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Diane Gilliam

Visiting Poet

Dianne Gilliam

Poet Diane Gilliam refuses to shy away from the complexities of history, instead using story to illuminate a multiplicity of truths. Her newest work, Kettle Bottom, re-imagines the West Virginia coal mine wars of 1920–1921 through the voices of immigrant, miners, and their families. In taking on the voice of each character that populates the work’s larger historical narrative, Gilliam brings intimacy, immediacy and compassion to the retelling of a violent time. In Eleanor Wilner’s words, “[Gilliam] makes the stone of the West Virginia mountains yield up its human past and gives a second, enduring life through her art to the people of her home place, who would otherwise be ‘all gone under the hill.’”

Her earlier, more directly autobiographical collection, One of Everything, relates the stories of the women in Gilliam’s family. “Her language,” writes Wilner, “carries a particularizing, living presence, stripped of everything false. These deeply-felt, wide-awake, powerful poems are a touchstone for the genuine.”

Gilliam, whose family was a part of the Appalachian outmigration from West Virginia and Kentucky, was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. She received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council in 2003, and Kettle Bottom received the 2004 Intro Award from Perugia Press, a poetry publisher based in Florence, MA. Gilliam holds a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from The Ohio State University and an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. 

Select Poems

Some days, the heart wonders how
she ended up in such a responsible position,

moving the blood along and never
going anywhere herself,

never visiting the elbows or going
to see what the toes are doing.

The heart gets a hankering, some days,
for a new sentence to sing,

but an old rhythm thrums
and drums through her rooms,

a bass line, a syntax whose momentum
the heart is hard-pressed to overcome.

The hardest part is, the heart can’t stop
even for a minute, wait for a second wind-

Someone will come running, counting
the seconds, pound on her like a door.

And the heart almost always relents,
beats, believes she should, accepts

what she’s been told: That of all
the muscles, she is the strongest,

and most involuntary.

From ONE OF EVERYTHING (Cleveland State Univ. Press, 2003)

We ain’t to go in the company store, mooning
over peppermint sticks, shaming ourselves like a dog
begging under the table. They cut off our account
but we ain’t no-account. We ain’t to go to school
so’s the company teacher can tell us we are.
The ain’t going to meeting and bow our heads
for the company preacher, who claims it is the meek
will inherit the coal fields, instead of telling
how the mountains will crumble and rocks
rain down like fire upon the heads
of the operators, like it says in the Bible.
We ain’t to talk to now dirtscum scabs
and we ain’t to talk to God. My daddy
is very upset with the Lord.

From KETTLE BOTTOM (Perguia Press, 2004)

I turned the quilt over on the bed
when the neighbor women come in
to cover the mirrors and stop the clocks,

hang black crepe over the doorframe.

Onliest pretty thing I had, that quilt.

Not a old feedsack quilt, but a Wreath
of Hollyhocks, cut from Aunt Zelly’s
pattern and done up from a piece
of double-pink Mama brought me
from Kermit, soft Nile green for the leaves,
and new bleached muslin to put it on.
I quilted every inch, stitches no bigger
than a speck of meal. He wasn’t home,
night I finished. I put it on the bed,
took my clothes, and got under it.
When I heard him in the kitchen,
I called and told him it was done,
And you know what Mama says, Harlan,
you get a wish, first night under a new quilt.
It got real quiet, then here he come
running. I’d put out the light,
he knocked his shin on the cedar chest
trying to get to me on the bed.

I was fixing to fold it up, get it
out of my sight, when the siren blowed.
I didn’t go. I already knowed.
The quilt was ruint. Big oily smudges
and coal-black handprints where he hadn’t
finished washing up. I cried and carried on so
when I seen it that morning
he couldn’t look at me before he left,
it made him feel so dirty and bad.

I turned the quilt over on the bed
to keep them on me,
Harlan’s hands.

From KETTLE BOTTOM (Perguia Press, 2004)

About Diane

Poetry Center Reading Dates: September 2004