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Student's poetry issue called a 'miscommunication'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The poem selected by a high school student to read at a celebration of the arts has been approved after what the Division of Culture and History calls a "miscommunication."

Grace Pritt, a student at Hurricane High School and budding poet, asked to read "Black Diamonds," a poem  by Crystal Good, at the Governor's Arts Awards on Thursday. However, Pritt was told she couldn't read the poem. According to an email from Tabitha Walter, cultural facilities grant coordinator, Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith requested Pritt select another poem because "your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there."

"Clearly Tabitha is just sharing information she got from somewhere else. I'm confident she's just doing her job," said Good, who often is referred to as the "Affrilachian Poet."

Good said she wrote the poem in honor of the widows of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Next month marks the four-year anniversary of the blast that killed 29 men in Montcoal, W.Va.

"This poem honors the widows of Upper Big Branch," Good said. "I wrote it with Miss Genny Lynch in my heart. I thought miners and widows were off-limits on this war on coal."

Lynch's husband, William Roosevelt Lynch, died in the blast.

Caryn Gresham, deputy commissioner of the Division of Culture and History, said typically Poetry Out Loud participants select poems from a national anthology. Event organizers were under the impression Pritt would follow suit and that's why her selection was initially rejected.

"Poetry Out Loud is a nation program," Gresham said. "They provide to each state that participates an anthology of poems that students who participate select from for their memorization and recitation. Grace participated last year in Poetry Out Loud and we thought she as going to use those two poems. She chose not to."

A screen shot of Walter's email made the rounds on social media and ruffled some feathers. Good said the instance shows the arts community is supportive and will fight to have its voice heard. She said the issue is a "teachable moment."

"A lot of people in our community felt like I do and that's very wrong -- you don't censor art in that capacity and you certainly don't censor it because the audience is going to be full of, I forget the language in that, officials or whomever. I think this is the one place in West Virginia where we can have sincere freedom of expression. The other feeling is feeling for Grace. Poetry is not an easy thing and you don't get many venues, even in West Virginia we may be limited there also. It was heartbreaking to think she was so enthusiastic and then to be censored this way."

Gresham said Kay Goodwin, who as secretary of arts and education oversees the Division of Culture and History, is working with Grace to resolve the issue.

"We have spoken with Grace Pritt and she is going to perform the poem 'Black Diamonds' she originally wanted to perform," Gresham said.

Pritt will read the poem at the awards event, which takes place at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Culture Center. 


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