By Jody DiPerna
Current Contributing Writer
You can drown in the prose of Chuck Kinder, dance along with him in his fever dream of imagination and memory, as he recounts tales of, “… jailbirds, jailbreaks, outlaws on the run, doomed and despairing barroom brawlers, deep-mine disaster and the souls of the lost buried miners rising like smoke from mine-ventilation holes in the hills.”
This summer, West Virginia University Press re-releases the bookends to Kinder’s writing career: Snakehunter (1973, his first novel) and The Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life (2004, a sort of meta-memoir). The long-time University of Pittsburgh professor, rambling writer, and proud son of West Virginia talked to Pittsburgh Current via email from his home in Key Largo, Fla., about his life, his work, coal mining, and his love of possum.
You once described a work as ‘sort of not fact and not fiction.’
I would say your description is apt. I have always relied on memory and imagination equally. The border between fact and fiction is a porous one I cross over and back easily. I have always told my students that my work is literally as true as the Bible.
Earlier this year Six Gallery Press released your most recent collection of poetry, Hot Jewels. What does poetry demand of you that prose does not?
I have always written poetry. It was the first thing I wrote, but I don’t think of myself as a very good poet. Writing poetry demands an exactness of language that I think is greater than prose. When I write prose, I have to observe certain narrative necessities — plot, characterization – poetry you can focus pretty much on language. I do use characters in poetry, but that is not my focus. I am more engaged in lyricism in the crafting of images. My poems are not bound by trajectory as would be the case with my prose. They are more concerned with the immensity of the moment.
Joan Didion said, “A writer is always selling [someone]out.” I’m wondering if you struggled with this and how you resolve it.”
My bottom concern has always been the story. Whatever the story needs. I do what the story demands of me. I have passages in Last Mountain Dancer that I knew might trouble my mother. These were passages I took from her diaries. She gave me the diaries and I told her I would use some of her material. I never made an issue of it and we never spoke of it again. By the time Dancer came out, her eyesight had deteriorated to the extent she was no longer reading extended prose. Chagall once said of his poetry, ‘I just take my lines for a walk.’ I go where the lines take me. I used to do this with my students. Ask them, ‘What if,’ and encourage them to let their imagination take over. Listen to their stories. Talk to them. Go where the story takes you. You have to remember, I am not trying to write the truth of a thing. I am a storyteller. I tell stories.
Can you talk about the West Virginian relationship to coal and the national attention to coal country.
WV is as close to a colony as you can find in the United States. The robber barons from out of state and their political lackeys robbed the state of its timber, its coal. They have defiled the water. They have strip mined. They have bulldozed mountain tops into the valleys. I had relatives who worked in the mines all their lives – suffered from black lung, silicosis, all of that. While very aware of the damage of coal mining, that has never been a focus of my writing. My focus has always been West Virginians and their rich stories in lore and legend. These are distinct to this region. It is still being used as a political pawn. It is a state in transition. Going from coal to nobody knows what. One thing for certain, despite the political posturing, coal is not coming back. Not the way it was. I really can’t speak to the relationship between West Virginians and coal. It was only a brief part of my life. … It was a fact of life that is disappearing, but while it was here it created a co-dependency that cost the state dearly.”
What does possum taste like? Please don’t tell me it tastes like chicken.
Tastes like a mixture of rattlesnake and beaver. The trick is in the moonshine gravy.