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West Virginia's new poet laureate coming to Book Festival

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"I think poetry enables us to take that breath we need to re-see the pace of our own lives. It reminds ourselves of what it means to be human," says West Virginia's new poet laureate, Marc Harshman.

Marc Harshman speaks at 12:30 p.m. Sunday during the West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Civic Center. For more about the festival, which runs all weekend, visit wvbookfestival.org.

See Vic Burkhammer's "MountainWord" poetry blog at http://blogs.wvgazette.com/mountainword/ for an audio interview with Harshman.

Read some of Harshman's work here.

  CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The call came "out of the blue" this past May, recalled Marc Harshman.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office wanted to know if the poet and award-winning children's author would be interested in becoming the next poet laureate for the state of West Virginia?

Harshman got the call first as a phone message, then called back and got a staffer on the line. "She could testify to all the stuttering I did," he said. "I was absolutely stunned."

Harshman is the ninth writer to fill a position first established by the West Virginia Legislature in 1927. He is keenly aware of the large shoes he'll be filling. The previous holder of the post was nationally acclaimed poet Irene McKinney, who died Feb. 4 at age 72, after serving as West Virginia's poet laureate for nearly two decades.

"I certainly wish to continue the kind of support Irene gave to other writers and artists throughout the state," said Harshman, who lives in Wheeling. "She was very supportive, as well as being an inspiration in her own life and in her courageous struggle with her illness in her later years."

Harshman will deliver his inaugural reading as poet laureate at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Civic Center. He plans to read from his three chapbooks and from more recent work. He'll also reflect on the legacies of McKinney and her predecessor as poet laureate, Louise McNeill.

For a place as small as the Mountain State, Harshman said, "we are blessed with a true plethora of writers in West Virginia of really amazing skill. That's humbling in and of itself.

"Beyond that, I always think of myself as part of a larger community of artists - of painters, sculptors, dancers and musicians. I love to do all I can to support all the arts."

Harshman, 62, was born in Randolph County, Ind., earned a bachelor's degree from West Virginia's Bethany College and doubled up on master's degrees from Yale Divinity School and the University of Pittsburgh.

"Turning Out the Stones," his first chapbook, was published in 1983. In 1989, he published his children's book, "A Little Excitement," and began to earn acclaim as a children's author. His 1995 children's book, "The Storm," was named a Smithsonian National Book for Children and Parent's Choice award winner. He has since published 11 children's books, with some translated into Spanish, Korean, Danish and Swedish.

Given his résumé, he is quick to underscore how he sees himself as he takes up the mantle of his new position.

"I've always been a poet first, much as I love children's writing and thankful it has made my reputation and put bread on the table in a way poetry never has and probably never will."

As for the art of writing children's books and being a poet, he said, "There isn't as much a divide between the two genres as one might imagine.

"Certainly for writing children's picture books, the writing requires a succinct form. That melds rather easily with my having written in the succinct form of poetry for most of my life. There are no wasted words."

He has heard lots of people remark: 'Oh, children's writing -- that must be easy because it's shorter,' Harshman said. "Not really. Not if you're trying to write at a publishable level with New York publishers. You've got to do it just right. Every word counts."

Poets whom he admires include Ted Kooser, who served from 2004 to 2006 as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Harshman shared dinner with him some years ago. "If nothing else, I'd like to emulate his persona," Harshman said. "He was so self-effacing and quiet and humble and clearly shared a passion for poetry."

What, then, is the continuing role of poetry in this 24/7 information-drenched culture, swamped by a million Facebook status updates and 140-character tweets each second?

"It's a good question," Harshman said. "I think poetry enables us to take that breath we need to re-see the pace of our own lives. It reminds ourselves of what it means to be human."

Poetry's "prophetic function" can be like that of the Hebrew prophets of old, railing against kingship and power, he said. "As the prophetic poet demands re-seeing the status quo, that turns us again to what can be best in us."

Which leads him, Harshman added, to one of his favorite lines of poetry from "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," by William Carlos Williams:

"'It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.'"

Or, Harshman said, as writer and political activist Elie Wiesel once wrote: "'Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.'

"It's one of the things I struggle with," Harsman said. "I occasionally want to have that grace to say something that really matters. I think all writers have that."

When all is said and done, he said, he has been blessed to have been able to devote so much of his life to something he dearly loves.

"I see myself as a journeyman poet. I can lift my head up when I say that: I think a journeyman can be a good thing to be. I will simply show up on Sunday and do the best damn job I can and try to read the best poems I have at that particular moment.

"That's what makes you get up in the morning. I want to learn, I want to read new poems each day, as well as write them each day. It's a real blessing in this life to do what you want to do. Not that it's not real hard and I don't cuss and scream and get angry and depressed.

"There's also a desire that I truly want to do this. If you even have one moment in your life where the words fit together, it's good."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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