The Space Dividing Us Must Be Destroyed

Four new poems by—and an in-depth conversation with—Kentucky’s Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr.

This is my twenty-seventh year as an educator,  twenty-one of those years as a full-time public high school English teacher. Over those years, I’ve come to believe a few things. 

One is that I teach not only reading and writing, but also try  to raise conscious human beings. I really do worship literature, but the poems, novels, essays, and plays are just the vehicles for my teaching. Those works are not the point—those young people are. 

Another long-lived belief of mine is more of an image, maybe a vision, and it goes like this: sprouting from the back of every kid’s head is a vast and complex web of circumstances, everything from that teenager’s life leading up to forty-four minutes with me in D102. All their relatives, friends, neighbors, other students, other teachers, coaches, bosses, strangers, songs, movies, social media—every experience from everywhere.

I see my students for only two percent of the minutes in a week. Yet into that tiny fragment they bring the profound influence of that big web, which is always growing and changing. 

That belief can make you nuts. No teacher can linger on it for long, but every teacher has to pay it some mind.

I know the Appalachian poet Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. pays that depth and complexity plenty of mind. He did it for seventeen years as a high school teacher of English and French, winning the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. After leaving teaching last year (more on that in the interview that follows), he remains mindful of it as a speaker and activist crisscrossing his home state and the rest of the South. And he’s done it most permanently with Gay Poems for Red States, his widely honored book of narrative poems, which chronicle marginalization, honor everyday kindness, and sing of resistance and belonging. 

Carver’s poetry makes us look at the bigotry even a five-year-old child faces, or the bigotry their parents face on the child’s behalf, and the resolve they share, leaning on each other’s love.

That book—first recommended to us by David Joy—is full of stories set in school and at home, two settings teachers and students are always navigating. 

It makes us look at the bigotry even a five-year-old child faces, or the bigotry their parents face on the child’s behalf, and the resolve they share, leaning on each other’s love (“Minnie Mouse Toy”). It makes us look at the bare facts of poverty, how it can strip so much away, and yet that love and resourcefulness again endure (“Cornmeal-and-Water Pancakes”). But the book is also charged with imagination, which is key not only to writing but also teaching, both being creative, deliberate, social acts of faith. 

Willie’s poetry is a testament to the courage inherent in being vulnerable. He’s very much a lyric-narrative poet, saying, “Here is what happened and here is how it felt,” or, the way Walt Whitman put it, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” And like Whitman, Carver sings for the voiceless, decries degradation, and finds beauty in the simplest, smallest things. 

In his defiant affirmation of dignity, his work also says, over and over, to himself as well as to readers, “You are not alone and you’re going to be okay.”

Here’s the end of “Neckbones”: 

Here’Eating neckbones and taters is the culinary equivalent
Here’sof saying ain’t and meaning it
Here’sas strong as a cuss word.
Here’sThey used to do altar call,
Here’sand long-skirted women with wooden guitars would sing
Here’sthat I was good enough to talk to God
Here’sjust as I was.

In these four new poems for Salvation South, Willie Carver keeps on truckin’ in honor—of intimacy, survival, loss, and the hope inherent to education. Willie first appeared with us back in December, and we are so very proud to have him with us again this April. 

—Andy Fogle

Section break curlicue

String Bean Theory

He pulled off his socks,
his leg hairs unknotting
like timber tendrils yawning.
I watched him from the edge
of the dorm mattress.
He climbed over me
lifted open the sheets,
folded his torso towards me
our bodies praying hands
his bare back refusing 
the cold of the cement wall.
Our calves brushed together—a question.
The choke and pyre of his black briefs 
swelled smoke across the hushed field.

Is this cool with you, dude? 

I destroyed the space dividing us
and electrons tumbled
unbound between our bodies
twining through time
and flattening out
the light until it started
to curl again.

Section break curlicue

I pinch the wisp 
zipping its Red Rover run 
through the morning holler 
curve of the picked runner bean.
The string breaks. I sigh.
Sunlight bumbles across her arms,
their proud fat combering in the sway
when she reaches for my bean. 

Just snap it, bub. The string ain’t gone. Just hiding. 

Mamaw’s wrist flip bean split
wrests the unburied fray.
She twists the string 
from its green flesh blanket.
Sets it free.
Then downward curling in rockabye waves
towards the growing mound of
discarded bean strings quilting
our bare feet.

Boys Saved From This

Not everySouthiernSouthern boy with his back held hard by a preacher
to cut out blond higslipping him under a mud-streaked creek
to cut out blond higwishing those waters might just wash away
to cut out blond highis still tight clinging daydreams
to cut out blond higof buck naked men
to cut out blond higflickering like distant flesh fires
to cut out blond higholding beer cans in his mind’s cold night
to cut out blond higmuffled preaching rushing in familiar ambling waves
to cut out blond higagainst his face now flooding by icy baptismal wetness
to cut out blond higand in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
to cut out blond higwhile his family flings singing voices at wheeling clouds

makes it. SoutheirnBut I did.

And nowSouthern  transparent Sunday mimosa flutes
to cut out blond higflatten the fat of my bottom lip
to cut out blond higa table garnish sprig of friends with degrees
to cut out blond higdill- and rosemary-sewn brunch casseroles

and nowSouh pern everything hovers
to cut out blond higlike cellophane surfaces
to cut out blond higover the grammarless echoes
to cut out blond higof hushed boys who sanctified dancefloors
to cut out blond higtwisting pulsing bodies into Madonna and Britney

but neveriiiiiiiiiiiiiiidanced to Gaga—
to cut out blond higheard their truth on sabbaths
to cut out blond higknew deconstruction or DEI

who neverSoutherneven had the chance
to cut out blond higto cut out blond highlights
to cut out blond higor finally quit smoking.

Boys who are no more.

In the early morning
to cut out blond higwhen time is still wet and wavering to and fro—
to cut out blond higI can remember
to cut out blond higthe hope that glitter brings
to cut out blond higthe light a music
to cut out blond higknocking down church walls
to cut out blond higand I can see
to cut out blond higthem made new and washed clean
to cut out blond higby soundwaves that soften
to cut out blond higon their way across the cosmos.

To My Schoolmate and Friend, Amanda Reynolds, Who Should Be Alive

My hands were heavy—wrappers, fountain cups, napkins from the floorboard
My haa pop can—
when I saw you with a man on my road trip break, softly steeping in the
My haamber broth of sunlight
at the Tim Hortons off I-64 in Ashland, Kentucky.

Your hair the same motor oil blonde
screaming itself out of dark roots
your goofy smile wound up tight
an uneven leftward climb up your face
as your laughing smoothed its worry
even when it called up wrinkles.

Joy flickered across my back.
You had found a man
who took you to donuts
on a Tuesday afternoon
and who knew how to find
your little crooked grin.

I wanted to say hello.
Bumped a wood block trash can lid
car garbage dripping downwards
when I remembered you were dead,
an overdose,
your twenty-year-old blonde hair
now twenty years numb to growth
or change, no longer coiling away
from the mousy brown genetics
the strange twists of your mouth stretched
into somber small-town-funeral expression.
I fell by accident on your powder blue casket
when trying to find my mamaw's service.
You had the smallest room at Nelson-Frazier,
just one of four funerals on Friday night—
but you know these hills have long been rich
with the short-lived bodies of poor dead people.

I smiled at the not-you woman, nodded my head at the sunshine and donuts
at the man with coffee who listened to her under her crooked smirk till it felt
My hasafe to ascend,
and I prayed for them that their talking and their coffee and their sunshine
My haand their donuts know
another twenty years of sunlight.

First Day of School

fresh wax meditates in the classroom air
prayer flag scents buoying like floral chlorine

I streak sober segments of wet cuneiform print
virgin markers groaning in slick rubs

across a board wiped clean of old lessons
projector wheeze against the clock

a constant
a Times New Roman call to prayer

withdrawing sunshine cuts the wall in half
a sheet of transparent warmth closing 

on new worksheets losing body heat
huddled in front of the air conditioning

turpentine and newly clipped grass
in haphazard blinking on my tongue

signal an end
herald a beginning

I stand at the door
feel the keys in my pocket

Photograph by Arden Barnes/Education Week
Photograph by Arden Barnes/Education Week

Sixteen Questions for Willie Carver

1. Where’d you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in eastern Kentucky. It was beautiful, and it was ugly; it was mundane, and it was glorious; I was safe, and I was exposed. Much of America is probably like this—flourishing with contradictions, and in Appalachia, for me, that flourishing is a beautiful garden on a hillside family cemetery. I specifically grew up in Frogtown Bottom, which flattened itself out of the holler that was dug up by the Left Fork of Beaver Creek, as well as a scattering of housing projects built into the empty space made by blowing up mountains in the years my parents were divorced. It was close-knit. Everybody knew everybody because everybody was kin to everybody. That meant there was love and family and security and people who knew you at every turn. That also meant that there was no escape when you were different—or at least when others saw you that way. 

Part of the survival of minoritized people is to draw sharp lines around who you are so that you can recognize each other. When the world feels against you—and why shouldn’t every Appalachian feel that the world is against them?—then it’s nice to know who “your people” are. I grew up simultaneously being of them while also being queer, which seemed to many to mean I wasn’t.

It was a fight to belong to a place that many want to escape. I guess on some level I did, too. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. But if I am being contradictory, then I am being Appalachian, so I take comfort in that.

2. Who were the people who educated you, formally or informally?

I could name every teacher I had from kindergarten until I graduated high school. They were all strong, smart, caring Appalachian women. They believed we were going to have good lives someday, like it was their religion to carry this faith in us. I felt that faith in how they spoke to us, in the effort they put into their work, in the food and shoes and clothes they pulled from their own pockets to get us across the finish line. My teachers were guardian angels with teaching degrees.

Outside of school, my family was my teacher. I don’t say “family and friends” because in my part of Appalachia, there is no such distinction. They ignored the old “show, don’t tell” adage and chose instead always to tell as they were showing. Every family member would tell you, “I love you ’cause you’re my family,” while they showed you that love in food, in time, in dedication.

I have a memory—it lives somewhere in the deepest recesses of my heart—of my distant cousin, who was also my next-door neighbor, Ethel Marie Dotson Spurlock Hunter. She joked she married men and either ran them off or they died to get away from her, but whatever the reason, she kept their last names like trophies. Anyway, she used to invite all the neighborhood kids to come into her house in the mornings because the bus picked us up in front of it.

I wanted this more than anything else for my students: to make them feel in their DNA that they were hoped for, that they were worthy, that they were made for great things that only they could show.

I was ten or eleven and she had a ten-gallon fish tank. I loved aquariums and had one, too, so I’d watch her little goldfish and warm myself by her plug-in heater. Once, there was a new little ceramic sign inside the tank that said “No Smoking.” I thought it was so funny and loved it, so I told her so. Without even thinking, she shifted her cigarette to her left hand and then plunged her hand inside, lifting the arm of her pink housecoat as she did it, and retrieved it for me. She handed it to me, her arm soaking wet. When I tried to protest the gift, she said, "We’re family. If ever, for the rest of your life, I have something, then you have it, too. Family is love and never being alone."

I understand that lesson in the most profound ways. She was letting me know that home was other people, and that therefore home could not be destroyed. She’s been dead for over a year now, and I still feel in my heart that somehow, should a need arise, she would materialize and help me through it.

I carry these teachers in my poetry. I have a propensity to want to tell the reader what I meant, to remind them of their worth, to show them their power and then state it, much to the chagrin of some editors, who want to congratulate the reader who “gets it” and leave behind the reader who doesn’t put in the work. But I wasn’t taught that I had to work to be loved, and I will honor that tradition. If I am writing Appalachian poetry, then I am writing poetry that sees a better future and that carries every family member, which is everybody, forward as it gets there.

3. What kind of a teacher were/are you? What was it like to have you as a teacher?

I remember having this feeling as a student that my teachers were not always talking to me, but to a version of me that didn’t exist yet. Inside that yet was all the power in the world and all the spirit of teaching. Yes, it’s gap-closing and bridge-building, but it’s more than that. It’s the creation of a space. A space hoped for. A space faithfully held. And then it’s growing into that space.

I wanted this more than anything else for my students. To make them feel in their DNA that they were hoped for, that they were worthy, that they were made for great things that only they could show.

In practice, this looked goofy. It meant not taking school too seriously while believing in yourself very seriously. Believing in yourself means learning. So I spoke to them like I was speaking to future astronauts and authors and trash collectors and citizens and managers and doctors and nurse aids. They would create lives they wanted and not take lives they had to take.

I like laughing. I like student initiative. We played dress-up, and we wrote essays on ridiculous topics (like seriously arguing about which was Beyonce’s best album, but along theoretical lines). Play is the most serious thing you can do because it means you are anticipating something real. It’s why kids do it. They might play they’re a doctor or a dinosaur. That’s because they think they’re strong. So my job was to encourage that (while also teaching comma rules and indirect object pronouns).

4. Do you have any early memories of being in love with language (reading, writing, hearing, saying, etc.)?

We had a reader in first grade called Off With Our Hats  that I was obsessed with. I loved the stories about faraway people in faraway places. The pictures were beautiful, and I could get lost for hours flipping through the book. That grew, and I became a vociferous reader because I identified so strongly with characters. I remember reading Bridge to Terabithia in the back of our Chevy pickup on Thanksgiving Day. We were on the way to my aunt’s house. When that scene happened, I became inconsolable. I cried for hours. I was ashamed to say I was crying over a character in a book, so I said that my stomach hurt and didn’t get to eat with everyone else.

I sometimes look back to how much I read in high school and wonder how I even did it—I would read five or six novels a week. I devoured science fiction and fantasy. I was taken with plays especially, loving Ibsen, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller. Madeline L’Engle was (and always will be) my favorite author. It was obvious that she created an entire universe ruled by love, and the more I read, the more interrelated her characters and that love became. She made me feel like every cell in my body was as important as the entire universe. It was humbling and uplifting—the kind of self-love that wraps like wings around everyone around you.

Poetry came later. I was in tenth grade when I truly discovered it. Mrs. Warren, my English teacher, gave me an anthology to flip through to keep myself busy when I finished a test early. I landed on Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and, transfixed as anyone is by that painting, I stopped. Then I noticed a poem by Anne Sexton printed in the bottom corner—an ekphrastic piece called “The Starry Night.”

That moment transformed words for me. Sexton imagined the cypress tree as a drowned woman and imagined the glowing orbs as a great beast that wanted to kill her. In that reading, I wanted it too. Fourteen-year-old hillbilly that I was, I wanted to drown, to feel the breath of the beast on my neck. I realized the power of words to direct the verbal part of someone’s consciousness so that feelings deeper than words might flood from below the surface. I realized the power of words to undo existence and create some liminal space where something new might temporarily exist and create a haunting.

I am an Appalachian and have spent my life being made to feel ashamed of the curve of my vowels, the poverty of my childhood, the lack of resources of my people—and I won’t let anyone make me feel ashamed of those parts of me because it is in resistance to the shame hoisted upon me that I find my greatest strength of character.

5. How do you feel about being a Southerner: proud, ashamed, both, otherwise?

It’s so damn complicated. On the one hand, there are so many white Southerners who use “Southern Pride” to mean “anti-Black, pro-racist” that it’s hard to use the term “pride” the way that I might use it as a queer person.

ON THE OTHER HAND, and it’s a big hand needing capital letters, I am an Appalachian and have spent my life being made to feel ashamed of the curve of my vowels, the poverty of my childhood, the lack of resources of my people—and I won’t let anyone make me feel ashamed of those parts of me because it is in resistance to the shame hoisted upon me that I find my greatest strength of character (and among those folks doing the hoisting are many supposed liberal or progressive folks from northern and coastal places).

There are folks who are too shortsighted to be making pronouncements about people they’ve never met, and, unfortunately, those people are decision makers. The South is racist. The North is racist. Racists in the South use historical Southern racism to legitimize their racism into an identity. Classists and ignorant people in the North use historical Southern racism to make pronouncements about all people from the South (whether directly or through implication in the context of the stories they tell, the reactions they give, the words left unsaid in interactions). The “ignorant Southerner” becomes a net for their own ignorance that prevents them from seeing both their own racism (since they see racism as a Southern concept, which precludes them, even at their worst, from “truly” being racism) and others’ wholeness (since, in seeing the South as a racist monolith, they erase Black Southerners, Affrilachians, progressive Southerners, etc.).

I recognize that in any room of a random ten people from northern states, then four will be conservative and six will be progressive. I recognize that in any room of random ten people from Southern states, then six will be conservative and four will be progressive. In the end, our political differences amount to two people in a room of ten. Our lived and cultural differences, however, are constantly playing out in how the Southerner and the Northerner (and others I suppose) conceive of themselves after the other has already conceived of them.

My people have the best music and food. We could use meeting more people and appreciating them. We have made more progress in the last century than any other group in terms of these things, mostly because we had so far to go.

As a teacher, I am much more impressed with the student who grows from twenty percent to seventy percent than I am with a student who grows from eighty percent to eighty-five percent  (though I admire the hell out of a student who maintains a B!). I will judge the politics of the American South against other places in similar ways.

6. Have you ever left the South for any significant period of time? If so, did it have any effect on how you understood the region, or how you understood other regions?

I lived in France for a bit. I lived in the north of France, in Picardy. It’s a poorer part of the country. The coal mines have shut down. There is less industry. People have very strong regional accents, foods, and culture that is mocked by the rest of France. I felt very much at home. I actually expanded Appalachia in my mind to be more than place—but to be a kinship among people who are, figuratively speaking, given corn and milk and who can invent cornmeal gravy and cornpone, people who can take very little and dream up beauty with the dregs of the coffee. France expanded Appalachia for me.

I also lived in Vermont. Vermont gave me marriage when I didn’t have it. Vermont is beautiful. Vermont shares nearly every one of my political values.

Vermonters also exist along entirely different wavelengths from Appalachians in eastern Kentucky. There is a marked forgetting about the poorest among them when policies are created. I remember seeing all of these “.25 FT” and “.30 FT” job offerings. I didn’t even know what it meant! I learned that they expected someone to work only a quarter of a job with only a quarter of the pay. When I asked how people could survive on this, I was told, “You get your foot in the door. That’s how it’s done.” I can compare this with my first teaching job in Kentucky. The school had the funding for half a day. They were trying to pair this with another half-day job elsewhere in the district. I said to the superintendent,  “It’s okay. I will accept a half-time position.” The man, a man who I am sure I would entirely disagree with on nearly every issue of social and political importance, said to me, “I’m sorry, but I won’t create a job like that. I will not contribute to the ghettoization of education.”

Who might my mother have been if she wasn’t raised thinking she comes from the bottom of the earth and is a joke to everyone who hears her?

This reminded me that as wrong as we get it sometimes, we also have things to teach the rest of the world (where it is willing to learn from its dumb hillbillies).

7. Do you have any sense of whether other parts of the United States are starting to see the South differently? And does it matter whether they do or don’t?

I want to say it doesn’t matter because the arc of my personal moral growth has been teaching myself that their opinions don’t matter. Of course, I would be wrong because, for the sake of our children, it does matter.

Who might my mother have been if she wasn’t raised thinking she comes from the bottom of the earth and is a joke to everyone who hears her? Who would I have been without the constant fear of being judged for how I talk or where the ground beneath me was when I entered the world? What could I have put my energy into that was otherwise spent feeling ignorant, then ashamed, then defiant, then angry?

Who could I have become? Who might these kids become?

I do know that I am being heard in places and by people who would not have heard me before. I contribute intersectionality. Good non-Southern liberals don’t necessarily want to hear from hillbillies. But they will at least say that they want to hear from gay folks, from trans folks, from Black folks, etc.

They have been listening to trans hillbillies.

They have been listening to Black Appalachians.

And they are starting to hear that our identities are more complex than they knew. For this, I am grateful. For this, I thank the bell hooks-es of the world who have spoken up and carved these paths in large enough ways for the rest of us to walk.

8. Is there anything you’d like to say about any of the poems we’re publishing (anything about their origin, evolution, or otherwise)?

I’ve known queer Appalachians. I’ve known poor Appalachians. So I know dead Appalachians. 

There’s no simpler way to say it. These were not groups for whom survival has been easy in the last thirty years. Death hovers like unpaid bills—always showing up when we think we’re going to have peace.

I have been a queer Appalachian.

I have been a poor Appalachian.

I think a lot about time. Drugs, which have killed many of my friends, have the express effect of slowing down or speeding up our experience of it, as if time itself is what we’re both escaping and needing to heal us. Time is supposed to heal, but we need distance from the wound or else time is just a constant ache and throb.

These poems all consider the role of time—time as an altar, time as a balm, time as a ticking menace, time as something folding in and into itself until we get back to where we began, but with texture and layers we didn’t have before that the experience itself gave us.

My hope is that, for the pain, healing, and joy it can bring, time can also save us from being lost by reminding us that it’s just an illusion tied to markers like was or will be.

9. Who are some contemporary Southern poets or poems we should know about and why?

I love what John Compton is doing. He is a destroyer of worlds. He writes with a bold succinctness that I adore.

There is, without question, a quality to being from around these hills that makes you like some people and unlike some other people, and, often, living well and having access to resources means, for some people, leaving this dirt behind.

bell hooks continues to amaze me—every reading opens up something new. Reading her poetic work feels like praying.

Brian Fuchs is just gorgeous. So much revelation crouching in the body.

I am a big fan of LeTonia Jones. She has a way of making bold moves and swinging right into vulnerability.

Deidre White does not give two shits about whether her work is for you – and in doing so makes it for everyone. I love everything she does.

Jason O’Toole lives in Boston, but I will count him. He spent many years in Georgia and has Southern children. In everyday scenes, he sees where the heart breaks, bends, and grows.

George Ella Lyon has a capacity for growth and speaking truth that is truly unparalleled. I adore her work.

I am sorry for the people I didn’t mention. There are too many to name them all. But they feel like lightning bugs glittering in the darkness floating around and letting us see the counter of the mountain.

I am thinking about Amy Le Ann Richardson’s “Like This Mason Jar of Dirt on My Shelf” right now. She is a tremendous writer, and she touches often on the dirt itself. I think about the dirt and what it has to do with being Appalachian (or perhaps Southern). There is, without question, a quality to being from around these hills that makes you like some people and unlike some other people, and, often, living well and having access to resources means, for some people, leaving this dirt behind.

Are we still Appalachian? If so, what does it mean?

Chea Parton, whose research focuses on place and how it affects our identity, sees herself as part of the “Appalachian diaspora”—she was born in rural Ohio and her grandparents are Appalachian.

I spoke at Northern Kentucky University, just outside Cincinnati, earlier this week, and I met a faculty member born near Cleveland. Immediately, he wanted to know what town in Eastern Kentucky I hailed from. His grandfather came from Harlan, and we were able to position each other in terms of place, family, lineage, etc. Essentially, we were family because we knew the other’s story. He is the third generation removed. He said, “Sometimes I feel homesick for a place I’ve never been.”

I’ve been thinking on his words. Is there an Appalachian-ness, and what is it?

Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman moves me every time I read it. I am, in most ways, a quiet, unassuming guy. I was at the hospital yesterday for four hours and didn’t even ask if there was a problem because I didn’t want to seem fussy or uppity. But this has to do with my relationship with other people, not with myself.

11. What’s a poem from another era that’s close to you and why?

10. Tell us about a great poem about an issue facing your South.

Life has told me I am nothing, over and over again.

I am a dumb hillbilly.

I am a wicked queer.

But there is a truth that grows from somewhere deep inside myself that has always said, speaking in King James Appalachian English, “You are holy.”

I won’t deny that voice or any parts of myself.

Imagining big old queer Walt Whitman coming to similar conclusions in a world that gave him no tools to do so—that gives me chills. He saw, in America, in place, the ability to transcend the past and self and to assert his holiness. Somehow, I have been able to do the same, thanks to the dirt of Appalachia and the bodies of the people I love, including my own.

There is a truth that grows from somewhere deep inside myself that has always said, speaking in King James Appalachian English, “You are holy.” ... Imagining big old queer Walt Whitman coming to similar conclusions in a world that gave him no tools to do so—that gives me chills.

I found a reproduction of one of Walt Whitman’s journals in my college library my sophomore year. I held it, saw his notes and scribbles, and imagined his hand as it curled the cursive that flowed from his mind.

I was twenty years old, holding a reproduction in a library, sitting on an old yellow couch that was surely older than me, and I wept.

That night, I dreamt that Walt came to my door and convinced me to go skinny-dipping in the lake on Morehead State’s campus.

12. What role does poetry play in understanding the South’s past, recognizing its present, and influencing its future?

For me, poetry might just be what collapses all three in on themselves so that we might get some timeless idea of who we are.

Robert Gipe once said, “Rural people relish in language because it’s so rich but so cheap.”

A queer teenager in Eastern Kentucky said this to me in an interview once, “Appalachians? We’re free. I have all the space in the hills to make any mistakes. Who’s going to see me? The squirrels?”

I like to think that these two have summed up what poetry can do, at least for my corner of the South. The most distinct part of who we are in Appalachia is, at the end of the day, how we express ourselves. We have a rich, distinct, beautiful language that comes from a tradition of isolation in which words themselves, readily available in drought or downpour, were the building blocks of truth and entertainment.

Poetry will continue to be how we build any part of Appalachia that draws in this tradition. If our language is what makes us Appalachian, then poetry is how we show who we are.

13. You’ve been traveling a lot, especially around Kentucky, making appearances that seem to be part poetry, part education, part activism.

At first, I worried that the three were starting to merge in my head and I couldn’t tell them apart anymore.

Now I worry that they were ever distinct in my brain.

They are the same.

Poetry is many things, but it assumes I have something worth saying and that I know how to say it in a way that others will not only hear but want to hear and recognize as truth.

Education is basically the same thing, perhaps with a bit more scaffolding. Educators assume that they have something worth giving to someone else to make them stronger, wiser, faster, better, closer, and educators find ways to make those lessons come across with ease. As a poet, I aim to do the same. I focus always on the person who is hearing me and hope that they feel what I want them to feel and are equally transformed in ways that bring about healing for them.

Activism is something I do so much I have lost most ability to know what it means. At its heart is the belief that other people are worthy of dignity and goodness. At its heart it’s about doing something to bring them both. That feels a lot like teaching to me. It also feels a lot like poetry.

I am grateful that people want to hear me. I am honored that people invite me to speak. I am hopeful that when I do, a part of them is healed.

14. Why, after winning Teacher of the Year, did you leave teaching K-12?

Two years ago, I found myself in a situation in which a group of neo-Nazi Christian Nationalists was targeting me for being openly gay and a teacher; my being the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year at the time heightened my visibility, which exacerbated the hatred and vitriol. That targeting included calling me a groomer and other such names, saying homophobic things about me online and at local school board meetings, spreading vile fake stories about me because they could, and sending threatening messages and items to me in the mail. I stayed silent because that’s what lawyers say to do. I stayed silent because we knew it was the safest choice for me. I stayed silent because every court in America recognizes their right to attack me, but few recognize the right of a queer person not to be attacked. 

In one conversation, I was told by a lawyer that in Kentucky, I had to prove that a person intended knowingly to cause me harm in order to sue them for lying about me, and since, according to the lawyer, any person in America could go turn on conservative news and hear people say that gay teachers were monsters intent on harming children, then any person could use that constructed reality as a reasonable defense for attacking me. In other words, America hating me for existing was a defense for someone saying whatever they wanted to or about me. The system is built to protect the monsters.

My silence only made them worse. They soon began to attack my now former students, students who had been proudly, openly LGBTQ in high school. They attacked our after-school club, Open Light, a group dedicated to positive systemic change (and one of those changes was to call the group an LGBTQ-inclusive group). Those students were doxed. Those students had grown adults in their community share pictures of them, of their faces. Grown adults shared information about them, about their after-school jobs (including pictures of them at their after school jobs). Their names and addresses were shared. One of them received such dangerous threats that the police had to get involved. These Christian Nationalists called my former students groomers and suggested they were harming younger people. My students became frightened. Their parents begged the school to do something.

One of [my students] received such dangerous threats that the police had to get involved. These Christian Nationalists called my former students groomers and suggested they were harming younger people. My students became frightened. Their parents begged the school to do something. The school did nothing.

The school did nothing. No one came to speak to the students and tell them they would be safe. No one spoke up and said that their club was not something dark but actually raised money for the poor and cleaned parks and advocated for change. No one did anything.

Of course, I didn't expect them to. These were queer-identified teens.

My experience living in this universe is that queer people are very rarely considered fully human. We don’t have the same rights, we don't have the same freedoms, and, most of the time, people who claim to be our allies will allow things to happen to us that they would never sit quietly through if it happened to straight people, even children. 

So I found myself living in two realities at once: in one, I was the celebrated teacher of the year, being flown to meet the president of the United States and given lavish praise and rewards. In another reality, I couldn’t even guarantee my physical safety on a day-to-day basis, and the people whose jobs were to keep me and others safe would gladly throw us to the wolves before defending us. How can anyone reconcile those two worlds?

I had, for years, taught in a district that didn’t want me because I knew that my presence made the children safer, because my presence meant that someone saw the fullness of their humanity, that someone would speak back if they were in danger, which they often were. Queer children are, after all, the most vulnerable group in America. They die by suicide and are bullied, harassed, and harmed at dramatically higher rates than their non-queer counterparts. Suddenly, because I had won an award, my presence put them in danger. Knowing how little the school would do to intervene, I knew I would have to leave.

I had made up my mind and told the other teachers of the year. We were in Washington, D.C., to see TED Talks. In the first one we heard, a teacher talked about living through a tornado with her students, about how she hid in a bathroom with them and felt the walls lifting off the foundation, how she huddled with them and protected them. I began to cry. I felt like I had been in a tornado with these children for over a decade, protecting them, and now it was here and I was abandoning them. Not wanting to take attention from her talk, I quietly slipped out the door. I was followed by Deanne Moyle-Hicks, the 2022 Nevada Teacher of the Year, who must also be a mind reader. She asked if she could hug me. I said yes.

Then she asked if she could tell me something. I said yes. She leaned in and whispered to me, so softly and with such gentle love, “Even Dumbledore had to leave Hogwarts.”

It was what I needed from the Universe at that moment.

So I left Hogwarts. I did what I had to do to make sure the students were safer.

And in the time since, I've reclaimed my classroom—a classroom without walls, a magical place where no one can bind me anymore from the greatest acts of magic.

15. What do you miss about teaching? Is there anything about the profession that you’re glad to be away from?

I used to joke that if I ever won the lottery, I would quit my job and become a teacher. The joke, of course, is that the job of being a teacher (record keeping, dealing with racist parents, dealing with racist administrators, dealing with hall passes and football games and bathroom duty, dealing with licensing boards and school boards) has nothing to do with teaching.

I imagined it—I would get a library space, find a town big enough for students, and offer free French classes to anyone who wanted them. I get immense joy from helping others learn a skill they didn’t know before. My pastime and my hobby is helping others feel strong, seen, heard, powerful.

So, I still do this. I’ve offered free seminars, workshops, teaching opportunities.

I miss the students. I miss loving them enough not to hate them when they were terrible (and man, can they be terrible!). I miss seeing them transform so quickly. I miss hearing them feel brave enough to tell me their dreams. I miss seeing them take risks. I miss hearing them tell me I was wrong. I miss the smell of marker and the hum of the projector. I miss hearing a kid ask why I was wearing a new shirt or drinking from a new cup—which let me know that even if they didn’t know how to use the imperfect endings, then they saw me as a human being, which meant they were on the path to the kind of growth that would mean they were going to be okay.

I miss telling them that they were going to be okay.

16. What do you think the teaching profession needs, in Kentucky and/or in the country?

Let me be succinct: we need administrators who can grow a pair.

Kentucky’s LGBTQ, Black, brown, rural, and poor children are being disenfranchised and left behind. This is happening at the hands of groups who ban their history, ban their images from stories, ban their bodies from sports and bathrooms, ban their development of self-esteem, ban their feeling like they belong to the world.

Let me be succinct: we need administrators who can grow a pair. Kentucky’s LGBTQ, Black, brown, rural, and poor children are being disenfranchised and left behind. ... Instead of pushing back and saying that these kids matter when racists and homophobic groups come knocking, they hold the match while the racists pour gasoline on books that give hope and lessons that give strength.

Instead of pushing back and saying that these kids matter when racists and homophobic groups come knocking, they hold the match while the racists pour gasoline on books that give hope and lessons that give strength.

I doubt all of these administrators are, themselves, racist and homophobic. I don’t mean to say that they actively wish harm to these children. But they are cowards, the sorts of cowards who protect themselves, the same sorts of cowards who let children drown in the Rio Grande or cut them with razors while pretending, somehow, that by not doing, they aren’t guilty.

They signed on to protect children. By not doing so, they are most certainly guilty.

Author Profile

Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. is an advocate, Kentucky Teacher of the Year, and the author of Gay Poems for Red States (BookRiot Best Book of 2023, Read Appalachia Top Ten Best Appalachian Book of 2023, and IndieBound & American Bookseller Association’s 2023 Must-Have Collection). He writes about queer and Appalachian identity, focusing on innocence. Carver’s story has been featured on ABC, CBS, PBS, NPR, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and Good Morning America. He testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about schools’ failures to protect students. His work is published in 100 Days in Appalachia, 2 RulesofWriting, Another Chicago, Largehearted Boy, Smoky Blue Literary Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Ghost City Press, and Good River Review.

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