A glimpse of Maggie Anderson
In high school in Keyser, Maggie Anderson was haunted by the feeling that "real" writers write about sophisticated things that are far away from West Virginia. She thought that meant she didn't have anything to write about. Then she heard Pocahontas' County's Louise McNeill read her poetry in her deep mountain accent, about Pocahontas County history and people and things she saw around her in daily life. "And I thought, 'I could probably do that too,'" Maggie said.
She began to do that. And she began to teach other people in schools, prisons, and senior centers how to turn their surroundings and history into a type of poetry that helps us see beneath the surface. Maggie Anderson's poems show us deeper meaning, and sometimes quirkiness, in things and people who surround us: graveyards, people in old photos, family stories, even an old armchair. Her poems are sometimes funny, sometimes sensual, sometimes deeply serious. Often all three. She writes about days in her mother's life, her aunt in her kitchen, about grief as a black dog, about hunting and coal mines, about vegetables that dream, for example. Angry poems about a closed mill, about outsiders who take pictures of local people as if they were objects.
"I don't think writers are any better or worse than any other human being," she said. "But we are different from some other human beings who've made other choices. We decided to spend a significant portion of our lives noticing caterpillars and cucumbers and other such things. And paying attention, in a particular way, to the events of our own local world and the larger world. And to think about those in writing."
Maggie Anderson is Professor Emerita and founding director of the Wick Poetry Center, Kent State University.
A sample poem: Sonnet for Her Labor
Maggie Anderson shares some memories of her dear Preston County aunt, Nita, then reads the poem she wrote to honor her.
My aunt Nita's kitchen was immaculate and dark,
and she was always bending to the sink,
below the window where the shadows off the bulk
of Laurel Mountain rose up to the brink
of all the sky she saw from there. She clattered
pots on countertops wiped clean of coal dust,
fixed three meals a day, fried meat, mixed batter
for buckwheat cakes, hauled water, in what seemed lust
for labor. One March evening, after cleaning,
she laid down to rest and died. I can see Uncle Ed,
his fingers twined at his plate for the blessing;
my uncle Craig leaning back, silent in red
galluses. No one said a word to her. All that food
and cleanliness. No one ever told her it was good.
Activities to go with this poem:
Maggie Anderson tells us much about her aunt without spelling it out. Her spoken memories of her relationship with Nita let us glimpse a curious, intelligent mountain woman. What details did she supply that lead to the adjectives "curious" and "intelligent?" What adjectives would you add? What details make you think so?
Her poem gives us a contrasting glimpse of the same woman. What adjectives come to mind for the woman in the poem? What details bring them to mind?
Think of somebody you know and write a poem about them, piling up details that add up to an unspoken reality.
~ Go to the Activities page for other ways to learn from these writers ~
Five ways to get the most from this website:
1. Listen to the rich hour-long conversation with Maggie. Hear Maggie Anderson's voice, readings, stories, and advice.
2. Read/download the program transcript. Read along while you listen. Mark passages you want to remember.
3. Read/download the table of contents. It is an outline of the program. It will help you find the passages you want to return to.
4. Play short audio snips from the conversation with Maggie in a class or for an audience. It's easy! The program is divided into short tracks that can be played one at a time.
5. Try some activities that help you use this website to teach storytelling/poetry/writing skills.
To listen to the whole Maggie Anderson conversation, or to an individual
track, go to Maggie's audio tracks page.
Maggie Anderson also edited a poetry book for kids,
Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry about School
"I don't think writers are any better or any worse than any other human beings. But we are in some ways different from some other human beings who made other choices. We've decided to spend a significant portion of our lives noticing caterpillars and cucumbers and other such things. And paying attention in a particular way to the events of our own local world and the larger world. And to think about those in writing." ~ Maggie Anderson