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Harshman named W.Va. poet laureate

Poet, storyteller and children's author Marc Harshman was named West Virginia's poet laureate on Friday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Harshman, a Wheeling resident and former West Virginia English Teacher of the Year, has published 11 children's books. He has received awards including the Smithsonian Notable Book for Children prize and the Parent's Choice Award.

"I'm pleased Marc has accepted this unique opportunity to serve as poet laureate," Tomblin said in a statement. "Whether it's one of his children's stories or a prose poem, Marc's creativity serves as a reminder of the immeasurable talent of West Virginia's authors. I hope, in this new capacity, he will continue to challenge himself and inspire a new generation of writers."

Harshman replaces Irene McKinney, who died in February after 18 years as the state's poet laureate.

Harshman was teaching a writing workshop at Waverly Elementary School in Wood County when he received a phone call from the governor's office telling him the news.

"It's funny because I felt rude when my cell phone started ringing in my pocket in the middle of the workshop. I had no idea that the call I ignored was an invitation to become the poet laureate," Harshman said Friday. "I was stunned - I'm still stunned, and humbled.

"As a young writer, I certainly didn't anticipate this, and a week ago, when I received the call, I didn't anticipate it. I thank the governor for his selection and recommendations."

Originally from Indiana, Harshman has spent most of his adult life in Wheeling with his wife, children's author Cheryl Ryan, and daughter, Sarah.

He earned his bachelor of arts degree at Bethany College, a master's degree in religion at Yale University Divinity School and a master's degree in English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Harshman said the culture of West Virginia and his fellow writers across the state continue to influence his work.

"It's truly surprising how many great authors we have for such a small state. We have a very vibrant, healthy community of writers of all genres here in West Virginia, so it's a true honor for me," he said. "I grew up as a farm boy, and I've always found myself very welcomed here. There's a sense of community here regardless if you live in a rural or urban area, and that sense of community is very important to my work."

Harshman's books help teach children life's lessons, covering a variety of subjects from the difficulties that come with moving to a new neighborhood to living with a loved one who struggles with addiction.

One book, "Only One," which promotes a message of peace and unity, was featured as a Reading Rainbow review title on PBS TV.

Harshman's poetry, though, is separate from his children's work. He is a recipient of the West Virginia Arts Commission Fellowship in Poetry, and his poems recently received an award from Literal Latté and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

He identifies his poetry with a quote from American poet William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there."

"For myself, as a laureate, I hope I can bear some witness to the truth in that phrase," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do to support the life of writers here in the state of West Virginia, and I want to look over the legacy Irene [McKinney] has left us, as well as others.

The legacy of McKinney, who died in February, is something Harshman says he will carry on as he takes on the position of laureate.

"Irene continued to be a friend to all authors throughout her life, even in the days of her illness. She was always encouraging and supportive, and she always kept writing. I hope I can be friend like that, and I'm honored to follow in her footsteps," he said. "I hope to be able to continue to be true to my own work and bring a renewed effort to the discipline I assert on myself to continue to better as a writer."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100

 


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