WVU Press Re-publishes “The Book of the Dead”

“Written in response to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931 in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, The Book of the Dead is an important part of West Virginia’s cultural heritage and a powerful account of one of the worst industrial catastrophes in American history. The poems collected here investigate the roots of a tragedy that killed hundreds of workers, most of them African American. They are a rare engagement with the overlap between race and environment in Appalachia.

Published for the first time alongside photographs by Nancy Naumburg, who accompanied Rukeyser to Gauley Bridge in 1936, this edition of The Book of the Dead includes an introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, whose writing on the topic has been anthologized in Best American Essays. Read more at West Virginia University Press…

Turning Coal Mines Into Farms

On a surface-mine-turned-farm in Mingo County, West Virginia, former coal miner Wilburn Jude plunks down three objects on the bed of his work truck: a piece of coal, a sponge, and a peach. He’s been tasked with bringing in items that represent his life’s past, present, and future.

“This is my heritage right here,” he says, picking up the coal. Since the time of his Irish émigré great-grandfathers, all the males in his family have been miners.

“Right now I’m a sponge,” he says, pointing to the next object, “learning up here on this job, in school, everywhere, and doing the best I can to change everything around me.”

Then he holds up the peach. “And then my future. I’m going to be a piece of fruit. I’m going to be able to put out good things to help other people.” Read more in Fall 2017 issue of Yes!…

WV Mine Wars Museum Wins NEH Grant

On August 2, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is the recipient of a $30,000 challenge grant for The Blair Centennial Project, our long-term plan to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain in 2021!

The NEH grant committee called the Blair Centennial Project “A bold and collaborative effort to use the humanities to foster cultural tourism and give a challenged community hope for the future through respect for the past.” Read More…

My Latest in CJR

AFTER THE 2016 ELECTION, the calls and emails rolled into West Virginia, as the press scrambled to make sense of a place that hadn’t occupied this much space on the national political stage since John F. Kennedy’s 1960 primary.

“We’re looking for a family in a trailer park.”

“We’re looking for a holler. How do we get there?”

“I need a Trump-supporting son of a coal miner who doesn’t think coal is coming back. Do you know one?”

Even before Donald Trump’s election, Appalachia was treated as a kind of Rosetta stone for deciphering rural white poverty in America. Read More…

Best American Essays

The Book of the Dead“—my essay on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster and the poet Muriel Rukeyser from the Fall 2016 issue of Oxford American—will be included in the The Best American Essays 2017. One of my favorite writers, Leslie Jamison, edited this year’s collection. From the publisher’s listing:

The best-selling essayist Leslie Jamison picks the best essays from hundreds of magazines, journals, and websites, bringing her incredible ability to “stitch together the intellectual and the emotional with the finesse of a crackerjack surgeon” (NPR) to the task.

Crackerjack! Preorder your copy

CVM in CJR on WVPB

While public radio stations across the country fret over the threat of federal-level funding cuts, West Virginia Public Broadcasting has its mind on other matters. A state-level proposal to zero out half of its $10 million budget had the network on the defensive this month. In West Virginia, which national media often portray as Trump Country Ground Zero due to its high proportion of Trump voters, you might expect that the rift is ideological. But the $4.6 million cut was proposed by Democratic governor Jim Justice—a billionaire coal operator who coincidentally owes $4.4 million in back taxes to the state—and some Republicans in the legislature have been quick to come to the network’s defense. Read more…

Two Writing Fellowships

A writer’s cottage at the MacDowell Colony

This year I’ll be spending some of the spring and fall months in New England at two writing residencies. I’m happy to announce that I’m the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship in Longform Journalism at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH, and a Mountain State Fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT.

I’ll be finishing up my current book project for Ohio University Press / Swallow Press, a collection essays titled Transmontane, and getting started on a proposal for my next book. I’m very grateful to these two institutions for the encouragement and support!

Read “The Book of the Dead”

Screen Shot 2016-12-15 at 4.43.25 PM

Above the Hawk’s Nest Dam on the New River. Photo by Lisa Elmaleh.

My longform nonfiction piece about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, “The Book of the Dead: In Fayette County, WV, Expanding the Document of Disaster,” is now available online at The Oxford American‘s website. It was originally published in the magazine’s fall issue and recently won a Commendation from the Stack Awards.

My online archive of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel workers, hawksnestnames.org, is a companion project that houses primary source documents and victims’ names.

Finally, check out this “Photographer’s Day Book” feature from The Oxford American, in which Lisa Elmaleh tracks her pursuit of Hawk’s Nest images for the magazine. I’m so thankful to Lisa for making these photos.

“Book of the Dead” Commended by Stack Awards

Screen Shot 2016-10-23 at 12.15.21 PM

The Stack Awards recognize the best work in independent magazines from all over the world. I was short-listed for a Stack Award in Nonfiction for my essay, “The Book of the Dead,” published in the Fall 2016 issue of Oxford American. 

West Virginia-based photographer Lisa Elmaleh was commissioned to provide art for the story. A new website archives some of this history: The Book of the Dead: An Archive of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Workers. 

Kentucky Hemp in “Yes!” Magazine

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 10.48.09 AM

At the birth of any industry, uncertainty abounds. So does opportunity, say Kentuckians like Joe Schroeder of Freedom Seed and Feed, who is among those growing industrial hemp and advocating for others in Appalachia to do the same.

“It’s really speculative,” says Schroeder. “But people are making a lot of money, and that money is real.”

But don’t take that talk of money to mean Schroeder is greedy. At a time when the region’s collapsing coal and tobacco industries have left gaping holes in central Appalachia’s economy, at least some of Kentucky’s hemp experimenters want to maximize the benefit to as many local people as possible.

Read more of my story on industrial hemp at Yes! Magazine…