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Miscommunication blamed for West Virginia poem flap

CHARLESTON (AP) — State officials blame miscommunication for rejecting a student’s plan to recite a poem about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion at a state arts event.

Hurricane High School student Grace Pritt selected “Black Diamonds” by Charleston poet Crystal Good to recite at the Governor’s Arts Awards on Thursday in Charleston. A grant coordinator with the Division of Culture and History sent an email to Pritt telling her that she couldn’t read the poem because it “deals with coal and many state representatives will be there,” media outlets reported.

The division drew criticism from the arts community and others after an image of the email appeared on social media sites.

“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,” Good told the Charleston Daily Mail. “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.”

Caryn Gresham, Culture and History deputy commissioner, said the incident was a miscommunication. She said Pritt will recite the poem at Thursday’s event, which is part of the national Poetry Out Loud program.

Pritt’s choice of “Black Diamonds” was initially rejected because organizers of the event were under the impression that the student would select poems from a national anthology provided by the Poetry Out Loud program, as she had done for the 2013 event, Gresham said.

Secretary of Education and the Arts Kay Goodwin is investigating the incident to ensure that it does not happen again, Gresham said.

Goodwin said she was upset about the email sent to Pritt.

“That’s not the way we do things. … We’re not in the business of judging the content of any participant in any artistic endeavor. The young lady will be reading whatever she wishes to read, and we’re happy to have her do that,” Goodwin told the Charleston Gazette (http://bit.ly/N66N8D) .

Pritt said she did not intend to cause any problems when she chose the poem to recite.

“”Since the Governor’s Arts Awards seems to be all about honoring West Virginia art and artists, I thought doing a Crystal Good poem to honor coal miners’ widows … made sense,” Pritt told the Charleston Gazette. “To me, ‘Black Diamonds’ is a real and very West Virginian poem. I was in no way trying to cause trouble. I just wanted to honor Crystal Good, the coal miners who died at Upper Big Branch, and those miners’ families.”

Pritt, 17, was a 2013 Poetry Out Loud finalist.

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