Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr.’s collection Gay Poems for Red States is a memoir-in-poems, a powerful and evocative recollection of growing up queer in Appalachia.
Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:
“Although the content of the collection is often grim, it is treated with beauty and humor. The poems collected center a poor, queer Southern youth who’s struggling to survive; they seek moments of solace.”
Music is very much like food–it’s always around us, so much so that we have a hard time remembering what we experienced a week ago, and yet when either resonates–and both resonate–they bring us back, push us forward, or freeze us in a moment in unforgettable ways. Music was the first poetry I recognized as such, and it was always for me, a gay boy from an Appalachian holler, multiple roads I could travel to help figure out who I was in a world where there was no single road for people like me. As such, it is, in its diversity, playing throughout Gay Poems for Red States.
RuPaul – “Supermodel (You Better Work)”
This song matters enough to actually be the title of one of the poems in my collection. As a kid, I was drawn first to RuPual’s energy–a tall black man dressed as a glamorous Barbie, enjoying life on his terms. I’d never seen anything like him in eastern Kentucky. And his lyrics are so fun and simple that they dig right into your brain. The kid in my poems can’t stop singing them. The lyrics eventually become almost a religion for him (and me)–that we’re already beautiful and we deserve to have the fun and to do the work that validates our worth.
Third Eye Blind – “Jumper”
This collection centers around a young gay boy coming of age in the nineties. The 90’s loved emotional alternative rock that took a while to sink in–Joan Osborne, Sublime, Natalie Merchant. “Jumper” is unabashedly singable and yet the song is about a queer man who feels lost and alone despite being loved by someone who can’t understand him. I played this song a lot after writing pieces in this collection because my inner child, who was helping me write, loved it and held tightly to his faith that people wanted to tell him they cared, that he wasn’t alone, that they could see him, and not to jump.
Keith Whitley – “Homecoming 63”
Keith Whitley is my favorite Appalachian singer/songerwriter, and this is probably my favorite song because it is unabashedly tender–a song about a man remembering his pride in taking a girl to a dance. I remember sitting in my car with a stoned friend in college as this song played. He said, “Man, can you imagine what it feels to be Keith Whitley’s mom? How proud must she have been to have a son who could just say his feelings so sweetly without any shame?” This was a feeling I have kept with me–wanting to make my mom proud and being brave enough to write with out hiding emotions.
“I’ll Fly Away”-Ralph Stanley
Bluegrass sprouts up throughout this work because it was the landscape of my childhood, especially Ralph Stanley, who my mamaw and mom would both play from a local radio station. I love bluegrass for a lot of reasons, especially for its refusal to pick an emotional lane–even the saddest songs have a kick that makes you want to tap your foot. His rendition is light and quick and somehow almost ethereal while tasting like gravy. It sees hope through the hurt. Much of this collection is written in the same format, the same way my people talk–living in the happiness of a moment while the pain lurks at you from the same room.
“Romeo” – Dolly Parton
I wish my mom had more happy moments in her memories–but she’s had a hard life. Music is fleeting, but it is real, and as I was writing her, I remembered this song. We used to live in an old house without electricity on Abott Creek, but we ran an extension cord to the neighbor’s house, and we would plug in a radio. At the time, this fun song would play. Dolly is referencing Shakespeare while flirting with Billy Ray Cyrus: pure hillbilly camp. My mom would distract us from the world by showing us how to line dance and jig when it played. Dolly has the ability to bring peace and fun to soften the edges of the world. My mom does too.
“The Story” – Brandi Carlile
My husband first played this song for me in Athens, Georgia. This big-eyed country singing lesbian was channeling past and present, heaven and earth, angels and cowboys with her gut-wrenching powerful vocals, and every hair on my body stood on end. The idea of another person giving our entire life context and seeping it in meaning was presented so purely–so queerly, and in a country song–that I wept. It was a religious experience. I hope for my work to be a testimony, like hers, to be a flicker of light singing to someone else that they’re not alone. That someone cares. That they are seen.
Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. has spent his entire life dedicated to student success. He holds degrees in French and English from Morehead State University, where he focused his studies on advocacy for students, particularly first generation, Appalachian, and minoritized students. He began his work in eastern Kentucky, later studying and teaching in France. In 2022, Carver was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year and Ambassador to the Kentucky Department of Education, where he created a platform of inclusion and advocacy for LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and Appalachian students. His work has been published in Kentucky Teacher, Education Week, and EdPost. Carver’s story has been featured on NBC, PBS, NPR, and other news outlets.