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Clinched: A Talk with Poet Susan Hankla ’73

By Marly Youmans ’75

My review of Susan Hankla’s Clinch River in the October 2017 issue of The Hollins Critic begins like this: “I doubt that any other reviewer of Susan Hankla’s first full-length book, Clinch River, has had the great good luck of seeing her, a young woman, dance playfully with an enormous rattlesnake skin. Such is my sparkling luck.” I have known Susan Hankla for decades; she is one of those attractive, special people who spill over with an abundance of life, and it is a great pleasure to question her about her first full-length poetry collection, its poems bound tightly to her growing-up years and to a coal-mining region in the Appalachian South. As I wrote in the close of my review, the poems “tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!”

Clinch River comes to the world from poet R. H. W. Dillard’s Groundhog Poetry Press, a new small press in Roanoke, Virginia. Richard Dillard serves as publisher, editor, designer, compositor warehouse manager, and shipping director for the new poetry press, which is already shipping out its second “suite” of handsomely-designed paperback books. Distribution is through SPD, which already lists Hankla’s book as “recommended” and a poetry bestseller. Having made “not a snobbish decision but a purely practical one,” Richard Dillard is accepting Groundhog poets by invitation only. A well-known and much-admired writer and professor in the undergraduate and M.F.A.program at Hollins, he has no trouble filling his roster of poets.

A Hollins graduate with an M.F.A. from Brown, Susan Hankla previously published a chapbook with Burning Deck Press of Providence. She has appeared in Gargoyle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Blue Mesa, Artemis, Hollins Critic, Open Places, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest and New Virginia Review. A resident of Richmond, Virginia, she has received a Virginia Commission grant in fiction and fellowships to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Frost Place.


Marly: As a child, you moved to a place and suddenly became “other,” and you encountered mountain people and culture ways that were alien to you. So it was a transformative time—nearly ten years when you were torn from your place and had to make a new one.  You had to negotiate an unfamiliar world that was sometimes a frightening one. How did you come to write these poems now, rather than earlier in your life? Why did you need that distance from your time in coal country?

Photo of Susan HanklaBook jacket for Clinch RiverSusan: One: I really dislike my autobiographical writing! And Two: I had way too many feelings about Appalachia to manage. I can remember crying to the point of gasping and hiccuping in the church nursery when we first got there, and then being older, acting out in school. I spent perfectly good hours standing in the corner by the pencil sharpener, watching paint dry. These intensely personal facts of my life would never see print. My parents also had to adjust, and I think of their graceful entry.

My father, a pharmacist, was known as Dr. Hankla, and often he treated men who were wounded from accidents at the mines. Once we were given a black lamb as a barter for medicines, and we had that soft wooly creature in our basement in town till we sent it to live on a farm. I don’t remember either my mother or my father ever casting aspersions on what was also alien to them, so that set the tone for my acceptance of classmates, some of whom were living as if in the 19th century without running water.

When I began reading magical realism and learning about it so I could teach it, I found that Gabriel García Márquez refers to One Hundred Years of Solitude as his memoir, and that gave me a second wind on moving closer to this material. I have to say that his book changed my life. Over time, that book would inspire my approach to the material in Clinch River.

Marly: That’s surprising but seems apt; García Márquez creates such colorful, isolated characters in the members of the Buendía family and their village of Macondo. What was your reaction to the mountain people when you met them as a young child, and how did that change in your years with them? What did you find out about your past and theirs in writing these poems?

Susan: The mountain people were my fellow classmates, and I remember noticing dark purple medicine, called gentian violet, a 19th-century remedy painted some kids’ faces and bodies where they had sores. Some had hair that smelled of kerosene, a lice preventative. And they sounded different. Mom was big on “not dropping the g” in speech, and did they ever: thinkin, playin, talkin, walkin.… And a lot of things lived behind the at (where’s that at?). Hit’s a beautiful day. I’ve went to the beauty shop to get teased out. And on radio, a fellow talked a lot about the humididdy, and then he tortured our ears with Flat and Scruggs’s so-called music. Blasphemy of me to say that today, and I wouldn’t, but back then, I put a transistor radio under my pillow at night and listened to soul singers in Detroit. Or I tried to get Radio Free Europe on Dad’s ham set, connecting to really foreign voices. Mom let me subscribe to The Village Voice. But what was a futon? A duvet?

I guess I always felt other, partly because of being a very introverted young girl, who painted pictures and read. Intensely shy, I can remember looking down at myself from far away, and then catching myself doing that, hoping nobody noticed. I’m sure that was a coping mechanism.

Marly: Your mother emphasized proper speech, and your father was seen as an important man, the town pharmacist. But your classmates were the children of miners. The nature of coal mining changed a good deal in the 20th century. Many people who had a place and a role eventually lost both. Where do these poems fit in with that history?

Susan: NPR broadcast a piece about the fact that some small towns were facing extinction, and some of them I recognized, and that stuck with me. Maybe that broadcast made me want to hurry up and write something. Losses and resulting diminishment do work their way into the poems in Clinch River. And I’ve had some haunting experiences of taking walks and finding that the very pavement I am on suddenly ends.

As a child I saw the fathers of my friends ride in the backs of trucks when they came home from mining coal, looking deranged by that awful black dust that covered them up, so that you could only see the whites of their eyes. I was reading Sons and Lovers, so Lawrence’s colliers had to relocate to Virginia in my mind. Coal was delivered to our house, clattering down the chute, and suddenly I understood something about the world: that a job could link you to poverty, cheat you, and even kill you; now that’s tragedy. I see that is what Tennessee Ernie Ford is singing about in the classic, “Sixteen Tons.” “I owe my soul to the company store” has to be one of the darkest and scariest and saddest lines ever in a song.

Marly: Those strong memories inform the poems of Clinch River. How do these differ from the poems you had been writing earlier in voice and texture, and why?

Book jacket for Clinch RiverSusan: Writing the poems for Clinch River connected me to everything I imagine I was taking in that was both good and bad about where I’d lived, where I’d learned to be an observer. But what got me on the path of righteousness was that in the ’70s after graduating from college, I became extremely taken with unschooled artists. I obsessed on them. I began to publish essays and articles about Summerville, Georgia’s Rev. Howard Finster, the Man of Visions. Then a strange thing happened. When I got to meet him, he talked just like those kids from my early life. But this time I was ready to embrace the music.

Marly: So the sound of Howard Finster’s voice jogged your memory about those important early years in Appalachia. You made hand-sewn textile art to honor that, and later you began to write from those formative years. When you began dealing with characters, Glenda and Junior and others, what did you need to use or to sacrifice in order to tell the truth of their stories?

Susan: Art is the lie…. So they are all made up people in the book, even the narrator. The sacrifice, if you call it that, would be that I didn’t write the poems as autobiographical. Instead, I found stories to tell. The book is a piece of art from my imagination and not a memoir. And magical realism, just as the cover art demonstrates, is its strong suit.

At first I was probably trying too hard to write the book and it just wouldn’t jell. And it came to me piecemeal. It wasn’t even close to being a book. Then Glenda befriended me. I existed because she existed. She stayed to witness, so I could go on and fill my head with knowledge. But she interpreted my world. She explained my tears and sorrows to me, and even those dissociative moments. She healed me. She wrote me. I had to cut through a load of manure. Ideas I held about writing poems. That they are supposed to be pretty. I’ve read all kinds of poetry and literature, so why did I hold onto this fairy tale? Fear of being judged.

Marly: You deal with many things that are not pretty—the BB in an eye, bracelets of scars, drownings in the Clinch River. You show the reader many varieties of brokenness, tightly linked to rural poverty. As a child, my father had a neighbor who ate the Georgia dirt when food was scarce, and I heard stories of a woman—Rilla, the mother of Doll, who I knew—who would eat the odd black mold found next to the well porch at my maternal grandmother’s house in Collins, Georgia. Perhaps she craved some crucial minerals missing from her diet. Today, “Eat dirt” is still an insult. Talk about your striking poem, “The Woman Canning Dirt in Sterilized Mason Jars,” where a woman scoops up the earth to fill her jars.

Susan: Okay. Once again, art is the lie that tells the truth. I had saved a clipping from The New York Times about how a tribe in Africa made dirt cookies to fill up on when they were near starvation. Finally I could use that. And I really used to fill mason jars with water and then bury them in the ground, and I loved how cold they were when I’d dig them back up a few days later and drink from them. (Maybe I thought I was making moonshine.) So that started to be that poem. It’s both a pun and a metaphor: People in the book are “dirt poor.” But also it had to be graveyard dirt, Native American, because unconsciously I was acknowledging that reality, too. But the poem is truly magical realism.

Marly: Did you come to unity in the manuscript and to the arc of Glenda’s story by groping and following your instinct as the poems unfolded, or by more plotted-out means?

Susan: I had to learn to wait. I learned to look and listen. I let the poems guide me. I was probably preaching about these very things in the writing classes I taught for decades. I have always told my students to “anchor to reality, and then go out on a limb” (Tom Lux). Now that made sense for my own work, once I had Appalachian realities to anchor me. The first poem I wrote for Clinch River began when I was waiting for an artist friend to buy rubber dinosaurs at Dollar General. It was a Saturday. While I waited in her van, I had a strong memory: Every Saturday in our Appalachian town, women of childbearing age would knock on the door and ask if we had clothes, toys, and shoes we could part with. A lot of times as a child I answered the door, face to face with bottomless need. I started writing about that reality, and that was the way in.

Marly Youmans is the award-winning author of 13 books: her novels include A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, Maze of Blood, and Glimmerglass; poetry books include the epic post-apocalyptic adventure Thaliad and collections The Throne of Psyche and The Foliate Head. A long sequence of poems, The Book of the Red King, will be out in late 2018.

A selection of poems from Clinch River

Reprinted from Susan Hankla’s Clinch River, copyright © 2017, with the permission of Groundhog Poetry Press LLC.

The Sweater

She didn’t see the sweater on her back

unravelling as she walked away from home,

didn’t know its cables

snagged on winter’s thorns

so scarletly,

delighting squirrels and magpies.


Didn’t know this shredding sweater

was her shining raiment,

didn’t know she’d grip its last pearl buttons

to barter for milk, for bread.


Didn’t know how hard she’d have to work graveyard

in the store of winter long johns

or that she’d see the one red pair

swinging on its hanger, like a quadriplegic soldier,

like a clothespin dolly on the line from girlhood.


Or that in buckets of wash water she’d see herself,

and that she couldn’t stop moving, flying

back through the years,

until the tree of her sweater’s remains

rained down apples,

at first rotten, then merely bruised,

and then, finally, she tray-packed Golden Delicious,

standing in line

with others at the orchard.


The Woman Canning Dirt in Sterilized Mason Jars

has more hope than I do.

I would have canned it, too,

had there been those stretchy

pink and russet worms to watch,

like science.


Her dirt was terrible-dry, not holy by burrow.

The dirt my mother canned could not be just any. No.

It couldn’t come from hookworm plots

where the dogs lolled. She had to take a bus

to the far rough edges of county—

to a forgotten graveyard, where her people

lay down in their satin.


That was Indian dirt she canned.

And after it cured in dark ground,

she’d dig it up toward the end of the month

to make cookies

we’d eat

when we were down to Crisco

and ketchup.



Our teacher pushes Glenda’s frostbit hands

into ice water,

Glenda screaming “Stop,”

but what’s good for us often looks like it’s not.


Day’s spotlight

lands on red beads,

real mountain seeds,

strung onto a bib,

sewn onto Glenda’s drawing

of Pocahontas.

Glenda adds breasts,

as if the Indian princess wears

a push-up bra.


Home, under lamplight,

I pore over wallet-size boyfriends,

then render them in chalky pastels,

not knowing they will someday be

frostbitten men, amputees, skeletons,

electricians, snake handlers, paratroopers,

metal workers, hunters, linemen,

coal miners, liars, laid-off fathers of fourteen,

O, Death.