There’s something about Ashe County that draws back those who lived or spent a significant amount of time there, and especially for those whose youth was spent in the local community of family and nature.
A new book of poems by Jack Lynch captures this nostalgia, but does something more. In “Ashe County Poems,” Lynch not only shares and offers much of the essence of “old” Ashe County, but in a number of ways, indirectly asks us where we’re going.
Recently, the Ashe Post & Times caught up with the debut poet to ask him a few questions about the new book. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: You now live in Maryland, but your first published book of poetry is about Ashe County. What is your connection to the region, and specifically what led you to produce this book about Ashe?
Jack Lynch: There’s a rich postage stamp of literary soil in Ashe County and it deserves telling. I’ve spent a number of years here in short stretches over 60 years, growing up within kinship and community. I’ve watched a lot of Horse Creek and New River flow by, and the Virginia Creeper chug through blowing steam; also, I also had a maternal grandmother who grew up with the town of West Jefferson.
My first visit was when I was 3 months old, about the time of the great blizzard of 1960, I think; and then I spent a couple months each summer, as well as a couple of the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter at times.
I discovered old Appalachian traditions and dialect that made a deep impression — plus I loved nature and the music. I wanted to share my distinct experience of the region particularly for my children, who know it in its more recent state, and I wanted to share the memories and echoes of the life I shared there with my kinfolk, who gave me an inheritance in its culture.
TM: Those relationships — with the community, the land, your heritage — are important. But you had options when you went to write about them. Why did you choose to illustrate those connections in poetry versus prose?
JL: I have written some prose about Ashe County, but not published it. A story has to reach a certain critical mass in plot and character, while poetry allows me to capture a crazy quilt of images, feelings and territory in brief strokes and in a variety of endings, and to play a bit more with various voices and images. I write so that all the spokes all circle back into some greater whole. So in this case, a series of poems fit.
TM: You offer some wonderful images and phrasing of old Ashe County. I love this opening stanza from “Preacher Wrestling”: “The pudgy middle aged man / Belly over his pants waistline / Black brogans scuffed and muddy / Like he just jumped off the Jesus truck / As it rolled through town.”
You have quite an ability to paint a picture and turn a phrase that reminds me of e.e. cummings. You spent a year in the creative writing MFA program at George Mason University. What works and authors influenced your writing?
JL: I did love e.e. cummings as a young man. With his fierceness and extreme play with form and line, he opened a view into the wide openness of poetry for me. I love Southern literature: William Faulkner, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, even back to George Washington Harris’s “Sut Lovingood” tales.
In eighth grade, I wrote an essay about Ashe County with pasted, clipped photos from the old Skyland Post to illustrate it. My English teacher stopped me after class to question if I’d written it or copied it from a magazine, and that’s when I began to know I was a real writer.
I first studied short story writing with Richard Bausch when he was starting out at a community college in Alexandria. But in college at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I found an affinity for the Appalachian identity. I also found a sense of otherness I lived with through Fred Chappell. I had a short story class with him.
I became an undergraduate who went to readings by writers, listened and learned, read avidly and was exposed to a wide variety of work, but with particular affection for Southern and Appalachian voices.
The MFA was a turning point in the quest to believe I could be a writer, but life intervened. I’m at a point now where I wanted to turn back and do something with whatever gift of experience and wisdom I could muster.
TM: “Ashe County Poems” shows a lot of muster. Five-part question: What poems from the volume, and why, do you consider to be the most personal, the most irreverent, the most fun, the most serious and the most important?
JL: The most personal, one of the first pieces I wrote, “Picking Beans,” is poignant for me: a boy has awakened to girls, wants to earn money, but for boyish aims still. He’s still removed from adulthood, but senses it coming fast.
The most irreverent is certainly “The Man Who Built the Town,” which gives a very adverse slant to a revered historical figure of West Jefferson. I wanted to capture some things I knew through familial relations that hinted at a less-desirable figure who stole the railroad line’s endpoint and built a town, all-around land speculation, and who ultimately profited for himself and his collaborators.
The most fun is “Bathtub Man” — imagining why he decked his yard in claw foot tubs. “Buffalo Creek” for imagining meanings to the crushed autos gathered there. “The Giant Ax Man of New River” was just pure tall tale jest and comedy, though a segment of my family would discuss that rock sitting at my maternal grandmother’s house. I had a field day dreaming up things a giant lout like that could do locally, and of course there’s the potential mating with the “Fifty Foot Tall Woman” of the old sci-fi flick. If so-called reality TV can give us a “Bigfoot of Ashe County,” I figured a giant Appalachian brute was more relevant.
“Justice” is a pretty serious poem: It captures again the mysteries of both youth and a local culture where so often it seems that intimates of people and stories of evident crimes are left without a clear resolution of justice. There are three parts to it. First, a store owner has a heated argument with a customer over a bill and then is found shot dead the next morning with no suspect or trial. Second, an odd gravestone which the boy’s father tells him is of a person who did something bad and no one ever liked after that, but either cannot or won’t say what that man did. Third, a bluegrass singer cheats with a man’s wife and is killed along the roadside with suggestions that her husband was the murderer, but again no suspect, no trial.
For the most important — rather than a single poem, the most important element is the character telling most of these stories: the boy who is initially about 11 years old, who seeks to know himself and his place in this special place, who is trying to resolve kinship and culture and his own sense of belonging — but also a sense of otherness. It’s a pilgrim’s journey in a way, good and bad along the way, identity and the knowledge that he may not really understand things at all.
Fifty years later, this place has changed; it has lost some things and gained new ones — for better or for worse? He finds in it something worth sharing; something the new world should retain of the old.
He is now 60 years old, and he inherited a reverence for land as a support for sustenance in hard times and a key to being free, a need for sustainability and protecting a second growth environment his ancestors nearly destroyed with logging and mining, a community of shared struggle and also a shared joy and music. That the river gives, and the river washes away.
TM: Thank you for that. Now … what is the one poem you would have liked to write, but didn’t?
JL: I have a list of snippets and ideas left over, some I wasn’t ready to put down, some not worth much on hindsight. They come to you when you’re ready to complete something from them. Some slipped into these poems, some await, worthy. Maybe another book will see them come to light. Poems such as kids throwing tons of popcorn at one another in sheer bedlam in the Parkway theatre in the old days, a tall, old mountaineer with a gray beard down to his knees who danced up at Sturgill’s with all the ladies — though he was a confirmed bachelor called an “uncle,” quilt barns in the landscape, a woman banjo player.
A poem about “Florida People” could go in many directions. The “Wagon Train” deserves commemoration. Older relatives who believed a Bible verse stopped blood, and that at the end, the world would be ruled by a tiny island with seven people on it.
TM: Wonderful ideas. But for this book, where can we purchase a copy? And, is it available as an e-edition?
JL: I’d love to share it with anyone interested. I think it has a firm local audience, but marketing it is uncertain until I can safely come and give a reading or promote it better. I’ve tried to get it offered at the Arts Council and the Historical Society, but they’re not there yet. For now, folks can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give them instructions for buying it from me. A copy is $12 shipped. No e-edition as of yet, but it’s something I’d like to create.