By Jake Lawson
Editor's Note: Poetry by Jim Minick will be published in the November 20 installment of Appalachian Places. This piece will be updated with the direct link once published.
I first heard the name Jim Minick from the advice of poet Linda Parsons at the 2023 Tennessee Mountain Writers Conference. Being enamored by Linda's deep compassion and wisdom in writing, I took her advice to heart. Jim's work showed a powerful voice that inspired me to deepen my approach to writing about the Appalachian region.
Jim Minick is an award-winning author of eight books, including poetry, memoir, fiction, and nonfiction. Much of his work involves themes of place, conservation, and environmentalism. He serves as Coeditor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and his work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Oxford American, Appalachian Journal, and many more. His latest book, WITHOUT WARNING: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas, chronicles the devastation and aftermath of a monstrous tornado that ravaged a small Kansas community. His forthcoming volume of poetry, The Intimacy of Spoons, is scheduled for release in Spring of 2024.
On Nov. 15 at 4 p.m., Jim Minick will be visiting ETSU and giving a lecture and reading from his recent book WITHOUT WARNING: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas. The reading will take place at the Rogers Stout Hall Auditorium, room 102. I am deeply honored to have the privilege of interviewing him via email correspondence from his home in Floyd County, Virgina. Below is our conversation to preface his visit to our community.
Hi, Jim. First, I wanted to say congratulations on the publication of WITHOUT WARNING: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas. The tenacity and dignity of the Udall community depicted is nothing short of inspiring. As an Appalachian, are there any personal experiences that shaped how you approached writing about this different region?
Thanks for your kind words, Jake, and these terrific questions.
Obviously, the prairies of Kansas are very different from the mountains here in Virginia. I feel very rooted to having woods and Iron Mountain to the south, so as part of the research, I tried to come to know and appreciate the prairie, to witness its hugeness and rich diversity, and then to understand how that landscape shapes a person, how that constant wind and open space might comfort someone like these mountains comfort me.
Also, small towns, wherever located, have much in common. I was hesitant to take on this story because I never lived in Kansas and never experienced a tornado. But my sister-in-law grew up in Udall, Kansas, and she began introducing me to survivors, and from there, I began to see my own Appalachian home in this small town — how an elementary school teacher taught your parents and your own kids, or how everyone knows you, your family, and your family’s history, or if you’re a stranger, how it takes years to feel like you belong. That belongingness I grew up with; that stranger-ness I’ve lived with now for the 40 years I’ve lived more than 300 miles from where I grew up. Both are essential, I think, in recognizing the power of rootedness and the problems of nativism. So, in Udall, I related to those communal connections as well as the dependence on the natural world through farming, gardening, or just watching the weather. Also, good manners and listening are powerful tools for learning about individuals, their stories, their homes.
Concerning your Appalachian Places pieces, my favorite poem, Mort for Short, does a lot of work in a small space. The poem is reflective and serious, but there is a sweetness with the dog “who will lick my face.” I admire your skill in dealing with such heavy themes. Can you speak about your process when dealing with such broad topics as mortality?
That poem’s title still makes me laugh, and your question makes me remember Harriette and Harold Arnow named one of their dogs Sin. Isn’t that a hoot? “Come, Sin,” I imagine her calling. Or “Here, sit on my lap, you big goofy Sin.” All to say, laughter helps any hard pill go down, unless of course you’re laughing too hard, and the pill gets stuck!
Anyway. Mortality is something we don’t want to think about — I don’t want to think about. And yet, thinking about it should make us realize the immense miracle of every living moment. Which leads to gratitude. Poetry helps me understand my smallness, but also the immense dance I’m part of. Prayer, too. I hope I face any obstacle with more wonder than fear, and with abundant compassion.
As an avid birdwatcher, I appreciate the presence of bird imagery throughout your work. From the owl in The Oldest Spoon to the bluebirds and others in Why Birds and the red-tailed hawk in Hawk Finally Says — you use birds to modify, as a vehicle, and sometimes as a symbol. Everything I’ve read of yours has such vibrant, environmental detail. For your poetry, do you conduct research or do you have a process for representing the natural world?
Instead of talking about the birds I love dearly, here for a moment, I want to talk about trees, specifically redbud. I don’t remember my first encounter with a redbud, or when I learned to identify it. They weren’t plentiful where I lived, but when you see one, hopefully that singular, spectacular tree will make you attend. So, as a teen, I knew redbud, but not well.
In my 30s, when we converted old pasture to young woods, we planted thousands of trees, among them 100 redbuds, so I got to know them better — their bark, gnarly roots, and especially the zigzag pattern of their stems.
In my late 40s, I went back to school for my MFA, where I was old enough to be the parent of most of my classmates. One day, a few of us watched from a second story office as groundskeepers planted a tree near our building. I could see that telltale zigzag stem, and without thinking, said, “That redbud will look good in that spot.” My friends looked at me. “You can tell that’s a redbud?” Sure, I said, a little surprised. “I can’t identify any trees with leaves,” one said, “let alone when they don’t have leaves.” I didn’t know what to say, especially as I felt a huge sadness for that lack of knowledge.
That ignorance lives in me too. Just last year, I read that redbud flowers are edible — how did I miss this? The tree’s in the bean family, and now I know those pink blooms are delicious.
All to say, my “research” is often about following my curiosities, allowing time to explore both woods and books. To “read” widely, both the life inside and out. This can lead to a messy “process,” but it feels more in line with the full richness of organic life.
John Prine said this all much more succinctly: “Blow up your TV….”
In your writing, I notice an ever-present sense of respect and responsibility for the subjects you represent. Your work is a fantastic model of an intersection between critical regional issues and personal connections. What advice would you give a young regional writer searching for their voice?
To echo the above: Read widely — in your chosen genre, yes, but also in other genres, cultures, and disciplines. I love digging into science, trying to understand that language, learning what a scientist knows, how they think and use language. And as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man, I try to read beyond those labels to see how others experience this world, how I might also become a better person and writer by understanding these others’ views.
Also read deeply. Find authors you admire — how they shape sentences and how they shape a life. Study them. Read once for pleasure, twice to understand that pleasure.
And then “read” widely what’s not in books or on screens. When a sapsucker keeps visiting the same pine tree, what’s she doing? How long do those wells of sap flow before the tree heals? What other creatures come to sup? What does the tree think of this all? Or: We live with several bears nearby, so I’ve been learning the language of bear — what a track reveals about size and intent, or how a playful cub bends a sapling to the ground. I’ve never witnessed this but finally figured out how so many bent trees came about, and it’s fun to imagine, isn’t it?
As for “voice,” write letters. Explain yourself to others, including people long gone, or your younger or older selves. The letters might never get sent, but the letter writer begins to hear that unique quality we call voice, which is really one’s personality in the air and on the page, and that discovery is a gift.
I want to reiterate how appreciative I am for the important writing you do, and I look forward to your forthcoming poetry volume, The Intimacy of Spoons. Here at ETSU, we are all very excited about your upcoming visit. It will be an honor to welcome you to our community!
Thanks, Jake. Looking forward to meeting you in person.
Jim Minick is the author or editor of eight books, including Without Warning: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas (nonfiction), The Intimacy of Spoons (poetry), Fire Is Your Water (novel), and The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family. His work has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, Poets & Writers, Oxford American, Orion, Shenandoah, Appalachian Journal, Wind, and The Sun. He serves as coeditor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel.