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.
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 Bodega, Kestrel, Split Rock Review, RHINO, 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).
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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).
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!
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 talkMarketing 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!).
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.
*free header image of a fall foliage-colored door from Pexels
This is a post about a community Christmas cookie.
Bear with me, and hello! Happiest of holiday seasons to you and yours!
And back to the aforementioned cookie…
It was Christmas Eve Eve, and I’d waited too long to secure anise seed, a necessary ingredient in my favorite Christmas cookie, one I make religiously, each and every year: German Springerle.
I visited four stores on my search for the elusive, black licorice-scented seed and found none. I lamented supply chain issues and the state of commerce in particular and the world in general. But not for long, because Christmas.
In a last ditch attempt to keep my cookie tradition alive, my husband suggested I ask for anise seed on our village’s FB page. Within the hour, I had offers of fennel seed and star anise–the latter of which I believed just might work.
Because this is not a baking blog (you’re welcome), I won’t bore you with the recipe–unless you want it (I don’t believe in secret recipes). But suffice it to say the cookie turned out great with the substitution. Yes, it takes a village.
You probably have your own community cookie story. Maybe it’s an actual cookie. Maybe it’s something a little more poignant.
As Epiphany approaches, the Wise Men in our nativity set inch closer to the scene. These smart guys (rightly) get a lot of press. They brought pretty important ingredients to that out-of-the-way stable.
Our nativity set also features some more colorful comers–a rough-looking fellow bringing a chicken and eggs; a woman bringing several loaves of bread balanced on her head; a drummer and a bagpiper bringing the tunes.
Me, I’ve been bringing the music, this year, my first full year as a cantor at my Catholic parish and for weddings and funerals. And this singing way of things has found its way into my home-life (working on a Von Trapp vibe over here!) and my writing-life. In my novel-in-progress I ask: Can our songs save us? And in my recent nonfiction, I try to bring my voice closer to my heart.
If you know me out on Twitter–land of snark–you’ll know that in addition to cookies, I am the one who brings the shrimp ring to a party. (My Midwestern child-self would be duly impressed.) Snark aside, I try to do my small part at a time when it seems we’re all pulled apart, party-less.
Because, we can’t make all the good stuff entirely on our own. It takes community.
Community is why I started this blog way back in 2017. And it’s why I will continue to hype the poets and writers and literary-scene-makers of the Rust Belt in 2022.
My most-viewed interview this year was that with Cleveland native poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, whom I got to meet in person–and even break bread with–at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival in October. A festival I helped to plan, along with so many other members of that literary community.
The literary world just recently lost Joan Didion. The places she wrote about and from are not my places. But she has a lot to teach us about writing about place. I’m taking this quote of hers into 2022 as inspiration:
A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979
Whatever place you’re shaping, whatever community you belong to, thank you for being here.
All the best in 2022, stay well, and keep in touch!
Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. ~Rebecca
“Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Rebecca here, so thrilled to share this author interview with you! A little backstory first: several years ago, when I was interviewing author David Giffels about his memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, he told me about a writer to watch, a young woman who worked in Cleveland’s gargantuan steel mill. Actually he called her a “Cleveland steelworker-slash-amazing literary star.” Growing up in the Cleveland area, I knew of the steel mill, its flare stack’s tall orange flame a potent symbol of Cleveland industry–and grit. And I’d read steelworkers’ stories. But never one by a woman. My interest was piqued.
Reader, Eliese’s memoir exceeded my high expectations, balancing harrowing tales of hard times, hard work, and hard-won revelations with gorgeous, lyrical prose.
Meet Eliese: Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020. Rust is the author’s debut memoir. The award-winning writer now works at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where she lives with her husband.
*Trigger warning: this interview contains a mention of sexual assault
Eliese, place is so central to the story you tell in this memoir. And you give your reader access to a place most of us will never know as an insider: Cleveland’s nearly 950-acre steel mill. As a steelworker there, your personal story got wrapped up with the story of the mill. Is there a story that didn’t make it into the book you could tell us?
There were so many stories that never made it to the pages of Rust. I worked in a wide variety of jobs during my tenure at the steel mill, and I probably could have written a book about each one. I learned to put rocks into giant receptacles in a dusty place called The Bin Floor. I spent some time as a “Rough Rider” in the Basic Oxygen Furnace, where the molten steel was made. Every day, I hopped into a tow motor and whizzed around the mill, replenishing the raw materials that were used in the process. I even did a brief stint as a crane operator in the Hot Mill, where glowing slabs of steel were pressed into sheets. It was one of the most interesting—and terrifying—jobs I had ever worked. You spend your hours in a tiny box that smells like body odor. There’s a wonky captain’s chair in the middle of the space, and the walls are covered in a yellowish substance that rubs off on your fingers when you touch it. I later learned that you shouldn’t touch the mystery substance. It’s the sticky accumulation of everyone else’s nicotine tar.
On one of my first nights flying solo behind the controls of the crane, I had a rather frightening experience. A mechanic asked me to move a three-hundred-ton contraption to the other side of the building. At first, I protested. My crane was only rated to lift one-hundred tons, but the man brushed off my concerns. He told me that the three-hundred-ton thing was rigged up to a bunch of pulleys and levers that would supposedly lighten the load, so I conjured up vague images from high school physics class and told myself that everything would be fine. Famous last words, right?
When I started working the gears and levers necessary to move this three-hundred-ton thing, it barely budged. My crane, on the other hand, started to struggle immediately. The gears were grinding. The motor was moaning. I could feel the whole crane begin to buckle in the middle, which wasn’t good. Keep in mind, this crane weighed as much as a blue whale—it was beyond huge—and the mechanic who had asked me to move the three-hundred-ton thing was on the ground, directly below the crane. He was right in harm’s way, and I was still pretty green as a crane operator. I knew that I needed to stop what I was doing, but I didn’t react fast enough. Right before I eased off of the controls, something snapped. Metal twisted and pinged. The hook of the crane went flying. All I could think about was the man on the ground below me.
When everything settled, I opened my window and called down to him. Thankfully, he was okay. The pulleys that were attached to the contraption had shattered—and huge shards of metal had shot off in all directions like gigantic bullets—but luckily the renegade pieces hadn’t hit him. Disaster was avoided, and I whispered a prayer of relief. But the experience shook me. The mill never stopped reminding you of its dangers.
You write, “This place [the steel mill] never failed to remind me that power is double-pronged. The very forces that could rip everything apart were the same ones that tempered something strong and resilient…” Would you say being a female steelworker helped you find your own power—in and out of the mill? How?
I definitely learned a lot about my own strength in the steel mill. It wasn’t always easy being a woman in the mill. There were many subtle (and not-so-subtle) displays of sexism, and I really think that the experience taught me to be more assertive when I saw something that went against my values. I also found a vibrant community of other women in the mill, which reminded me of what we can accomplish together, and the strange jobs I performed gave me a sense of self-assurance that extended into other areas of my life. If you can run a hulking crane for twelve hours a day, then you can manage just about anything. When I think back on my time at the mill, however, I know that one of the most important things it gave me was a respectable paycheck. They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I don’t necessarily agree. Making a good living can give you confidence and security and independence. It can provide you with opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and it felt especially good to know that I was working in a field where men and women were paid the same.
Your having grown up as a Catholic school kid, aspiring nun to steelworker was quite a change in career trajectory. Like many children, you aspired to greatness, to being known for making a difference. You write, “…the religious life seemed to be the only vocation worthy of its power.” Today, your chosen vocation is teaching. Can you tell us what you love to teach the most? What you like to impart to your students—about writing about place, itself, or writing about their place in the world?
I love teaching the nuts-and-bolts to beginning writers. It doesn’t matter if we’re working with academic essays or creative pieces. I like showing students the beauty of a well-crafted scene, a tight bit of dialogue, or a perfectly-wrought thesis statement. I also enjoy giving feedback to students at all levels. It’s so much fun to dive into a piece of writing in the hopes of offering encouragement and constructive criticism, and it’s even more fun to watch students implement those suggestions in revision. Overall, I think the biggest thing that I’d like my students to take away from class is a sense of self-efficacy and personal power. Writing gives us the ability to create meaning and empathy and wonder. It allows us to see our surroundings in a new light. It helps us understand the roles we play within those surroundings, and it gives us the opportunity to reach audiences that we may never meet in person. I want my students to understand just how influential the written word can be, and I also want them to feel capable of putting their unique stories down on the page.
Your own college experience was shattered when you were raped by a classmate, after which point you were diagnosed with mixed-state bipolar disorder. You talk in the book about the rape taking away your faith. Yet, your book is filled with the language of religion, images both harrowing and redemptive. How, as a writer, do you sit with such seemingly disparate aspects of life, including faith in humanity and utter distrust in the same? And what do you hope the story of your mental health journey does for readers?
The most interesting stories are always the ones that let contradictions breathe. Nothing in life is as simple as we’d like it to be, and the core of good writing lies in those moments of ambiguity when something raw and gritty and human is revealed. Lately I’ve been going over a lot of old books that I read back in college, and I happened to re-familiarize myself with the pages of Plato’s Phaedo the other day. I can’t help but be reminded of this great line: “What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be the opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. And yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other, like two creatures with one head.” I just love that image. Two creatures with one head. I think it relates to so much more than just pleasure and pain.
You can’t have faith in humanity if you don’t also doubt its goodness. You can’t have hope if you don’t also invite despair. And I’m talking about real hope here, not the cockeyed optimist kind that’s divorced from reality. Real hope has an axe to grind. Real hope has bloody knuckles. I like to think that’s a lesson I’ve learned from living with bipolar disorder. I’ve struggled through the bleakest kinds of despair, but those moments were never the ones that scared me. Despair is just hope earning its stripes. It can always come around the bend. The true enemy doesn’t seem to have a name. You might call it emptiness, or perhaps apathy, but it isn’t really either of those things. It’s this sensation you get when you’re content with a blackness that has not bottom. You feel like a shadow that can no longer be stitched to a body. There’s no despair, no emotion, no longing. It’s a frightening place to be, and I hope that my story can speak to anyone who’s grappling with that place now. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.
Take it from a kindred soul: It’s possible to survive. Just hold onto something and don’t let go.
Eliese, as I read your memoir, I kept forgetting it wasn’t a novel, because all the tension and suspense I expect in a good novel were there, keeping me feverishly turning pages. In addition to your story as a steelworker reclaiming your home and yourself after much struggle, there is also a compelling and very real love story here. For us writers, can you talk about how you decided to structure your memoir—if you set out to structure it like a novel?
Structure is the thing I struggle with most as a writer. I’m still traumatized by my 5th grade English class, when the teacher called on me to answer a simple question: “What’s the climax of Where the Red Fern Grows?” I froze. My mind went blank. My palms got sweaty. The whole class was staring at me, but I just shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, there were a thousand tiny climactic moments throughout the novel. How could I possibly pick one? Even now, I’m always overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of structure. You can use the same material to tell a million different stories, and sometimes I want to tell all of those stories at the same time. As such, I inevitably cycle through a lot of failed drafts to figure out the structure that fits the material best.
With Rust, I experimented with everything. I tried making it an essay. I tried making it a chapbook of prose poems. I played around with footnotes. I wrote a pretty long and miserable draft that incorporated tons of research about irony. There’s even a notebook in the back of my closet that contains a feeble attempt to imitate Anne Carson’s Nox. Those drafts took a lot of time and energy, but they gave me a little distance from the lived experience of the steel mill. As a nonfiction writer, it can be difficult to see the shape of a story when you’re still living parts of that story in your daily life. Most of Rust was written while I was still employed as a steelworker, which made it difficult to see where the book needed to end. I kept wanting to add more anecdotes. I kept wanting to change the climax. Luckily, I had an awesome editor and an amazing agent who helped to usher me in the right direction. And once I was able to take a step back and analyze everything I’d written, I realized that a novel-like arc already existed inside the material. From there, the structure settled into place. Sometimes it takes time and revision (and lots of feedback from trusted friends) to discover something’s shape.
*Quotes from the book jacket copy; all images used with permission of the author
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, coming soon…
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.
Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance. The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:
Can you really go home again?
Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”
In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”
By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.
The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.
Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.
The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.
The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”
The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.
I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.
That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?
I’ll let you read to find out.
In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com
Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:
Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…
From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points
Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.
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When I first met Larry Smith in Ohio, he was sporting a Cleveland Browns cap–not an unusual fashion choice for a sports venue or bar, but we were at a literary conference. From this first impression, I could sense two things: the cap wasn’t ironical and Larry was my kind of literary people.
As it turns out, the Ohio-based author, poet, and director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing and I have much more in common than rooting for the home team. There’s an abiding sense of creative responsibility, a promise to tell our own stories, that comes with hailing from a place like ours. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Larry and I try to make good on that promise. Larry has definitely made good on his.
This National Poetry Month of April, Larry was also gracious enough to take the time to answer over email my questions–about the writing life and what it means to publish poems and stories rooted in place. “There is always some blurring of identity here,” says Larry, “between Larry Smith and Bottom Dog Press.”
Though much of my life is Bottom Dog Press, my life extends beyond that, and Bottom Dog Press is more than I am, too, it’s over 210 books and about 500 authors.
Let’s learn more…
Larry, how did growing up in the Rust Belt, specifically an Ohio mill town, affect your writing sensibilities and choices?
Well, this goes to the heart of it and of myself. You can’t take out of me the Ohio Valley and the working-class world I grew up in. I was nurtured on that life and those values of hard work and character, of family and neighborhood, of just accepting and caring for each other. I write from who I am, and though I worked as a college professor and live in a middle class neighborhood now, I am still that kid getting up to deliver morning papers and watch my father pack his lunch for work on the railroad. Read more
I went for the art of the place: the earthy poetry and fiction borne by writers tied to the ever-evolving American Rust Belt, which has seen its share of glories and struggles, stemming from the rise and fall of mining and heavy industry.
And, I admit, I fretted just a little bit about what to wear. Stay with me…I haven’t gone all fashion blog on you.
No surprise that among the students of creative writing, the authors, editors, publishers, and poets attending the literary conference–there were ensembles of black, a poet skirt or two, and a pair of cat face-festooned flats (for real; they were fabulous shoes).
There was also a Browns cap. Yep, those Browns. The NFL team that went win-less last year (after which the people of Cleveland held a perfect-season parade).
At the sight of that beautiful brown and orange hat at a literary festival, I knew I’d found my people.
It got me to thinking, if you Venn diagram a place (and this is as math-y as I get), how much overlap is there between the place’s art and the place’s sport? Let’s think on that a minute, while I take you with me on another trip.
Earlier this month, as the fall foliage reached its peak color, my family visited the lovely village of Cooperstown, New York.
I have to say, I felt a little bit vindicated when reading author Lauren Groff‘s latest interview with Poets & Writers magazine (her short story collection, Florida, was released earlier this year) in which she asserts: “Florida is the biggest joke of all the states. It is the punchline to every other state’s joke.”
That statement, itself, feels like a joke to this Cleveland, Ohio native. A quick recap for the Buckeye State-uninitiated: OH is flyover country; Cleveland is the “Mistake on the Lake”; the home team Cleveland Browns’ last season went 0 and 16. (Yep, it’s a rebuilding year–again.)