Posts Tagged ‘Karen Dietrich’

Read This Book: The Girl Factory by Karen Dietrich

Factory Girl

I know the landscape of Karen Dietrich’s memoir, The Girl Factory.  It’s a small factory town in rural Pennsylvania.  It’s a household where parents work different shifts at the local factory — a mother who works days, while the father takes the “Hoot Owl” (A term used by my family for the night shift — also called The Graveyard Shift).  It’s a house filled with pets and superstition and complicated love.

Certainly, it was this familiar landscape that drew me into The Girl Factory, a memoir about a young girl growing up in the 80’s in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.  But it was the lyrical language that made me stay.

I knew Dietrich’s work as a poet (and because we both attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduates), but even I was surprised about how she was able to find poetic prose in a dusty and rusty small factory town, especially when the subjects found in her book lead to deeper dirt than what coats the physical surface.

Dietrich starts her book in 1985, when an employer of the Anchor Glass plant (the factory where both of her parents work) goes on a shooting spree killing four supervisors and then himself.  It’s this moment, when the family finds out about the shooting, that Dietrich explains: “There are moments that separate before from after, minutes in time that freeze like a photograph, capture a flash that indicates change.  I start to realize that everything I’ve lived so far has been the before. I don’t know what the after will be.”

What follows as the “after”  is a coming-of-age story about class issues and family relationships, a book that integrates the pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s, and a work that is able to explore even the darker findings of Dietrich’s childhood without losing the lyrical grace of her poetic language.

I have followed Dietrich’s work as a poet (see my review about her chapbook Anchor Glass here), and I preordered The Girl Factory over six months ago.  It didn’t disappoint.  In an age where memoirs are seemingly everywhere — this book certainly stands out as a must read. You can read more about Dietrich and her work at her website.

Why I Love Anchor Glass

I love Finishing Line Press and not just because this chapbook publishing company published Stealing Dust.  I discover many new poets through Finishing Line — poets who I don’t think I would find in other venues.  My most recent find is Anchor Glass by Karen Dietrich.

The setting for this slim volume of poetry is a small factory town in Pennsylvania — much like the setting of many of my works.  The narrator in “Certainty” explains this place clearly while depicting an eighth grade classroom:  “We were learning to be good citizens/remembering to fan the Youghiogheny/flowing past coke ovens nailed into grass/river rushing cold over our heads/while we slept in houses/our parents paid for with their bodies/their lungs exhaling ash so fine/it barely darkened our dreams.”

The factory is a dominant force in this collection’s narrative poems.  In one poem, “Factory” the narrator describes the building as a “subterranean staircase” that lingered far after the workers returned home:  “Nighttime your furnace breath puffed like a train/across the river, across other bodies coughing for air/your sulfur lungs burning the bedroom black.”  In another poem, “Night Shift”  a daughter fears for her father’s life as she watches him pack his lunch: “wax paper sandwiches, small cellophaned cakes, hard white icing/glass bottles of cola with red paper labels.”

The factory is also part of the domestic life found in some of these poems.  In “Inhaling” the narrator describes laundry chores: “Over clothesline, mother slings/wet work pants like dead bodies/buttons for eyes, rusted zippers for teeth.” 

Dietrich grew up in Connellsville, Pennsylvania.  With a brief bit of research, I discovered that Anchor Glass closed its factory in Connellsville in 2004.  So in many ways, her book is a respectful homage to little factory towns — a landscape that seems to be disappearing.

When I read the poet’s bio, I discovered a big surprise.  Karen Dietrich attended the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg — the same campus where I first discovered my love of working-class poetry, and the same campus where I received my degree in English literature.  While I am quite sure there is a huge age difference between us (I graduated from Pitt quite a few years ago), I’m excited to read work from another poet from my campus.  And I’m excited about Dietrich’s work — this sample of writing makes me only want to see more.