Cheryl Torsney, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, taught nineteenth-century fiction, American material culture, and literary theory at West Virginia University for over twenty years. Since moving to the dark side, she has served as Associate Provost for Academic Programs at WVU, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College at Hiram College, and Interim Provost at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is currently Senior Vice Provost at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she enjoys not dealing with winter in the northeast.
Allison Davis Interviewed by Cheryl Torsney
Wendell Berry’s admonition “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are” is hardly lost on you. Your poetry is firmly grounded in a sense of place, specifically Youngstown, Ohio, a place I know well. Can you describe what it was like for you growing up in a place past its prime?
I’ve had family in Youngstown for three generations, before which most of them came from shtetls in Eastern Europe or villages on Greek islands. My mom’s side runs a laundromat, and my dad’s side runs a trucking motel. How do families go from fleeing a country to working strange jobs in middle-of-nowhere America? Everyone in my family was working too hard to think about it. My father is constantly renovating the motel—replacing a carpet, tearing it up, replacing it again. The rustbelt tragedy is not the absurdity of work but the death of it: one day, while the steel workers were walking to work, the mills closed. What does Sisyphus do post-rock? Is he liberated or unemployed?
I come from overwhelmingly intelligent and creative people who wash other people’s clothes for a living, who spend their lives cleaning and renting motel rooms. It’s hard when the people you look up to tell you not to turn out like them— “Go to school so you don’t have to clean motel toilets for a living.” I’m a writer because of how my family sees the world, because I’ve cleaned motel bathrooms, because I’m subject to the triple-pressure of Youngstown, cultural identity, and family business. I want to support all of them. I learned the hard way that I can’t, at least not alone. But together, Youngstown’s writers can document these struggles.
In “Greetings from 41°6′0″N 80°39′0″W,” Youngstown is represented mostly by women: women who helped fund a statue with a bake sale, daughters, women tugging at their knee-highs, cold women, women waiting. The city is “a wreck.” “The wrecking ball” is an image appearing in “Last One out of Youngstown Turn out the Lights.” The motif of the wreck overlayed with the imagery of women brought the language of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” to mind:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
Did you recognize those echoes while you were writing the poem? What poets do you understand as your influences?
Thanks for bringing up Rich’s work. “Last One out Of Youngstown Turn off the Lights” is about being a happy suburban kid and then, boom, these tragedies—these “wrecks”—got tacked onto my cultural and regional identity. It began a lifetime of asking “What else do I not know?”
Her poem is also about the ethics of approach. I’m writing from a privileged perspective about a city where a lot of people were and are struggling—a city I can visit and then leave. It makes me hyperaware that there are people writing amazing poems in this country that aren’t going to get published—I should have been one of them. I’m sure the greatest poems remain unrecorded because whoever is supposed to compose them isn’t being told “Hey, your ideas are important.” My great grandmothers weren’t being told this.
In addition to Rich, some poets who inspired these poems were Charles Reznikoff, Muriel Rukeyser, Philip Levine, and Ilya Kaminsky. Youngstown’s poets like Kenneth Patchen, Ross Gay, Bob Perelman, A.F. Mortiz, Michael McGovern: “The Puddler Poet.” Rochelle Hurt just published a must-read book called The Rusted City—post-industrial poems with titles like “The Roller Coaster is Burning, the Favorite.” There’s Pig Iron Press and the anthology Mahoning Valley Poetry. Steeltown, USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown documents art. Youngstown State is full of amazing writers from the NEO MFA program along with Cleveland, Akron, and Kent—home of the one and only Wick Poetry Center. My uncle writes plays. If anyone reading this knows Youngstown’s poetry scene, I’d like to interview you.
Before reading your work, the last poem that made me cry was James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, OH.” I hear some of the same fierce nostalgia in your work. Care to comment?
The nostalgia comes in because I’m not objective towards Youngstown. It matters to me that Volney Rogers cried in court. It matters to me that my grandmother—probably every Youngstown grandmother—walked miles to work in Ohio snow while nine months pregnant and called it “an adventure!” I think Wright’s nostalgia runs along the same lines. It’s the iconic Ohio poem, and I think its moves are psychologically “rustbelt”—disillusionment ironically displaced upon violence. Jack Gilbert, from Pittsburgh, has poems with similar moves—“A Taste of Grit And Whatever” completely devastates me. Both are perfect poems. They’re anti-romantic in that they deglorify things like sports and Paris, but in exchange, they romanticize the rustbelt—Gilbert asks “Why is it the defeated he trusts?” I think many Ohio poets are consciously working against this, against type.
Your poetry makes me wonder about the possibility of happiness, fulfillment, human connection in this world: “Maybe it was driving school / where we learned / that is you can’t see them, / they can’t see you.” Is happiness impossible now that the mills have closed and the Beatles have broken up?
Post-industrial happiness—finding joy despite being surrounded by collapse—is, by default, strong happiness. My father wrote a song about being out of stock of something at the motel—he taught me that you can make art out of what you lack.
Yet there is nothing glamorous about poverty—any attempt to revitalize Youngtown needs to help the communities that were hurt most by mill shutdowns, urban sprawl, and discrimination. Work is being done: Youngstown’s citizens are fighting for environmental rights, prisoner’s rights, and more.
I can’t speak for everyone’s happiness, but when my mother and her sisters were younger and out dancing on West Federal Street and Left End was on stage, was anyone on earth happier? My parents met at a bar downtown, and if Youngstown can produce the kind of love that they have, who needs empires?
I want to ask you about the way you use Boom Boom Mancini as more than a boxer; rather, you seem to imagine him as poetry embodied, beginning with his name. Can you comment on the connection you’re drawing (and has been drawn by artists—and boxers before Boom Boom, aka Muhammed Ali) between boxing and art? And what does that art have to do with specifically with your work?
My father used to watch Gilligan’s Island as a boy and think, “All right, this has to be the episode when they escape the island.” Northeast Ohio sports fans are like this.
Mancini embodied the Youngstown blessing and curse to hold on long after everyone else has given up. A desensitivity perhaps, of putting up with so much for so long. The immigrants who came here did so because it was no good where they came from, so we’re talking about a place built on many generations of struggle not limited to one narrative or language. So, you take all this and then look at it from my generation’s perspective: a signed Boom Boom poster in the hole-in-the-wall gyro place with the aging dads waiting in line wearing paint-stained blue jeans and pretending to jab their children.
It’s been an awful winter in northeast Ohio, exacerbating the darkness and sadness of the economic moment in Youngstown’s history. Winter has indeed expected too much. What has it been like spending the winter in California, where so many Youngstown natives defected?
This was my first winter outside of Ohio in my life. I felt too guilty to enjoy it—why the hell am I here in the sun while my parents are home in the cold? All these Youngstown poems were written out here. I’m constantly homesick for Ohio and my family—researching it and writing about it was a way to feel close.
After the Stegner Fellowship? What then for you? Will Youngstown’s siren song lure you back that direction? Are you planning on being a permanent member of the Youngstown diaspora?
Academics don’t have much choice about where they end up, if they end up with work at all. In Ohio, I had a Master’s degree and was working in a coffee shop and adjuncting—literally serving coffee to my students—and I made just enough to break even. Like many people who leave Ohio, if I had a clear career path there, I might have been able to afford to stay.
It’d be a dream to move home and live close to my family. I’d be honored to teach at Youngstown State. Language doesn’t exist to express how grateful I am to be part of the Stegner community. The students I hope to teach, however, are unfortunately usually not in Ivy Leagues. My family and teachers took and continue to take a chance on me without expecting anything in return, and in turn, I want to empower others in overlooked communities, wherever they may be. Youngstown will always be home though. It’s the place where I’m happiest.
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