"It is time to tell our story. But then who gets to tell that story – and it's not necessarily the women," says Pauletta Hansel.
We talk weeks before election night, before venture capitalist turned bestselling memoirist J.D. Vance defeats Tim Ryan in the close Ohio Senate race, and shortly after Hansel has returned from volunteering with flood relief, assisting those devasted by the deadly Kentucky floods of summer 2022.
Hansel is from southeastern Kentucky and currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she serves as the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library Writer-in-Residence. She was the first Poet Laureate of Cincinnati and is the author of nine poetry collections. Her latest book "Heartbreak Tree" was released in March 2022.
Hansel is joined on our Zoom call by Sara Moore Wagner, author of two poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections; most recently: "Hillbilly Madonna," out this November. Press materials call the book "a harrowing and ultimately hopeful lens into rural life and the opioid crisis." Sound familiar? Well, except for the hopeful part — and the fact that Wagner's work centers women, as Hansel's poems do as well.
Both writers are well aware of someone who did get to tell the story, one of the more infamous sons from Appalachia: Vance, and his thoughts about addiction and poverty, which he spun into a flying carpet (bag) and rode all the way into politics.
What do poets have to say about Vance's book "Hillbilly Elegy," its broad stroke painting the home and people they know and love — and what place can poetry still find in this dying world? "There is a road, but the road is still inside you," Hansel writes in a poem where an older narrator speaks to herself as a child. "You are trying. Remember."
Salon talked to Hansel and Wagner about writing, politics and home.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Describe your new collections for me.
Sara Moore Wagner: So "Hillbilly Madonna" is a book about a lot of things. But mostly it's about my childhood and early adolescence. And then also, on a larger scale, it's about the opioid epidemic, especially as it relates to women, and about generational trauma and breaking cycles. I think there's a lot in there about expectations for men versus women with regard to family history and family cycles.
"I have a responsibility to those women both before me and after me to tell the truth."
Pauletta Hansel: "Heartbreak Tree" is about gender and place, and specifically about Appalachia. I can repeat a lot of what of what Sara just said, except, of course, for the opioid case. But we are of different generations. I grew up in the 1960s and '70s in Appalachia. I've lived out of the region longer than I have lived in the region. And so my work is to a large degree looking back . . . I wanted to create poems that were stripped of the nostalgia that comes from loss and melancholy, and to take as much as I could a hard look at what it was like for me, as a girl and a young woman growing up in Eastern Kentucky . . . and to try to address that through truth telling. You know, there's a way in which having become an elder in my family, I not only feel like I have more permission now because I'm not going to hurt as many people — hurting those you love is always part of the poet's dilemma — but even greater than that feeling, I have a responsibility to those women both before me and after me to tell the truth.
Heartbreak Tree by Paulette Hansel (Photo courtesy of Madville Publishing)Do you feel that growing up as a girl in Appalachia is different than growing up in other places?
Wagner: I grew up kind of split. My parents are both Appalachian. My mom's from West Virginia and my dad's from Appalachian Ohio. They met in Columbus, and then they split apart. So I spent a lot of my time when I was with him in the hills. That landscape became my father's landscape. And there was this weird conflict between what he expected of me. The land was wild and he was a hunter. He lived his whole life saying he was a hillbilly and was very proud of it. So where is my place in this landscape that's been completely claimed and also smoothed, maintained — owned, I guess, by my father?
I wasn't expected to be able to have a voice or to do the things that I did. He asked me to quit college to help him raise some of my younger siblings — just the expectation of: whatever I was doing wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. A lot of the girls that I knew growing up were exactly the same as me. They went on to lose children, to fall into addiction in a way that I didn't because I had a mother who was like, "No, that's not your world." And the privilege of that is overwhelming . . . the area that my father comes from, there was the expectation of, "This is your role and this is what you're meant for." And whatever way you step out of it, you fail, even if you go to college.
You both have poems about difficult subjects, including violence, heroin and substance abuse. Why do you think poetry works as a vehicle for these things that are sometimes hard for us to talk about?
"Women are vilified so much more than men for addiction."
Wagner: For me, it was important to talk about especially heroin and opioids from a woman's perspective, because I feel like in the community I come from women are vilified so much more than men for addiction. Appalachians and poor people in general who fall into drug addiction are seen as having a personal moral failing, but it's even more so with women. And so, I think there's no better art form than poetry to speak a truth in a way that other people can just feel it immediately. That was important to me, especially for women to be able to say, "I'm broken, but I'm not beyond redemption. I'm not a garbage human being."
Hansel: I'll echo that, but also say it is this sense of: heart to heart, skin to skin, even underneath the skin, poetry strips away the barriers and lets readers who are willing enter into the experience of the speaker. Certainly, fiction can do that too and certainly memoir can do that. But memoir can be a little bit scarier because you don't have quite the ability to tell that slant truth . . . [Poetry is] much more condensed. I don't have to create the whole world, I can create just that part of it necessary to be able to move into a particular truth.
"The devastation is so vast, in places it's invisible."
You were recently in Kentucky working on flood relief. How is the recovery going?
Hansel: House by house . . . The devastation is so vast, in places it's invisible. Because you might walk through a town and not really see . . . But you start getting out into the county areas and people's houses are still upended. People are stripping them down to the bare timbers in order to be able to rebuild again. It's going to be a long recovery because it is house by house, holler by holler, need by need by need.
There are major infrastructure issues, which are of course, not totally visible. Even people who have houses are not necessarily having regular access to water and electricity and heat. People whose bridges are still not passable. The other thing that I'll just mention is that people — not everybody — but some people are starting to acknowledge that this wasn't just a 1,000-year flood, this was a mining disaster because many of the places that have been hit the hardest are the places where the strip mining in the surrounding areas had wiped away all possibility of any sort of barrier . . . I just finished a draft of a poem about the group in Breathitt County that is now suing the coal company for neglecting their silt ponds, basically. First, you know, the water came down from the hill. It turned gray, like the silt ponds, and then everything was destroyed that was in its path. It would be interesting to see what happens with that as time goes on, if there are more lawsuits and success in those lawsuits.
I'm sure it was difficult being on the ground and the local and the regional reaction to the floods versus the national response, which is: people are horrified. And then they forget.
Hansel: They forget nationally, and they forget in Cincinnati, and so that's been part of my mission in life over the last month just to keep it right in people's faces on social media and in the classes that that I'm getting ready to teach. Because we're close enough that this should not be invisible . . . We are on the verge of this community and there's no reason for us to forget that. It's gone from the news. Driving back, I heard the press conference with Biden there in Breathitt County, and almost had to pull over to cry because he was saying all the right things that we're not used to hearing from presidents about how it's going to take a long time, we're going to be right there. We need to take care of the infrastructure that wasn't there, as well as the infrastructure that's not there now. But on the ground, people are fighting FEMA like they do everywhere. FEMA's first response is to turn people down. People who are already worn down from the flood are having a hard time getting the energy out to fight.
Hillbilly Madonna by Sara Moore Wagner (Photo courtesy of Driftwood Press)I'm from Ohio, but I moved away recently, and miss it every day. A friend there said there's been a ton of J.D. Vance political ads on TV. Are you seeing that?
Hansel: I don't watch TV.
Wagner: There's been a lot of yard signs.
Hansel: In my house he's called He Who Shall Not Be Named.
How is your Appalachia different from Vance's or his idea of the region?
Wagner: My life story is very similar to J.D. Vance's. There's an interview in my book where I talk about how I had a therapist when I was telling my life story, she said, "You should read 'Hillbilly Elegy.'" I think I didn't see her again. It's alarming to me that he does not acknowledge the privilege that he has. And this is something Pauletta and I have talked about quite a bit. The idea of him doing it all for political gain, really is what he built [with] "Hillbilly Elegy." He had a five-year plan that included putting himself up on the top. He's basically misrepresented everything. The urban Appalachians of Middletown, Ohio, which is really close to where I live now, are angry at the way he represented them. And then he comes from the actual town that Pauletta also comes from, and people [there] are upset at the representations.
Hansel: Well, not necessarily. He's little J.D. I haven't heard of people speak of him recently, but I'm not aware that he's actually gone to Eastern Kentucky . . . I have stood a whole lot of my life as an urban Appalachian, and as a person who's really interested in this part of the story — I moved here as an adult . . . I was 20, and I went to college and graduate school here and still had people back home, so I'm a first generation in the city. But a lot of the people that I've worked with over the years are people like Vance who had a connection to the region through him. And maybe had a sense of the negative stereotypes that were being placed upon them and their family by a larger community, internalized in a way but not completely.
There are parts of that memoir, maybe the first fourth or so, that I was really very moved by because it was speaking an experience that I had seen in the urban communities in Cincinnati. But then how that got twisted and used in order to make to make false points and to make false claims, is something that I carry some residual guilt about, having spent the last almost 40 years of my life trying to educate Appalachian communities about the history of the region, the layered perspectives and reasons for poverty both in and out of the region.
That he could live – Middletown is, what, 30 miles away — and not have any sense of how the misuse of the region his family came from had a major factor in how his family ended up, how and where they were, it feels it feels a little bit like a personal failing. I'll acknowledge that, that it just shows me that there's so much more work that needs to be done to educate Appalachian people about our own history, and how that interacts with the world as it is now.
"It's an elegy, you know. But we're not dead yet!"
Wagner: There's a lot that he says about personal accountability in his book, especially. He has a whole section in that book about how Yale is possible and [people] don't realize that with grants and things like it can be just as cheap as any other school. And it's like, you went into the Marines. That is not an option for everyone. That's not an option for a lot of women in particular to follow that path. Women are something that he just leaves out of his story. He's very unforgiving about his mom and her addiction struggle, without acknowledging the history of that, especially at that time period in Appalachia and in poor communities, just the influx of drugs, and drug manufacturers and companies preying upon women like his mother. For him it's more: everything bad is a personal moral failing of the people themselves. And I think that's frustrating. And it's an elegy, you know. But we're not dead yet!
Hansel: He and his story to a certain degree were misused by the people who mentored him. But he benefited. He was complicit. Maybe if he had gone to Antioch Appalachia instead of Yale.
Wagner: When I first read "Hillbilly Elegy," I thought it was kind of moderate. He even said he thought people were crazy for saying Obama wasn't born here. There was a lot in there that you're like, "Oh, you think differently than me, but you're not blasting everybody; you're kind of trying to be reasonable." But now that has gone out the window. He's just doubled down on every ignorant thing.
Hansel: He turned the corner. There are some who will say, I think there had been hope for him at an earlier time.
Wagner: Because he even did say that Donald Trump was — he was anti-Trump. But he transformed himself.
Hansel: Within the urban Appalachian movement there were some feelings early on that there might be a reason to try to bring him into the fold. To try to do this education that I'm talking about, but I think it was too late. So I won't feel guilty about that.
"And even the people from it, we're still trying to discover and tell the story."
At the very end in December 2020, we did an online program called "Don't Cry for Us, J.D. Vance," using writers who were writing about the region as sort of a counterbalance to that single story. We were able to get an interview on the local NPR station. And apparently, he called the that NPR station, whining, because we got the airtime.
Wagner: Hopefully he won't do that to you if you write this.
Well, I've written about "Hillbilly Elegy" a couple of times. And I did get a lot of emails from men, but not from him. What do you wish that people knew about Appalachia? Maybe people with no experience of the region or people whose experiences are only informed perhaps by books like his, what do you wish that you could convey to them?
Wagner: Let me say something wonderful about Pauletta. She has invited me into this space that I didn't think I deserved to be in because I felt so split between worlds. I think a lot of my family too doesn't really think of Ohio's Appalachia as being part of Appalachia. Even my mom from West Virginia, she's kind of like, 'What is that about? You know, are we? What are we?" Nothing is defined. People want to put in J.D. Vance and "Beverly Hillbillies" and stereotypes of what the region is, and who the people are in it, like it's some homogenous thing. But it's really an area that we don't understand. And even the people from it, we're still trying to discover and tell the story. So, I think it's important to read, for people not to assume they understand what's happening there and the people that live there, but to read as many individual stories as possible.
"Appalachia can be a reminder that you can't learn about the complexity of a place and a people through soundbites."
Hansel: Perhaps, among other things, Appalachia can be a reminder that you can't learn about the complexity of a place and a people through soundbites. There are stories behind everything and there are stories behind and underneath those stories. And the history of Appalachia is a place of great natural riches and resources, where the people were impoverished by the uses of those resources. That has to be at the base of any story about Appalachia. That complexity, that dichotomy, it has to be the starting point, if you want to try to understand Appalachia, and then there's all these other things too. If you think of Appalachia as being the spine of the United States, then you can literally say that this nation was built on the back of Appalachia.
Wagner: And that continues, if you look at what happened with drug manufacturers.
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Hansel: In the Appalachian writing movement there's always been an awareness that if there is going to be a continuation of the story then there has to be a mentoring process and bringing along process . . . Within the movement of Appalachian art and Appalachian empowerment, there has got to be an awareness that we have to pass it on. I'm really excited that Sara is telling the story that came after mine. And even more than that, she's telling the story after the story of people who for economic and other reasons, left the mountains because there were no other good choices for them. That's a story that needs to go back into the mountains.
I've never felt like J.D. Vance was a fake hillbilly because he didn't grow up there. I've heard that along the way. But it's more because he didn't use what was given him through that legacy in order to make a real difference in the region. It's as important for people who are making a difference in the region now to hear about what happened to their families who left.
Wagner: Connecting with Pauletta has given me language and resources to be able to talk about these things in a way that I – being a J.D. Vance-type who feels disconnected but has my own lived experience — it's important for me to not just think that my experience is the whole story.
Hansel: At the same time, you need to understand the mechanism to understand that your story is as it is. It is your story. And it is a piece of the whole.