Despite moves from Argentina to Alaska, writer rooted in Kentucky

March 17, 2015

Nearly 40 years after he left Lexington in search of language, literature and academic adventure from one end of the Americas to the other, Johnny Payne said he still gets emotional each time he flies into Blue Grass Airport.

“I’ve lived many beautiful places,” said Payne, a novelist, poet and playwright. “But when the plane is coming in over those fields, I just get teary-eyed every time. This is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s kind of my mythic space.”

Payne has lived in nine states, Peru and Argentina. He now teaches English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he and his wife, Juana, and their three dogs live atop an isolated mountain in a yurt — a round wooden hut.

Their nearest neighbors are foxes and moose, and temperatures can reach 20 below zero. But, he said, Lexington got a lot more snow this winter than they did.

PaynePayne’s plane touched down Saturday for a visit with family and to give two talks about his newest book, “Vassal” (Mouthfeel Press, $16), a re-imagining of The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem from the 8th century BC.

He will speak at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, Room 102, and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Both events are free and open to the public.

Payne’s 10th book grew out of re-reading The Odyssey and writing a poem about it that an editor urged him to expand it into a book.

“I was coming to terms with myself at this time in my life,” Payne said, and he identified with the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and his decade-long journey home. “A book can be very personal without talking directly about my own experience.”

Payne, 56, and I were friends at Lafayette High School, where he says Spanish teacher Marcia Miller was the best teacher he ever had. She gave him the confidence to go to college. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, a master’s at the University of Alabama and a doctorate at Stanford University.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, Payne learned the Quechua language and traveled to mountain villages in Peru recording the stories of peasant farmers. He translated them into Spanish, and after finishing his academic project edited them into a book for Peruvian children.

“That’s the most unusual thing I did in my life, and it made me really happy,” he said. “I wasn’t trained in that area; I just did it. I could never do it now. I would have too much self-doubt.”

Payne taught at Northwestern University and started two master of fine arts programs in creative writing. The MFA program at the University of Texas-El Paso that he founded and directed for eight years is the nation’s only bilingual English-Spanish program.

“It was very quickly successful and probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my career,” he said.

Payne thought he wanted to be a dean, so he moved to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to head the College of Liberal Arts. Within a year, he realized he hated high-level administration and stepped down to teach and write.

He comes home occasionally to visit his parents, John and Joy Payne, but returns to Kentucky most often in his imagination. Six of his books are set completely or partly in Kentucky. A musical play, “The Devil in Disputanta,” is named for the Rockcastle County community where generations of Payne’s ancestors farmed.

His other books have been set in Europe and Latin America, including his first novel written in Spanish, “La Muerte de Papi” (2014). Payne recently finished a novel about an Irish serial killer in 1840s London, and he is working on a book of poetry about people’s complex relationships with technology.

Payne said he keeps returning to Kentucky in fiction not because of nostalgia but for the state’s rich storytelling possibilities.

“It really ripens in your imagination,” Payne said. “You kind of have an objective distance where you see it in your mind’s eye, and half of it you invent. It’s this quest of always finding a new Lexington and new Kentucky.”

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 first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen


When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”

Becoming a Kentucky writer, by way of New Jersey and New York

January 23, 2013

Writer Joseph Anthony. Photo by Tom Eblen 


What, exactly, is a Kentucky writer? Is it a writer from Kentucky? One who lives or has lived in Kentucky? Writes about Kentucky?

That idea has been discussed a lot since the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning began a project last year to celebrate Kentucky writers of the past and present, and to promote Lexington as the “literary capital of mid-America.” On Thursday, the center will name the first six inductees into its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

With all of this in mind, I went to talk with a talented Kentucky writer who took a roundabout journey to get here.

Joseph G. Anthony was born in New Jersey and raised “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Camden, which seemed to him like a no-man’s land between New York and Philadelphia.

Anthony said he lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a dozen years, managing an off-track betting parlor and teaching English part-time at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University.

Then, at age 33, he was offered a teaching job at Hazard Community College in 1980.

“I knew nothing about Kentucky, except the Derby happened here,” he said with a laugh. “I found it to be a great adventure.”

After five years in Hazard, Anthony moved to the humanities faculty of Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington.

As he nears retirement, Anthony, 66, has had a burst of literary output in the past year: a novel,Pickering’s Mountain, set in Eastern Kentucky, and a short-story collection, Bluegrass Funeral, set in Central Kentucky.

With those two books and his first novel, Peril, Kentucky, published in 2005, Anthony considers himself a Kentucky writer. (He also published a short-story collection in 2009,Camden Blues, set in New Jersey and New York.)

“I’ve really bonded with Kentucky,” he said. “I get angry at it, like you only can at a relative. I really love so many things about it. We’re so lucky here in so many ways. Kentuckians understand their identity. I come from Jersey, where we didn’t.”

Anthony enjoys seeing Kentuckians meet for the first time and do what he calls “the county dance:” figuring out where each is from and what connections they might have. “We never did the county dance in New Jersey,” he said.

The states do have similarities, he said. People in both states tend to feel outside the American mainstream. And both are often stereotyped by outsiders.

Insiders and outsiders are a recurrent theme in Anthony’s fiction. He doesn’t avoid stereotypes, but he tries to play off them to show readers that things are always more complicated than they seem.

This is particularly true in Pickering’s Mountain, in which a young New Yorker comes to a small Eastern Kentucky town to take a job as a newspaper reporter.

Sam Weatherby and his family are thrown into complicated situations involving families, religion and coal mining. The outcomes are anything but predictable.

“Things get complicated, because there’s real people involved, real dilemmas,” he said. “Eastern Kentucky is a very complicated place. I wanted to write about the complexity of it.”

Anthony faced the same challenge for Bluegrass Funeral, whose stories are set in Lexington and a fictional Godard County. The stories include explorations of the region’s complicated history with race and class.

Anthony will be reading from and signing Bluegrass Funeral at 6 p.m. Friday at Wild Fig Bookstore, 1439 Leestown Road, and at noon Jan. 30 in the lobby of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, 470 Cooper Drive.

The Bluegrass Funeral stories led Anthony to his next project, which he says will be either a collection of short stories or a novel set in Lexington during the civil rights era, between the 1940s and the 1960s. He has been preparing to write by researching that era and listening to oral history interviews.

“I want it to be fiction,” he said. “I really feel fiction can tell a story in a way journalism can’t or essays can’t.”

After three Kentucky books, Anthony said, he sometimes feels as if he’s just getting started as a Kentucky writer. There is so much interesting material to explore.

“We’re called a border state,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else is like us. We’re not the border. We’re it.”