Maggie Anderson is the author of four books of poetry, including Windfall: New and Selected Poems, A Space Filled with Moving, and Cold Comfort, all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She has edited several thematic anthologies, including A Gathering of Poets, a collection of poems read at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the shootings at Kent State University in 1970, as well as Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry about School and After the Bell: Contemporary American Prose about School. Her awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania Councils on the Arts, and the Ohioana Library Award for contributions to the literary arts in Ohio. The founding director of the Wick Poetry Center, Anderson is Professor Emerita of English at Kent State University. She is a member of the graduate faculty of the Northeast Ohio MFA in creative writing and edits the Wick Poetry Series of the Kent State University Press.
To speak in a flat voice
Is all that I can do.
—James Wright, “Speak”
I need to tell you that I live in a small town
in West Virginia you would not know about.
It is one of the places I think of as home.
When I go for a walk, I take my basset hound
whose sad eyes and ungainliness always draw
a crowd of children. She tolerates anything
that seems to be affection, so she lets the kids
put scarves and ski caps on her head
until she starts to resemble the women who have to dress
from rummage sales in poverty’s mismatched polyester.
The dog and I trail the creek bank with the kids,
past clapboard row houses with Christmas seals
pasted to the windows as a decoration.
Inside, television glows around the vinyl chairs
and curled linoleum, and we watch someone old
perambulating to the kitchen on a shiny walker.
Up the hill in town, two stores have been
boarded up beside the youth center and miners
with amputated limbs are loitering outside
the Heart and Hand. They wear Cat diesel caps
and spit into the street. The wind
carries on, whining through the alleys,
rustling down the sidewalks, agitating
leaves, and circling the courthouse steps
past the toothless Field sisters who lean
against the flagpole holding paper bags
of chestnuts they bring to town to sell.
History is one long story of what happened to us,
and its rhythms are local dialect and anecdote.
In West Virginia a good story takes awhile,
and if it has people in it, you have to swear
that it is true. I tell the kids the one about
my Uncle Craig who saw the mountain move
so quickly and so certainly it made the sun
stand in a different aspect to his little town
until it rearranged itself and settled down again.
This was his favorite story. When he got old,
he mixed it up with baseball games, his shift boss
pushing scabs through a picket line, the Masons
in white aprons at a funeral, but he remembered
everything that ever happened, and he knew how far
he lived from anywhere you would have heard of.
Anything that happens here has a lot of versions,
how to get from here to Logan twenty different ways.
The kids tell me convoluted country stories
full of snuff and bracken, about how long
they sat quiet in the deer blind with their fathers
waiting for the ten-point buck that got away.
They like to talk about the weather,
how the wind we’re walking in means rain,
how the flood pushed cattle fifteen miles downriver.
These kids know mines like they know hound dogs
and how the sirens blow when something’s wrong.
They know the blast, and the stories, how
the grown-ups drop whatever they are doing
to get out there. Story is shaped
by sound, and it structures what we know.
They told me this, and three of them
swore it was true, so I’ll tell you
even though I know you do not know
this place, or how tight and dark the hills
pull in around the river and the railroad.
I’ll say it as the children spoke it,
in the flat voice of my people:
down in Boone County, they sealed up
forty miners in a fire. The men who had come
to help tried and tried to get down to them,
but it was a big fire and there was danger,
so they had to turn around
and shovel them back in. All night long
they stood outside with useless picks and axes
in their hands, just staring at the drift mouth.
Here’s the thing: what the sound must have been,
all those fire trucks and ambulances, the sirens,
and the women crying and screaming out
the names of their buried ones, who must have
called back up to them from deep inside
the burning mountain, right up to the end.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
“Long Story” was written over a period of ten years, beginning in the early 1980s and completed in its published form in 1992.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem underwent many, many, many versions over the decade of its composition. It took longer to come to completion than any other poem I have written so far.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I don’t know if I believe in “inspiration,” but I do believe in “gifts” that can come after long devotion. “Long Story” (which was, in fact, a very “long” story) is the result of persistence, devotion, and a sustaining hope that it was important to write and that it would, eventually, come around to its best shape.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The poem is a narrative, which is obvious from the title. I used a casual “I do this/I do that” voice for the first part of the poem and then created a shift in both diction and rhythm toward the end to embody a larger, angrier, stronger voice to tell the story of the trapped miners.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
One year. It was never published in a journal but was published in my book, A Space Filled with Moving (Pitt, 1992).
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any particular rules about this, but in general I wait around six months after I think a poem is “finished” before I will send it out for publication. This longer “wait time” suits my temperament, but it also means that I both write and publish very slowly.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The facts of “Long Story” are generally true to both personal and social and political history. I do take walks with children; I did have a Basset Hound; I did have an Uncle Craig who was as I present him here. Also, the mine accidents mentioned in the poem are all real historical events, but for the purposes of the impact of the poem I have combined facts from several different disasters into one. The poem is fact; the arrangement of details is made to serve the art of the poem: “Story is shaped by sound, and it structures what we know,” as the poem says.
Is this a narrative poem?
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading history of the West Virginia coal mining industry and, as the epigraph would indicate, I was reading the poems of James Wright.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Not generally. For this poem, I address an imaginary audience that knows nothing of this place that, to me, is home. The audience needs to be instructed about the place and the poem undertakes that task. I also, of course, imagine the readers to be people from the region who will understand the story and the voice that tells it.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Yes. I have several individuals – other poets – with whom I have shared my work in progress for most of my writing life – thirty or more years. I value them enormously.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It is more narrative than many of my poems, somewhat longer, but it concerns matters I have dealt with in many other poems and its shape is a common one for me.
What is American about this poem?
“Long Story” documents the history of a particular region of the United States, its tragic history, its humor, and its “flat voice.”
Was this poem finished or abandoned?