By Molly Moore
“I write to say things, not to be talked about,” the poet says.
Waltr Lane began writing when he was 11, but the habit truly took off after his first poems were published in 1985 by the Appalachian Journal.
A resident of Eastern Kentucky, Waltr has also been published in Appalachian Heritage and the Journal of Kentucky Studies, among others. His poems are frank, decrying abuses of land and water while also condemning society for preventing people from fishing with dynamite, as he says his grandfather used to do. His work also comments on the “hillbilly” stereotype, a label that he proudly reclaims as a self-described Hillbilly Poet. While much of Waltr’s writing carries an environmental theme, he shies away from the term “environmentalist.”
“I’m just a person who has an interest in a lifestyle capable of supporting my family and supporting the life of the people around me without having to suffer from cancer, without having to breathe the dust of the road, without having to get in trouble for expressing opinions,” Waltr says. “I don’t consider myself an environmentalist, I consider myself a ‘greenneck.’”
“I can be writing about a kids’ story and the environmental issue will crop up in it because I worry about my grandbabies and what kind of life they’re going to have,” he adds.
He describes the Tug River in West Virginia running black from coal pollution when he was a child, and struggling to breathe while driving past a coal-fired power plant in the 1950s when the emissions exacerbated a headcold. Waltr comments that the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made a big difference, but he doesn’t think environmental protections are being adequately enforced. “I feel like the regulations are a hoax,” he says.
Waltr’s experience is personal; his former house was threatened by an old, unstable mine slope. Now, he says, kids aren’t allowed to play on the hill because of the sinkholes. One day, he and his wife came home to find that the ceiling had fallen in on their bed, a fact that he attributes to underground mining nearby.
According to Waltr, many people share his concerns, even if they don’t feel comfortable speaking out.
He distributes several dozen copies of each issue of The Appalachian Voice, and says he is “having a happy second childhood and am a paper boy.” In addition to bringing copies to locations like libraries and a medical clinic, he also hands them out to individuals as an entry point for conversations about environmental issues.
“The important thing is, if we don’t stand for something, we fall for everything,” Waltr says. “And if we make a dent in life for a better purpose then we’ve accomplished more than some people do. The purpose is to leave things better after we’re gone.”
Poems by Waltr Lane
Before I Was Hungry
Before I was poor
the fish from the creek
the water from our well,
spring and creek were
clear in a drinking glass.
Before I was poor
there were no air filters
on our furnace,
you couldn’t see the
air in the road in front
of our house.
Before I was poor,
I was never hungry
for the past –
before the bulldozers
stripped away the natural
The Conservatives said
we shouldn’t buy birdseed
because feeding the birds
made them lazy like us.
“They” strip-mine the flowers,
the trees, the gardens, the fields,
blacktop the worms’ homes.
What are the birds to do?
And, us wildcats, too?
The Hillbilly Poet
(search for place)
The hillbilly poet can’t die
He has no place to go.
The coroner buried a stranger’s child
In the hillbilly poet’s burial plot.
A hillbilly isn’t even uncouth
Enough to evict a child from
The Library of Congress ruled
The hillbilly poet can’t copyright
His imagination unless he writes a book.
His keyboard person/typist says
She won’t type his book,
That would make her a professional.
She is an ombudsman—almost a real man.
The hillbilly poet wasn’t allowed to participate
In the Mountain Dream Library Folk Festival
Because he has no book to sell.
Being published a hundred times
In academic publications does not count
As much as once by Vanity Press,
a nationally advertised subsidy publisher.