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Kentucky Writers’ Day Month

By Tamara Coffey

April is Kentucky Writers’ Day Month. I know, I know, grammatically speaking, that’s just wrong, but why should we limit our celebration of Kentucky writers to only one day? After all, it is National Poetry Month, and Kentucky has been blessed with an abundance of gifted writers of all sorts—poets, playwrights, journalists, memoirists, biographers, bloggers, children’s and young adult writers and writers of creative nonfiction and literary and genre fiction (and others I’ve missed, no doubt). The literary waters in Kentucky overflow their banks more often than the Kentucky River, so why not celebrate Kentucky Writers’ Day Month?

The Kentucky Arts Council will host Kentucky Writers’ Day, a celebration of all Kentucky writers, Friday, April 24, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern time, in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort. Writers and other lovers of words will gather to welcome the newest Kentucky poet laureate, George Ella Lyon, a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and plays. She will be joined by past Kentucky poets laureate Richard Taylor, Joe Survant, Sena Jeter Naslund, Gurney Norman, Maureen Morehead and Frank X Walker. All will read from their original work, a treat for all bibliophiles and bookworms — the chance to hear writers read their own words.

In case you’re curious, April 24 was chosen as Kentucky Writers’ Day because it is the birthday of Robert Penn Warren, a poet, novelist and literary critic from Guthrie in Todd County. Penn is the only writer to have received a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (“All the King’s Men”) and poetry (“Promises: Poems 1954-1956” and “Now and Then”). He was named the first U.S. poet laureate back in 1986. Prior to 1986 there was a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and guess what — Robert Penn Warren was named as the third consultant in 1944. The second consultant was Allen Tate from Winchester, Ky. Oh yeah, Kentucky literary waters run deep!

Are you ready to dip your toes into the eddy of poetry and literature? Here’s a sampling of websites that feature writings of and readings by writers from Kentucky and elsewhere to tide you over:
Kentucky Writers’ Day readings
Library of Congress readings
Library of Congress Archive of Poetry and Literature
Poetry 180
The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Archive
Poetry Out Loud
National Poetry Month April 2015

Maybe you’ll want to wade in by taking the Kentucky Arts Council’s Writers’ Day Challenge. Simply post on Facebook that you are accepting the challenge from @KentuckyArtsCouncil, add a few lines of your own writing and include the hashtag #kywritersday.

Or just dive into Kentucky Writers’ Day by joining us in the Capitol Rotunda at 10 a.m. this Friday. Can’t make it to Frankfort? Make your own Writers’ Day celebration by inviting your friends, coworkers and others to share their original writing or excerpts of their favorite Kentucky literature and poetry. Don’t hesitate, you only have until the end of next week to be a part of Kentucky Writers’ Day Month.

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Our writing places

By Maureen Morehead

Two winters ago, when I visited Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, I wanted to see the room in which she wrote her poems. Years before, I’d visited the homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott in Concord. I stood in the tower in which Hawthorne wrote, like Earnest Hemingway, standing up; and in the Alcott parlor where Emerson waited many times to engage Louisa’s father in conversation.

Dickinson’s bedroom, where she wrote her poems, is spacious but spare. The room is up a flight of stairs; it includes a small bed; three windows—two overlooking the main road, the third facing her brother’s house; a wooden floor; a dresser; and a tiny square writing desk. On the desk is a lamp, and beneath it a chair, small, befitting Emily’s small body. Someone had placed a photocopied example of one of her fascicles on the bed, which was to me the most astonishing thing in the room. Sixteen pages of poems in Emily’s handwriting, the original arranged and sewn together by the poet herself, caused me to whisper a silent thank you to her sister Lavinia for saving the poetry.

We’re interested in the places writers compose their work, especially those whose writing we’ve studied and loved. Place tells us about them in ways the writing doesn’t. We can also learn from evidence (the drafts, revisions and letters) preserved, often in libraries, and archived for scholars to study and examine. Dickinson’s sister, upon Emily’s death, found in her room a box filled with years of writing. Even though she lived in the house with Emily, she had no idea how prolific her sister had been. Lavinia could have burned the poems, as she did her sister’s correspondence and which was customary at the time, but she didn’t. What she did do is determine the poems needed to be published. When she couldn’t do it herself, she gave the poetry to T.W. Higginson, Emily’s long-time correspondent, and her brother Austin’s mistress, an educated woman with whom Emily had shared poems. In 1890 the first collection of poems by Emily Dickinson came out in print.

I’ve written often about my writing place, a family room in my house decorated with Bybee Pottery, Louisville Stoneware and colorful Ball jars used by family in eastern and western Kentucky to preserve their goods. From where I sit across from three tall windows, I have a view of leafless trees, oak and ash and walnut, native to Kentucky. Deer, squirrels, raccoons, the occasional hawk, woodpeckers, cardinals, bluejays, finches, and titmice populate the wood and gather at my feeders, especially in winter. The images around me, exterior and interior, provide the images, often used as metaphors, for my poems.

For Kentucky Writers’ Day let me emphasize the relevance of writers to save the notes, jottings and drafts along with the final copies of their writing, whatever the genre. We delete our drafts frequently as easy as it is on a word processor, denying ourselves access to our original drafts and to revisions that may be better than our final changes. Deleting works in progress, we deny access to others, students and scholars, who desire to examine our writing processes to figure out the nature of our creativity. And there is another group who may find writings invaluable. A writer’s children, friends, grandchildren and their children will learn so much about us from our writings, even if our poems, stories, plays and journal entries aren’t the quality of a Dickinson, a Robert Penn Warren or a Bobbie Ann Mason. I believe our readers will find our interests, ideas, stories, personalities and concerns in our writings. And they just might be taken to the places where their ancestors wrote their poems.

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Please join the Kentucky Arts Council on Kentucky Writers’ Day, 10 a.m. April 24 in the Capitol Rotunda for the induction of George Ella Lyon as Kentucky Poet Laureate.

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Kentucky is Literary Capital of Mid-America

By Neil Chethik

Bluegrass, bourbon, basketball … and books? Most Kentuckians readily identify with the first three on this list. Now, a growing number are waking up to our state’s literary power as well.

Wendell Berry. Barbara Kingsolver. Sue Grafton. Bobbie Ann Mason. Frank X Walker. And the incoming state poet laureate, George Ella Lyon. These are just a few of the outstanding, nationally acclaimed writers with strong Kentucky ties.

They are also the latest in a 200-year legacy of Kentucky writers whose work supports the vision of Kentucky as the Literary Capital of Mid-America.

Proclaiming Kentucky a Literary Capital may be a boast, but it is not a stretch. Consider:

  • Kentucky is the birthplace of the first African-American novelist, William Wells Brown. After escaping slavery, Brown published “Clotel, The President’s Daughter,” in 1853. It claimed that President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with a slave.
  • Kentucky is home to the first million-selling novelist, John Fox, Jr. The Bourbon County native produced a string of best-sellers between 1900 and 1910, including “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” the first book to top seven figures in sales.
  • The first poet laureate of the United States, Robert Penn Warren, was a Kentuckian. A native of Guthrie, Warren – author of “All the King’s Men” – is the only writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and poetry.

Kentucky also is fertile ground for new literary genres: Thomas Merton redefined spiritual autobiography in “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Harry Caudill created a unique biography of a place – Appalachia – in “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” And Hunter S. Thompson of Louisville broke ground with “gonzo journalism” – first-person, irreverent prose, including “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

What is it about Kentucky that produces so many outstanding writers? Some say the inspiration is the beauty – and abuse – of the land. Others say the inspiration comes from the legacy of conflict in Kentucky: north vs. south, Hatfields vs. McCoys, rural vs. urban. Without a deep understanding of struggle, what author could write a compelling book?

I think it’s both of these factors, plus another one: Kentucky takes care of its writers. I know that was true for me 18 years ago when I first came to the Carnegie Center in Lexington for help finding my writing voice and a publisher. I found both with the help of teachers and fellow writers.

The Carnegie Center continues to champion our state’s writers. We house the Carnegie Books-in-Progress Conference every June, and the Kentucky Women’s Writers Conference each September. We have created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. And we continue to offer mentoring, classes and guidance for writers at every stage of development.

We invite you to check out the center’s activities and take advantage of your residence in the Literary Capital of Mid-America.

Neil Chethik, author of “FatherLoss” (Hyperion Books), “VoiceMale” (Simon & Schuster), is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning. Reach him at neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

Please join the Kentucky Arts Council on Kentucky Writers’ Day, 10 a.m. April 24 in the Capitol Rotunda for the induction of George Ella Lyon as Kentucky Poet Laureate.

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‘The ability to write well is the ability to think well’

This week’s KAC Creative Commonwealth blog entry comes from Elizabeth Prather, a writing teacher from the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, just before we celebrate Kentucky Writers’ Day and introduce our new poet laureate.

For 15 years, I worked as a traditional English teacher in a traditional high school and for the last three years, I’ve been teaching creative writing in a high school magnet program. During my career, I have taught every secondary grade level and every possible transmutation of English from freshman Title I Reading to senior AP Literature and everything in between. As a Kentucky teacher, I was also witness to the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) portfolio years and now to the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) on-demand assessments. In these roles, I’ve taught students who were National Merit Finalists and students who could barely write a sentence. I’ve taught students who went on to Ivy League degrees and students who are now serving time in jail. But no matter who I taught or what I was teaching, the central focus of my role as an English teacher has been on the skill of writing. The single skill I hope all my students left my classroom with is the facility, the freedom and the fortune of writing.

When I was a student at the University of Kentucky, I was lucky enough to be enrolled in a class taught by Kentucky writer Wendell Berry. The class was called Expository Writing for Teachers. One of the parting custodies Berry entrusted us with was “to arm your students with tools against loneliness and oppression.” Reading is certainly one of those tools, as are the skills of speaking and listening, but, by my lights, writing well is among the more powerful skills a child can possess. The heartbeat of every culture is its writing. A culture’s social, political and theological fabric is born on words. A well-crafted letter of complaint or a letter pledging faithfulness to a beloved, a powerful sermon expressing grace, a movie script defining a life story, a moving speech that calls others to action – these are the skills on which a child and a culture can thrive.

The ability to write well is the ability to think well. When we teach students to write, we are not only teaching them to write, but how to use their minds in critical and productive ways. We are tutoring them in the arts of persuasion and the nuances of a vast and evolving language. We are preparing them to be better citizens, to sort propaganda from useful reasoning and to recognize and tell the truth about themselves and their world.

Teaching writing is a messy business. There are no five easy steps or five simple paragraphs. Teaching a child to mine the ideascape of his beliefs, to artfully render a memory and to do this with honest language devoid of political doublespeak and sentimental euphemism cannot be executed with bubble sheets and a Scantron machine. Teaching a child to write is the intersection of apprenticeship and self-discovery. The lesson is as individual as the student and each student moves at his or her own pace toward mastery, a mastery which, if we are truthful, is a lifelong pursuit. Teaching a child to write honors his or her own story and arms them with those necessary skills to proclaim it.

Kentucky has always been a place where writers and poets have thrived, giving voice to their unique story. As a Kentucky writer and teacher, I am honored to take my student-writers to Frankfort on April 24 to see George Ella Lyon be inducted as Kentucky’s newest poet laureate. She has long championed literacy throughout the Commonwealth through her work as a classroom teacher, visiting poet and working writer. Generations of school children have found their own voice through her exemplary Kentucky poem, “Where I’m From,” a model used in hundreds of Kentucky classrooms as an invitation to claim and proclaim one’s roots.

Elizabeth Prather teaches writing at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington. She produces the blog Teach Like Everyone’s Listening, where she writes about teaching creative writing. She lives in Mt. Sterling.

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The “Debut” of our new Poet Laureate

By George Ella Lyon

Dear Readers,

As your about-to-be poet laureate, I want to begin with a poem about beginning.

DEBUT

Something comes from nothing.

Something will come. Just listen.

Just wait. Sit by the portal of nothing.

You will hear the ringy sort of silence

that fills a well. Then quirks & quinks.

Then words. Two. Three. Maybe a whole

phrase. This you say over and over

to let the melody cast its spell. Then

you listen again, but now you listen

forward from those words. What

comes after this? That, these, those?

Probably not. Association is free

but more a playground than a poem.

Now. Play ground. The stage?

Dusty velvet maroon curtain. You

wait behind its pleated wall. Guitar

neck in your right hand, your best

friend’s hand in your left. You’re

fourteen, it’s 1963, and the audience

creaks the wooden seats of your

high school auditorium, eager

to see the football queen crowned

and get back to the house. But they

must sweat through entertainment

first, including you and Joanie, who

are debuting your folk act because

of “Lemon Tree” and “Blowin’ in

the Wind.” You are both trembling

like that wind-swept tree, breath

held till your names are called.

Then you step out into footlight’s

dazzle, all hope and high hearts.

Somewhere in the universe your

voices still travel, a disturbance

of air, your first song.

I chose this poem not only because it’s about a debut, but because it’s about how writing happens—or at least how it happens for me.

I remember when I volunteered in my high school library, one of the first things Mrs. Dale, our librarian, told me, was that “Nothing comes before something.” She was referring to a principle of book organizing, but I took it cosmically. (This is one way to spot a poet.) And it’s true, of course. It’s what they tell us about the origin of the uni-verse, the one poem we are all a part of.

When I began “Debut” I had no idea where it was going, no clue that I would wind up as my 14-year-old self, trembling behind the curtain of the Harlan High School auditorium. I was just listening, waiting until I could hear the silence. Then sitting with the silence until sounds started, then following those sounds into words. If this feels mysterious, it is. I can’t make it happen, like I can sit down and write a grocery list. I can only prepare for and invite it. The more faithfully I do that, along with reading and journal-keeping, the more likely it is that something will come.

I believe this listening is part of what I can offer as poet laureate, too: listening to what you write in workshops, to what you say after readings, to questions you ask and stories you share.

Evidently I have to speak first, though.

Please join the Kentucky Arts Council on Kentucky Writers’ Day, 10 a.m. April 24 in the Capitol Rotunda for the induction of George Ella Lyon as Kentucky Poet Laureate.

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