by Karen Weyant
Imagine this: You are an 18-year old student in your first college writing course. It’s the first day of class and your professor is reviewing the syllabus and required texts for the course. Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life. As a student in the course, you think that you have heard incorrectly. Working? Poems? Industrial? Can all three words really come together to form a title of a book? You don’t really believe her until you trot over to the campus bookstore, find the book, and flip through its pages. And it’s true. There really is a book that blends poetry and the working-class world.
This story may not be familiar to you, but it’s a pleasant memory of mine – it’s the exact moment when I realized that what I knew about the world could be material for a poem. I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania in the heart of the American Rust Belt. Both my parents were factory workers and most of my other family members either worked in factories or retail. I won’t generalize working-class families by saying that my family didn’t read – on the contrary, my mother was an avid reader and she devoured everything from children’s books to romances to history textbooks. I’m sure that I got my love of reading from her. Still, outside of the stray book of Robert Frost poems and the occasional Emily Dickinson verse, poetry was absent in my home.
Since that time, I have read many, many collections of poets who explore working-class history and sociology. These poets explore everything from the Pittsburgh steel mills, to the deep Appalachian coal mines, to the lumber camps of the Pacific Northwest. In reality, there are way too many to talk about in a single blog post, but I would like to mention a few favorites. First, there are many anthologies that publish poems about the working-class life, including the aforementioned Working Classics edited by Peter Oresick and Nicholas Coles and Going for Coffee edited by Tom Wayman. Then there are single collections. Chris Llewellyn’s Fragments from the Fire and Mary Fell’s The Persistence of Memory are collections that explore the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher narrates the West Virginia coal wars of the early 1920s. Plus, Trembling in the Bones by Eleanor Swanson investigates the stark world of the Colorado Coal Mines in the late 1800s and early 1900’s. More recently, I have read American Busboy by Matthew Guenette, which explores the world of busboys, waitresses, dishwashers and cooks and The Pattern Maker’s Daughter by Sandee Gertz Umbach which explores the past and present of Rust Belt Pennsylvania, focusing on the Johnstown area.
Besides reading, I write about the working-class world. I teach at a community college, where most of my students (if not all) come from working-class backgrounds. They come to class in splattered uniforms from kitchens or scrubs from working as aides in nursing care facilities. They come to class tired from a ten-hour shift or from a home life trying to balance childcare with education. I know their stories – Before I become a professor I worked a variety of jobs including a stint as a third shift factory worker. When I write, I want to make sure that their stories are not lost, and in return, I want to teach them so they can understand their worlds can be part of literature.
Karen J. Weyant is an Assistant Professor of English at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. A recipient of a 2007 poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, she has also recently won a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. Her poems have appeared in a number of journals including 5 AM, Cave Wall, Copper Nickel, Slipstream, and River Styx. She is the author of two chapbooks, Stealing Dust and Wearing Heels inthe Rust Belt, winner of the 2011 Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest. Before she was a poet and professor, she worked a variety of jobs including brief stints as a third shift factory worker, a waitress, a reporter for a small rural newspaper, and a bookseller for a chain bookstore that no longer exists. Currently, she lives in Warren, Pennsylvania and blogs at The Scrapper Poet.