Wendell Berry: Is anyone listening to Kentucky writers’ warnings?

January 31, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After being the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Elizabeth Hardwick was the eighth of 11 children born to a Lexington plumbing contractor and his wife. She grew up in a modest home on Rand Avenue and graduated from Henry Clay High School and the University of Kentucky.

From this ordinary Kentucky childhood, she went on to become a leading East Coast intellectual: an award-winning critic, essayist, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

Hardwick earned a lengthy obituary in The New York Times when she died in 2007 at age 91. But if you stopped people on the street in Lexington today, I’ll bet at least nine out of 10 would never have heard of her.

That’s one reason the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame three years ago.

“This state has so many negative stereotypes that we have to battle every day,” Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen said in remarks at the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony Wednesday. “But the truth is, we have one of the finest and richest literary heritage traditions in the nation.”

Hardwick was one of six inductees at the ceremony, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd that included several acclaimed Kentucky writers likely to be chosen for the Hall of Fame someday.

Four other deceased writers inducted this year were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo” journalism; Guy Davenport (1927-2005) of Lexington, a UK professor and MacArthur “genius” grant winner; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County whose work filled three books and was published in Harper’s Weekly magazine; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996), who taught at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

They joined 13 other writers of the past inducted during the Hall of Fame’s first two years, including Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Merton, Jesse Stuart and James Still.

Most of the crowd Wednesday was there to honor Wendell Berry, the first living inductee. Berry, 80, of Henry County, has written more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and polemics. In the process, he has become an international icon in the land conservation and sustainable agriculture movements.

Luallen, who was appointed lieutenant governor two months ago after Jerry Abramson took a White House job, was probably a better representative of state government at this ceremony than Gov. Steve Beshear would have been.

Berry joined protesters who camped outside Beshear’s office in 2011 to protest state government collusion in the coal industry’s destruction of Kentucky’s mountains and streams. (Not that Beshear is unique; Kentucky’s governor and General Assembly have long been wholly owned subsidiaries of the coal industry.)

Luallen’s comments echoed the sentiments of many Kentuckians.

“When there are moments of darkness felt by those of us who cherish this land, a light has shown through that darkness, and the light has been the words of Wendell Berry,” she said. “Inspiring us, rekindling our spirit and reminding us of what we have lost as a people and what, without careful judgment and good reason, we have yet to lose.”

But in his acceptance speech, Berry gave a glum assessment of Kentucky writers’ consequence.

The state is “gravely and lastingly fragmented by divisions that are economic, social, cultural and institutional,” he said. “These divisions have given us a burdening history of abuse — of land abuse but also and inevitably of the abuse of people, for people and land cannot be destroyed or conserved except together.”

Berry complained that many good books by Kentucky writers critiquing the state’s problems have not received the media attention or sparked the public debate and policy changes he thinks they should have.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — ‘Night Comes to the Cumberlands’ or ‘Lost Mountain’ or ‘Missing Mountains’ or ‘The Embattled Wilderness’?”

Afterward, Luallen said she thinks Berry underestimates those books’ impact. Without them, she said, things would be worse.

Berry’s speech gave a healthy edge to the evening’s celebrations. That was good, because another of the Carnegie Center’s goals for the Hall of Fame is to elevate the visibility and influence of writers in Kentucky’s public life.

Wendell Berry and his fellow writers are the conscience of Kentucky, not beholden to money or power. If we refuse to listen to them, we do so at our peril.


Wendell Berry: Ky. writers have too little impact on public discourse

January 29, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After becoming the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry lamented that many fine books the state’s authors have written about Kentucky issues have had little impact on public discussion or policy.

In most ways, Kentucky is too fragmented a state, Berry said in remarks at a ceremony Wednesday night at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he and five writers from the past were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us,” Berry said. “We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no form in which a public dialogue can take place.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness?”

Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spoke earlier at the ceremony, said afterward that Berry underestimates the impact of those books and others like them. They may not have led to solutions for Kentucky’s many problems, she said, but things would be worse without them.

Before Berry’s remarks, excerpts from the work of the five deceased authors were read. The standing-room-only crowd that filled the Carnegie Center’s first floor included many writers likely to earn spots in the Hall of Fame someday.

The other new inductees were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo journalism”; Guy Davenport (1929-2005) of Lexington, who during his lifetime won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County; Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) of Lexington, a novelist and critic who helped found The New York Review of Books; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) of Bowling Green, an author and poet.

Watch for my column Sunday with more notes and observations from the Hall of Fame ceremony.

 150128KyWriters0009State Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington took a picture of Wendell Berry with Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen at the Carnegie Center on Wednesday night after Berry became the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. In the background, writer Ed McClanahan, left, talks with Steve Wrinn, director of the University Press of Kentucky.


New photo book focuses on Kentucky originals

December 5, 2010

Guy Mendes is a photographer, a writer, a producer of TV documentaries and a collector of interesting friends. Many of the latter, including some of Kentucky’s most interesting artists and characters, are the subjects of his new book, 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits.

“All of the people in the book were friends, family, mentors and teachers,” Mendes said. “In their own way, they showed me the way.”

An exhibit of 25 of Mendes’ striking portraits opens Dec. 9 at the tiny North Limestone gallery of Institute 193, which published the book. The entire collection will be displayed next year at a new gallery in the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, and then go on a two-year tour of galleries around the South.

The book includes writers Wendell Berry, James Still and Ed McClanahan; artists Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Tharsing, Edgar Tolson and Ann Tower; performers Ashley Judd and Ben Sollee; and characters Carlos “Little Enis” Toadvine and Bradley Picklesimer. Mendes wrote a short essay with each portrait, telling something about the subject and the circumstances of the photograph.

“Taken together, these photos give lie to the notion that Kentucky is a backward place without much culture,” Mendes said. “Kentucky has been home to some very creative thinkers and talented artists and musicians.”

The cover image isn’t of anyone famous — or even from Kentucky. It is a 1977 picture of Robert Bass, Mendes’ childhood friend and “adventurous alter ego,” standing on a beach wearing a scuba mask, flippers and his underwear, and holding a lobster. It was chosen, Mendes said, “because it lets you know fun is involved.”

In many ways, the book represents Mendes’ personal journey. Born and raised in New Orleans, where his grandmother had been the Queen of Mardi Gras in 1904, he came to the University of Kentucky in 1966 to study journalism. Except for a summer in Houston, where he was an intern for Newsweek, and a year in Connecticut, Mendes, 62, has lived in Central Kentucky ever since.

After studying under Berry, Mendes changed his major from journalism to English. He also quit UK’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to help publish one of the era’s best underground papers, The Blue-Tail Fly.

As a boy, Mendes had a Polaroid camera, “and I made some experimental pictures of my cat and my feet,” he said. Then, in college, he met Meatyard, a Lexington optician who, after his death from cancer a week before his 47th birthday in 1972, became an icon of 20th-century art photography.

Meatyard and Robert May — whose bequest to The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky launched its photography collection and lecture series — took Mendes along on weekend picture-taking excursions. With old houses and the Bluegrass landscape as backdrops, they used people, props and special effects to create art. The trips had a profound effect on Mendes.

“I began to see that photography could be a means of expression and not just a recording tool,” he said. “Wendell Berry and Gene Meatyard changed the way I thought about words and pictures.”

Another influence was the poet and photographer James Baker Hall. The longtime UK professor took Mendes into his Connecticut studio as an apprentice in 1971, when Hall was teaching photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and literature at the University of Connecticut.

“Jim always said that a good portrait is not taken, but given; it is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer,” Mendes said. “The people in this book all had an energy I admired, and I wanted to get a little of that energy in the picture.”

Mendes joined Kentucky Educational Television in 1973 and became a writer and producer of award-winning documentaries before his retirement in 2008. “I was lucky to have a job where I could put words and pictures together,” he said.

But his passion was always black-and-white still photography, which he taught at UK for 14 years. “It was always the work I did for myself,” he said. “I’m still excited about the next picture and what it might look like.”

Mendes lived in a rented farmhouse in rural Woodford County from 1974 until 1990, soon after he married Page, a painter and Web designer. They and their two sons — Wilson, 16, and Jess, 14 — now live in Ashland Park, where Mendes works from a backyard studio designed by the pioneer solar architect Richard Levine.

Digital technology has revolutionized photography, but Mendes still prefers to shoot film and use an enlarger and chemicals to make high-quality prints, which he sells through Ann Tower Gallery.

Mendes published a book of his photographs in 1986, Light at Hand, an assortment of landscapes, portraits and figure studies. The idea for the new book came from Phillip March Jones, a young Lexington artist who started the non-profit organization Institute 193 last year to promote the region’s less-celebrated artists.

Jones said he was sitting in Mendes’ studio one day last year looking at portraits and listening to him tell stories about their subjects. He was struck both by the quality of Mendes’ work and the fact that nobody else had made such a visual record of this slice of Kentucky life.

Jones edited the book, which was designed by Carly Schnur. To raise money for printing, they turned to Kickstarter.com, a Web site that organizes backers for creative projects. Within two months, 150 backers had pledged $9,235. Most signed up to buy the book for $25. (Since the printing, nearly 400 more copies have sold at the $35 retail price, Jones said.) Some also pledged more money in return for special benefits.

“Now I must sing for my supper,” Mendes said with a smile. He will give private tours of his studio to 15 backers, take portraits of four others and teach two-hour photography workshops for three more. He also will make two special-edition books with hand-printed photographs.

“This book would not have happened without a little help from my friends,” Mendes said. Both the friends who helped produce the book and those who, over the past four decades, have given their portraits to his camera.

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IF YOU GO

Guy Mendes: ’40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits’

Exhibit: Dec. 9-Jan. 29 at Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and by appointment. For more information, visit Institute193.org.

Gallery show opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Dec. 9 at Institute 193.

Book signing: Noon Dec. 11 at The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr. Call (859) 276-0494 or visit Morrisbookshop.com.

HOW TO GET THE BOOK

The book 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits is available in Lexington at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop, Black Swan Books, Institute 193 and online at Institute193.org.


Larkspur Press makes artful books for artful words

November 22, 2010

MONTEREY — Gray Zeitz thinks the best way to experience poetry is to hear it read aloud.

The second-best way is the way Zeitz has presented it for 36 years: in hand-set type with woodcut illustrations, printed by letterpress on thick, creamy paper, hand-stitched and beautifully bound.

“Everything else,” he said, “is downhill from there.”

In an age when books themselves seem threatened with extinction by virtual type on digital screens, Zeitz’s Larkspur Press uses antique methods to publish elegant volumes of poetry and short fiction by Kentucky authors.

Larkspur Press will have its annual open house Nov. 27 and 28, unless too much rain falls on this corner of Owen County. The business is in a timber-frame shop on Gray and Jean Zeitz’s 60-acre farm. A downpour can send Cedar Creek out of its banks and across their precarious gravel driveway.

If the creek doesn’t rise, visitors will see trays of metal type and the table where Zeitz, 61, can hand-set three pages of prose a day when he is on a roll. The table stands near a 1915 Chandler & Price press, into which Zeitz feeds single sheets of paper, adding a dab of ink every 33 sheets.

“They’ve never made a better press,” he said. “They’ve just made them faster.”

Upstairs in the small shop, Carolyn Whitesel designs books, incorporating her illustrations and those of other artists. Leslie Shane sits at a nearby bench, stitching pages together with needle and thread and gluing handmade covers.

Zeitz is as particular about what he publishes as how. He has produced books by some of Kentucky’s best-known authors, including Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason and Guy Davenport. He published the first books of several Kentucky poets, including Richard Taylor, James Baker Hall and Frederick Smock.

Larkspur Press produced three books this year: Andy Catlett: Early Education, the latest story in Berry’s series about fictional Port William; and two books of poetry, Maureen Morehead’s The Melancholy Teacher and Smock’s The Blue Hour.

“Last year, we did five books, and it about killed us,” Zeitz said. As time allows, the shop also produces wedding invitations and other job printing to help with cash flow.

The process for deciding which books to publish is simple: “It’s mainly what I like,” Zeitz said. Poetry dominates, perhaps because Zeitz and Shane are occasional poets.

Zeitz wanted to become a poet when he studied under Berry at the University of Kentucky. Then he discovered the University of Kentucky’s King Library Press, where he spent two years as an apprentice to Carolyn Hammer. She and her husband, Victor, became mentors to dozens of fine-art printers.

“I was addicted,” Zeitz said. “When I decided to move up here, she gave me a press and a drawer of type and sent me on my way.”

Larkspur Press opened in Monterey in 1974, but a flood four years later left the shop chest-deep in water. The Zeitzes dried their equipment and moved it to their farm, building their present shop in 1991.

Over time, Zeitz has added equipment, most of which is hard to find because it hasn’t been made in nearly a century. “Buying a new type is like buying a good used car,” he said.

Larkspur Press has been a good life — if not always a good living — for the Zeitzes, whose bright purple house stands up the hill from their shop. In the early years, they raised tobacco and calves to supplement their income.

Zeitz has expensive tastes in materials. Still, he tries to keep prices low because he is more interested in selling books to readers than to collectors.

“Gray’s goal is to make a book that’s beautiful to hold in your hand, but one that a person who loves poetry but isn’t rich can afford,” said Jean Zeitz, a retired teacher.

Many Larkspur Press books are published in three editions. For example, Berry’s poetry book Sabbaths 2006 has a $120 collector’s edition, a $28 hardcover and an $18 paperback.

Larkspur Press books are sold at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Morris Book Shop and Black Swan Books in Lexington and several other shops around the state, and at Larkspurpress.com.

The Web site was built and is maintained by a friend, because the Zeitzes don’t own a computer.

“Every now and then, Gray will send me to the library to look at it to see if a new book got on,” his wife said.

John Lackey, a Lexington artist whose woodcut illustrates A Short History of the Present, a poetry book by Erik Reece that Larkspur published last year, thinks Zeitz’s craftsmanship pays unique tribute to Kentucky’s writers — and readers.

“Writing like Wendell Berry’s deserves to be treated like a work of art,” Lackey said. “I have a huge amount of respect for Gray. Those little books he makes are wonderful pieces of magic.”

If you go

Larkspur Press open house

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 27, noon to 5 p.m. Nov. 28

Where: U.S. 127, 15 miles north of Frankfort and 1 mile south of Monterey. Turn off U.S. 127 onto Sawdridge Creek Road, beside the Monterey Fire Department. After crossing Cedar Creek bridge, take the first driveway on the left.

Learn more: Larkspurpress.com or (502) 484-5390

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