How I Wear Heels in the Rust Belt by Karen J. Weyant
EIL feature poet and today’s guest blogger Karen J. Weyant has a new book coming out, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, which won Main Street Rag’s annual chapbook contest. Here’s what she has to say about her book, her background, and her writing influences:
In her novel, Coal Run, Tawni O’Dell depicts an observation from a character about his sister: “Jolene gets out of the truck and starts walking across the ripped-up yard, stepping over pieces of garage door. Thanks to her many pageant years spent picking her way across muddy fairgrounds, torn-up football fields, and rutted speedways, she can walk gracefully in high heels through just about anything. Unfortunately, this is not a marketable skill.”
I disagree. Yes, walking in high heels is not a line on a resume, but what is a skill is maintaining resilience in economically depressed areas. Many struggle to learn and master a beautiful balancing act of everyday survival in dust and rust, in debris and corrosion.
The Rust Belt region of the United States is one of these areas. This particular region has become a staple in contemporary American literature. Often, the Rust Belt is portrayed as a region of decay, a place without hope or even a future. Stories and poems are filled with images of closed factories, of worn out farmhouses and shredded cornfields tucked away in rolling hills of dusty railroad tracks where abandoned boxcars come to rest. Many writers do a wonderful job with description. When I read their works, I feel like I am walking through bits of my hometown or driving through the gentle hills of western Pennsylvania.
However, I have always wanted to avoid the woe-is-me attitude found in many works placed in the Rust Belt region. Often, the people, especially the women, are depicted as mere shadows who hang out in old bars or gaze wishfully at closed factories pining away for the days of strong unions and steady paychecks. While I realize that those people do indeed exist, in my newest chapbook, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, (Main Street Rag) I strive to explore the many other lives of this world. Heels is a collection that recollects the lives of young girls and women who interact with the physical landscape around them – worn farmhouses and fields, pickup trucks, old factories – in order to survive and grow from their harsh surroundings.
In Coal Run, Jolene is a fighter. Yes, she spent her teenage years under the false hope of freedom of winning county fair beauty pageants. But in O’Dell’s book, she turns out to be a fighter. A single mother who is also a career waitress, she never once feels sorry for herself, nor does she blame the world around her for her plight. Her choices were hers, and hers alone, and she is a stronger woman because of this resilience. If I allow myself, I can imagine that Jolene is the young girl in my poem, “Cold Snap.” She may have been the 10-year old in my poem whose world is filled with violence, the kind of violence found in rural life that inflicts both the natural world and the general society. She may have been the 10-year-old who watched from a bedroom window, determined not to let this world suck her in.
Certainly, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt is a journey of sorts. The women found within its pages may be young children playing in junkyards, or women balancing in stiff jeans and spiked heels. But there’s a quiet determination in every line, in every image of ripped beer labels, of cigarettes, of pickup trucks held together only by rust.
Days after Bill Johnson’s youngest boy drove his truck through his family farm’s chicken coop, I plucked feathers from the air, picked red Maple leaves to press between pieces of wax paper, discovered condom wrappers caught in the thorns of our rose garden. Boys, my mother muttered,
picking latex from leaves, pausing only to watch me, a hard line creasing the band of skin between her eyes. That October I was 10, already knew what most farm girls knew, that chickens without heads didn’t dance, but twitched, that a sharp axe made a clean cut with little blood. Still, I jumped
when a stick snapped, when my brothers cracked the skulls of trout they brought home for dinner. From the attic window, I watched the bonfires the Johnsons held every Saturday, listened for the sharp pop and spray that sprang from beer cans, held my breath when Joey,
the second-to-oldest, grabbed a girl by a belt loop, pulled her close. I knew who she was. She sold corn at her father’s stand in town, wore her red hair in two braids, her jeans cuffed instead of hemmed. In the shadows he was all flannel and fingers. He bent her neck back so far that I thought she would break.