Kentucky’s ‘Where I’m From’: A Poetry of Place

Twenty-two years ago, on the Summer Solstice in 1993, I began a poem called “Where I’m From.” Here’s the notebook I wrote it in, bought at the Radford University Bookstore where I was teaching in the Highland Summer Conference.

The cover of my notebook and a page showing a draft of "Where I'm From." I see on the cover that I was also writing "Here and Then," a Civil War time travel novel here, too.

The cover of my notebook and a page showing a draft of “Where I’m From.” I see on the cover that I was also writing “Here and Then,” a Civil War time travel novel here, too.

Little did I dream, when I began this poem on page one of my new notebook, that I was starting a process that would involve countless teachers and writers, young and old, in the United States and in Germany, Great Britain, Spain, China and the Sudan, that folks would write “Where I’m From” poems in prison, a refugee camp, homeless shelters, English as a second language programs and children’s hospitals. Just as my poem took off from a poem in Jo Carson’s “Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet,” and hers took off from something she heard somebody say, so “Where I’m From” has been handed around the world like sourdough starter. It’s been part of photo exhibits, videos, obituaries, family reunions and dance. “I’m from the . . . pass-it-ons” my poem says, and that’s what keeps happening to it, a testimony to the power of place, of poetry, of teachers and of the hunger for a voice.

When I became poet laureate last spring, I wondered if there was a larger project that I could initiate, something beyond the readings, workshops, school visits, and other events I’d be doing around the state during my tenure. I mused, I brainstormed, I daydreamed. Then came what one of my Centre College professors called “the hysterical discovery of the obvious.” (He did not want to read this type of discovery in our essays, but I’m always thankful when one shows up.)

We could create a collection of “Where I’m From” (WIF) poems from all over the state! We could invite folks in each county to write theirs and then have one chosen randomly — I was adamant that this not be a contest — to put on the Kentucky Arts Council website. It can be a recording, a video, a song or whatever form the maker chooses.

Much to my delight, the arts council folks liked this idea. And, in the WIF tradition, they added their own vision: How can this idea fit into the arts curriculum in the classroom and how it could turn into local readings across the state next April when we celebrate Kentucky Writers’ Day?

I believe that writing belongs to everybody. It’s about getting what’s in your heart and head on paper so that you can understand yourself, so you can save what’s precious to you, and so you can share it if you want. We all have a trove of memories related to where we’re from. My poem is a list, chosen from pages of lists I made of experiences that shaped me. I played with the order and the arrangement on the page, and then I wrote that last stanza as a reflection on the whole.

You can do this! Everybody makes lists. The key is not to worry about what you put down, what order it comes in, of whether it sounds poem-like to you. Just get words on the page. Or screen. You might do this in short bursts over several days. (That’s what I did.) Then get your pages together, underline the lines you like best, and fiddle with the order. Read it out loud to see how it sounds. Check for places you could zoom in; for example, if you wrote “I’m from the first car I drove” you can bring us in closer by adding “— a red-and-white ’55 Chevy.”

Above all, have fun. It’s your life. It’s your writing. You can’t go wrong.

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Milner Awardee reflects on arts advocacy

2015 Milner Awardee Al Smith. Photo by Marvin Young/Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Office of Creative Services

2015 Milner Awardee Al Smith. Photo by Marvin Young/Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Office of Creative Services

My selection to receive this year’s Milner Award for advocacy of the arts was like an announcement of a play revival from the 1970s and ‘80s, the decades in which I served on the Kentucky Arts Council. I think of the scheduled presentation on Oct. 22 as the First Night opening of a curtain on scenes of long ago when it was called the Kentucky Arts Commission.

Why the name was changed is another story, unnecessary to tell in the 50th anniversary year of Kentucky state government’s support of the arts. However, I am a survivor of a few political skirmishes over process. In one of them, when the Milner Award was to be presented at an event in the Cave region to Wendell Cherry, a co-founder of Humana, he balked at having to travel so far from Louisville. As he was venting his displeasure, a secretary tried to assure him it was an important occasion. “The Owensboro Symphony will play,” she said. “Mr. Barry Bingham Sr. (the owner of the Courier-Journal) will present the award to you and Al Smith will be the speaker.”

“AL SMITH?” the honoree snorted. “Why that fellow will speak anywhere!”

But he came to the dinner, and could not have been nicer to me or to Mr. Bingham, my colleague on the commission.

Cherry was honored after a deal Bingham and I made two years before when the chairmanship of the Appalachian Regional Commission was added to my civic responsibilities by President Jimmy Carter. Bingham wanted to give the Milner honor to Cherry for enormous contributions to building the Kentucky Center for the Arts. I wanted to give it to James Still of Hindman, a beloved poet and story teller in the Appalachian region.

The compromise was Still first and Cherry second. When it was James Still’s turn, he enchanted Bingham’s wife Mary by reporting he had “told the bees” at his cabin home that he was going to Louisville for the arts award and would return next day. (Mary, an original promoter of Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” was familiar with the culture of the mountains but “telling the bees” about travel plans was a folk custom new to her.)

The Milner Award is named for a business advocate in the first decade of the arts agency. Hudson Milner was the head of Louisville Gas and Electric when he became chairman of the Commission and, with another Bingham — Barry Bingham Jr., successor to his father as the Courier-Journal publisher — visited Gov. Julian Carroll to pitch for aid to the arts. They came away with a significant gift by Carroll, a promise of an annual “match” from the state for funds raised each year by local arts organizations — from Appalshop in Whitesburg to the prestigious programs in Louisville.

After Milner’s untimely death, the commission established the namesake award to honor his service and Gov. Carroll appointed me as his successor.

Why me?

I had just become a member of the commission. About the arts, other than a literary bent, my experience was leading a band in the first grade and acting in dramas in college, but I was certain the arts were vital to the emotional, intellectual and spiritual well-being of citizens and communities. I was a fan for sure, and always an advocate in my journalism, especially for individual artists.

About music, in my 20s, while working on New Orleans newspapers, I wrote a freelance story for Newsweek magazine about a revival of dixieland and jazz on Bourbon Street. In Kentucky, editing a weekly paper at Russellville in rural Logan County, I took advantage of new funding for state arts programs to promote a schedule of concerts in Russellville by the Louisville Orchestra, the Kentucky Opera and individual artists such as folk singer Jean Ritchie and actor Ken Jenkins of Actors Theater, later a star on the TV show “Scrubs.”

When the Louisville Orchestra accepted an invitation to play for the dedication of a new high school auditorium in Russsellville, I was proud but concerned whether the readers of my paper, many of them farmers, shared my enthusiasm for classical music. So I appealed to managers of new factories we had recruited to Logan County, selling them full page ads that extolled the talents of the musicians, likening them to skills of local work forces producing die castings and hermetic motors. The underlying theme of these ads urged the community not to embarrass ourselves by staying away. The turnout on a foggy night — I shall never forget it — filled every seat in the auditorium.

That record, plus maybe my friendly editorials about the Democratic party, apparently influenced Carroll’s appointment of me and reappointments by two successive governors. During that service, a highlight was a homecoming of Kentucky authors that we sponsored at the University of Louisville in 1979, financed with a contingency grant from Gov. Carroll to pay travel expenses.

As my journalism expanded into TV and radio broadcasting, I continued to feature special artists — film makers, the poets laureate and the authors of books about Kentucky. A series of 17 documentaries about notable Kentuckians I produced for KET featured seven artists.

This advocacy was cited for creation of the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship program after I left the council in 1984. I lobbied for funding grants to individual artists, but never to name them for me. Nevertheless, the Fellowships mean so much to me because they have always meant so much to artists, beginning in the early days with one to Joe Gray, a farm boy, Yale graduate and stretcher bearer in Vietnam before he became a film maker.

“Well, Joe, what did you do with that cash?” I asked him.

“I fixed my jeep,” he replied.

Veteran journalist Al Smith of Lexington chaired the Kentucky Arts Council from 1977-79 and 1981-84. He was founding producer of KET’s Comment on Kentucky, which he hosted for 33 years.



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More training opportunities for creative entrepreneurs

KF_stackedRGBSince the release of the Kentucky Arts Council’s Kentucky Creative Industry Report in late 2014, we have been working hard to address recommendations and priorities identified in the report to support and grow the creative industry in Kentucky.

Why? The report gave us great insight into the needs of Kentucky artists, creative businesses and entrepreneurs who work within the segments of the industry. When I say segments, I’m referring to visual arts, which includes craft artists; performing arts; design; and media, which includes communications, advertising and the literary arts.

One of the first things we did was prioritize how we would address these needs. Identified within the top 10 needs for resources were:

  • Computer/web/technology assistance
  • Marketing assistance
  • Professional development
  • Opportunities to network with other artists
  • Information on employment opportunities
  • Grants or loans
  • Places to sell, exhibit or perform
  • Publicity/coverage in the media

A major focus of the arts council has always been to provide tools, resources and information for the state’s artists and creative entrepreneurs to help them find new pathways to success. When we looked at these needs collectively, we realize they fall, in some form or fashion, under one heading – business training.

Since the release of our report, the arts council has been fortunate to have forged new partnerships with people and organizations across the state. I have begun referring to these folks as “the UN-usual suspects.” One of the most interesting relationships we have right now is with the good people at Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and, my new favorite Kentuckian, Bill Schutters. Bill wears many hats in the entrepreneurial and business communities and currently is working in the eastern part of the state providing services. He’s collaborating with us on this training through his position as director of the Kentucky Highlands Innovation Center at the office of the Kentucky Innovation Network – London. Bill has a strong background working with artists and arts entrepreneurs, and we’re thrilled to have him on board.

Through a series of conversations, we – and let me add here that “we” includes the ever-innovative women at the office of Berea Tourism – decided to form a partnership to offer business training directly to those who work in the creative industry. The curriculum we’re using is the Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac business program which, for more than 20 years, has provided aspiring and established entrepreneurs with the information, framework, resources and peer networks they need to successfully start and grow companies.

There are two tracks that will run concurrently in this series. There is FastTrac NewVenture – for creative businesses up to two years in operation and those just thinking about starting their creative business. The other is FastTrac GrowthVenture, for creative entrepreneurs who have been in operation three or more years. The trainings together will create a new learning network for Kentucky artists and creative entrepreneurs that will continue to be beneficial long after these trainings have finished.

If you are interested in joining us for this amazing training series, you can attend one of the workshop sessions that will give you an overview of what will be covered in the full training. You’ll also be able to apply for scholarships. The class is valued at $325, but investments from the sponsoring partners make scholarships available for participants to attend the complete series for $20. Find all of the details about the workshops on our website, where you can also register to attend.

Finally, if your agency or organization is interested in partnering with the arts council to address specific needs of your local creative industry, let’s get together and talk! We are dedicated to supporting and growing the creative industry in all areas of Kentucky. You can email me at emilyb.moses@ky.gov, or call me toll-free at 888-833-2787, ext. 472. I hope to hear from you.

Emily B. Moses

Creative Industry Manager

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Kentucky’s first Etsy training hits the mark

Congrats to our first Etsy Entrepreneurs who completed the first course of its kind in Kentucky!

craft entrepreneurshipThis free course was available to visual and craft artists with a ready-to-sell handmade product and who were ready to learn how to sell and grow their business through the online creative market Etsy.com, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

The five-week course was divided into five classes, which allowed the students to absorb the knowledge from each class and practice working from home. Each class was packed with informative topics like becoming an entrepreneur, building and marketing a brand, photography, pricing and simple accounting and growing your handmade business. Students completed the course with a beautiful Etsy shop filled with a product ready to sell all over the world.

They also left with the knowledge to make it happen.

I believe this program is a great asset to the community and to our state. My Etsy business has opened many doors for me, including the opportunity to teach this class as well as connect with other Etsy entrepreneurs all over the world. I am able to create and do what I love while making a living, which is something that hasn’t always been easily available to the public. All you need is the knowledge to start. That’s why this class is so important.

I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 2011 with an art education degree and was disappointed by the job options I had locally. I loved where I lived and didn’t want to compromise what I loved doing in order to make a living. That’s when I discovered Etsy, a handmade marketplace that made it easy to target my business to the people who want to buy the things I make.

It has taken me years to learn and pick up knowledge on how to grow my business on Etsy, so it’s great that Etsy has taken all of their knowledge from sellers and condensed it into a course that students can finish and absorb in only five weeks.

I am excited to see the future of our Etsy entrepreneurs and encourage other communities in Kentucky to partner with the Kentucky Arts Council to provide Etsy entrepreneur training.

Etsy Entrepreneur Instructor
Courtney Howard

Check out our new Hazard Etsy Entrepreneurs and their shops!

Lauren Baker
Evalee Patrick
Sallie Martin
Eugene King
Kathy Fugate

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Artists can apply for Kentucky Crafted Program

KyCraftedLogo_ColorThe Kentucky Arts Council is accepting applications from artists interested in participating in the Kentucky Crafted Program.

Kentucky Crafted
is an adjudicated marketing assistance program for the state’s finest visual and craft artists. It provides assistance to Kentucky artists through marketing and promotional opportunities and arts business training.

Artists accepted into the Kentucky Crafted Program are eligible to use the Kentucky Crafted logo,exhibit at
Kentucky Crafted: The Market, be included in the arts council’s online directory for artists, sell work at the Governor’s Derby Celebration and can take advantage of cooperative advertising opportunities.

Madison County woodworker Jerry Hollon has been in the Kentucky Crafted Program since the early 1980s. Hollon said he applied for the Kentucky Crafted Program for the opportunities the brand presented for him to sell his work in expanded markets.

“Being in the program has meant a lot of work has come my way,” Hollon said. “It’s given me the opportunity to market my craft in places I never dreamed of. I went to New York in the early ’90s as part of the program and I was able to gain sales all over the New England area.”

Hollon’s work was sold by prestigious retailers like FAO Schwartz and Barney’s.

The entrepreneurship benefits of Kentucky Crafted helped Hollon get started in his woodworking business, and he said it provided a solid foundation from which to develop his art into a business.

“Kentucky Crafted gave me the structure I needed to move forward in marketing my art and craft and it gave me the avenue to do it,” Hollon said. “When you’re first starting out, you need structure in how to do it, and the program helped me with that.”

The deadline to apply for Kentucky Crafted is Aug. 17. For more information about the program, contact Ed Lawrence, arts council arts marketing director, at ed.lawrence@ky.gov or 502-564-3757 ext. 473.

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