was also an entry in the magazine from best selling author Silas House. If the goal of the magazine was to prove that a "student" publication at a small community college in Eastern Kentucky could gain and publish submissions from older, established regional writers, it was a success. But, from my point of view, the goal of every student publication at any college should be to publish, promote, and assist in the establishment of long lasting careers for current students who wish to become known as writers. The edition of "Kudzu" did contain quite a few pieces of writing from current students. But not a single student was featured as a reader at the event. To that degree, the event was a failure.
In my opinion, every literary magazine which purports to be a production of an undergraduate writing or English program should work to make it possible for students to believe they can become the person whose work is published. Such magazines should work to help those students believe and be perceived as writers. The way that is done is make the magazine a primarily student based work, as many Appalachian religious believers say, from "kiver to kiver". Students should be featured at readings, public presentations, and events related to the release of the magazine. During the course of the evening, I met one young woman who identified herself as a student in a public speaking class who was attending the event for that class. I saw one introduction of the student who won a "Kudzu" prize for student writers. That student did not read at the event. I did see several students serving soft drinks, water, and cookies. One was sitting at a cash register selling "Kudzu" and the works of the established writers. And, yes, I did buy copies of both the 2016 and 2015 issues of "Kudzu" as well as a collection of work by one of the established writers.
I enjoyed the reading. All of the women who were featured have earned their recognition with years of dedication to their craft. All of them deserve to be published, regularly, often, and in as many venues as possible. I do not say anything about this event in order to negatively assess any of the women who were featured. I was enriched by their presentations. However, I firmly believe that a "student" magazine should focus on helping students, in every way possible, to become recognized writers and being allowed to read at an event introducing a magazine which contained their work would have been a serious step in that direction.
I can remember when "Kudzu" was introduced many years ago as a photocopied and stapled collection of work which was nearly all by students. "Kudzu" is now a fairly slickly produced and presented magazine of quality work. "Kudzu" has come a long way and I applaud that progress. But, at the end of a two year community college education, how many of the students who worked to help produce that magazine will have become recognized as writers to the degree their work deserves? I suspect that number will be significantly lower than it might if those student writers were allowed and required to stand in front of a crowd and read their work with a copy of a magazine in their hands which contained that work, both literary and physical, along with their blood, sweat, and tears gained from producing that magazine. Where were all the students???
Monday, April 25, 2016
My wife, Candice, and I attended a Kentucky Proud Expo in Morehead, KY, on April 16, 2016, primarily because Candice wanted to and I wanted to please her, or at least stay out of trouble. The Kentucky Proud program is a program of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture which helps small farmers and farm families in the state to market their products. To some degree, it also appears to be promoting the development of unique and unusual products in Kentucky. It is, at least in part, a response to the end of the federal tobacco support system which caused many small farmers who had depended for years on tobacco to stop growing tobacco and to either leave agriculture all together or to seek other means of generating income on small family farms. A secondary part of the Kentucky Proud program is the Appalachia Proud program which, according to their website, "celebrates the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of eastern Kentucky while at the same time honoring its traditions". Based on one day of exposure to the program, I don't buy into the sales pitch entirely or perhaps even much at all. I have, for many years, been a believer that Appalachia and Appalachian Kentucky have been far better off when most of the rest of the world leaves us alone. I have also seen far too many examples of people and organizations which came to the region with the best of intentions and proved absolutely that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But I have to admit that my overall impression of the Kentucky Proud Expo was primarily positive.
We spent about two hours in the Morehead Convention Center at the expo talking to exhibitors, sampling foods, viewing products, and buying a few. We met a few truly unique and interesting people doing, or attempting to do, some worthwhile and productive work on small farms in Kentucky and Appalachian Kentucky. But, as a dyed in the wool native Appalachian, I was not convinced that several of the these people were Appalachians or even Kentuckians. It struck me that, as has been happening here for at least a hundred years, we have attracted a few individuals who might have fallen or been thrown off the edge of the world somewhere else. California is not the only location with a tendency to attract strange wanderers.
For more than three years (March 1989 to July 1992), I worked for Vision Quest, the controversial, for profit juvenile delinquency program. For most of that time, I was the advance scout for the East Coast Wagon Trains. That job required me to locate campsites for two wagon trains each comprised of 75 juveniles, 35 staff, 50 head of horses and mules, and a plethora of vehicles, mobile offices and trailers. It was my responsibility to find a constant string of camp sites of 5 acres or more where this conglomeration could camp for up to 4 days at a time free of charge. During my time there, I traveled with the wagon trains from Okeechobee, Florida, to Hudson, Michigan, to Okeechobee, to Peebles, Ohio, to Okeechobee, to South Carolina, a total of more than 7,000 miles before I left the job. As a result, I was a great deal of various kinds of agriculture in a dozen states. Yet, at the Kentucky Proud Expo, I ran into a couple of things I had never seen and found them quite interesting.
Two of the most interesting things we saw involved raising yaks and selling yak products in Menifee County KY, and raising alpacas and selling alpaca products in Boyd County KY. We met the owners of Silver Run Ranch Alpacas and found them to be quite interesting. They make and sell a variety of alpaca products on a farm in Boyd County KY. The operation is run by two brothers who also have outside jobs. But they raise alpacas and sell alpaca apparel which is beautiful, soft, warm, and colorful. They are interesting to talk to, informative, and friendly. I had been exposed to llamas once in northwestern Pennsylvania but never to alpacas. We were offered the opportunity to visit at some point and see the operation and we definitely will do that. Their website can be found at: Silver Run Ranch Alpacas Due to the information we were provided at the expo, I would never recommend anyone to just show up unannounced. Contact them first if you ever intend to ask for a visit.
We also met Gregor Dike and Linda Smith-Dike who operate Zhi-ba Shing-ga Tibetan Yaks in Menifee County KY. They raise yaks and sell yak based apparel and, through another organization, they also sell some yak meat. I assume it is necessary for them to sell their yaks for slaughter to an FDA approved operation which then butchers and markets the meat. Both Candice and I love to experience new foods and new experiences. I can't wait to get an opportunity to eat yak. They are also willing to have visitor with the expected guidelines of advance approval and scheduling. They can be found online at: Zhi-ba Shing-ga Tibetan Yaks I do have to say that I was disappointed to hear they do not milk their yaks or sell yak milk products. After having read several books and articles over the years from mountain climbers and other visitors to Tibet, I have always wanted to try yak butter tea. I must admit that many people I have read who had the experience did not care for it. But I still love to try new things and yak butter tea along with durian is on my list of the things others hate that I am dying to try. I am sure will try to make a trip to the yak farm before summer is over.
Candice and I would not presume to call ourselves read foodies but we are very broad ranging in our tastes, love to cook and eat, and, I repeat myself, love to seek out and experience all things new and interesting. Candice had found the expo on the Internet and wanted to go to see new foods, recipes, and Kentucky products. She bought two bars of soap from a place called Hidden Holler Soap Studio. She has tried the lavender already and found it acceptable but not overwhelmingly positive. She says it doesn't really have a great smell but does seem to make her hair fell fuller. She also bought a bar of coconut oil soap and will try it later. She also bought a jar of Ale 8 One based salsa from a place called Forgotten Foods Farm in Olive Hill. We just tried the salsa last night with tortilla chips and Candice says she likes it enough to buy it again. I found it too mild and too sweet. This seems to be a good time to say that I am not a food critic and don't necessarily strive to be one. I do enjoy a wide variety of foods, cook from time to time, watch a lot of food based television, and always seek new food experiences. But I know what I like, have a fairly well developed palate, and can generally discuss food intelligently and explain succinctly why I do or do not like a particular item. As a lifetime aficionado of Ale 8 One, this was not the best use to which the soft drink has ever been applied. I could not resist the opportunity to buy a half pint jar of what Forgotten Foods Farm was selling under the name paw paw jam. I have written about my love of paw paw's on this blog in the past. That post can be found at Paw Paw Post I brought the jar home and even Candice couldn't wait to try it. We made two slices of toast that night and cracked open the paw paw jam. To my surprise there was absolutely no taste or smell of paw paw's in it. As anyone who has ever eaten paw paw's can tell you, the two most distinctive qualities of a paw paw are the flavor and the smell. To that degree, they rival another of my old time favorites, the plum granny. The ingredients of the jam were listed as paw paw pulp, sugar, pectin, and citric acid. The ingredient list might just as well have been similar to one of those on a jar of something innocuous and cheap found at your local discount foods store and carrying a brand name you don't recognize and don't want to remember. They might just as well have read "sugar, dextrose, fructose, cane syrup, and artificial flavors and colors". The best part of the paw paw jam experience was the eager, child like anticipation of believing I had just found a treasure I had imagined since childhood, another wonderful use of my favorite native fruit of Appalachia. I suppose balloons are made to burst. Dreams are made to die. Illusions and delusions are made to live forever and grow just like Topsy. But, at least, I still have a very nice half pint jar in which to save my change in order to pay for my next little educational experience.
We also stopped, but failed to get a business card from, a couple who make and sell hot sauces from a variety of peppers they raise in their back yard garden. I screwed up my courage and sampled what they say is their version of hot sauce made from the infamous ghost pepper. Before I tried it, they assured me it was mild enough to not be lethal. I have gradually developed a taste for more and more hot foods although I will always consider it an insult to a cook to ask for hot sauce in a restaurant. I like hot food up to about the point I start to sweat, hiccup, tear, and develop a mild nasal drip. I have to admit that when I heard "Ghost Pepper" I was fearful. My fears were unfounded. If it was truly made from ghost peppers, they had sufficiently diluted the capsaicin to prevent possible damage to the innocent and unsuspecting. I tried a small sample on a neutral cracker and only developed mild hiccups, a bit of a nasal drip, and no sweating or tearing. The adventure fell a bit short of the anticipation.
I also bought a container of peanut brittle from a nice couple from Lexington. It was acceptable but not especially great. We stopped at a couple of vendors who were selling their own versions of spices since we buy a wide variety of spices and use them regularly. We were not impressed enough with any of them to buy their wares. We spent a few minutes talking to a nice woman who made beautiful quilts. She was displaying a UK pattern and a strawberry pattern. But she sews them on a machine and I will always prefer those which are totally hand stitched as they were in the days of my youth.
My overall impression of the Kentucky Proud Expo was positive enough to go to another at some other time and in some other portion of the state since I got the impression many of the vendors set some mileage limit on how far they travel to the expos. But I remain convinced that many of the vendors and state staff involved fall sufficiently short in their knowledge base about Appalachia that I believe Appalachia Proud is simply another marketing tool.
Sunday, April 24, 2016
P. J. Laska “Morning In America A Poetic Assemblage From The Long Decade”
Igneus Press 2016 $8.50 Paperback
Appalachian poet and philosopher P. J. Laska could not have chosen a better or more appropriate time to release his new book, “Morning In America A Poetic Assemblage From The Long Decade”. "Morning In America" by P. J. LaskaThe book is, as the subtitle suggests, an assemblage of poetry and Socratic teaching set as an ongoing discussion between his protagonist, Dominic Love, and a friend named Anonymas. The book’s title hails back to a fine collection of poetry which Laska also published with Igneus Press in 1991. The earlier book was a collection of powerful, kick like a mule poetry which bewailed the destructive policies of the Reagan Administration. The new book uses the same kind of philosophically based poetry and the Socratic Method to attempt to educate the world to the current political reversion in a large chunk of the American populace toward such destructive and debilitating politics. Some of the poetry was contained in the earlier work but much of the text is brand new and just as powerful.
The poetry is reminiscent of the best work of another native West Virginian, Former Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey, who grew up in the coalfields of Logan County just as P. J. Laska was raised in an immigrant coal mining family in northern West Virginia. The poetry attacks a problem in ways very similar to Jack Dempsey attacking an opponent in the ring. Two or three light poetic jabs flick across the attention span of the reader before being followed by a head jarring left hook which delivers a key philosophical and political concept which points out how the American military industrial complex has controlled and manipulated both the American populace and much of the greater world over the years from the Viet Nam War to the current conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. Laska knows just as well as Dempsey how to deliver a critical blow and both learned it in the coalfields of Appalachia.
The reader should also keep in mind that before Laska became a doctoral level philosopher poet he was a Viet Nam era military analyst and linguist. Before he was a finalist for a National Book Award in the 1970’s, he learned both Russian and English as a child in a coal mining family of immigrants. Before P. J. Laska adopted Buddhism as a central pillar of his life, he prepared the host and ceremonial garments in his local Catholic church as an altar boy. P. J. Laska is a man of the world who has risen from relative poverty to national recognition as a poet, philosopher, critic, essayist, educator, and magazine editor. This book is the culmination of a lifetime of deep thought on the part of a highly contemplative man who was moved to consider many paradoxes in the world including poverty & wealth, government & citizenship, socialism & oligarchy, as well as good & evil. In his new book, Laska reminds those of us who forgot and hopes to instruct those who never knew that in many cases oligarchy and evil won.
The opening poem in the book is a republication of the title piece from “The Day The Eighties Began” which reminds us of the day Ronald Reagan was allowed by organized labor and the American populace to fire the nation’s air traffic controllers, an act which began a slippery slope in American politics and public thought which has continued in the disasters of trickledown economics, the Iraq War and that country’s subsequent fragmentation and the birth of both Al Qaeda and Isis. It is easy for a devoted reader of poetry to hear this discussion of the work and choose to avoid such directly political poetry. But keep in mind, this poet was a finalist for a National Book Award with his first book, “D. C. Images And Other Poems”. He is a fine writer and this is excellent, well-constructed, linguistically artful poetry. These poems are well deserved candidates for any future anthology of Appalachian or American poetry. Many of them have been previously competitively selected and published in highly respected magazines. This author’s personal favorite is the poem “Down And Back” which is set as a story of driving through an Appalachian night, picking up a hitchhiker, and discussing the utterly human consequences of the economics of oligarchy. A working mother tries to rationalize how she will handle the loss of her Black Lung benefits. The hitchhiker says it all in the powerful sentence, “You don’t know what you can stand ‘till it comes around”. And that, my friend, is a sentence which has come out of the mouths of many thousands of Americans who have suffered the consequences of “The Long Decade”.
Buy this book! Read it closely and slowly! Give yourself time to consider ruminatively all you find in it which provokes such consideration. Then, when the dust in your head has settled from that last linguistic left hook, go back and read it again.