My interview with John W. Kropf, author of Color Capital of the World

For you Rust Belt boosters, Sandusky aficionados, history buffs, arts lovers, and education champions … I’m so pleased John Kropf agreed to answer my questions about his fascinating historical memoir …

John Kropf is the author of Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Factory (University of Akron Press, 2022). Color Capital provides a history of the crayon through the build, boom, and bust of the American Crayon Company. Readers will come away feeling a greater appreciation of the human story behind the crayon and the Ohio town that produced more crayons and paints than anywhere else in the world. Melissa Scholes Young, author of The Hive and Flood, described it as a “delightful and engaging read.” Kropf’s earlier work, Unknown Sands: Travels in the World’s Most Isolated Country, was praised as a fascinating narrative bound to hook adventurers. His writing has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Washington Post, the Middle West Review, and elsewhere. Kropf was born in Sandusky and raised in Erie County, Ohio. He works as an attorney in Washington, D.C., area.

John, multiple lines of your family came together to make the American Crayon Company, begun not long after the end of the Civil War. Your grandmother was the one to tell you the stories of the company. In Color Capital, you write that it was at her “Sunday afternoon dinner table with its white tablecloth and real silverware [where it] felt almost like I was receiving a sacrament in church. I was hearing the gospel of the crayon.” You also write, “Crayons were my birthright.” What did it feel like to have this legacy, as a child, and then see it decline and finally disappear? 

Be careful of the stories you tell your children! My grandmother’s stories and the magic of crayons was a powerful combination for a young child. Crayons were somehow different–not like ball bearings or rolls of finished steel. Crayons were something easily understandable and exciting for a kid. And from a kid’s perspective, I thought there must be a way to keep it going. As I mentioned in the book, I desperately wanted to find a way to be part of it, but by the time I entered high school, I realized the company had been sold from the founding families and I could see the decline of the company coming. Maybe the hardest thing was decades later reading the stories in the Sandusky Register that the abandoned factory building had been neglected for so long it was falling into ruin. It was kind of like seeing an old family relative with no one to take care of them. There’s a head-heart issue going on–your head knows it is the natural end of a business but your heart reacts to mourn the loss.

I am a big crayon fan now! I never gave so much thought to the importance of crayons. One very important point you make in the book is that this was something made and built for children. I was fascinated to learn that the crayon movement and the kindergarten movement (pushed by German immigrants) coincided. Yes, there were crayons made for train workers, carpenters, and other industries, along with crayons made for artists; but the bulk of crayons made were made with children and their art and education in mind. In your research, what was the thinking behind these Germans interested in putting color sticks in children’s hands? What a shift after a time of war, I would think, this time of color. That shift in the company from the “rugged utility of blackboard chalk and industrial markers” to “pure creativity and imagination of children and artists.” What do you make of that?

Yes–it was an exciting time in education. The crayons that American Crayon Company and others, like Binney & Smith, created in the first part of the 1900s were practical and inexpensive. American Crayon even made “penny-packs” that had different pictures on the back of the package to encourage children to color. We think of computers in a similar way being introduced in the 1980s in schools and colleges. The introduction of affordable color crayons to young children was revolutionary. Coloring contests in schools were a big deal, where the winners could earn prizes and national recognition. American Crayon even developed a magazine written by educators, called Everyday Art, to help teachers with coloring projects. 

It goes hand and hand with the art education of young students that Sandusky was a pioneer in secondary public education, as one of the first towns in Ohio to develop a public high school. From your research, can you tell us what made Sandusky an education leader? What were the conditions that made that possible?

I think some of the conditions go all the way back to Ohio being part of the Northwest Territories. The Northwest Ordinance that carved out Ohio and other Midwest states mandated public education among its first articles. The emphasis on public education created a demand for new and innovative teaching techniques–the kind that drew one of American Crayon’s founders, Marcellus Cowdrey, to Sandusky to become its first superintendent of schools. Marcellus had been educated at a teaching academy in Kirtland, Ohio, and he emphasized good penmanship as a critical skill to learning. From his start in Sandusky, Marcellus wanted to ensure his students would have practical effective means of practicing their penmanship, starting with chalk on the blackboard. His techniques helped create Sandusky as an innovative center for public schools and set the stage for better writing implements. 

Your book helped me learn about Sandusky from the ground up, as “The Color Capital of the World,” as a relative of yours said the city was known. Sandusky is also known for its gypsum mines. I had no idea what gypsum was, until I read this, and I certainly didn’t know it was used to make crayons (among other things). You detail the development of the formula for crayons (slightly different across brands). I’m thinking the crayon recipe likely ran parallel to other industrial recipes. Can you give us a sense of what else was being developed in the time period that this development is happening?

Researching the book, I learned that gypsum deposits in northern Ohio were a vestige of glaciers. The deposits are found in silts and clays in the beds of former glacial lakes. William Curtis, the crayon company’s inventor, had access to the gypsum through his brother-in-law, John Cowdery, who ran a local outdoor nursery located near an abandoned quarry with a deep pond in it.  I like to think the American Crayon Company was truly connected to the land and water of Ohio and nearby Sandusky Bay.

In your book, you also give readers a history lesson of the greater area, going back to the end of the Revolutionary War. At the time, Sandusky was part of the Northwest Territories, created in 1787 by congressional ordinance. This fascinating piece of history I didn’t know: “…the ordinance did something the U.S. Constitution had not been able to do—explicitly ban slavery throughout the territory.” That fact, along with the fact that Canada is just across Lake Erie made Sandusky a “critical link” on the Underground Railroad. Can you tell us another historical fact of the area, one that maybe didn’t make it into the book?

Sandusky had been at the center of innovation in the 1800s. I mentioned in the book that the first chartered railroad west of the Allegheny Mountains was started in Sandusky, The Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad. The railroad created a demand for skilled mechanics and engineers and that is what attracted my great, great grandfather, Jonathan Whitworth who emigrated from England. It was his son who was one of the founders of the crayon company. 

It’s also worth mentioning that at the very end of the 1800s Sandusky begin building segments of an electric interurban railway that later merged Lake Shore Electric Railway that connected numerous small communities with Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit. The was the second railway of its kind in the country. Coincidentally, Thomas Edison had been born in Milan, Ohio, in Erie County just 10 miles south of Sandusky. 

The American Crayon Company, at its peak, employed about 500 factory workers, salespeople, and staff across several offices around the country, with the factory in Sandusky. What was Sandusky like in this heyday?

I don’t know if it was the heyday, but as a child in the 1960s, Sandusky, like so many other small and medium sized towns, still had a thriving downtown shopping district including a department store. It was in the early 1970s that the Sandusky mall was built south of town and the downtown followed the pattern of so many others with stores closing. What’s ironic is now many of these malls are struggling to survive or closing. I’d like to think people truly value the downtown experience of a real town. 

There are glossy, full-color photos in the center of the book that really are compelling. Can you talk about your favorite photo(s)—one that was a challenge to get, maybe, or one with personal significance?

I suppose the one that I’m partial to is of William Curtis in his Union Army uniform holding a sword. He has the most intense, hardened look on this face. I try to imagine what he must have been thinking at the time. 

Your personal connections are what makes this a memoir, even more than a fascinating history of a place, and I most like when you consider how the generations before you might have felt. Your great-grandfather went from grocery clerk at age fifteen to a bank president to American Crayon Company president in thirty years. This is American Dream kind of stuff. You went to law school and have a good career. What do you think he would say if he time-traveled to the here and now to see you?

I’m not so sure I could imagine what he would say or think. I know, I’d have many questions for him about how he learned about business and how he took a risk with financing the crayon company. 

I found the parallels you draw in the book between Sandusky and your personal journey really illuminating. You write of the difficult times in your family, when over the course of a few years, your grandmother died, and then your parents divorced and you moved with your mother to a nearby town. You say, “The outside world in the mid-seventies also seemed to be in decline…Familiar stores in downtown Sandusky were closing and land was being cleared south of the town for the new Sandusky Mall.” (If that’s not a death-knell for our historic downtowns, I don’t know what is.) Do you think these parallel declines helped push you to go away for your education and career? 

I didn’t think about it consciously. I suppose I didn’t see the kind of opportunities that I wanted in my future with so many businesses closing. The metals company that my father worked for in Sandusky was bought out and he was transferred out of state. I even worked there a summer in college but that foundry was later shuttered and demolished. I suppose I was lucky enough to have very supportive and encouraging parents who had lots of books in the house that exposed me to many different places and ideas. Pursuing a law degree was what I felt was a form of security in reaction to the insecurity I saw around me.

After college, you made the same journey your grandfather did 70 years before, across the U.S. from Sandusky to Pasadena, California, where he had American Crayon offices. Why did you make his trek? And what was the most important thing you learned from yours?

I think having an adventure before I stepped into the professional world was something I had to do and it was also a way for me to connect with my grandfather who had just gotten out of the army after World War I [when he made his trip]. One of the parallels that I loved was that we were both 26 when we made our trips. I was preparing to start my first job as a lawyer and he was preparing to go into the family business at American Crayon. I even hope to write a book about his trip and my trip, together. I published a magazine article out of it and I still haven’t given up the thought that I could do a book on our parallel trips, me following in his footsteps.

In 1988, you moved to D.C. and started your professional journey. Fast-forward to your book. Why did you write it when you did? What was the impetus?

In short it was loss. In 2014, I first read about the abandoned American Crayon Company in Sandusky and the long drawn out wrangling over its demolition. A short time later, I lost both my mother and sister who were part of that crayon story. Two years in a row, I returned to Oakland Cemetery in Sandusky, both times to bury them next to the founding family members of the crayon company. My father also died about this time and I felt I was the last one standing that had the stories I wanted to share.

You talk about Sandusky as a younger sibling of Cleveland to the east and Detroit to the west. I’m reminded of the smokestacks our native cities have in common. You’ve been taking your story to the Cleveland area and other neighboring places. I’m guessing you’re hearing some similar stories of the rise and fall of industry and small manufacturing in other places. What’s the reception been like?

It seems like a natural fit to me that the story of an innovative and successful industry hits its bust. People understand that story in Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Detroit, and many of the other Midwestern industrial towns. In researching my book, I read a lot of other memoirs from these cities and understood their build, boom, and bust stories.

You write, “…under the monochrome, gray skies of northern Ohio, was an explosion of color.” Northern Ohio, along the lake, is known for its overcast skies. I think it’s romantic but it can take some getting used to. I’m imagining crayons and colors mean so much more to children who don’t get to glimpse the sun from November through March. (That might be an exaggeration.) Can you tell us a personal childhood crayon story that didn’t make it into the book?

When I wrote that, I kept thinking about the contrast between the grayness of northern Ohio in the winter and the spectrum of brilliant colors being produced on the inside of the factory, and how the colors were being sent out to the world to help brighten things up. 

The fall of the American Crayon Company mirrors the decline of manufacturing and industry across the Rust Belt. What did it mean for Sandusky when the company was sold and the manufacturing moved to Mexico? What did it mean for you, personally, as a son of Sandusky and a legacy child of the American Crayon Company?

It seemed like adding insult to injury in ending such a great company. When I spoke at the Sadusky library about my book, there were union members from the factory who told me they refused to train their Mexican counterparts and that scabs had to be brought in to try to train them on the antiquated and delicate equipment. When the venture in Mexico failed within a year of its relocation, it seemed like there was some sort of small irony at play–equipment taken from the American Crayon Company transported outside the country was never meant to operate anywhere else but Sandusky, Ohio, U.S.A. 

What has it meant for you to see Sandusky come back again, the action on the waterfront, new condos where old industry was. What are your favorite places to go when you go back? How about your favorite local beer or other beverage? And, if there is one, a particularly Sandusky meal you never miss?

It’s actually very inspiring to see Sandusky making this transition. It will never be the same type of manufacturing center it was but I don’t think that could ever come back. What I’m pleased to see is the preservation of some of its great old limestone buildings and city and business leaders looking ahead to capitalize on Sandusky’s location on the waterfront along with nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park and Sandusky’s other historical sites and markers like the Underground Railroad.

Favorite places are the downtown waterfront, including a look at the coal docks that are a prominent feature of Sandusky’s skyline. Other stops are the Sandusky Library and Oakland Cemetery and newer spots like the rooftop bar of the Kilbourne Hotel that overlooks Sandusky Bay.  

As far as food goes, whenever I’m in town, I always stop for a Lake Erie Perch sandwich. 


Be sure to follow John on Twitter (@JKropf)–especially if you’re in Ohio. His pinned tweet lists his author events, a few of them next month!


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Check out my categories above for more interviews, book reviews, literary musings, and writing advice we can all use. Never miss a post when you follow Rust Belt Girl. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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Reading rn …

WordPress, the lovely content management system that hosts the Rust Belt Girl blog and so many others, is running something called #Bloganuary. Hmm. Not exactly catchy. However, today’s prompt spurred me to write to you, dear followers and readers.

“Who is your favorite author and why?”

Well, we could be here a year, and I hate to choose favorites. But let’s go with the author I’m reading right now, who is certainly among my favorites. If you’ve ever had a friend who knows just the right thing to say when you’re mourning or elated, terribly empty or full to bursting … you know what it’s like to read Ross Gay.

You know, that friend you can sit with in companionable silence (is there anything better for us avid readers?) without any awkwardness. How is it that an author whose business is words exudes a watchful, waiting, respectful quietude? Yet, at the same time, Gay’s words demand to be read–in the chillest come-and-stay-awhile kind of way. The latest book from the Youngstown, Ohio, native, Inciting Joy: Essays, is an open invitation. Yet, let me make clear there is nothing easy about Gay’s work. This is heart-opening-with-a-crowbar stuff, and that takes work on the reader’s part. But if there is a more grace-filled writer alive today I don’t know them. For comparison: think a secular Henri Nouwen (who was, of course, a Catholic priest.) I bet Gay would excel at the Jesuits’ daily examen, just sayin’.

But isn’t that what the best essays do? Examine something of the author’s life? And in our reading, then, our own understanding is enlarged, enlightened. My favorite essay of the book so far is “Through My Tears I Saw (Death: The Second Incitement). It’s my favorite for its subject matter, the author’s father, “an uncomplaining dude if ever there was one” in his last days on earth; and also for Gay’s humor and voice (see: “dude”) when grappling with a subject as difficult as a parent’s death. I’m not spoiling anything to give you a bit of the conclusion of that essay: “It was through my tears I saw my father was a garden.” (And, yes, if you’re wondering: this is a book about joy–creating it, fashioning it out of what you have. Find me someone who doesn’t have pains and sorrows. Joy can be ours, too.)

There’s a lot of gardening, a lot of tending and watering, nurturing, pruning, and surviving in Gay’s work. Read a couple essays and you’ll quickly learn that this is not only metaphorical gardening. The author is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard in Indiana, where he’s a professor and a poet and essayist, and, from the sounds of it, a fairly uncomplaining dude, himself.

One of his poems from a previous book, “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands,” which begins in a garden, inspired a short essay of mine, “Ode to an Ode about Hands.” Written during the darker days of the pandemic, my essay is about grief. How we tend to it, what we make of grief, is directly related to the joy we feel. (It’s not free is what Gay’s saying, I think, and I agree.)

Are you new to Ross Gay? Where to begin? I think of his The Book of Delights: Essays as the gateway drug. This is the book I gift to family and friends who might not even be big readers. Short essays about absolutely everything (including joy)–there’s a great chance you’ll connect with (and come back to over and over) at least a few. From there, I recommend his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, an award-winning collection of poems that reviewer Evie Shockley called “shout-outs to the earth’s abundance.” The Ross Gay trinity of poetry, gardening, and basketball wouldn’t be complete without an ode to the hardcourt, which you can find in Be Holding, an epic poem and a “love song” to basketball legend Dr. J.

Now for a couple plugs: Lit Youngstown, my favorite community literary organization, is hosting Gay twice this year. The first is an online reading; the second is the in-person, weekend-long Fall Literary Festival in Northeast Ohio, where Gay will be one of the featured writers. I’ll be at both. Maybe I’ll see you there!


Who’s your favorite author? Who are you reading right now? Are you taking part in #bloganuary? Have you made any fun connections?

Want more Rust Belt writing, book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, essays, guest posts, and more? Follow me here. Thanks! 

And check back here next week, when I will be interviewing John Kropf, author of Color Capital of the World: Growing up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company. You won’t want to miss it!

*header image is the cover of Inciting Joy: Essays by Ross Gay (Algonquin Books, 2022); jacket design by Christopher Moisan

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A review of The History of Our Vagrancies by Jason Irwin

By Marjorie Maddox

In his often haunting and unsettling poetry collection, The History of Our Vagrancies, Jason Irwin travels between neighborhood bars, churches, soup kitchens, diners, prisons, and county fairs. The real setting, however, is the grit and blur between past and present, hopelessness and hope—that often hard-to-define mix of place and identity just outside the obvious. “Aren’t we all living in the parentheses?” he asks. “One pine in a forest, in a forest in a forest.” In this way, Irwin examines our inner and outer landscapes, as well as what we reject or claim as “home”—with all its traditions, beliefs, and parentage. He holds up for us “our vagrancies, the histories of our comings and goings,/the doubts that invade our greatest aspirations, and propel our return.//Welcome home they say. Welcome home and don’t come back.”

Not surprisingly, then, several poems address and confront what has been passed down—both literally and metaphorically—from parents to son. In the book’s opening piece, “Poem about My Father Disguised as the End of the World,” Irwin lays out many of the book’s themes: landscape as “a façade,” “the unavoidable reckoning/of empty rooms,” both influence and suspicion of religion, and a childhood of mixed messages. “My father was an asteroid,” he states. “Some nights I caught sight of him crashing/through space. Other times he was the whiskey/in my glass, the voice crying ‘No.’” From the start, we understand there will be few divine or human saviors in these poems—“they’re only smoke signals in the fog”—the poet must find his own murky way.

Sometimes such recognitions occur while confronting parent/child relationships. In “Photograph of My Father, 1959,” Irwin confirms “I know we would not/have been friends.” While “still needing you,/needing to blame you,” Irwin as son can’t escape “all the words/that turn to smoke/in [his and his father’s] throats.” Likewise in “My Father Asks Me to Go to Church,” he acknowledges his father’s “own troubled alchemies.” Though they share a belief in miracles, their definitions vary drastically. Add to this the mother. When, in “Soothsayer,” a local evangelist demands to take the young Irwin to church to be healed, the mother counters, “’I don’t have time for this shit.’” Thus, each parent influences how the author paradoxically views the world. 

But let’s back up to how the author defines himself. In “The Condition of the Self as Related to Certain Trees,” he catalogs: “Small town, born and bred/my body…gnarled and irregular….Amputee, Dextrocardia….an old man’s hat….Son, lover, husband, fool.” In “Still Life with Leg Brace & Pontiac,” he juxtaposes his grandfather’s polished “’73 Grand Prix,” the possibilities inherent in his own first day of kindergarten, and how, underneath childhood’s fancy apparel, “[His] four-toed club foot fits/inside [his] shoe like the corpse of someone else’s foot.” Elsewhere in the book, he recognizes himself in a billboard at the county fair “advertising oddities” and as composing an alternate ending to life where “we’re happy with the people we’ve become.”

And yet in The History of Our Vagrancies, the poet also looks toward others—artists, authors, painters, philosophers, waitresses, old “codgers”—for insight. There’s the church visit to see rows of prisoners waving their hands, swaying, and singing “On Eagle’s Wings.” There’s Monk, Miles, and Bird and “a song/you find yourself riffing on/…all the colors/that kaleidoscope this dream/we keep dreaming….” There’s stealing Kerouac from the library, acknowledging the saint in Max at the soup kitchen, and recognizing in the silence and gaze of old men “the ruins of this company town,/where the sunbaked blacktop goes on/forever.” 

In a particularly poignant poem, Irwin describes phantom pain—“Hammer hits to the synapse. Blood thumping like a subwoofer in 4/4 time”—as well as how “[i]t no longer startles [him], like cruelty…” At poem’s end, he explains, “I shift in my seat, and scratch at the empty air.” Similarly, in “Things We Don’t Like to Talk About,” the pain and confession are familiar: regret, grief, fear. Both phantom and real, the hurt also is ours.

And yet, in addition to this sometimes “delirium of shadows and muffled voices,” The History of Our Vagrancies hints at moments of optimism. In the prose poem “Instinct,” Irwin insists, despite evidence to the contrary, “[T]here’s a room inside each of us where everything we’ve lost is/gathered.” Elsewhere, he carves “epitaphs into the sticky wood [of a bar],/believing, as only the doomed and pure of heart believe,/that we’ll be remembered.” At its end, the collection sounds a call to acknowledge and accept beauty where we are: “Look at the two of use sitting at the table drinking wine./Each moment of our lives has brought us here. Each moment/could have as easily led us somewhere else.”

Yes, look. On these rust-belt streets, on these ordinary corners, you, too, may imagine how “the sky transforms,” how once “God held us in his hands.” You, too, may gawk “at the Polish waitress/as she dances across the tile floor” and even join in. “Sometimes it takes a lifetime/,” explains Irwin, “…to let go of the torn shirt of our failures.” In The History of Our Vagrancies, Jason Irwin encourages us to do just that.

The History of our Vagrancies

By Jason Irwin

The Main Street Rag $14


Jason Irwin is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently The History of Our Vagrancies (Main Street Rag, 2020), and two chapbooks. He was a 2022 Zoeglossia Fellow and has also had nonfiction published in various journals including the Santa Ana Review and The Catholic Worker. He lives in Pittsburgh. Please see www.jasonirwin.blogspot.com.


Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published 13 collections of poetry—including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (Yellowglen Prize); Begin with a Question (Paraclete, International Book Award Winner), and Heart Speaks, Is Spoken For (Shanti Arts), an ekphrastic collaboration with photographer Karen Elias—the short story collection What She Was Saying (Fomite); four children’s and YA books—including Inside Out: Poems on Writing and Reading Poems with Insider Exercises (Finalist International Book Awards), A Crossing of Zebras: Animal Packs in PoetryI’m Feeling Blue, Too! (a 2021 NCTE Notable Poetry Book), and Rules of the Game: Baseball PoemsCommon Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and the forthcoming Keystone: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania (co-editor with Jerry Wemple, PSU Press). In the Museum of My Daughter’s Mind, based on her daughter’s paintings (www.hafer.work) + works by other artists, will be published in 2023 (Shanti Arts). Please see www.marjoriemaddox.com. (Author photo credit: Melanie Rae Buonavolonta)


Rebecca here, with many thanks to Marjorie for her wonderful review of Jason’s latest poetry collection. I can’t wait to pick it up! What are you reading and writing this month, as we dig into the new year? Let’s discuss in the comments.

Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post, like this one. And check out the handy categories above for more writing from rusty places.

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2022 Reading Superlatives: top book picks and passages

With thanks to one of my fave book bloggers and reviewers (and Rebeccas), Bookish Beck, for the inspiration … I present to you my year in books (or novels, really–I do love an escape!), in a nutshell.

Note that this reading summary doesn’t include the books I read as a beta reader or as a member of a fantastic writers group I joined this year–a 2022 highlight–or books I read for a class. Then there are also the craft books and collections of poetry and stories that I dip in out of and don’t always log. Do I sound like I’m making excuses? The thing is, I never feel like I read as much as I want to, but I try.

Longest book read this year: Chimes of a Lost Cathedral by Janet Fitch at 752 pages. Was it worth all those many pages set during the Russian Revolution? Mostly yes, worth all 22 CDs of the audiobook listened to on the way to and from my kids’ school. Second longest, if you’re taking notes: The Nix by Nathan Hill at 640 pages. Another (very different) historical novel, that one was one of the funniest books I read this year. (Want a book that will undoubtedly make you cry? Try the gorgeous Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.)


Most popular book read this year (735,545 reads on Goodreads): An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Did it live up to the hype? Pretty much, even if the ending was tied up with a bow a little too neatly for my tastes.


Best first line: “God was dead: to begin with.” From Winter by Ali Smith. This is a play on the famous first line of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”

The best first line also leads into the best opening paragraph, imho:

God was dead: to begin with.
    And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead.
Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and
art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead.
Literature was dead. The book was dead.
Modernism, postmodernism, realism and
surrealism were all dead. Jazz was dead, pop music,
disco, rap, classical music, dead. Culture was dead.
Decency, society, family values were dead. The past
was dead. History was dead. The welfare state was
dead. Politics was dead. Democracy was dead.
Communism, fascism, neoliberalism, capitalism, all
dead, and marxism, dead, feminism, also dead.
Political correctness, dead. Racism was dead.
Religion was dead. Thought was dead. Hope was
dead. Truth and fiction were both dead. The media
was dead. The internet was dead, Twitter,
instagram, facebook, google, dead.

Have I gotten around to the other novels in this seasonal quartet? Not yet.


Most challenging book read this year (but not as challenging as it would have been if I’d not read it as an audiobook): Matrix by Lauren Groff. Worth it? Definitely. Also it was the first novel I read of hers. What should I try of hers next?


Most Rust Belt-y (and that’s a very good thing): Hungry Town by Jason Kapcala. Read my interview with the author here. Have you every made a play list for something you were writing? Check out the author’s take on literary play lists here.


Book I’m most glad I read despite the literary community’s love of hating the author: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Another doorstopper (at 592 pages), this is the first book in a projected trilogy. Do I plan to read the next couple? Maybe, but the more than a little depressing personal lives of the characters make me a little reticent to re-enter their world.

(And now you see why the Franzen also wins for worst cover!)


And last and the opposite of least … my favorite book of 2022 (drumroll, por favor): Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno. If you’re on Twitter, you know I can’t shut up about this book. Really, it’s wonderful and, the author says, his most autobiographical novel yet. This book–that ticks all my boxes for a story that sings–also wins for a favorite passage that will stick with me well into the new year:

[The MC says] I put on my headphones, pull up my hood, and go through my CDs, looking for the right composition.
     Be it a riot, Mozart. Having your throat cut, Beethoven.
Be it the beginning or end of the universe, Bach. Getting
your nose broke, Wagner. Having your head stomped,
Mahler. A knife in the back, Bartók. Death by drowning,
Haydn. Blunt-force trauma, Grieg. Slow poisoning, Puc-
cini. Blown to pieces by cannon fire? Brahms. A car acci-
dent with multiple fatalities? Stravinsky. Strangled to death
by someone you know and love. Stauss. Overdose? Liszt.
Suffocation? Handel. Internal bleeding? Ravel. But what symphony do you play while riding your wobbly bike across the southside?

And that’s a wrap! Want to see more of my year in books, find me at Goodreads.

Please share your top reads for 2022 in the comments. I’d love to hear about what you’ve been reading–or writing.

Want more Rust Belt writing, book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, essays, guest posts, and more? Follow me here. Thanks! 

And a very happy, book-filled New Year to all!

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From Belgium to the Rust Belt

A guest post by John W. Miller

The genesis of the PBS film Moundsville and its companion blog Moundsville.org, about a classic American postindustrial town, was a mid-life crisis mixed with the 2016 election and a curiosity about the truth of Rust Belt communities. 

Six years ago, I was on staff at the Wall Street Journal, covering mining and the steel industry out of its Pittsburgh bureau. 

Like everybody else, I watched as the Trump-Clinton presidential election blew anger, confusion, and fear through the culture. 

Personally, I was going through my own crisis. I was about to turn 40, and experiencing mid-life’s deepening cravings for meaning and direction. That second mountain beckoned. 

After 13 years roaming the world for one of the world’s great newspapers, I simply wasn’t enjoying it anymore. So I quit, and started climbing. After some discernment, I decided to stay in Pittsburgh. 

Poking around for creative projects, I started driving to Moundsville, a small town in West Virginia on the Ohio River 75 minutes from Pittsburgh. In 2013, I’d reported on it for the Journal

photo of a 2,200-year old Native American burial mound in Moundsville, West Virginia
2,200-year old Native American burial mound in Moundsville, West Virginia

The town fascinated me. I grew up in Belgium, the child of American musicians who’d wandered around Europe in 1976 and dropped an anchor in Brussels. I’m fascinated by places in America that tell a deeper story about my ancestral homeland. 

In late 2017, I connected with filmmaker Dave Bernabo. We put together a proposal to tell the story of Moundsville in a documentary.  I thought that town was a perfect place to tell a deeper story about America because it’s built around a 2,200-year old Native American burial mound, it harbored a glorious industrial age including the world’s biggest toy factory (Marx Toys, maker of Rock’em Sock’em Robots!), and it now subsists on a service-based economy anchored by a Walmart. There’s also a lot of pain and grief in Moundsville. In a generation, the town lost 8,000 jobs. The population halved. Young people left for Pittsburgh and New York. 

Rock’em Sock’em Robots! first manufactured by Marx Toys of Moundsville, West Virginia

David and I spent most of 2018 driving down to Moundsville and interviewing people. At the end of each interview, we’d ask a question about Trump and national politics. Almost always, the answers lacked depth. It dawned on me: These people didn’t know about Trump. They didn’t live in DC. They weren’t very thoughtful about politics. But when we asked them about their work lives and their parents’ work lives, they engaged with depth and wisdom. Those questions, I realized, were actually loving. Almost always, I decided, asking about Trump simply wasn’t loving. 

After experimenting with a voiceover, we opted to tell the story without a so-called “voice of God” as narrator. The movie is an oral history, without any academics or outside experts. 

In our interviews, we heard about grief a lot, but we also heard and told tales of resilience, from a back-to-the-land farming couple, a small manufacturer of kitchen cabinets, and the leaders of a burgeoning tourism sector. The ancient burial mound looming above the town is a daily reminder that civilizations ebb and flow, and that time moves only forward. My hope is that we acknowledged grief in a healing way while pointing the way forward with stories of hope and perseverance. 

In December 2018, we premiered Moundsville in the town itself, a practice of sharing work that anthropologists recommend. Over 170 people showed up. A few grumbled about our portrayal of segregation in the film, but at the end, we received an ovation. 

A month later, we screened at America, the Jesuit magazine I had started writing forin New York City, on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan across the street from News Corp., home of the Wall Street Journal

To my surprise–and gratitude–the movie holds up. People appreciate its openness and listening attitude. “This amazing project reflects a diversity of stories that I needed to experience to remind me of hope and resilience and kindness,” wrote Anupama Jain, head of a Pittsburgh diversity training group, on Twitter. 

The biggest lesson I’ve learned making and showing Moundsville is that every place carries an organic placeness that deserves respect for its uniqueness. You can find wisdom and thoughtfulness in people when you engage them over that place and recognize its differences from your place. We can’t love our neighbors as brothers and sisters if we expect them to be just like us.

I created the Moundsville.org site to promote the film, but quickly found an audience for pieces I was posting. It gets an average of 10,000 readers a month. So I keep writing and posting. I’ve written over 100 pieces for the blog, on everything from Lady Gaga’s mom, who grew up in Moundsville, to people going to watch baseball inside the prison in the 1950s.

I’m still on a journey of figuring out a new kind of journalism that suits my skills, and my heart. I’ve co-directed Out of Reach, a new movie about the American Dream. I’m developing a podcast called Philosophy with Strangers, where I go with an older friend to small towns and ask big questions. First episode: We went to Charleroi, PA and asked people: What is happiness? I contribute regularly to America, a monthly magazine run by Jesuits. I coach baseball. Lots of other stuff, too. But wherever my career takes me, it was forever changed by the road that ran through Moundsville, West Virginia.

John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based writer and filmmaker, and co-director of the PBS film Moundsville

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What are you watching, reading, and writing this month. Let me know in the comments…

Are you a Rust Belt writer? What’s your story? Would you care to share? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.

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Enlarging “Rust Belt lit,” and Megan Giddings’ THE WOMEN COULD FLY

When I say “Rust Belt literature,” what comes to mind? Gritty, realistic narratives, no doubt. Hard-bitten characters. Upper Midwest settings redolent of industry and machines. Or settings found in a time of post-industry, a time of automation over humanity–of darkness. Coal or steel may factor in, or maybe it’s a landscape made barren by the extraction of one and the decline of the other. More recently, themes appear to be borne from loss after loss: environmental destruction, job loss, poverty, the opioid crisis … 

When I said “Rust Belt literature,” did fantasy or speculative fiction come to mind? How about air, water, light? How about women? How about women flying?

You won’t find Megan Giddings’ novels tagged as Rust Belt lit at your local library, but you will here. For Giddings chose to set her latest, feminist dystopian novel, The Women Could Fly (HarperCollins, 2022), a story in which witches are real, not in a fantastical place but in Michigan and the Great Lakes. And why not?

The novel’s overarching plot: main character Jo is “offered the opportunity to honor a request from her mother’s will” by traveling to an island off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she will explore the “powers women have to transgress and transcend” the limits women face in this larger world.

And, of course, there will be trouble, a lot of trouble. But back to the setting.

“She [Jo’s mother] had loved the lakes. Michigan was for luxury. Erie was for mourning. Ontario was for Canadians. Huron was for daydreaming. And Superior was for mystery. The lake that kept its secrets.”

Why not set a story about the secrets women keep for self-preservation on an imaginary island off an imaginary shore? Why Michigan’s UP? Verity, I presume. In this novel, the speculative elements rub up against the very real setting, and say to this reader: don’t get too comfortable. The nightmare scenario you might think can’t happen in real life, absolutely can–and it can happen right in your backyard. For, what weight does social commentary have if it’s set in a fantastical place? Much less than if that commentary is grounded in a place we think we know so well.

This is not your typical witch story (if there is such a thing) and my regular followers know this is outside my regular reading wheelhouse. From the dust jacket copy, so you get a sense (sans spoilers) of this dystopian time not altogether different from our own, here’s some backstory on Jo and her lost mother:

“Josephine Thomas has heard every conceivable theory about her mother’s disappearance. That she’d been kidnapped; murdered; had taken on a new identity; started a new family. Most troubling of all was the charge that her mother had been a witch, for in a world where witches are real, peculiar behavior can raise suspicions and result in a woman–especially a Black woman–being put on trial for witchcraft.”

How do we writers choose where to set our stories? Do we write of the places of our dreams? Google Earth and the ease of internet searching of local customs, accents, etc., mean a writer can set her story anywhere. (So you would think more writers would eschew the default American settings of NYC and Southern California–wonderful places both, but perhaps overexposed.) What makes us craft a setting after our home? I’ll let Giddings’ gorgeous riff on Michigan answer that question:

“One of the pleasures of driving through Michigan is the trees. Farther and farther north, they shift, become taller and thinner, go from full Christmas trees to pipe cleaner versions. The sky changes too. The clouds come lower, the blue always feels a little brighter, the towns spread farther apart, and there are more dips, hills to make up the distance. It wakes up something animal in me …”

In this novel, Giddings walks a literary tightrope between realism and speculative fiction, grief and humor, old prejudices and new possibilities, pragmatism and magic–and all in concise and biting prose. Enjoy the ride. You don’t even need to know how to fly!

How would you define Rust Belt lit? What are you reading and writing this week? Let me know in the comments.

Want more Rust Belt writing, book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, essays, guest posts, and more? Follow me here. Thanks! 

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

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“…this time they won the day.” The poetry of Rust Belt Girl guest Carrie Conners

Rebecca here–and absolutely thrilled to present this guest post featuring the poetry of Moundsville, West Virginia native, poet and professor Carrie Conners. All three poems shared here explore Rust Belt themes and can be found in Carrie’s latest collection, titled Species of Least Concern. Please read, share, and join in the conversation in the comments.

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Species of Least Concern

by Carrie Conners

Main Street Rag $18 (shipped)

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Carrie Conners, originally from Moundsville, West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York and is an English professor at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Her first poetry collection, Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019), was a 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist. Her second collection, Species of Least Concern was published by Main Street Rag in 2022. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in BodegaKestrelSplit Rock ReviewRHINO, and The Monarch Review, among others. She is also the author of the book, Laugh Lines: Humor, Genre, and Political Critique in Late Twentieth-Century American Poetry (University Press of Mississippi, 2022).

Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.

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Lit Fest Roundup (plus bonus nature content for the win)

I know what you’re thinking. Where are all the leaf-peeping pics? We know you drove along the PA turnpike to Ohio, climbing, winding, glimpsing down into little hamlets surrounding the sweetest, steepled white churches. All around were reds and every other burnished color. Oh, the autumn leaves!

Hold your trees for a moment, reader friends. First, a literary roundup. If you’ve never been to Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival, I’ll see you there next fall. In the meantime, here’s how I made my way through my favorite literary conference of the year (yes, even besting AWP, which I made it to in the spring).

Thursday

This year’s festival featured the theme, The Places that Make Us, and I was so happy to be able to return–5th year running for me–to this conference held not far from the place where I grew up in Northeast Ohio. Big shoutout to all my fellow festival planning committee members. We did it (again)!

Special in a lot of ways, besides all the usual literary goodness, this year’s festival provided attendees front-row access to three film screenings.

But really, year in and year out, this festival always impresses me. What’s so special? Lit Youngstown’s director, Karen Schubert, is a literary conference alchemist, joining poets, fiction writers, memoirists, and even filmmakers this year for just the right mix of craft talks, generative workshops, creative readings, and roundtable and panel discussions. What do you get? Literary conference gold, no exaggeration.

OK, onward … Thursday evening featured the Gathering In, with a reception and open-mic to begin the conference. This year, I had a special guest in tow. My dad drove in from Port Clinton; we had dinner beforehand (your meatballs are outstanding, Bistro 1907) and then headed to the Gathering In. I will tell you, my dad did not even doze at what I believe was his first-ever open mic and found it delightful. We salute you poets and writers who can whittle your words down to a few minutes of magic!

Friday

My first full day of the festival began with a craft talk by novelist June Gervais titled Honoring Others with Our Fiction Research. Intentional and inspirational are the two words that come to mind when I think about this talk. In it, June described her research process for her debut novel, Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair. Braving the sometimes-fraught conversation around appropriation, authenticity, and sensitivity, when it comes to depicting readers from different professions or backgrounds, June exuded positivity. So, how do we honor others with our research?

First, have a goal. For June, she decided, “to make the most beautiful and honest book possible.” Second: do the research well–whether that’s in-person interviews, archival research, or hiring authenticity and sensitivity readers in later writing stages. Third (and this is June’s whole beautiful thing): show gratitude by thanking the helpers along the journey. Sometimes this means generous payment. Sometimes this means reciprocity–trading literary favors. Always this means a real thank-you in the mail and on social media and all the shoutouts possible, including on the old Acknowledgements page. “I try to be a living acknowledgement,” she said.

This year, I was intentional about attending the sessions (there are so many, I wish I could attend them all!) in my writerly “lane.” But I don’t seem to be able to resist the poets. In a roundtable discussion called “Moving Past Influence,” poets Mary Biddinger, Ali Black, and Dylan Morris talked about influences in creative writing–model writers and how they influence a poet’s style, and moving past influences as we develop our craft. When asked why she writes and why poetry, Ali talked about writing as an act of remembrance for those who’ve gone before her, those she’s lost. The stories are hers to tell, and poetry her form, she said, before she delivered one of the best lines of the weekend: “Poetry is my baby, and I’m poetry’s baby.”

Marketing-me felt right at home in Gabriel Welsch‘s craft talk Marketing Your Book–Tips From a Professional Marketer and Writer. How to generate pre-orders for your book … how to get it reviewed … how to develop a (shudder at the word) platform … and, ya know, actually sell your book. These were just a few of the practical tips covered. We listeners were asked first to consider our goal. What do we want from our book: readers? high regard? money? Gabriel covered Marketing’s 4 Ps: product, price, promotion, and place. Who said it first, I can’t remember now, but he repeated this gem a few times: “All arts marketing is local.” Along those lines, he said, don’t underestimate the wideness of one’s potential audience. Think about local clubs that aren’t book clubs, local fraternal organizations, historical societies, etc., etc. And, as if he and June had shared notes beforehand, he stressed gratitude. “Don’t underestimate the power of thanking.” (Thank you, Gabriel!)

Short story writer and poet Kelly Fordon (of Let’s Deconstruct a Story podcast fame–do check it out) led a generative workshop. I caught the second of two parts: the first, a workshop to deconstruct a story to understand its parts and how they work together; the second, a chance to get some words of our own on the page. There’s something about a good writing prompt. The simpler the better seems to work for me. Kelly gave this prompt: “Start with ‘We lived then …'” I’m not always in the writerly frame of mind to churn it out on demand, but here’s what I got:

We lived then spitting distance from the train tracks, the river, and the West Virginia border--so much winding, the running tracks leading not to any home I understood. A limbo, the twins not yet in school, not babies either. How many times did we stop the car by the tracks, watch the train pull tractors east and west--Kubota, Deere. In our rental house, the boys slept on a mattress on the floor, when they slept.

One positive of the pandemic was finding a new writing group. I guess Zoom is good for some things. Among the Cleveland-area members is Jeremy Jusek, Parma, Ohio’s poet laureate, host of the Ohio Poetry Association’s podcast Poetry Spotlight (check it out), and consummate literary citizen. Jeremy’s craft talk, Strengthening Artistic Communication Through Podcasts, covered how podcasts can be used by small creative groups to humanize its members and strengthen communities. I love bookish podcasts and meeting the person behind the book. He called podcasts “the ultimate bridging medium,” and I can totally see that. He said that when he edits the podcast interviews of poets–the last one was with Hanif Abdurraqib(!)–he shoots for no more than 7 percent Jeremy, the rest the interviewee, an impressive stat I will remember when I conduct interviews.

OK, this isn’t a great pic (sorry Karla, thank you, Rebe!) of one fantastic panel discussion with the featured presenters (minus Laura Beadling). The gist: the writers Karla Murthy, Candace Fleming, Joy Priest, and Kelly Fordon weighed in on “the element of place, real and imagined, in the literary arts.” Side note: if you can catch a Joy Priest poetry reading, run don’t walk to catch it.

Now, don’t let my festival book fair’s book haul–pictured below–throw you, I guarantee there was plenty of time in the evenings for catching up with literary friends over jazz and a local craft beer (and pierogi and pickle pizza–someone saw me coming!).

Saturday

June Gervais started off the second full day of the conference tackling a subject close to my heart–and that of anyone about to dive into the query trenches. In her craft talk, Persevering to Publication: Some Practical Tips, June covered her (long) journey to the publication of her debut novel. Again, she walked the line between inspiration and practical steps to take. “Expect difficulty, but leave room for wonder,” she said. Now, could I please have a June Gervais quote-a-day calendar?

Along the practical side of things, she discussed making a practice of community while writing a novel (or anything else really). My favorite analogy she offered: think of the novel as the Thanksgiving turkey. It’s not enough. You need to support the turkey-novel with delicious sides, including the writing and publication of short pieces (short stories, essays, craft pieces, poems, etc.) Other crucial sides: an author website, a social media presence, and a literary community. (Check!)

Oh, the literary agent querying-getting-sustaining process. Should you want to endure the agent search, be prepared for it to be long and winding, June said. Most of all, enjoy life in this tough stage of the writing, find gratitude in the work and in your community, and “become a master of the polite check-in.”

I was happy to moderate two sessions during this festival. The first was a creative reading featuring poet and memoirist Jennifer Militello, whose love poems were nothing short of arresting and awe-inspiring. Youngstown native, poet Rikki Santer also read from her vast portfolio of poems, many centered on place–including some that explore the imaginary realm of place through old Twilight Zone episodes. And novelist Janet Beard read–and sang!–from her latest novel, The Ballad of Laurel Springs, which shares with readers some of the stories delivered by the old murder ballads Janet grew up hearing in her Appalachian hometown in East Tennessee.

The second session I moderated was novelist Erin Flanagan’s The Window or the Door: Transitioning from Writing Stories to Novels. (Or, The Plight of the MFA Grad–ha.) This craft talk was super instructional and featured 13 handy novel-writing tips. I’ll give you just a few and you’re going to have to hunt Erin down for the rest. #2: Start a novel-writing journal. #6: Figure out where your novel ends in time. (Also check out The Art of Time in Fiction for help with pacing.) #10: (Oh, this one is hard–but so necessary–to swallow.) Keep in mind that chapters aren’t short stories, meaning your chapter end needs to create more questions, more tension, etc., to pull the reader through. 

If I have pulled you through this post this far, you have shown your readerly diligence and win a star! Or, how about a slideshow of the foliage, cliffs, boulders, and even 200-year-old petroglyphs I enjoyed with one of my oldest (she’s not old, our relationship is) and best friends and her son (who poses for pics like a Jet from West Side Story–and this is my everything now!). Please enjoy the treasures of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where I visited on a post-conference side trip.

Have you attended this festival or another literary festival? What’s your favorite part of a writing conference? Have you been to this national park? Let’s chat in the comments.

Want more Rust Belt writing, author interviews, book reviews, guest posts, writing advice, and more? Check out the handy categories above.

Find me on FB and on IG and Twitter @MoonRuark. Find me at Goodreads and learn what novel I listened to on my way to and from the conference. Hint: I’m recommending it for fans of Tea Obrecht’s latest novel, Inland.

Also, please follow me here at Rust Belt Girl, so you never miss a (fairly infrequent) post, and feel free to share this post with the world. Want me to consider a guest post featuring you, yep, you!? Hit me up. There’s a lot of Rust Belt literary goodness to spread around.

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“Mad Dog,” “Steel Poet” Tim Russell: a literary reflection by poet and publisher Larry Smith 

For those who don’t know poet Timothy (Tim) Russell, I want to introduce you to as solid a working-class poet as there is. Tim qualifies as a working-class poet not just because he wrote of that life (as did famed James Wright and Kenneth Patchen), but because he also lived it. He worked for 20 years as a boiler repairman in the Weirton Steel plant ‘til his lupus (MDS preleukemia disease) forced him to retire. He retired from the labor but not from the life and not from writing. For the next 30 years, he and his wife Jodi and kids lived along mile 61 of the Ohio River in small-town Toronto, Ohio. 

Tim Russell, featured in the book, A Red Shadow of Steel Mills (1991); photo credit: Jodi Russell

The Ohio River along the West Virginia panhandle is a ripe area for steel mills and poets.

I grew up about 20 minutes south of there in Mingo Junction, about 20 minutes north of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, where Wright grew up. The Ohio River along the West Virginia panhandle is a ripe area for steel mills and poets. In 1991 David Shevin and I edited A Red Shadow of Steel Mills (a line from Wright) which included poetry chapbooks of Tim Russell, Richard Hague, David J. Adams, and Kip Knott. It was one of our first books in the Working Lives Series from Bottom Dog Press. 

Last month, other poets and I gathered with his family and friends for his memorial, at which Jodi and grandkids spread Tim’s ashes in the river about a block away from their home. Here’s a bit of West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman’s eulogy quoting Tim’s poem, “Plano.”

Because hills are not on the maps,
it's easy to get lost here, distant
neighborhoods appear to be adjacent.

“Even though I lived a long time in the rural heart of Appalachia,” Harshman said, “those words obviously ring true for Tim’s urban mill town as well. And it is ‘easy to get lost here,’ but Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost. That’s a gift, a gift worth remembrance at any time but certainly here, today, as we do our best to remember and to honor Tim and know this is one of many reasons we miss him.”

Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost.

In the mill, Tim was nicknamed “Mad Dog”; among poets he was the “Steel Mill Poet,” though he is equally a fine nature poet. A sample of his work reveals how enmeshed he was with the mills and his place, its people, and their language: 

In Adversa  by Timothy Russell

March is the nuthatch
skittering head-first
down the bare black walnut
or the bare silver maple.

April is forsythia
beneath hazy pastel willows
weeping over the bank
of the orange creek.

May is mock orange
scattered like mortar explosions,
the most delicate mist
rising all around.

June is the red squirrel
fleeing the blue joy
both of them caught in the morning
sun crackling in the sycamore.

August is sulfur
moths twirling above the crown
vetch, deer prints in silt
at the culvert.

September is crab
apples, so red
on the roadside
near the Tin Mill
carpenter shop.

October is a buck
swimming the river,
climbing the gray slag bank
toward red and yellow
trees on the island. 
Tim Russell; photo credit: Jodi Russell

Tim authored many books, each winning prizes and literary recognition. He is the author of the chapbook The Possibility of Turning to Salt 1987, which received the Golden Webb Award, 1987; of In Dubio 1988, which received State Street Press, 1988; and of In Medias Res, 1991. His full-length book, Adversaria, in 1993 received the Terrence des Pres Prizeia Poetry (Tri Quarterly Books). Chapbooks What We Don’t Know Hurts, 1995, and Lacrimae, 1997, followed; his haiku writing received the 4th Shiki International Haiku award Shiki team, Ehime Prefecture, Japan, 1999.

In Integrum by Timothy Russell

I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate my neighbor’s glaring roof,
the brick chimney leaning against its
own shadow,
the next of black branches above it all
dissolving into brilliance.
I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate cookies on a plate downstairs
and the pears and oranges in a bowl
with one perfectly curved banana.
I am celebrating the Christmas cactus
blooming in March.
I am celebrating nothing.
I am celebrating today.
I’ve put a white shirt on.

How did Tim share his days? Besides parenting, his wife Jodi says, “Tim tended to his gardens along the Ohio riverbank and built a stone henge across from his house fondly called ‘Tim Henge.’ He also grew poppies, zinnias, and sunflowers in it throughout the years. Battling knotweed on the hillside, he turned it into a bird and wildlife sanctuary. He would ride along the banks of the river in his boat collecting garbage and debris trying to keep the river clean. He was mindful of sharing and taking care of the earth for everyone and everything.”

Tim had a great sense of humor and a fine sense of image and form. He uses the common language to touch us. A world-published poet, he wrote many haiku and won many prizes with them, including a trip to Japan. Here is the last haiku he wrote, a few days before he died:

                 Snoozles
        The little dog knows
                 I’m toast 
   
                       – 9/13/21

A fund has been established at the University of Pittsburgh, Tim’s alma mater. It will help support a freshman majoring in English Creative Writing. Donations may be made online at http://www.giveto.pitt.edu/russellmemorial or a check may be made payable to “University of Pittsburgh” with a memo “Timothy W. Russell Fund” and mailed to: University of Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 640093, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-0093. 

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Timothy W. Russell was born May 25, 1951, and raised in Follansbee, West Virginia. As a sergeant of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam Era he served as a handler of Military Police Sentry Dogs 1970-1972. He had graduated from Madonna High School (1969) in Weirton and following the war, went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from West Liberty College (1977) and master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh (1979). He passed away on September 16, 2021, at 70.

~~~

Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books. Bottom Dog Press hopes to publish the collected poems of Timothy Russell soon.

Header image of Ohio River is credited to Larry Smith

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Rebecca here–many thanks to Larry Smith for this beautiful tribute to the the life and work of Tim Russell. Please visit Bottom Dog Press’ website for his Working Lives series…and much more.

Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.

Find me on FB and on IG and Twitter @MoonRuark

And follow me here. Thanks!

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What I did this totally unlazy Rust Belt summer…

I take umbrage with whomever coined the phrase “lazy days of summer.” And I might demand a refund. Except, while my summer has been anything but lazy, it has been fun.

After a little hiatus I return to you loveliest of followers with Rust Belt pics and books–and news of a reading in one of my favorite port cities (and rollercoaster capital), Sandusky, Ohio.

Off to OHio

The fam and I headed to Port Clinton, Ohio, walleye capital of the world–don’t fight me on this, MN friends–in June. Sailing for my little guys, boating for the rest of us, swimming, sisters-lunching, friends reuniting, and plenty of hammock-ing and back porch-sitting were the highlights. Of course, no visit to Northern Ohio is complete without a trip to Cleveland and a visit to the West Side Market. And who could forget Rufus, who lived his best Lake Erie Shores & Islands life for a week. Boat aficionados, make sure to check out my dad’s antique Lyman boat above, his fourth child basically. Boat name? Hoptoad, named for Pippi Longstocking’s father’s ship in the favorite book series. (Who woulda thunk I’d become a writer?)

While in the area, I had the honor of serving as the featured reader for the Firelands Writing Center’s monthly reading series in Sandusky. Thank you again to fearless leader Larry Smith and his Bottom Dog Press for sponsoring the event (and putting me on a flyer–that doesn’t happen often). I read some older work and some newer pieces from my WIP, a coming of age novel partly set in Ohio that explores the power of song. And thanks to those who came out (or in) on a beautiful afternoon to share their own work with the group. It felt very much like home. (Flyer photo credit: @melanieraebuonavolonta)

Reading the Rust Belt…

Of course, I’ve fit in some Rust Belt reading. And who said summer reads can’t be deep? Poolside poetry is just my speed, and here are a few I’ve enjoyed immensely: Cleveland native Teri Ellen Cross DavisA More Perfect Union; Columbus, Ohio, poet Paula J. Lambert’s The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing, and Erie, Pennsylvania, poet Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Dead are Everywhere Telling Us Things. Btw, if we’re not connected on Goodreads, where I recently reviewed another poetry collection, let’s do!

And Beyond

There’s an old, writerly adage that says if you’re talking about it you’re not writing it. So, let’s just keep all our fingers and toes crossed for my WIP as I begin to query literary agents for it this fall.

Unfortunately, there’s no adage I know of that says if you’re talking about your editing you’re not working on it. But what would be the fun in that? You may know I’m the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine, in charge of the features department. How I love my craft essays, book reviews, and author interviews! But you might not know that I got that gig because the magazine’s editor-in-chief saw what I was doing right here on Rust Belt Girl and wanted some for her Richmond, Virginia-based online publication.

In addition to editing features for Parhelion, I’m a reader for fiction. (If you aspire to write literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, there is no better way to become better at it than to read literary journal submissions, imho.) Parhelion’s summer issue (our journal’s 14th–not too shabby) launched this week. If you like fresh and bold fiction, CNF, and poetry I hope you’ll check it out.

Parhelion Literary Magazine

Summer 2022 Issue

Looking Toward Fall

Must we? OK, I suppose the pool days will come to a close. My small guys (who are quickly catching up to me) will head back to school. And I will start packing for the literary highlight of the season, Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival. If by some strange occurrence you live within driving distance of the festival and I haven’t hit you up, my apologies. This is the best literary conference of the year–if you like a supportive community, generative workshops, eye-opening and ear-bending panel discussions, inspiring readings, and affordability. Oh, and this year’s book fair promises to be the best yet. Also, there will be bowling and films. So, what are you waiting for? The Rust Belt calls.

And that, most patient of readers, is what I’ve been up to. But, as blogging is a two-way street, let’s keep the convo going. What has your summer looked like–or whatever season it is where you hang your hat? Where are you visiting. What are you writing, reading, and discovering? Do tell!

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