Part II of my interview with Valerie Nieman continues our discussion of her novel and her poetry and also covers the poetry she loved to teach her students. She also shares what she’s writing and reading, right now. (Spot the friend of Rust Belt Girl in her TBR!) Missed Part I of the interview? Find it here.)
Valerie Nieman’s latest, In the Lonely Backwater, a mystery in the Southern gothic tradition, has been named the 2022 Sir Walter Raleigh Award winner for the best novel by a North Carolina writer. To the Bones, her genre-bending folk horror/thriller about coal country, was a finalist for the 2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award. She is also the author of Blood Clay (Eric Hoffer Award) and two other novels. She has published a short fiction collection and three poetry collections, most recently, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, which was runner-up for the Brockman-Campbell Prize. She has published widely in journals and anthologies, and appears regularly in juried reading series such as Piccolo Spoleto, Why There Are Words, and Women of Appalachia. She has held state and NEA creative writing fellowships. Nieman has degrees from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, and was a reporter and farmer in West Virginia before moving to North Carolina, where she worked as an editor and a creative writing professor at NC A&T State University.
Valerie, In the Lonely Backwater has been praised for its “deep sense of the wonderment of the natural world.” I see this in your poetry, too:
Can you talk about this poem of yours, its impetus, its rooting in the bog but also “close to the sun?”
This is a poem that came directly from observation. I was walking in the Bog Garden in Greensboro when I came upon a group of people staring up into the treetops. It’s that barred owl, I thought, a resident of the garden. Instead, I was shocked to see a full-grown groundhog up there grazing on the new leaves. I went home and looked it up online, finding numerous videos and learning that it’s not uncommon for woodchucks to climb trees.
Among other inspirations was the late Gerald Stern’s poem “Behaving Like a Jew” and his line about a dead opossum’s “little dancing feet.”
The family at the center of your novel is part of the “Appalachian diaspora.” What does this term mean for you personally—and for your poetry, especially?
Well, it’s who I am. I grew up in northern Appalachia, the Allegheny Plateau in western New York where the Allegheny River rises and flows to Pittsburgh. I went to school at West Virginia University, and worked as a reporter and editor at papers in Fairmont and Morgantown, both on the Monongahela, before leaving the Ohio River watershed for the first time in my life. I moved to central North Carolina in 1997 for a newspaper job. Now I live one county line over from Appalachia as defined by the ARC, but Rockingham County has all the earmarks of Appalachia—rural, with faded industry and a changing agricultural life, and beautiful hills and rivers. Not really mountainous enough, I guess. So my work draws on my upbringing in dairy country, 20-plus years in the coal fields, and then working as an editor in tobacco country before a final 20 years in academia. Nature poet, blue collar writer, Appalachian writer, Southern writer.
“Tinder” feels like a nature poem, an ode to Shakespeare’s witchy “double toil and trouble,” and a horror story all at once:
Tinder I am the woman your mother warned you about. I am boiling bones boiling bones boiling bones. I am washing out the war-rags at the ford, blood pluming downstream gaudy to catch the heart. I am scraping scraping scraping on the stretched skin of the world. My pet is a scrofulous cur, my bird a dobsonfly all wings and jaws. I look under rocks. I find what I expect to find.
Can you talk about your influences here and what you want your reader to know about the persona in the poem?
Ah, that’s a dangerous woman. She harbors grudges and has a long memory for those who’ve done wrong by her. What bones are those in her broth? Difficult to say.
Influences indeed include Shakespeare, and Poe as well, a bit of Hawthorne—all of whom I read as a child, pulling the classics from the shelves during long western New York winters. I also was influenced by many years of research into early Celtic and Norse cultures. “The washer at the ford” or bean-nighe is found across the Celtic nations. She’s seen in wild places, kneeling beside a lake or river, washing the blood out of the clothes of men who are fated to die. So that was in my mind as the image of the dobsonfly appeared. It’s the quite terrifying winged adult of the hellgrammite, a stream insect with enormous pinching jaws. As a child I spent a lot of time in “the crick,” turning over rocks, and as an angler I’ve done the same for years, to see what fish might be eating, and just because I like to see what’s underneath.
What was your favorite poem or story to teach students when you were a professor at NC A&T State University?
“Out, Out” by Robert Frost is a favorite, to show how a poet can compress an entire short story into 34 lines—dialog, description, setting, plot. I liked showing students the flexibility of the sonnet, comparing traditional forms with Terrence Hayes’ “American Sonnets.” I also loved teaching humanities and exposing students to ancient work from the negative confessionsof the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to framing a discussion about war and the death of young men through Priam’s visit to Achilles.
What are you reading right now? What are you writing? What can we look forward to, next?
The top of one stack: Hemlock Hollow by Culley Holderfield, The Sound of Rabbits by Janice Deal, Red Clay Suzie by Jeffrey Dale Lofton, All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss, and Hungry Town by Jason Kapcala. Dipping into a number of poetry books as well, including Anything that Happens by Cheryl Wilder. Eager also to get back to some science fiction, with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future. There are many shelves, and many stacks, and I keep adding to the accumulation.
I’ve just (as of 4/3) completed the first draft of Dead Hand, a sequel to To the Bones. I had almost as much fun writing this as the first one! The action moves from the West Virginia coalfields to Ireland. I revisited places I’d seen a few years ago, from the Shannon Pot to County Cavan to Dublin, and added others including an Irish coal mine. While that simmers in the hands of beta readers, I’m working on pulling together a new book of poetry.
By Valerie Nieman
Regal House Publishing $18.95
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