West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman, of Moundsville, spent a week in Pocahontas County, sharing his writing skills with the elementary and middle school students.
At Green Bank Elementary-Middle School Friday, the author read excerpts from his children’s books, shared his poetry and read poetry written by another poet laureate, the late Louise McNeill Pease.
Harshman explained that there are three sources of inspiration for writing a story or poem – real life, retelling old stories and writing down random thoughts.
“When I think about my own books, I like to talk about, ‘where do stories come from?’” he said. “The source for stories – that we as teachers don’t let you know about often enough – is that you can simply take old stories and retell them.”
For example, Harshman’s book “Rocks in My Pockets” is the retelling of a joke shared with him by co-author Bonnie Collins.
“If I’d typed up Bonnie’s extended joke, I might of had a page or two, and I would have stretched it until I had sixteen,” he said. “I love to work that way. I love to retell Appalachian folk tales. More especially, the last decade, I’ve been retelling ancient stories, thousand year old stories from Scandinavia, Sweden, Norway and Denmark.”
An easier way to tell stories, Harshman said, is to draw from personal experiences. One winter night, Harshman received a phone call from a neighbor, alerting him to a fire in his front yard. He looked outside to see his car engulfed in flames. Recalling that story, Harshman created “A Little Excitement,” a children’s book about a chimney fire during a long winter night.
“I took all those real things and began to invent this story,” he explained. “I say this even to first graders. You’re all old enough to have been happy and sad and angry, to have laughed and cried. You can take those real moments in your lives and transform them into stories. You can invent some things and make up some things. It’s a great time.”
Other stories are 100 percent true and are simply a recollection of childhood memories.
Harshman’s third source for story ideas is one of the more obscure, but has positive outcomes, nonetheless.
“To be a writer, I cannot just read,” he said. “Marvelous, terrific, wonderful as reading is, I do have to write. So, one day I’m sitting at my desk, scribbling away when all of a sudden, I wrote down these words: ‘There may be a million stars but there is only one sky.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know where that was going. I didn’t know if that was going to be a poem or a song, or the first sentence of a great American novel. I really didn’t know, but I liked the sound of those words, so I began to play with them.”
The result was “Only One,” a children’s book about how many things make up one larger thing.
After sharing his own work, Harshman told a personal story about Poet Laureate Louise McNeill Pease.
“I do remember when I wrote my first book of poems, I wrote to her and she sent me a very lovely letter back saying how much she liked it,” he said. “A few years later, I saw her read and I think it was the last year of her life. She read at the Vandalia Gathering. She came on stage with a walker and by the time she was done with this poem, she was out of that walker, standing straight and tall, ready to fly. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. She had a huge standing ovation and this is that poem from right here in Pocahontas.”
Harshman read “First Flight” from Pease’s 1972 book Paradox Hill: From Appalachia to Lunar Shore.
Harshman was named Poet Laureate in 2012 by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin. He is the ninth writer to serve in the position since it was first established by the legislature in 1927.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org