A Poet’s Life
Beauty, Order and Words That Can Sing
WHEELING — Marc Harshman’s day unfolds in pretty much the way one might hope that the poet laureate of West Virginia’s would.
There’s early morning correspondence and editing done in a sun-drenched study at the top of his Wheeling home. There are afternoon writing sessions in a garden where wildish flowers and vegetables are fortified against the deer that wander down from the woods. There’s an ample chair and a light that’s just right for evening reading.
And, Harshman’s house looks pretty much like one might hope that a man who is also the author of 14 children’s books would.
Windows are open to sunlight that somehow bounces off the blonde wood floors from every angle. A multitude of books rests in tidy rows on knee-high shelving.
Art covers every wall, with only narrow margins between works ranging from contemporary metal pieces by Wheeling’s Robert Villamagna to prints of the illustrations from his various books.
Other art speaks directly to Harshman’s poetry. These are broadsheets — book-weight papers adorned with other writers’ single poems printed from hand-set type. Some include art. One includes hand-written text in the poem’s original language — a nearly calligraphic form of subtitling.
A GOOD PLACE
Such a place is a long way from the Indiana farm where Harshman began life — a place so quiet that a trip to the library was each week’s peak. Having since had a season to soak in the art-rich world surrounding Yale Divinity School and the hubbub of the University of Pittsburgh, the Northern Panhandle feels right and good, he said.
His decades’ long residency in West Virginia technically started at Bethany College, where Harshman’s early studies coincided with falling in love with Cheryl Ryan Harshman, the fellow student who became his wife.
They returned to the Ohio Valley when their studies were complete, she as a librarian and he as an elementary school teacher with an unusual side gig.
“I wrote and wrote and wrote,” Harshman said, noting he squeezed in writing time not only in the summers and during holidays. He also wrote through his lunch periods.
“That decade of teaching, I published a book every year.” His first chapbook — a small, hand-bound collection of poetry — came out in 1983. His first children’s book, “A Little Excitement,” was released nationally in 1989. “I was speaking, too. I don’t know how I did it all.”
By 2000 or so, he no longer needed to. He was earning enough to “keep the wolf from the door” without teaching. Poems and books — 14 to date, translated into five other languages — kept coming. So did the accolades.
In 2012, he was named West Virginia’s seventh poet laureate. His most recent collection of poems, “Woman in Red Anorak,” won the 2017 Blue Lynx Prize. His 2016 collection, “Believe What You Can,” was named Appalachian Book of the Year by the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival of Tennessee. In 2020, his Thanksgiving poem, “Dispatch from the Mountain State,” was published in the New York Times.
A GOOD CALLING
Is such a poet’s life still possible in 2021? Harshman laughed at the question. He’d just read an essay on the subject for The Hudson Review.
“I don’t know if it ever was a viable career, but it can be a viable vocation,” he said of poetry, which he noted doesn’t generate a great deal of income for many writers outside of tight, university-connected circles. “It’s still quite legitimate to be called a poet.”
He felt that calling early. It began on the farm, with a love of reading that was quickly followed by writing for pure joy. While at Yale, he realized ministry or academia were not for him. Writing was.
“I was already scribbling. I was sending out submissions.” He still scribbles most every afternoon, he said.
Harshman sits at the dining room table or in the garden, with a stack of reading material on one side and spiral-bound notebooks on the other. He reads and thinks about his recent experiences — often filled with art, dance and music. A turn of phrase may spark an idea that can go in about any direction — relationships, politics, nature.
Those early musings — which fill many volumes in his study — are eventually judged as to whether they are worthy of revision. During his interview, he randomly pulled one off a shelf.
“What the h— is that?” he asked, laughing and reading aloud an unedited passage that ranged from birds “raising the morning” to the milking of cows. He shrugged and glanced down at the page, then to his computer. “It’s not the worst thing I’ve written. I wonder if I’ve got that anywhere (for revision).”
Revision is where his calling calls out to the words, he noted.
“I like to think of poetry as a combination of song and story, usually expressed in a succinct form, a condensed form,” he explained, noting brevity makes his childrens books a close literary relative.
“A poem is like an assortment of puzzle pieces. It’s the goal to find just the right assembly of those words … Even though I write almost exclusively in free verse, it’s still my aim that there’s a kind of musicality to my words.”
As many times as he revises his work, he admitted there are still occasions when he’s doing a reading and something jars. “I realize I will never read that poem with that comma there or that line break there, or that ‘the.’ You’re surely feeling naked when you’re doing a poetry reading.”
Perhaps that is why many of his works – both the poetry and the childrens books – are collaborations. There are illustrators. There are other writers – including his wife. Recently, there has been a musician.
He and another West Virginia writer, Doug VanGundy, have put together a program called “Running with Whiskey” that includes readings of their work paired with VanGundy’s fiddle playing. They’ve presented it in the U.S. and in two coal towns in Wales, one of Harshman’s beloved places.
Another type of collaboration is a career favorite, he added. He works with staff at Ohio County Public Library to offer a series that brings other poets to Wheeling for readings. He does similar work in Charleston.
And, in a new twist that reflects where his career has gone, he’s boxing up correspondence. West Virginia University is in the early days of collecting his archives.
He hopes there will be more boxes to add. Harshman’s newest collection of poems, The Shadow Testimonies, has just been scheduled for publication by Salmon Press in
the Republic of Ireland.
It’s the kind of thing that brings joy to a poet’s life.
“I’m always pleased with the newest one,” he joked, adding that is especially true when sales are going well. “That pleases me very much.”