New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”

 


Chemist, writer, father of ‘the Pill’ to speak about his work

February 4, 2014

djerassiChemist and writer Carl Djerassi. Photo by Karen Ostertag.

 

As a chemist, Carl Djerassi developed the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive. It became “the Pill” and changed the dynamics of human sex and reproduction.

Since the mid-1980s, Djerassi has developed a second career as a writer. Most of his five novels and 11 plays are exercises in what he calls “intellectual smuggling” — explaining scientific processes to non-scientists and exploring the ethical and moral implications of science and technology.

Djerassi calls his genre science-in-fiction because, unlike science fiction, the science he write about is real. Bridging the sciences and humanities is critical to understanding the world, he said, but it can be controversial among specialists in both fields.

“Science is threatening to many people in the humanities,” Djerassi, 90, said in an interview last week from his home in California, where he had just returned after a busy lecture schedule in Europe, where he also has homes in Vienna and London.

“Many (scientific) colleagues have criticized me, saying I am washing dirty lab coats in public,” he added. “And I say that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Djerassi will be in Lexington for four events Feb. 13-15 at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. His visit is sponsored by a host of UK academic departments, from Chemistry and Pharmacy to Theatre.

His trip was arranged by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl of Lexington, who got to know Djerassi while she was in medical school at Stanford University. She was one of his teaching assistants, and they have been friends ever since.

Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of Jewish physicians, and grew up in Bulgaria. He came to America as the Nazis were coming to power, and he eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.

After developing one of the first commercial antihistamines in the 1940s, Djerassi went to Mexico City, where he and several colleagues made their contraceptive breakthrough in 1951. He went on to work in both industry and academia, joining the Stanford faculty in 1960 and helping to develop the Stanford Industrial Park.

Djerassi is one of two American chemists to have won both the National Medal of Science (for “the Pill” synthesis) and the National Medal of Technology (for new approaches to insect control). He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and many foreign academies. He has a long list of honors, from honorary degrees and European medals. Austria put his picture on a postage stamp in 2005.

Djerassi said he had always been interested in literature, but he didn’t begin writing until about age 60 after his girlfriend dumped him. “That really got me going,” he said.

He began writing a novel about their relationship. About the time he was finishing it a year later, the ex-girlfriend sent him flowers and asked to meet.

“Instead of sending her back flowers, I sent her the manuscript,” he said. “She was completely flabbergasted. It brought us together, and we got married.”

The girlfriend who became his third wife was Diane Middlebrook, a Stanford English professor who wrote critically acclaimed biographies of the poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath.

Djerassi said he decided to close his Stanford lab and devote full-time to writing and lecturing in 1985, when, soon after his marriage, he got a serious cancer diagnosis.

“I wanted to use fiction to talk about things, scientific and technological, that in my opinion were important,” he said. He survived cancer, but it claimed Middlebrook in 2007.

Many of Djerassi’s novels and plays deal with the ethical and societal implications of science — such as the separation of sex from reproduction — as well as the collegial and competitive way science is practiced.

“Ninety percent of the general public thinks they’re not interested (in science), or thinks they don’t understand it or are afraid of it,” he said, adding that most fiction tends to portray scientists as either geeks or idiot savants.

“I thought if I put it in the guise of fiction, I could make it sufficiently interesting that people would read it,” he said. “And they would have learned something without knowing it.”

If you go

Carl Djerassi in Lexington.

  •  Noon, Feb. 13, UK’s Hilary J. Boone Center. Djerassi will speak about academic and business relationships in science to a luncheon. Cost: $30. Reservations deadline Feb. 5. Email: Sylvia4H.art@gmail.com.
  • 4:30 p.m., Feb. 13, Worsham Theatre, U.K. Student Center. Djerassi gives a free, public lecture, “Science on the Page and Stage.” The first 100 students there will get a free copy of one of his books, which he will sign afterward.
  • 3:30 p.m., Feb. 14, Room 102 Cowgill Center at Transylvania. Djerassi will give a lecture, “The Divorce of Sex from Reproduction: The New Facts of Life.”
  • 3 p.m. , Feb., 15, the Art Museum at UK. Actors will read his play “Insufficiency.” A reception with Djerassi will follow.

Poet Nikky Finney credits Carnegie Center’s role in her success

May 29, 2013

130523NikkyFinney0016

Poet Nikky Finney poses on the marble steps of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. It is a place she will miss when she returns to South Carolina to be closer to her aging parents. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Nikky Finney has always been drawn to buildings and neighborhoods with a sense of history and community. When she joined the University of Kentucky’s English faculty in 1993, she got to know Lexington by walking and biking through the city’s historic districts.

One day, Finney happened upon the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Gratz Park. She thought it was the public library, which, until recently, it had been. It reminded her of the Carnegie library in Sumter, S.C., where she spent so much time as a girl falling in love with literature. After looking around the beautiful old building and being warmly greeted by the Carnegie Center’s staff, Finney realized she had found a home away from home.

There were several study carrels in the Carnegie Center, and she claimed one as an informal office. Each morning that she wasn’t teaching, Finney sat in the carrel writing her second book of poetry, Rice, published in 1995.

So it seems almost poetic that as Finney prepares to leave Lexington after 20 years to take a faculty position at the University of South Carolina, where she can be closer to her aging parents, her last scheduled public appearances will benefit the Carnegie Center.

Finney, who won the 2011 National Book Award in poetry for her fifth poetry collection, Head Off & Split, will be the keynote speaker June 7 at the Carnegie Center’s Books-in-Progress Conference. The next day, she is to speak at a literary luncheon benefiting the center, whose mission ranges from showcasing Kentucky’s most accomplished writers to teaching children and adults how to read.

“For many reasons, the Carnegie Center is one part library and one part community center,” Finney said last week. “I believe really passionately that public spaces should also have at their heart a sort of intimacy for other things. And here I found the intimacy of the imagination, the intimacy of books.”

Besides finding it a peaceful place to write, Finney was inspired by the literary community that gathered in the building for readings, classes and celebrations.

“It was a hub of activity, and this activity seemed to have an artistic drive and also a community drive,” she said. “In its own way, it feeds back around to the quiet work we do in the carrel the next morning.”

It is amazing, Finney said, “for a city this size to have a place like the Carnegie Center, not just here but more viable today than I’ve ever seen it.”

Finney has gained fame since winning the National Book Award and giving what actor John Lithgow, the award ceremony’s host, called “the best acceptance speech for anything that I’ve ever heard in my life.” The video of that speech became an Internet sensation, introducing many people who don’t often read poetry books to the power and mastery of Finney’s writing.

Earlier this year, the National Civil War Project commissioned Finney to write a piece with jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard that they will perform in October 2015 on the Antietam battlefield in Maryland, with the Kronos Quartet and a 500-voice choir.

Another big project is a memoir of essays that she is calling The Sensitive Child. The title is how her mother often referred to her, “which did not always have good connotations.” But that sensitivity is what led her to writing, she said.

Finney has described her move back to South Carolina as “a daughter’s decision.” In addition to the Carnegie Center, she said, there are many things about Kentucky she will miss. She plans to keep her home and studio in the Bell Court neighborhood.

Finney said living in Kentucky for two decades helped give her the distance and perspective she needed to write about South Carolina. Once she’s in South Carolina, Finney said, she wouldn’t be surprised if she starts writing about Kentucky. She already has some ideas.

As she was moving into her UK office two decades ago, fellow writer and professor Gurney Norman, whom she had never met, welcomed her with a box of books and manuscripts about the black experience in Appalachia. It is a rich but little-known legacy.

“That’s one of the questions I’ve wanted to pursue: Why is that not at the heart of some great American novel?” Finney said about black Appalachia. “There is a bounty of information and history there to pull from. I’m leaning there.”

If you go

Carnegie Books-in-Progress Conference

When: June 7-8

What: Keynote address by Nikky Finney, workshops and activities for those considering a book project or engaged in one.

Where: Carnegie Center, 251 W. Second St.

Cost: $175.

Registration: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 21, or go to Carnegiecenterlex.org.

Literary Luncheon with Nikky Finney: Benefiting the Carnegie Center.

When: 1 p.m. June 8.

Where: Elmendorf Farm, 3931 Paris Pike, Lexington.

Cost: $80 (includes lunch).

Registration: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 25 or email jmattox@carnegiecenterlex.org.


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.”


Poet’s passion became a publishing business

February 27, 2012

At a five-year anniversary meeting of Poezia, a poetry-writing group she helped start, on Feb. 9 at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer is greeted friends, including group co-founder Colin Watkins, right. Photos by Tom Eblen

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer already was a classic American success story.

Born in Bulgaria, she immigrated to the United States at age 24 with her young son and married her American pen pal, Daniel Klemer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science, then a master’s in business administration. She became a software engineer for IBM, then a project manager for Lexmark International.

Increasingly, though, she felt something was missing in her life.

Then, on Dec. 20, 2006, while driving down a Lexington street, she realized what it was. A poem popped into her head. She pulled into a Kroger parking lot and wrote it down.

Stoykova-Klemer, 40, had begun writing poetry at age 8. She was published in Bulgaria, to some notice. But in her rush to build a new life in a new country, she had stopped writing. The poem that popped into her head was her first in 11 years and the first she had written in English.

“I suddenly had this feeling of joy and thought, ‘I can’t let go of this!’ ” she said. “The most important voices in our lives are often quiet ones.”

A year later, Stoykova- Klemer quit her job at Lexmark, where her husband works as an engineer.

“Before I started writing again, my job was the most important thing I did; then it was just something I did,” she said. “I realized that I didn’t want to spend so much time doing something I am not passionate about.”

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer talks with poet Jude Lally. Accents Publishing has published two of Lally's books, including his new collection, "I'm Fine, but Thanks for Asking."

Since her passion for poetry reignited, Stoykova-Klemer has been a ball of fire. She started a poetry group, earned a master’s in fine arts from Louisville’s Spalding University; taught classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning; and created Accents, a radio show about arts and culture that she hosts on WRFL-FM at 2 p.m. each Friday. She writes poetry and encourages dozens of other writers.

In 2010, she combined her business, technical and artistic skills to start Accents Publishing, which has produced 21 poetry books by 20 authors. Eight authors are Kentuckians, including well-known poets Richard Taylor and Frederick Smock.

“I think she is one of the most creative people in this town,” said Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center. “She has a combination of business sense and creative juice, and she is such a compassionate person.

“Her poetry is fantastic. Plus, she’s trying to find a way to make literature and poetry marketable, to help other creative people make a living. She’s exactly what Lexington needs.”

Chethik watched Feb. 9 as more than 50 people came to the Carnegie Center to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Poezia. That is the writing group Stoykova-Klemer started with Colin Watkins, a poet and songwriter she met at a New Year’s Eve party 11 days after her epiphany in the Kroger parking lot.

The writing group meets at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Common Grounds coffeehouse. New members are always welcome. Poezia got its name when a member asked Stoykova-Klemer the Bulgarian word for poetry.

At the anniversary celebration, Stoykova-Klemer announced she was stepping down as a leader of the group, in part to focus more time on Accents Publishing.

The company’s most popular and profitable books are small “chapbooks.” Making them is a family affair: Stoykova-Klemer prints and cuts them, and her husband binds them. Her son, Simeon Kondev, a student at Rhode Island School of Design, creates cover art.

Stoykova-Klemer handles distribution to stores from Kentucky to New York and New Hampshire. “They all know me at the post office,” she said.

Chapbooks sell for $5. “What we found out is that people rarely buy just one,” she said. Profits from chapbooks help support larger, professionally printed paperbacks that sell for $10 to $15.

“Our idea of affordable books seems to be working,” she said. “They say poetry books don’t sell, but our books sell. We keep selling more and more of them.”

Accents Publishing sponsors an annual contest to find new authors. “We have had hundreds of people submit work,” she said. The company covers all publication costs and pays authors by giving them 10 percent of the press run. Accents broke even its first year, and she expects a profit this year.

Stoykova-Klemer wants to keep growing the company — adding prose books and widening distribution — as long as it doesn’t crowd out her writing time.

“I say the most important thing I can do for Accents Publishing is to keep writing,” she said. “That keeps me centered for everything else.”

Keeping up with Katerina Stoykova-Klemer

Personal Web site: Katerinaklemer.com.

Company site: Accents-publishing.com.

‘Accents’ radio show: 2-3 p.m. Fridays, WRFL-88.1 FM, or Katerinaklemer.com/radio.

Poezia writing group: 7 p.m. Thursdays, Common Grounds coffeehouse, 343 E. High St. Online at Meetup.com/poetry-439. A prose writing group meets at 7 p.m. Tuesdays. Meetup.com/writers-583.

Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning: Carnegieliteracy.org.

A selection of books published by Accents Publishing of Lexington. Poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer started the publishing company to make inexpensive poetry books available to a wider audience.

 

 


Is Lexington the Literary Capital of Mid-America?

February 11, 2012

Tens of thousands of Kentuckians were focused last Tuesday night on cheering for the Wildcats as they thrashed the Florida Gators.

Still, a few blocks away from a packed Rupp Arena, the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning also was filled to capacity. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 was there to cheer for local writers. Basketball isn’t the only pursuit where Kentuckians play at the top of the game.

Ed McClanahan read a hilarious tale of adolescent angst from his new retrospective collection, I Just Hitched in from the Coast. Bobbie Ann Mason read from her new novel,The Girl in the Blue Beret. Nikky Finney read from her new poetry collection, Head Off & Split, which recently won the National Book Award. Before the all-stars took the microphone, several aspiring writers read from their work.

Finney’s National Book Award — and the viral Internet video of her amazing acceptance speech — could not have come at a better time for a new Carnegie Center initiative. Neil Chethik, the center’s new director, has proclaimed Lexington as the Literary Capital of Mid-America and the Carnegie Center as its statehouse.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to be something we’re not,” Chethik said. “We are the literary capital and have been for many years. Half the job is marketing what we already have, and the other half is using that energy to create more.”

Many states have rich literary traditions. But few can top what writers who were born in or moved to Kentucky have produced — and are producing.

Robert Penn Warren was the nation’s first poet laureate, as well as the first writer to win Pulitzer Prizes in more than one literary genre. William Wells Brown was the first published black novelist. Hunter S. Thompson helped create a new genre of first-person narrative, “gonzo journalism.”

Wendell Berry, whose environmental writing has attracted an international following, was selected last week to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on April 23 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It is the federal government’s most prestigious honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Eastern Kentucky’s mountains have produced, nurtured and inspired many outstanding writers, including James Still, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Harry M. Caudill, Gurney Norman, Janice Holt Giles, Verna Mae Slone, Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Silas House. Western Kentucky’s great voices have included Mason and Irvin S. Cobb.

Central Kentuckians James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr. were national best-sellers a century ago, just as Kim Edwards, Sue Grafton and Barbara Kingsolver are today.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Cleanth Brooks were two of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics. Other notable Kentucky writers from the recent past include Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, Gayle Jones and Guy Davenport.

Among today’s heavy hitters: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Chris Offutt, C.E. Morgan, Crystal Wilkinson, Jane Gentry Vance and Erik Reece.

Despite a deep streak of anti-intellectualism, Kentucky has always nurtured great writing. But why? Some say it is the state’s location. Kentucky was the first Western frontier, a Civil War border state and a place always in the midst of transition, migration, clashing values and regional tensions.

“Conflict makes for great stories,” Chethik noted.

“I think it’s because we like to talk so much and tell stories on one another,” McClanahan said. “It’s so much a part of life. Maybe it’s in the water.”

It is not the water, but the land, said Finney, a South Carolina native who has lived in Kentucky for two decades. “Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it,” she said. “We don’t really own the land. The land owns us.”

More than anything, Finney said, it is Kentucky’s mountains: “We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it.”

Writing is a solitary endeavor. But writers need a supportive community, and Kentucky has it. You see it in the attendance at huge annual book fairs in Frankfort and Bowling Green, at bookstores across the state and at events such as the monthly Holler Poets reading, which packs Al’s Bar on North Limestone Street.

You also see it in the attendance at classes and events at the non-profit Carnegie Center, housed in a beautiful old building in Gratz Park that used to be the Lexington Public Library.

“This is a sacred space; a nurturing space for writers,” said Finney, who wrote much of her book,Rice, in one of the center’s study carrels. Mason has taken French classes at the center since 2006, and they helped inspire her to turn her father-in-law’s experiences as a World War II bomber pilot into her latest novel.

The Carnegie Center will have a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. to gather ideas for this initiative. But Chethik already has some: a marketing campaign, literary conferences and more events that combine literature, music and visual art. Kingsolver is the keynote speaker for the center’s first Books in Progress Conference for authors and aspiring authors, June 8-9.

“There is something going on here,” Finney said. “There is a community hungry for good books and good words. And it has been for a long, long time.”

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A glimpse behind Dollmaker author’s creativity

November 8, 2011

It is tempting to assume that great authors just sit down and write great books. The writing is so good, they make it look easy.

“Mrs. Arnow writes so well, with so little apparent effort, that critical examination seems almost irrelevant,” author Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Harriette Simpson Arnow’s most famous novel, The Dollmaker. “It is a tribute to her talent that one is convinced, partway through the book, that it is a masterpiece.”

But nothing came easy to Arnow (1908-1986), a native of Appalachian Kentucky whose five novels, three non-fiction books and many short stories earned her acclaim as one of the 20th century’s great American writers.

Arnow was a tiny, tough woman whose prolific literary output was a testament to determination. She overcame many obstacles, from economic hardship and the sexism of her era to the everyday distractions of being a wife and mother.

Evidence of Arnow’s struggles will be on display soon at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library. The exhibit marks the completion of a 20-year effort by UK’s Special Collections Division to sort, catalog and, in some cases, make sense of 145 boxes of Arnow’s personal papers.

The exhibit opens with a program that includes remarks by Appalachian Journal editor Sandy Ballard, who is writing a biography of Arnow, and Gurney Norman, a UK English professor and former Kentucky poet laureate.

Later in life, Arnow became an encouraging but demanding teacher at writing workshops in Murray and Hindman, where Norman became her friend. “She could be very intimidating,” he said. “She was not, shall we say, a warm and fuzzy personality, but she was very generous.”

Arnow’s books are not warm and fuzzy, either: most are gritty tragedies about mountain people struggling against their circumstances. Don’t expect happy endings. In The Dollmaker, Gertie Nevels leaves her beloved Kentucky farm to follow her husband to a factory job in Detroit. They find only hardship and despair.

Still, in a 1979 Kentucky Educational Television documentary, Arnow insisted to interviewer Al Smith that she was not a pessimist. “If I were a pessimist,” she said, “I would have never have tried to write, because writing is such a gamble.”

The UK exhibit, organized by graduate student Amber Surface, uses notebooks, drafts and letters related to Arnow’s novel Hunter’s Horn to show her creative process. Memorabilia from The Dollmaker will be used to show how that novel was prepared for publication and became a best seller.

Arnow’s papers include the dime-store composition books she used to write first drafts in barely legible pencil scrawl, and her intense correspondence with editors. She made notes on both sides of everything. Her manuscripts show exhaustive rewriting and rearranging — cut-and-pasted paragraphs with editing marks everywhere. Her children drew pictures on some manuscripts.

Norman said Arnow’s jumbled papers could never have been made useful to scholars without 20 years of hard work by Kate Black, curator of UK’s Appalachia collection, and a parade of graduate students.

“It was as if someone had taken all of these papers and thrown them up in the air,” Black said. “We did a lot of piecing together.”

Black also found a carefully arranged scrapbook of reviews, letters and memorabilia related to publication of The Dollmaker in 1954. She said a family member must have put it together; it was too organized to have been Arnow’s work.

The collection includes Arnow’s baby shoe, diplomas, fan mail and an odd assortment of news clippings, saved perhaps as inspiration for future stories. Arnow also kept her membership materials from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Civil Liberties Union. “She was a complicated woman,” Black said.

The papers offer a glimpse into the intense ambition and conflicted emotions of this early feminist — who did not call herself a feminist. Writing masterpieces while caring for husband Harold, a newspaper reporter, daughter Marcella and son Thomas made for a demanding life.

“I may be more housewife than writer,” Arnow told Smith in their 1979 interview.

On the back of one page of manuscript, UK archivists found this scribbled note from her husband: Harriette — The burners on stove do not work. The oven does work: Can you cook a bite in it? H.

If you go

An exhibit and program marking the opening of the papers of Harriette Simpson Arnow

When: 4 p.m. Nov. 17

Where: The Great Hall, Margaret I. King Building, University of Kentucky

Click here for more information.

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A peek into Bobbie Ann Mason’s writing technique

June 23, 2011

I have a column in Sunday’s Herald-Leader about Bobbie Ann Mason‘s fascinating new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret. It is a story about World War II and self-discovery, based on the experiences of her late father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, who was a B-17 pilot shot down by the Germans and rescued by civilians in the French Resistance.

As we had lunch last Tuesday at Stella’s Deli on Jefferson Street, after her regular French class at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Mason told me something about her writing technique.

“Writing is so complicated,” she said. “What I tend to do is just to go over and over it. I read it again and again, and each time I change a few things. I have trouble with radical revisions. I think in reading it over and over like that you get too close to it. I just write it and polish it until I can’t think of a single other thing to do to it. I write it until it sounds right.”

Mason, a native of Graves County who now lives in Anderson County, is the author many books, including: In Country, Shiloh and Other Stories, Clear Springs and Feather Crowns. She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, two Southern Book Awards and other prizes, including the O. Henry and the Pushcart.


‘Captain Kentucky’ is back with two new books

May 31, 2011

After lying low for a few years, Captain Kentucky is back, resuming his epic quest to make the world safe for quirky characters and good storytelling.

Lexington author Ed McClanahan this week publishes a collection of stories from a creative writing class he taught at the University of Kentucky. And, in October, he will mark his 79th birthday with the publication of I Just Hitched In From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader (Counterpoint, $18.95).

McClanahan might be known best for his 1983 novel, The Natural Man, the hilarious story of a teenage boy’s coming of age in 1950s small-town Kentucky. But McClanahan also is famous for the company he kept during the 1960s and 1970s.

Known by his hippie moniker Captain Kentucky, McClanahan was one of author Ken Kesey’s band of “merry pranksters.” Their psychedelic drug-induced shenanigans were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his landmark “new journalism” story, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

McClanahan first attracted attention as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1962, which put him in California just as the counter-culture scene was blooming. He has published nine previous books and many magazine stories. In 1974, Playboy published his profile of Lexington music legend Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, backwards, upside-down guitar player.

McClanahan’s long hair turned white years ago, but he has lost little of his zeal. That was clear as we chatted in his home office, which is stuffed with memorabilia from a colorful life enthusiastically lived.

McClanahan said he had tired of teaching after a long academic career at Oregon State, Stanford, the University of Montana, Northern Kentucky and UK. But he returned to UK to teach a creative writing class in fall 2009 after a two-decade absence.

Once he got to know his eclectic class of 13 students, McClanahan decided they should write and edit a book. The result is Horsefeathers: Stories From Room 241 (Wind Publications, $15), with a cover illustration by Lexington artist John Lackey.

McClanahan had been intrigued by the concept of writers editing one another’s work since he helped publish a California literary magazine four decades ago. “Our editorial policy then was that we never turned anything down,” he said. “We did have someone send in a 400-page novel that was awful. We managed to lose it.”

The writing students who contributed to Horsefeathers included a UK management professor and a 69-year-old woman “who wrote the raciest story in the book.” Class member Scotty Adkins, an English graduate student, helped organize the project.

Class discussions often continued over dinner, with McClanahan entertaining everyone with his tales about hanging out with writers such as Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote. “Ed doesn’t have a snooty bone in his body,” Adkins said. “He takes the craft seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously.”

Readers can have their own McClanahan experience this fall. His new anthology includes 14 new and previously published pieces of fiction, non-fiction and stories that fall somewhere in between.

I Just Hitched In From the Coast includes the 2002 story, Fondelle, Or: The Whore with a Heart of Gold. It was inspired by an incident that happened to McClanahan during his first big adventure, hitchhiking back to Kentucky in 1954 from a summer of working on road crews in California’s Yosemite National Park.

McClanahan said a preacher had just left him in a swamp near Beaumont, Texas, when he was picked up by a one-armed asphalt salesman. The salesman was driving a new car he had bought for the prostitute he was taking to New Orleans to marry. McClanahan was quickly recruited to be the best man.

The wedding plans fell apart, and McClanahan, hung over from heavy drinking on Bourbon Street, decided a Greyhound bus would be an easier way to get home. Still, he had the presence of mind to have the bus driver drop him off just short of Maysville so he could thumb a ride for the last few miles.

The strategy paid off when a high school buddy witnessed his triumphal return. “Where you been?” the friend asked, giving McClanahan the opportunity to reply with all the sophistication a 22-year-old could muster: “I just hitched in from the coast.”


James Still’s posthumous novel retains some mystery

March 27, 2011

When Kentucky writer James Still died in 2001, three months short of his 95th birthday, he left behind a rich legacy of novels, short stories and poetry — and a mysterious manuscript in a leather briefcase that was held together with a belt.

That manuscript — a haunting and sometimes disturbing novel — has just been published as Chinaberry (University Press of Kentucky, $21.95). But much of the story remains a mystery.

Silas House, the author of Clay’s Quilt and other acclaimed novels, puzzled over the manuscript while editing it for publication.

“I’ve spent five or six years with this book, and I still don’t know what to think about it,” he said. But he does know this: Chinaberry is a master fully written story about the complexities of love, relationships, childhood and memory.

Still’s literary advisers and adopted daughter, Teresa Reynolds, approached House in 2004 about editing the manuscript. He said he was both honored and intimidated at the prospect of finishing the final novel of his literary hero.

Still’s work had always inspired House, who grew up in Laurel and Leslie counties and had dreamed of becoming a writer. The title of House’s 2003 novel, A Parchment of Leaves, is taken from one of Still’s poems.

House, 39, met Still a couple of times at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where Still lived for nearly 70 years. House was then an aspiring writer; Still was in his 90s and a bit gruff. “He certainly didn’t suffer fools, which I totally was in his presence,” House said.

Still was an economical writer; his few words were carefully chosen and arranged in precise rhythms. House said the manuscript’s chapters seemed almost finished, but they were in no particular order.

“Scenes were written in two or three different versions; it was like the Gospels,” he said. “Most of what I did was I found the best things from both versions and put them into one version so that (the story) moved in a more linear fashion.

“I really wanted every single word in the book to be his, and for the most part it is, except sometimes I would have to create transitional sentences,” he said. “It would take me weeks to write one sentence because I wanted to capture his rhythm and make sure every word was as carefully chosen as he would have chosen it.”

House said the biggest decision he made was the title: Chinaberry, the name of the Texas ranch that is as much a character in the book as any of the humans.

Still apparently began writing the story in the mid-1980s, biographer Carol Boggess said. I interviewed Still for a couple of hours late on the afternoon of his 80th birthday — July 16, 1986 — for a profile in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that piece, I wrote that Still said he was “hard at work writing a book he isn’t ready to discuss.”

He was still working on it almost 15 years later; the manuscript was in his hospital room when he died.

Unlike his other writing, Chinaberry is not set in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. It takes place in the wide-open cotton and cattle land of rural Texas nearly a century ago, and in Still’s native Alabama.

Chinaberry is about the epic journey of an unnamed boy of 13, who often seems much younger. He leaves Alabama with family friends for a summer of picking cotton in Texas. During the next three months, his life is transformed.

“I think it’s a love story on so many levels,” House said. “It’s a love story between the author and childhood, between a person and a place. I think there’s a palpable love for Texas in the book, and for a way of life that’s gone forever.”

At the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between the boy and the Chinaberry ranch’s owner, Anson Winters, and his second wife, Lurie. Anson virtually adopts the boy, treating him as a replacement for the young, handicapped son whose death he still grieves.

“What’s so brilliant about the book is that (Still) doesn’t make any judgments; it’s a psychological thriller in a way,” said House, who found some scenes almost creepy.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to decide what is really going on here, and that’s the brilliant thing James Still does,” he said. “He gives the reader all the power. It’s a great book-club book for that reason because you can sit and discuss it on and on.”

Perhaps the biggest mystery about Chinaberry is this: How much is fiction, and how much is Still’s autobiography?

The boy and Still share the same Alabama home. The boy’s father is a “horse doctor” who lived in Texas as a young man, as Still’s father was and did. “There’s all this autobiography in the book, but nobody knows if the main thing is true,” House said.

Among the manuscript pages in the battered briefcase, House found notes that Still had made on things he read about selective memory. “He seemed to be struggling with what was true memory,” he said.

Whether it’s autobiography, fiction or some combination of both, House thinks Chinaberry is a worthy companion to Still’s masterpiece novel River of Earth, published in 1940 to national acclaim.

“It’s such a cinematic book; it would make a wonderful movie,” House said of Chinaberry. “I still don’t understand it, but I think that’s sort of the beauty of it.”

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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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Book review: Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place

February 7, 2010

Reading Wendell Berry is like having a conversation with a friend — an old friend whose wisdom makes you want to do nothing more than hush and listen.

That’s how I felt, snowbound last weekend, reading Berry’s new collection of essays, Imagination in Place. Berry reflects on writers he has known or admired and the role that a sense of place played in their lives and work.

Place has special significance to Berry, as he explains in the book. After sojourns on each coast, Berry and his wife, Tanya, and their two children returned to his native Henry County in 1964. They bought a farm along the Kentucky River near Port Royal, which became the Port William of his fiction.

“I believe I can say properly that my fiction originates in part in actual experience of an actual place: its topography, weather, plants, and animals; its language, voice and stories,” Berry writes.

He has farmed and written in that place for 45 years. Along the way, he has become perhaps the nation’s most eloquent advocate for time-honored agrarian values that are attracting new appreciation in the 21st century after being dismissed during much of the 20th.

These 15 essays, written from 1993 to 2009, have been published previously, most in The Sewanee Review. Berry fans might appreciate them most for the insights they offer into his own development as a writer.

Berry writes about being a graduate student at Stanford under Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 30 books, most of which were set in the American West.

“The fact is that at the time I did not understand him as an influence, and the reason was that at the time I did not know what kind of influence I was going to need,” he writes. “At the time I wanted only to be a writer; beyond that, I had little self- knowledge, and not an inkling of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to do it.”

In other essays, Berry writes of Donald Hall and his New England; of James Still and Gurney Norman and their Eastern Kentucky; and of Hayden Carruth, whose poetry was rooted in Vermont, where he lived for many years.

There are essays of literary criticism, and remembrances of departed literary friends, including James Baker Hall, a classmate of Berry at the University of Kentucky and later a colleague when they both taught English there.

These pieces include the flashes of wisdom that Berry’s fans cherish, such as this description of his first visit to an Eastern Kentucky strip mine in 1964 with Norman, who was then a newspaper reporter in Hazard: “It had never occurred to me that people could destroy land with an indifference that perfectly matched the capability of their technology.”

And then there is this wonderful critique of literary “realism” that focuses only on the dark side of life: “Why should one read a book that is programmatically more depressing than the news?”

Although much in these essays celebrates the warmth and humanness of life, Berry also does some of what he does best: hold up a mirror to modern society and make observations of blinding moral clarity.

“We have pretty much made a virtue of selfishness as the mainstay of our economy, and we have provided an abundance of good excuses for dishonesty,” he writes. “Most of us give no thought to the state of nature as the context of our lives, because we conventionally disbelieve in natural limits.”

Imagination in Place is the latest example of why Wendell Berry is not only a Kentucky treasure, but an American treasure.