Poet's identity quest helped her find fellow black Appalachians

2017-02-19 | The Charleston Gazette

Feb. 18--Crystal Good was confounded.

She was a sixth-generation African-American woman, raised in St. Albans, and driven to be a poet.

"I knew I had a unique perspective of black life in Appalachia and could not be the only one," Good said.

But where were her kind?

As a teenager, her good looks (she could be mistaken as a sister of actress Hallie Berry) led her to start modeling at age 12, eventually taking her to Atlanta and New York City. She was represented by top agencies, doing shoots for high-profile clients like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

At age 18, Good met a guy in New York. That's where her life first intersected with one important -- although non-Appalachian -- lineage of African-American poets.

Her boyfriend's father was one of the original Last Poets. The name was given to various groups of influential poets and musicians, sprung from the 1960s civil rights and black nationalist movements. Their politically charged raps would help pave the way for hip-hop to storm popular music

"The Last Poets are the grandfathers of hip-hop," Good said.

But not one of them was raised in Appalachia. Still, a light bulb went off over Good's head.

"It blew my mind that that was poetry," she said. "A whole new world opened to me, and I realized I had been writing poetry since I was 10 or so."

She returned home and ended up at West Virginia State College (now a university), in Institute, majoring in communications and African-American studies.

She was 28. The year was 2003.

There had to be someone else like her out there, someone else who was hyphenated.

An African-American-Appalachian maker of poems.

Where to turn?

"I bowed down to the Google gods,'' she recalled, "and asked: 'African-American Appalachian Poet?'"

Her tribe

Bingo.

Her search results turned up Frank X. Walker, an African-American poet from Danville, Kentucky, born in 1961.

And, wait, how was he describing himself?

Walker said he was an "Affrilachian." He'd coined the word, he said in interviews, to signify the life and times of African-Americans in Appalachia, to give voice to those born black and raised in a region that hardly anyone associated with their presence.

To Good, the word "Affrilachia" was like honey on toast: sweet and right.

After all, hadn't she fielded remarks from people like, "Are there black people in West Virginia?" and, "You sure are pretty to be from West Virginia?"

She arranged for Walker to perform at State in 2004.

She'd found her tribe, and it included others like poet Nikki Finney, who challenged her "to write, to riff."

"I knew I couldn't be the only one -- and found Affrilachia and found Frank and sort of have been on the quest ever since."

What quest is that?

"I think we're all on an identity quest. And Affrilachian is part of mine," she said.

Walker went on to become the Poet Laureate of Kentucky in 2013, a post he holds to this day.

Good began to dip her toe into reading publicly, organizing a poetry slam at the Empty Glass in 2005.

Newbie Affrilachian wannabe poet that she was, Good felt people might think it self-promotional if she granted herself the honor of being one of the featured poets.

"I was so shy about being a poet," she remembered.

She decided to read something she dubbed "Not a Poem."

Short. Pithy. Pungent.

Done.

They were short enough to still a Nervous Nellie poet's nerves and get off stage before she had, like, a breakdown and the audience turned away and made a beeline to the bar for a Bud Lite.

She got better as she did it more. She started doing more "Not a Poems" and introducing, well, poems ­­-- or longer poems --­ into the mix.

She unveiled more ambitious, forthright and edgy pieces such as "Black Diamonds," which honors the widows of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

And "Boom Boom," which, to this day, remains one of her most popular works. (See her read it at: crystalgood.net/boom-boom-a-reading-by-crystal-good. And -- full disclosure -- several years ago, I helped craft a video depiction of the poem for a blog about West Virginia life.)

It's a poem whose premise sounds deliberately provocative. Which it is.

The poem weaves the theme of a country girl stripper who strips off her dignity for a little money to survive as the piece morphs into a metaphor for the stripping of the Appalachian hills via mountaintop removal mining.

Good ­-- who long ago shed her Nervous Nelliness -- just declaimed "Boom Boom" on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol, in front of nearly 3,000 folks, at the Charleston edition of the women's rights marches held Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C., and around the globe.

Shy no more.

A movement

Good, now 42, sits on a sofa in her townhouse condominium in Charleston. One of her sons pops up the stairs -- she has three, ages 13, 16 and 21.

In one corner, an old but working Smith-Corona typewriter rests on a blue desk. She types her "Not a Poems" on it and new variations of the form, such as "Not a Love Poem" and "Not an Obama Poem."

On her dining room wall hangs a large dark wood carving in the shape of the state of West Virginia, a gift from her father. He commissioned it from the Bear Wood Company, in Hurricane, asking that it be made of the blackest possible woods and christening the piece "Affrilachia."

Speaking of which, if anyone may be thinking Affrilachian poetry is a private club with a secret handshake, understandable only to black folk born in hollows, Good counters the thought.

It is true, she said, Walker started what she calls a movement.

As Walker said at the 2016 Appalachian Studies Conference in Shepherdstown University, "To us, it was about making the invisible visible or giving voice to a previously muted or silenced voice."

The movement has grown, Good said, who went on to earn a master's in creative writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2016.

"There are so many poets in the Affrilachian poets. Young poets -- 20-somethings -- are very excited and proud to carry on this tradition," she said.

But the word is not meant to put people into a neat box, she said. "Affrilachian, to me, is an important word because it's a bridge. It opens up conversations, it's not the end of the conversation.

"It's not meant to define this narrow -- I'll use the word -- 'seam' of people in the region. It's meant to bring attention and awareness to the many people of the region and the many identities and cultures and foods and family structures."

Good, whose work often confronts negative stereotypes of Appalachian life while training a keen, unvarnished eye on the realities of life in the region, has been able to share her poetic viewpoint widely, including her fascination with quantum physics.

On her lap rests her poetry chapbook, "Valley Girl" (some of the poems in it can be found online at crystalgood.net). In 2013, she was invited to deliver a 20-minute TEDx talk in Lewisburg. She introduced herself this way: "I'm a momma, a writer-poet, a quantum Christian and Affrilachian."

She went on to draw connections between the smallness of her home state and the dynamic and topsy-turvy world of quantum physics. She borrowed a concept from the field to note West Virginia "was born in and still is in a state of superposition, where all things are possible."

Social media senator

Given that few poets make a living as poets, these days Good works as a state lobbyist for the growth of an industrial hemp industry in West Virginia while searching for a full-time job.

"It's hard to make a living here," she said. "My kids are grown, and they're, like, 'Why are we here?'"

But she keeps busy with her poetry, reading and speaking widely. She also performs with a jazz-flavored poetry band called Heroes Are Gangleaders. She is headed to New York in a few months to work on an album with the group and perform at the Bowery Poetry Club.

She has also mounted a piece of digital performance art, running a campaign for the post of 'social media senator.' It was a forward-thinking act in a country whose new president landed in the White House in no small measure because of his Twitter feed.

"Sometimes poets and storytellers have an intuition. I clearly saw with my marketing background and profession that politics is going to be run by social media," she said.

She has put the campaign -- waged largely on Twitter and Facebook -- on hold, as some folks didn't get it and took it seriously.

"It was really performance art. But everything I do has some sort of advocacy attached to it," she said. "I wish I could write more love poems. But I need my poems to do something, you know? Not that love poems don't do anything. But that's how I'm wired."

Poetry is a way to stay true, she said.

"I'm going stay true to me and what I believe in. Sometimes that can be" -- she paused -- "that can be uncomfortable. But I've found that even with a little poem, 'Boom Boom,' that people really connect with. When the truth comes through you, you feel it. And then you're fearless."

'Hot Pass'

By Crystal Good

I was raised NASCAR. Talladega Speedway,

Lava Soap, Ford tough, LynyrdSkynyrd/Public Enemy.

I can talk a rainbow of s--- to anybody. 304 girl all terrain

or two wheels. Look Mama no hands on the dance floor.

Rolln' my eyes or whatever you got. Burpn Bud or 40 o-z

easy as sippin' champagne Greenbrier flutes, suites for me.

Mountain made, tame the white water catfish zip the line just

in time to watch Uncle Boy and Bub finish paintn' my Chevy

cherry red durin' the Steelers half-time. I can take a turn, drive

the straight-away flare full spare Hemi engine, I get anywhere.

Say my prayers pay my tolls, tunnel myself out to any big city

they always speak Español to me. Si' just you wait Mz Crystal

got laps to go a rhythm a ripple, a page to read about Sweet Home

West V -- before the checkered flag, black/ white, me.

From "Valley Girl" by Crystal Good. Available at Taylor Books, in Charleston, amazon.com and at crystalgood.net.

'Kwansaba for Norman Jordan'

By Crystal Good

You fire starter. You my kin. You

my kind. You my kin-d/lin'. You that

radical. You that Wood son. You my

hometown. You my boy. You my poetry

Pops. You the teacher. You. Our kin.

You. Our kind. You. Our kin-d/lin'. You

fire starter. You green light. You, go....

Norman Jordan was a well-known poet from Ansted, who died in June 2015. Kwansaba is an African-American verse form of praise.

'Not A West Virginia Poem #2'

By Crystal Good

I've never taken a straight line to get anywhere,

it's always up and over, down one side of the river

up the other to cross a bridge and back up the other side of the river, big tern, little tern, wait for the train,

underpass, tunnel -- going the wrong way?

Make a you turn.

'Not A Obama Poem'

By Crystal Good

I live on the Obama Fault line

It's dangerous here

The earth could move at any given time

And. It's all Obamas fault

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at

douglas@wvgazettemail.com

304-348-3017 or follow

@douglaseye on Twitter.