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

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.


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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George Ella Lyon on keeping journals

Gov. Steve Beshear has appointed George Ella Lyon to serve as Kentucky Poet Laureate for the 2015 – 2016 term. As poet laureate, Lyon will promote the arts and lead the state in literary endeavors through readings and public presentations at meetings, seminars, conferences and events, including Kentucky Writers’ Day. Lyon will formally be inducted at a public ceremony and reception, in conjunction with Kentucky Writers’ Day, on April 24, 2015, in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort.

In celebration, we are glad to share a blog entry George Ella wrote for us in April, 2013. You can expect a new post from her on our blog in the coming weeks.

Why I keep a journal

By: George Ella Lyon

Yesterday I had a Skype visit with high school students. Their teacher had asked me to talk about my writing process and to listen and respond as her students read their “Where I’m From” poems. I enjoy teaching in this new way, and it makes author visits more affordable in a time of shrinking school budgets.

I began, as I always do, by asking the writers if they kept a journal. One person raised her hand. Somebody called out, “We do blogs.” I asked the teacher how this worked, and she explained that she’s the reader for their blogs but she guessed anyone could read them if they wanted to. I’m not sure whether she meant anyone in the class or the school or the world.

Perhaps a blog seems cooler than a journal. Perhaps it’s exciting to post your words knowing that you just published them. What I’m writing right now is intended to be a blog, the first I’ve ever done. Though I may change my mind, so far I’ve not started a blog because I’m afraid it would take energy away from my journal. And I don’t want to do that. Here’s why.

A blog is public, even if you limit access to it. A journal is private. A blog imagines an audience. A journal has the writer for its audience. A blog is about communicating with the world. A journal is about communicating with yourself.

You don’t have to choose. You can do both. But let me tell you what you will miss if you skip the journal and go straight to the blog. At this moment in our culture we have so many voices—in person, in advertising, on all our screens—telling us who we should be, how we should act, what we should want, own, wear, feel, that it can be almost impossible to hear our own voices. And if we can’t hear then, we don’t know what matters to us, as opposed to everyone and everything outside us.

A journal is a place to listen to yourself. To calm yourself. To know yourself, to take care of yourself. It’s a tool to connect with the deepest part of yourself and learn who you are and what matters most to you. If you don’t know those things, how can you choose your path?

In your journal, you can write down your dreams, hopes and fears. What makes you mad or curious or ecstatic. If your life feels out of control, you can write about that, too, and while it won’t change the outside situation, it can change you inside because you found words for it. It’s not all bottled up.

When I look back through my journals—I’ve got more than a hundred and twenty now—I realize I use them primarily for four things: collecting, reflecting, connecting and creating. The collecting phase is what I just talked about: setting down what happens and how I feel about it, copying quotations, keeping a list of books I’m reading. And I collect things besides words that relate to my life at the time: I tape in concert tickets, photographs, newspaper articles, postcards, leaves, feathers, rocks, bark, even seashells if they’re flat enough. If an article is too large for the page, I just fold it so that it can accordion out when I want to read it again. Recently I was speaking at a school and one of the students noticed that my journal wouldn’t quite close. “How did your journal get so fat?” he asked. “I fed it,” I told him.


George Ella Lyon’s Journal Shelves

And it feeds me, too, because I’m not just taking an inventory of my life: I dreamed this, I did that, I felt another way. I’m reflecting on it too. What was it about the sandy-haired guy on the elevator wearing a black suit, red tie, and flip-flops that made me afraid? Why wasn’t he funny? Why did he give off such weird vibes?

Or, written under a sandwich wrapper which is taped in, why did this pimiento cheese taste like San Francisco when I got it in the Detroit airport?

Why did it make me so mad when Libby called me Jelly-Belly? I thought I was a grownup. And so forth.

Answering these questions helps me make connections and understand myself, the person I really am and not the one I may want to be or feel expected to be. When I asked why it felt so good to lie across the car seat looking for a CD underneath, I discovered that it felt like hanging upside down from the elm tree, which I loved to do as a kid. Upside down, the sky became the ground, and the backyard was a green sky interrupted by spiky iris and the coal pile.

Sometimes this reflecting and connecting leads me into creating a piece I might want to share. For example, writing about the guy on the elevator, I might imagine what he could have been thinking, and out of that could come a poem or story in which we are each afraid of the other. Or he could turn out to be the son of the woman who invented Peeps. I don’t know. But I could imagine.

Keeping a journal lets me decide if something I’ve written might speak to other people—and if I would want to share it. If I do, I type it up and begin revising, working to let the reader in on my experience. Many poems, picture books, stories, plays, and novels have begun this way.

But they wouldn’t have happened if I’d been writing for an audience all along. I would be too self-conscious, too external and self-critical to get to the deep place where creation begins.

As a teacher, I understand the advantage of the blog in that it’s evidence that students are writing, and it provides a piece to be read and considered. When I’ve had students keep journals, I’ve asked them to show me a certain number of written pages, just so I know they’ve been done, and then give me one excerpt to read. That way the writers have privacy but also accountability, and I have examples of their work to read.

I know some folks keep journals online, which is fine if it works for you. If you do, you could scan or photograph special objects that you want to include. You could embed video, too, of course. But you wouldn’t have an actual leaf to touch, the impress of a writer’s hand on a note you’ve saved, the silk of a jingle shell to transport you back to the beach. A journal is a gift you give yourself. A gift of yourself. Give it a try. Someone wonderful is waiting for you.

george ella

George Ella Lyon

George Ella Lyon is the author of four books of poetry, a novel, a memoir, and a short story collection as well as thirty-seven books for young readers. Her honors include an Al Smith Fellowship, fellowships to the Hambidge Center for the Arts, numerous grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a feature in the PBS series, “The United States of Poetry.” A native of Harlan County, Ky., Lyon works as a freelance writer and teacher based in Lexington. For more information, go to

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Students shine at state Poetry Out Loud competition

Poetry out Loud was a HUGE success this year!

I’m going to be real honest here. I’ve never taken part in Poetry Out Loud, and I couldn’t tell if it was just me being introduced to this art form, but everyone else agreed — this year’s group was truly spectacular. I’m really glad I wasn’t a judge. I’m also glad I wasn’t a student…the competition was tough! As an audience member, I was so nervous for them.

I was a communications major in college. I’ve done countless debates, speech after speech, I’ve even anchored newscasts. There’s no way I’d be able to do what they did. All the competitors recited two poems and then five finalists made it to the final round to recite another. It was like a marathon, but each recitation was still raw and uninhibited.

Out of the 14 students that made it to Frankfort, Haley Bryan, of Grant County High School, will travel to nationals in Washington, D.C., for the National Poetry Out Loud Championship to represent Kentucky. I’m sure it was a close call, with Cacia Rose of George Rogers Clark High School finishing in second place.

Each school champion deserves a shout out.

  • Matt Bradshaw, Butler Traditional High School, Jefferson County
  • Hayley Bryan, Grant County High School
  • Naomi Cliett, Elizabethtown High School, Hardin County
  • Sierra DeShane, Allen County Scottsville High School, Allen County
  • Loren Prather, Graves County High School
  • Cacia Rose, George Rogers Clark High School, Clark County
  • Brooke Salsman, McCracken County High School
  • Haylee Stevens, Phelps Junior and Senior High School, Pike County
  • Taryn Syck, Pike County Central High School
  • Katelyn Taylor, Franklin County High School
  • Gabby Thompson, Boyd County High School
  • Kaleb Trent, Hart County High School
  • Connor Wagner, West Carter High School, Carter County
  • Cameron Wilson, Western Hills High School, Franklin County

Take my word for it. This blog post does not do this year’s competition justice. To watch pieces of a recitation from each student, along with the announcement of the winners, visit our Twitter account at @kyartscouncil.

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Poetry Out Loud is a poetry recitation contest sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Each student is judged on the recitation of two poems, which are selected by the student and their teachers from a preapproved list of works.

Megan Williamson Fields, communications assistant

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