VIDEO: West Virginia Fails to Censor Student’s Poetry Reading

west virginia coal mines

Grace Pritt, a student at  Hurricane High School in Hurricane, WV and finalist in the 2013 Poetry Out Loud contest, was invited last week to read a poem at the West Virginia Governor’s Arts Award Ceremony.

But Pritt chose Charleston poet Crystal Good’s poem “Black Diamonds,” which is about 2010’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and was told by a state official to pick something else.

“I really hate to do this to you, but because your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there, our director wants you to choose a different poem,” Division of Culture and History grant coordinator Tabitha Walter told her via email on Monday, according to The Raw Story. “I’m so sorry about this. I’m just now finding this out.”

29 of 31 miners were killed in the tragedy, in which high methane levels led to an explosion while miners were roughly 1,000 feet underground. Investigators blamed Massey Energy, which they said had not properly maintained its ventilation systems.

Good responded with outrage, declaring on Facebook, “We are weeks away from the UBB anniversary. This is sacrilegious.”

After the story broke, Division of Culture and History officials called the episode a “miscommunication” and blamed Walter, who was “new to the position.”

“I think that this has just kind of gotten blown out of proportion,” Culture and History Director of Arts Renee Margocee reportedly stated.

But Division of Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith–who said after this incident went public that “there’s no room for censorship of the arts”–reportedly has a history of protecting the interests of the mining industry. According to West Virginia Blue, in 2009, he removed Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register of Historic Place, which made it viable for coal mining.

The award ceremony was held last night, and Pritt went ahead with “Black Diamonds.”

Pritt has called “Black Diamonds” a “real and very West Virginian poem.” Her goal was not to “cause trouble,” but to honor the poet and the coal miners who died, and the miners’ families.

Here is video of last night’s reading taken by Cody Kaso: