There I was, sitting in a stool, graduate school materials splayed out on the round table in front of me, jabbing at the jaw with friends about nothing in particular at the 2018 Appalachian Studies Association Conference. We had all been taking turns manning the Berea College table throughout the weekend, so when a white-bearded man in a t-shirt and jeans with a sports jacket over it sauntered up to us, we were unfazed. Emily piped up, shooting the man a warm smile and a greeting, finishing up with our usual spiel of, “If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask us!”
The man told us of his experience as a Berea College student, intending to go into medicine but changing his mind last minute and moving toward being a writer instead. My eyes glazed over his shirt as he spoke; the art style of the images on the shirt were just so darn familiar! Finally, after five minutes of listening and wracking my brain to try and figure out who he was, I got the bright idea to look at his nametag: Jim Webb.
Jim Webb? The poet? I was first drawn to Jim Webb’s Get In, Jesus (a collection of poetry edited by Scott Goebel) when I noticed it on the shelves of our very own Faber Library. The front cover image drew me in: a cartoon-styled image of a man wearing a shirt donning the words ‘West (By God) Virginia.’ As a West Virginian myself, I have long been familiar with such a phrase and the familiar pang of homesickness struck me deep in my gut. I tugged the book free from its spot squeezed into our shelves and opened it and began reading.
In the middle of the book, two short poems sit side-by-side, “Montani Semper Liberi” and “Almost Heaven, Almost Hell.” I never considered myself someone who felt particularly moved by poetry, but Jim Webb’s way with words could move mountains of emotions within me. Two short poems were all it took to hook me and since then, I have consumed the rest of his poetry.
Jerry Williamson describes Jim Webb in the Appalachian Journal: “Jim Webb writes some of the most sardonic and arresting lyrics that can be found in the Appalachian renaissance…He knows an Appalachian Stepinfetchit where he sees one; he knows the desperation and frustration of honest people in the grip of corporate power; he purges these ironies when he can in a poetry that is characteristic of an entire literary stirring in the mountains.”
I blurt out, “Oh, my goodness, you’re Jim Webb!” A forced laugh escapes my lips as I realize how inappropriate my outburst was; I can feel my ears turning red and hot beneath my hair. He laughs, it diffuses some of the tension, and continues on with his spiel. He owns a campground in Whitesburg, Kentucky; he slipped us a business card with all the details and invited us all up if we had the spare time as busy college students! With a wave and a hearty goodbye, he moved on around the exhibition floor, leaving us to talk amongst ourselves about the experience; really, everyone just had a good laugh over my reaction to meeting an idol of mine.
Article Written by Ciara Felty