The Higher Ground coalition is collaborating this spring with Harlan County High School on several projects designed to create awareness of and participation in ArtPlace-funded efforts in creative community development, and in the development of a series of projects designed to increase vibrancy in Harlan County, in the Appalachian coalfields of Kentucky.
Students in Wendy Clem’s theater classes at Harlan County High School are making one-act plays using Higher Ground methods. Students in Pam Hoskins art classes are creating theater set pieces, and collaborating with Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College professor Carlton Hughes’ dual credit classes in photography to create work based on the “Where I’m From” concept, project which has grown out of the following poem by George Ella Lyon, a Harlan born and bred writer based in Lexington:
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening, it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm whose long-gone limbs
I remember as if they were my own.
I’m from fudge and eyeglasses, from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls and the pass-it-ons, from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul with a cottonball lamb and ten verses I can say myself.
I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments —
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.
According to her website, Lyon wrote “Where I’m From” in response to a poem in Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet by Jo Carson, collaborating playwright on the first two Higher Ground plays. Lyon wrote her first “I’m From” poem in 1993, and soon after used it as a teaching exercise with other writers. Lyon writes “it immediately took off” and since then, teachers have used it with students all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; with girls in juvenile detention, men in prison, and refugees in a camp in the Sudan.
Back in Harlan, we have started an initiative to integrate “Where I’m From” poem-making deep into our ArtPlace work. An art exhibit, a meme-creation campaign for the Internet, and other creative writing and visual art making projects are afoot. In one Appalachian Studies class at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, the project has produced the following poem from the work of thirty county residents:
I’m from coal-cracked windshields and losing lottery tickets;
Fishing from a boat, covered in homemade bug spray;
Snowstorms bringing people out, not keeping them in;
Wearing pajama bottoms to Walmart.
I’m from waiting half an hour in the drive-thru when it’s empty inside;
Christmas parades that are mostly coal trucks;
Hardships and blessings;
The strong and the broken.
I’m from the white church on the hill;
Walking in lost and leaving whole;
Bible packing, tent meeting, and hard preaching;
Jones Creek and Dean’s Lane, gardens and hard labor.
I’m from “sit still or I’ll set you on fire;”
The snowball bush and pear tree that lost their lives in a lightning storm and made me feel a part of me was gone;
Gravel roads, railroad crossings, and trespassing signs;
.22s and 12 gauges, turkey and deer.
I’m from survival knives and bikes,
Grapevines that swing to the sky,
A family full of boys covered in coal dust from our daddy’s hugs;
Mining coal all week, and talking about mining all weekend.
I’m from sliding down waterfalls on milk jugs,
The dress Mom made me wear pinned between my knees;
The rat she threw in the potbelly stove after knocking it out with a skillet;
The sound I’ll never forget when the rat hit the flames.
I’m from the rug smeared with coal dust;
The greasy pants of a man who fixes it himself;
The sawdust left from making a new porch swing;
Homemade sauerkraut, crowded rooms, and loud conversations.
I’m from the eyes in the treetops the dogs bark at in the night,
The acorns the squirrels are cracking,
The rub on trees the hunters seek,
The houses you can’t see til the leaves fall from the trees.
“Where I’m From” combines much of what we hope to accomplish with Higher Ground and our ArtPlace work: It is a celebration of what attaches us to place. It is an accessible way for almost everyone to express themselves in a way that is at once personal, beautiful, specific, and communal. And it is grounded in our language and lived experience, the cornerstones of our approach to vibrancy.