I was privileged to be part of two Kentucky-centric panels at the annual conference of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) this year in Chicago, which, with almost 10,000 in attendance, is undoubtedly the largest gathering of writers, editors, promoters and lovers of literary writing in the United States, if not the world. So it was a surprise when out of this carnival of ages and faces, of academics and independents, of the conventional and the frankly unconventional, a member of the audience at our reading for the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference asked: “With four panels—and counting—focused on or showcasing Kentucky writers, Kentucky is the single most best-represented state at the conference. What’s going on in Kentucky?”
What’s going on indeed.
I don’t remember that there was a single, extended answer from our panel—someone joked about the water (or maybe it was the bourbon)—but there was consensus that at least some of it had to do with our ability to support one another, for the established to mentor the emerging, and for the urban and the rural to find points of engagement and admiration. The Kentucky literary community is a big tent, a literary front porch that welcomes all.
Now a month past that question a more expansive response begins to take shape, though the brief space here allows just a few notes toward a full discussion of “what’s going on in Kentucky.”
First, a strong community depends in large part on the willingness of its members to work for common good. Among Kentucky’s most highly published contemporary writers are also some of the state’s best literary citizens. They run reading series, put on festivals and operate literary presses and journals that take chances on new writers; they visit schools and offer writing workshops for teens; they send out newsletters and share opportunities; they fund prizes and raise money for literary causes.
But it’s not clear that all this literary citizenry is necessarily peculiar to Kentucky; perhaps it’s just a particular convergence right now of literary folk who are also enthusiastic organizers.
A second reason, perhaps, gets more precisely at the question of a writer and her region. We are a conflicted history of a conflicted people. Kentucky is eternally a state of contradictions: are we north or south? And if we’re part of the Bible belt, then why are our top industries gambling and distilled spirits? We have a bounty of natural resources and beauty that we are systematically destroying. We are abundant in our literary wealth, yet continued and historically poor support for education and a powerful current of anti-intellectualism keep our graduation and literacy rates low.
As difficult as this condition makes it to get anything done in Frankfort, I do think there is a particular kind of passion and violence in Kentucky’s conflicted history, in our complete disregard for the rules that can impart a fearlessness in its writers, however they make their claim to Kentucky. Hunter S. Thompson exhibited this kind of fearlessness when he reinvented journalism as did Robert Penn Warren of the prior generation when he reinvented literary criticism; the late poet Aleda Shirley in her final book “Dark Familiar” stared down mortality with a fearless eye; James Baker Hall brought the all-seeing camera’s eye to his fearless composition on the page. And now, Nikky Finney writing devastatingly beautiful poems about Condoleeza Rice in her National Book Award-winning collection “Head Off and Split”; Wendell Berry—not because he’s the most radical writer on the environment around (he’s not)—but because he fearlessly reaches into philosophy, religion, science, natural history and political science to create a far-reaching, widely accessible polemic about what we’re doing to our Earth and why. All of them fearless Kentucky writers. What’s going on in Kentucky? Don’t be afraid to ask.
Lynnell Major Edwards is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently “Covet” (October, 2011), and also “The Farmer’s Daughter” (2003) and “The Highwayman’s Wife” (2007), all from Red Hen Press. Her short fiction and book reviews have appeared most recently in Connecticut Review, American Book Review, Pleiades, New Madrid, and others. She lives in Louisville, Ky. where she is on the board of directors for Louisville Literary Arts, a non-profit literary arts organization that sponsors the monthly InKY reading series and The Writer’s Block Festival. She is also associate professor of English at Spalding University. She also teaches creative writing workshops at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and is available for readings and workshops in a variety of settings. http://lynnelledwards.wordpress.com/