creative nonfiction by Richard Hague

A long time ago, I attended the inaugural—or maybe it was the second—Appalachian Writers Workshop. It took place (and continues to take place) in the tiny hamlet of Hindman, at the forks of a creek called Troublesome, in the rugged southeastern Kentucky county of Knott. There I met in person many of the now-legendary progenitors of Appalachian Renaissance writing and culture: James Still, Cratis Williams, Jim Wayne Miller, Gurney Norman, Albert Stewart, Shirley Williams, Harriet Arnow, George Ella Lyon. Later, I met Maurice Manning, Robert Morgan, Maggie Anderson, Frank X Walker, Karen Salyer McElmurray, Ron Houchin, Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Gipe, and many others. 

I learned a lot about story-telling and writing and networking and mentoring and being mentored, but I think primarily at the first workshop I learned about swarping. Most of the men and some of the women used the term casually to refer to some generally linked behaviors involving drinking, carousing, and late-nighting that males, mostly, engaged in around the region. Not to suggest that women were incapable of swarping; indeed, their presence often instigated and then heightened the experience. Nor is this to suggest that none of us had ever “swarped” before this. But once you deliberately name a thing, and the name seems to fit peculiarly well, you are paying a special attention to it. It is under closer scrutiny. The experience expands into all the possible denotations and connotations of its name.

From the beginning, the word carried with it for me the smell and feel of rural Appalachia: the sound corduroy or denim pants cuffs make when, after you’ve tromped across the creek, they rub together with each step: swarp, swarp. Or the fuzzy, vaguely pained feeling of a hangover just beginning, late at night, you lying on your back in some dew-damp meadow (mostly but not always avoiding the cow plops) after you’d chugged one too many last shots of shine: “Boys, I’m feeling a bit swarped and bedazed.” Or, as in one late night adventure, I rode around neighboring Letcher County with a state employee friend in an official government car (the Kentucky state seal painted brightly on the doors) and asked at various trailers and shacks and roadside joints, “You wouldn’t have any liquor to sell, would you?” One startled look at the car and front doors would slam. Only someone pretty well swarped could engage in such foolishness.

The activity and the word and the culture it arose from intrigued me, so I wrote a fictional etymological sketch entitled “An Appalachian Relic: Notes On ‘Swarp’” and submitted it—where else—to Appalachian Journal, the leading academic publication in the region. I claimed I’d found the article on a few sheets of paper folded into a copy of the Dwarf (Kentucky) Philological Society’s journal and was simply sending it in as I found it, verbatim. (Dwarf, Kentucky, current population 108, does not nor ever has had a Philological Society.) Enter Jerry Wayne Williamson —“Wayne” is his real middle name, but many others of us either adopted “Wayne” or were given it like an honorary patronymic as current or past disciples and swarping buddies of  the writer and teacher Jim Wayne Miller. Dick Wayne Hague, in my case. Well, Jerry Wayne was editor of AppalJ at the time. When he read my little joke, he improved it tenfold: its two pages he expanded into several more by adding arcane footnotes parodying the most opaque academic research, even writing some of the notes in German, all the while keeping up the Appalachian Writers Workshop’s in-jokes and the outrageous inventions of earlier non-existent scholars I included in my essay. (It wound up, to my great delight, being indexed by the Modern Language Association, thus burying the feet of my hoax in some sort of legitimate academic concrete forever.)  For a while, reading what soon was known as The Swarp Essay became a kind of initiatory rite during the annual meetings of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, a writers and activists group for which I have served as an editor and coordinator now and again over the years. 

Eventually, we refined the notion of swarping by developing the “Stages of Swarp,” an attempt by a whole gaggle of fine minds to put a very fine point on the progress of intoxication. First there was “high,” as in the pleasant mild buzz at the beginning of an evening of drinking. Then, of course, came “drunk,” less pleasurable but by then who cared? Next was “swarped”—a step (or more properly, a stagger) beyond drunk. If one continued to drink after being “swarped” then one would eventually become “rurnt”—the Appalachian phonetic version of “ruined.” The same with the next stage, “killt.”  It not only is a shortening of “killed,” retaining the ancient “t” as does the past participle “built,” but with the further interest of suggesting an article of clothing well known to Celtic (Kiltic, it might be pronounced in some Appalachian regions) ancestors in Scotland and Ireland. Then “interred,” often rendered and intended as “in-turd,” to suggest the nastiness of this penultimate stage. And then, “resurrected.” This last was added only after long debates about whether such a Christian concept belonged in the realm of swarping, which itself most probably predates Christianity by any number of thousands of years. According to the Wikipedia entry on beer,

In Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), early evidence of beer is a 3900-year-old Sumerian poem honoring Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing, which contains the oldest surviving beer recipe, describing the production of beer from barley via bread. 

So in these highly social celebrations of drinking, a kind of gay, humorous dispensation surrounded it, accompanied by Festivity, Conviviality, Joy. Swarping was just another set of steps in the pursuit of what alcohol in its best use has offered over the millennia to the human heart and spirit. It was easy to ignore its darker side in the high light of partying, camping out, sitting around the fire on the old strip mine and sipping the cans and bottles we’d stolen from our dads, as it had been for me as a boy. 

Ultimately, there is nothing funny about the disease of alcoholism, in the same way that there is nothing funny about brain cancer or polio. Laughter may be a defense mechanism, a way of distancing ourselves from the awful truth of addiction and decline.

But of course, the darker side exists. Here is just a fragment from a much longer essay, “Under the Influence,” by my Bread Loaf mentor Scott Russell Sanders. After my previous shots of lightness, humor, and buffoonery, it must certainly be taken as a sort of sobering literary chaser:

My father, when drunk, was neither funny nor honest; he was pathetic, frightening, deceitful. There seemed to be a leak in him somewhere, and he poured in booze to keep from draining dry. Like a torture victim who refuses to squeal, he would never admit that he had touched a drop, not even in his last year, when he seemed to be dissolving in alcohol before our very eyes. I never knew him to lie about anything, ever, except about this one ruinous fact. Drowsy, clumsy, unable to fix a bicycle tire, balance a grocery sack, or walk across a room, he was stripped of his true self by drink. In a matter of minutes, the contents of a bottle could transform a brave man into a coward, a buddy into a bully, a gifted athlete and skilled carpenter and shrewd businessman into a bumbler. No dictionary of synonyms for drunk would soften the anguish of watching our prince turn into a frog.

Though I have belly-laughed long and frequently over drunk jokes and depictions of drunkenness, I know better. My own long poem, Where Drunk Men Go, first published by Jerry Wayne Williamson in AppalJ, is, I hope, unstinting in its portrayal of the nadir of drunkenness while at the same time rhapsodizing about the ecstacy of the early stages of inebriation. There are many manifestations of yin and yang, of day and night, of grace and disgrace, in male human nature. Ultimately, there is nothing funny about the disease of alcoholism, in the same way that there is nothing funny about brain cancer or polio. Laughter may be a defense mechanism, a way of distancing ourselves from the awful truth of addiction and decline.

And yet swarping continues.

During my middle years of college, I lived off campus (with Michael Henson, my now long brother in time) in a place called the Slack House, named after its proprietor, Mrs. Paul Slack. She was a sharp, witty, chain-smoking business woman who oversaw a famous fur shop in downtown Cincinnati; she was also mother to two handsome high-school aged daughters who, though officially off-limits to college boys, were nevertheless romanced by some of us. The name of Mrs. Slack’s off-campus housing coincidentally suggested something about the nature and quality of our lives there. Outside of our collegiate duties, we lived loosely, drinking a lot, throwing parties, raising hell (though at least one of us, the late Gene Nevius, then an early skateboarder and landlocked wannabe surfer, became, in adult life, a well-respected judge in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio. I must also add that there was a maniac who kept live ferrets in his basement room, and before him, a self-taught painter who channeled Andrew Wyeth to an astonishing degree.) All us fellows planned a gigantic shindig which we named “The Feast of Fools.” It must have been around April or so, very possibly in the dark and murderous year of 1968. (The Tet Offensive. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Riots in our neighborhood. National Guard tanks patrolling the parkway that ran through campus.) We went out of our ways to invite people from not only Xavier and its sister schools, Our Lady of Cincinnati College, later known as Edgecliff College, and Mount St. Joseph College, but also even from our arch-rivals, the University of Cincinnati. That I don’t remember much about this epic binge tells you everything. I regret not having had the chance to interact in my own rooms with hippies of all kinds in that year of madness. What did happen was this: I had bought a pint of cheap gin, Paramount I believe. It was my first ever, and I ignorantly chugged it before things even got started. I passed out on my top bunk (how I got into it I do not know) and when I awoke the next morning feeling like I had been tossed out of a moving pickup while coming down simultaneously with malaria and brain fever, realized I still had my boots on. After regaining my eyesight and most of my ability to spell, I wrote a sad hangover poem, “Gin Freeze,” one of the few literary records of that time in my fledgling literary life. It is now, of course, long lost. 

Decades later, my own sons tried to host a similar bacchanal. They named it “Boozapalooza,” sent out invitations which spawned more invitations which spawned the arrival of dozens, if not hundreds, of absolute strangers to my home (I was in, Oh God, Tennessee, my wife in, Good Lord, Minnesota). After we returned home, and my wife sniffed out the reek of stale cigarette smoke and beer, and after I found atop my compost pile along the garage a vast and ringingly empty beer keg, we discovered the list of rules the boys had posted to govern the ungovernable. It was a noble list, a well-intentioned list, an admirable list, including guidelines on the respectful treatment of females, rules for preserving the house and its collection of art, ordinances forbidding the use of bedrooms, and others that showed a desire to retain order and minimize damage, despite the potential for adolescent catastrophe.

For a couple of years afterwards, I would survey my freshman and sophomore classes: “If you have been in my house, raise your hand.” Often, half would respond, girls giggling, guys grinning. And every time, I would fight down panic over what might have happened, over the scandal that would have flared over the home of a veteran teacher being used for such an illegal blowout. In part, my connection to the neighborhood saved me; when my son inadvertently set off the security alarm and couldn’t remember the password (it was “Moby-Dick”), the fireman who came to the door in response was a former student of mine. He peered around my son’s attempt to block the doorway, checked the scene out, and asked, “Your dad home?” It was immediately clear to him what was going down, what with the thick black plastic taped over the first-floor windows, no cars at all on the street but a kid out front with a valet’s flashlight, and all the rugs inside rolled up at the edges of the rooms. He said to Patrick, “I’m going to give you half an hour. Then I’ll call the police.”

Our neighbor, the singer and musician Lynne Miller, had been brought to her front porch by the arrival of the fire truck. She recognized the designated valet: he’d played for a couple of years on the same baseball team as her daughter Lindsey and my son Patrick. “Jake!” she bellowed (her email tag is “loudmama”), “What are you doing out there?”

So the gig was up, with several witnesses able to testify if evidence were required.  One of the many things wrong about “Boozapalooza” was that a genuine swarp is much more organic, evolving as the night unfolds, and would never cotton to any rules, despite Jim “Ski King” Webb’s attempts at ordering the unruly during swarps at his Wiley’s Last Resort on Pine Mountain in eastern Kentucky According to Scott Goebel, one time a band with their Cadillac Sedan DeVille pulling a 20-foot trailer parked right in the middle of the road, blocking all entrance and exits. “It took twenty people to help maneuver the rig out of the way. A National Geographic photographer captured it all.” Meanwhile, Jim would be yelling. “Get that dog out of here! You can’t park there, dammit! Get that camper out of the middle of the road! ” So, for the Boozapalooza, my sons were overly ambitious and naively underprepared, despite Patrick’s fraternity experience at Indiana University, a notorious party school. (A popular t-shirt on campus brags: Bloomington, A Drinking Town With A Basketball Problem). Ironically, the quite sober Scott Russel Sanders was head of the IU Honors Program, of which Patrick Hague was a member at the time of his undergraduate days. 

I’d seen a similarly abortive attempt at a swarp among my own students. Around the same time as the forestalled Hague boys’ bash, about two dozen of my top Advanced Placement seniors, really smart kids, decided to drink a couple cases of illegally acquired beer in a Kennedy Heights park. They all crowded into the tennis courts, which were shaded by surrounding trees, but which were also surrounded by a ten-foot high chain link fence. Happily gathered, they commenced their drinking. When called, as they were very quickly, the police were able to simply push the gates to the courts closed and corral them all. 

What is it about the high we get from drinking? I know it is not only a matter of physiology. When done communally, as it is often, it creates an element of shared calm, a mellow elation. The world looks a little less mean; our own selves less hung-up or up-tight; peace and love a bit more accessible. In the Slack House as a sophomore and junior, I had a portable stereo system, very hi-fi, with detachable speakers; my little corner room there could be filled to the ceiling with music. Especially sweet, when I was drinking beer on a Friday afternoon with a house mate or two, would be the Bach I played regularly: the Brandenburg Concertos, the Goldberg Variations. Mellowed out, I would actually feel the music, taut, muscular, then soft, sinuous, like the shapeliest mathematics dancing in a deep blue gown of sound. The afternoon melted into itself, time transformed to something like the wash of ocean against the shore that was me. 

This is a siren call of sorts, and I have been a scruffy Odysseus unlashed from the mast; I have plunged overboard and nearly drowned many a time. When I still could drink to excess, I tried to convince myself that I was a kind of Osiris, able to piece my wrecked self back back together again after every overdose of beer or wine. Once, in the mountains of East Tennesse, at the beginning of a writer’s conference there, I started down a dormitory hallway and stopped at an open door: there on the floor sat Gurney Norman, a legendary Appalachian writer in his own time, whose novel Divine Right’s Trip had been printed in the margins of the iconic The Last Whole Earth Catalog, and Bob Snyder, editor of the poetry anthology What’s A Nice Hillbilly Like You? and maybe the most celebrated Harvard-matriculated intentional hillbilly of all time. Cross-legged on the floor, the men were dipping pipe and cigarette ashes into an empty gallon wine jug that sat in the smoky miasma between them. Snyder looked up at me, eyebrows askew, and said, “The drunker I get, the wiser I become.” 

Such are the seductive, misdirecting, ecstatic, rug-pulling, self-coronations of booze.

Thus I am unable to completely dismiss drinking, even to excess. Coupled with social interaction, it’s swarping at its best. How many evenings of shared song have I been a part of at writer’s gatherings or the annual Appalachian Studies Conference, where just about as many guitars, banjos, mandolins, and fiddles show up as do Ph.D.s? Each year, the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative sponsors an evening Swarp at the App Studies event in whatever town and state it’s in, usually in some local tavern, and there appear music and poetry and wine and beer and moonshine and laughter and hillbilly trivia and moments of unexpected, sudden profundity, as when the famous activist and writer Helen Lewis stood up from an easy chair in our rented house in Indiana, Pennsylvania during our Swarp and read several new poems. It was like having Gandhi show up in your backyard.

So the dangerous complication is that swarping remains a blend of the beautiful and the ugly, the common and the grand, the human and the divine, the blessed and the damned. It is sensual, communal, physical, therapeutic, inspiring, and at times, transcendent. In some Appalachian Platonic ideal that I allow myself to imagine, swarping would be forever free of abuse—never any vomit, depression, hangovers, death. There would never be any disheveled staggering writers late at night at conferences, no haggard, hungover trembling-handers who can’t get a breakfast spoon to their lips, no passed-out slumpers still in chairs near next-day noon. Instead, I imagine this ideal swarping to gather a congregation of sweet-tongued, high-lonesome angels plucking and strumming guitars and dobros and dulcimers while floating on heavenly clouds over Xanadus of reclaimed coal fields. 

That it ain’t is one of the problems of the universe. That it ain’t is enough to make me want a drink.

Richard Hague is a native of Steubenville, Ohio, and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and the Writers Association of Northern Appalachia. Recent publications include "Last Sweat," winner of Second Prize in the Barry Lopez Nonfiction contest sponsored by Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, and "Fire In Steubenville," a poem appearing in Belt Magazine. He has work forthcoming in Northern Appalachian Journal, and in I Thought I Heard A Cardinal Sing, an anthology of Ohio Appalachian poetry edited by Ohio Poet Laureate Kari-Gunter Seymour. Winner of the Weatherford Award in Poetry, The Sow's Ear Poetry Prize, and the Black Swamp Poetry Prize, he continues as an Artist-in-Residence at Thomas More University in northern Kentucky.