A State of Storytellers
Why is Kentucky's literary landscape so gifted with world-class writers and poets? Learn the role that land, conflict, and oral history play, and check out a list of past, current, and new writers, as well as publishers and how to cultivate your writing style
Last June at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning's Books-in-Progress Conference in Lexington, the center's director, Neil Chethik, announced that Kentucky has become the "literary capital of mid-America." A rousing round of applause and cheers followed from the several hundred attending writers, all delighted at the possibility. Even a casual glance at the Commonwealth's literary history and its evolving literary scene speaks to the truth of his words.
The Bluegrass State has birthed and/or nurtured an abundance of successful writers through the years.
Born in Guthrie in 1905, Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King's Men, is the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes for fiction and poetry. Recipient of a Kentucky Governor's Award in the Arts, Graves County native Bobbie Ann Mason has penned numerous works, including the novel In Country and a biography of Elvis Presley.
Two prominent Kentucky writers served as state Poet Laureate nearly six decades apart. Jesse Stuart (1954) grew up in Greenup County and wrote poetry and fiction about southern Appalachia. Danville native Frank X Walker (2013-14), director of the University of Kentucky's African-American and Africana Studies program, coined the term "Affrilachia" to encompass Appalachia's rich African-American roots. He is the state's youngest Poet Laureate and first African-American so honored.
French-born Thomas Merton, a prolific essayist and poet whose writings gained worldwide popularity, resided as a monk in the mid-1900s at the Abbey of Gethsemani south of Bardstown. In the late 1980s, South Carolinian Nikky Finney arrived at the University of Kentucky to teach and write poetry, and in 2011 won the National Book Award for poetry with Head Off & Split.
The list goes on to include Stanford University's Stegner Fellows Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Gurney Norman, and Ed McClanahan, novelists Janice Holt Giles and Sena Jeter Naslund, mystery writers Sue Grafton and James W. Hall, poets Jim Wayne Miller and Jane Gentry Vance, multigenre writer George Ella Lyon, and historians Thomas D. Clark and Charles Bracelen Flood, among numerous others.
The General Assembly has even declared April 24, Robert Penn Warren's birthday, as Kentucky Writers' Day.
Yet a question arises: how can a state with a perennially high rate of functional illiteracy produce a multitude of gifted writers? According to Chethik, a number of factors have contributed.
First is Kentucky's land, its beauty and exploitation. In a number of 19th- and 20th- century works, the land becomes a central character. In his 1940 novel River of Earth, beloved writer and Kentucky Poet Laureate James Still depicted the struggles of a coal mining family during the 1920s in eastern Kentucky. In 1963, Letcher County legislator, lawyer, and environmentalist Harry Caudill described the destruction of that area by coal and timber companies in his classic Night Comes to the Cumberlands.
Diverse other contemporary writers address this issue. Esteemed for his treatises on sustainability, Wendell Berry is a Henry County farmer, state Poet Laureate, National Humanities Medal recipient, and prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. Kentucky mountaintop removal is one focus of his writings, as it is of those of Lily-born, award-winning writer Silas House, who co-authored Something's Rising, a collection of profiles of anti-mountaintop removal activists. Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, by University of Kentucky English professor Erik Reece, addresses the same topic.
A second reason for this burgeoning literary legacy is a history of internal conflictócoal miners versus environmentalists, rural issues versus urban, the Hatfields versus the McCoys, the North versus the South. "Conflict," says Chethik, "is a great thing for literature."
For example, the man considered to be the first African-American novelist was Kentucky native William Wells Brown, an escaped slave who wrote about Thomas Jefferson and his child by a slave
servant in his novel around 1854.
Another contributor to the Commonwealth's writing heritage is its storytelling and oral history tradition. Writers may come from families that didn't jot things down or read books to them but instead told stories, a lot of which, as literacy spread, became novels.
For the past 36 years, a multitude of those stories have emerged at the Appalachian Writers' Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School. This year's speaker is Barbara Kingsolver, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of 14 books, who spent most of her childhood growing up in Kentucky and who was named by Writer's Digest as one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
Publishing works of art
Since 2002, Steve Wrinn has served as director of the University Press of Kentucky, a statewide consortium of 15 institutions that publishes scholarly and academic books and those about the state's history, politics, and culture. To the list of factors that have influenced the Bluegrass State's writers, Wrinn adds: a reverence for history; a culture of storytelling and nurturing of writers via the "kin network," i.e., everyone knows everyone; and the rural aspects of the culture: horses, tobacco, and agriculture.
"Kentucky writers are no longer of just regional, but global interest," he says. "They're influencing the course of American literature. Ten years ago, we began a series called 'Kentucky Voices,' original works we publish once or twice a year. Proposals have flooded in. People talk about the legacy of William Faulkner and other Mississippi writers, but in my 11 years here, I think that clearly Kentucky has the most vibrant literary culture in the country."
Several independent publishers, including literary- and photographic-focused Gnomon Press in Frankfort, have helped broadcast the works of the state's writing community.
For 40 years, Larkspur Press in tiny Monterey has been printing Kentucky authors' works, primarily poetry and short stories, using the letterpress method of hand-setting type, much like Johannes Gutenberg did in the 1400s. Larkspur's books and broadsides (a single page of text originally meant as informative posters) owner Gray Zeitz prints are works of art.
"A number of our books have been the author's first, and now many of these authors are well-known," says Zeitz, considered to be one of the finest small press printers and designers of books in the country.
One Larkspur writer was photographer and poet James Baker Hall, a Lexington native and Stegner Fellow. Chosen Kentucky Poet Laureate in 2001, he taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky for 30 years, influencing a number of distinctive writers, including Maurice Manning, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011.
Kentucky's literati continue to garner awards. One of the nation's top literary publishers, Louisville-based independent Sarabande Books won the 2013 AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Small Press Publisher Award. And the yearly Kentucky Book Fair, whose proceeds primarily benefit school and public libraries throughout Kentucky, received a 2012 Governor's Award in the Arts.
Creating and critiquing writers
Resources are abundant across the state for writersówhether new to the craft or establishedólooking to hone their penmanship skills. The Carnegie Center sponsors tutoring programs that help kids with reading and writing in school, and conducts classes to assist adults at all levels, including those who are ready to publish their own books or become career writers.
Annual conferences include the Kentucky Women Writers' Conference and Eastern Kentucky University's Summer Creative Writing Conference, and Hindman Settlement School's annual Appalachian Writers Workshop. For more serious writers, Spalding University offers a degreed creative writing program.
Writing groups abound. Green River Writers, started in 1984, offers workshops, retreats, and monthly critique sessions for poetry and prose, and a contest open to all.
A generation of up-and-coming writers, Maurice Manning among them, continue the legacy by drawing attention to Kentucky's literary landscape: Berea resident C.E. Morgan, 2012 recipient of a U.S. Artists fellowship; Lexington nonfiction specialist David King; Crystal Wilkinson, a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets raised in Casey County; mystery writers Will Lavender and Abigail Keam; Louisville-based poet and essayist Erin Keane, producer of an upcoming NPR show on fiction, Unbound; and Bulgarian-born Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, award-winning bilingual poet and writer, and host of the NPR radio show Accents.
Says Steve Wrinn, "Kentucky is one of the most misunderstood regions in the nation. One of our (University Press of Kentucky) primary missions is to demolish those lingering stereotypes, and it seems a lot of Kentucky writers are embracing that same goal."
And as they continue, Kentucky's writing heritage will grow and thrive.
Kentucky writers connect
From the eastern mountains to its watery west, Kentucky boasts a vibrant literary scene. Writers, check out the following to hone your craft and connect with others.
Appalachian Writers Workshop
(36th annual) Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, July 28-August 2
Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning
Lexington, home to the Books-in-Progress Conference (June)
Eastern Kentucky University Summer Writing Conference
Green River Writers
InKY Reading SeriesóThe Bard's Town
Louisville, every second Friday September through May
Kentucky Literary Newsletter
Listing of writer's resources throughout the state
Kentucky Book Fair
Frankfort Convention Center, November 16 (Children's Day November 15)
Licking Valley Writers Conference
Maysville Community & Technical College, Licking Valley Campus, Cynthiana, September 27-28
(click on Visitors and Community, then Fifth Annual Writers Conference)
(859) 234-8626, extension 66402
Southern Kentucky Book Fest
Knicely Conference Center, Bowling Green, April 25-26
University Press of Kentucky
University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences
Lexington, Kentucky Women Writers Conference, held at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, September 20-21
Writer's Block Festival
NuLu District, Louisville, October 12
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: Writers Hall of Fame
Find out who the six inaugural members are in the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, and learn how you can nurture your writing at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning through classes, conferences, workshops, and more, whether for pleasure or professionally. Go here.