‘Dead Poets’ journey leads to grave of murdered Lexington poet

July 28, 2015
Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven his white Dodge “Poe Mobile” to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Walter Skold quit his teaching job to write poetry, he didn’t know that his personal journey would become as literal as it was metaphorical.

While studying at The Frost Place, an educational center on poet Robert Frost’s farm in New Hampshire, former state poet laureate Patricia Fargnoli read her poem, “Visiting Frost’s Grave.”

“I had just visited his grave, and it and her poem intrigued me,” said Skold, 54, who lives in Freeport, Maine. “On a whim, I started researching poets’ graves and I was just completely fascinated by the uniqueness of them — their design, their epitaphs. It turned into this sort of pilgrimage.”

He is now six years into that pilgrimage, having driven his “Poe Mobile” van on four major road trips to visit the graves of more than 520 poets in 46 states.

Skold, a former journalist, takes photos and videotape for a planned book and documentary film. He also promotes his idea for a new national holiday: Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the day in 1849 when Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born.

I met Skold Tuesday at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. He had come to visit the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black poet, lawyer, newspaper editor, minister and activist who suffered a tragic death.

Robert_Charles_OHara_BenjaminBorn in 1855 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Benjamin first came to Kentucky in 1879, possibly to teach school. Then he moved around the country, practicing law in California and Rhode Island and becoming a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Benjamin moved to Lexington in 1897, got involved in politics and edited The Standard, a black newspaper. He wrote books, pamphlets and poetry and became involved in early civil rights struggles.

On Oct. 2, 1900, Benjamin got into an argument with white precinct worker Mike Moynahan, who was challenging blacks trying to register to vote. Moynahan followed Benjamin outside and shot him in the back at the corner of Spring and Water Streets. An inquest ruled it justifiable homicide.

“I had never heard of Benjamin,” he said. “But I was so amazed when I came across his story.”

Skold examined a marble monument that a fraternal organization erected at Benjamin’s grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. And he read aloud the faded epitaph, an 1834 poem by William Wordsworth: “Small service is true service while it lasts; Of friends, however humble, scorn not one: The daisy, by the shadow that it casts, protects the lingering dew drop from the sun.”

Skold placed at the base of the monument a pebble from Mount Parnassus, Greece, which ancient Greeks believed to be the home of the Muses. Then he poured a bit of Cognac on the grave, from a bottle almost empty from moistening the graves of dead poets throughout the South over the past seven weeks.

After taking photographs and video, Skold was off to Lexington Cemetery to visit the graves of two more forgotten poets, James Thomas Cotton Noe and Catherine Ann Warfield. I suggested he also look up writer James Lane Allen while he was there.

Skold had already spent seven days traveling around Kentucky in the Dodge van he calls the Poe Mobile. “It’s a big part of my shtick,” he said, pointing to the Maine license plate that says, “Dedgar.”

The van is a conversation-starter, and for Skold, this pilgrimage is mostly about starting conversations.

“Every day I learn so much, just from meeting people, friends and family of dead poets, archivists, other poets,” he said. “It’s like a journey of discovery.”

This is Skold’s third trip to Lexington, which he said has “a special place in my heart.” On his first trip, in 2009, the Poe Mobile broke down. He spent a few days in Lexington and got to know poet Eric Sutherland, who introduced him around.

On this trip, he met several more living poets, including Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Jeff Worley and Richard Taylor. Skold’s next stop is the annual writers’ workshop at Hindman Settlement School to meet even more.

“This whole project seems a little weird, even to me, but what has really kept me going is people’s responses, their enthusiasm for my project,” he said.

Skold thinks most people understand the value of poets, and why it is important to remember them long after they are gone.

“They speak to the deepest beliefs and questions and concerns of the people they write among,” he said, citing as an example the beloved Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart, who died in 1984. “By reading him, I can enter into the culture and history of Kentucky.”

Walter Skold, whose project is called the Dead Poets Society of America, has spent six years traveling in a Dodge van to the graves of more than 500 poets in 46 states. The license plate from his home state of Maine is in honor of "Dead Edgar", the writer Edgar Allen Poe.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Skold’s Dodge van honors Edgar Allen Poe.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Skold poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote

Walter Skold, who has traveled to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, read a quote from the English poet Robert Wordsworth on the tombstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Skold read a quote from the English poet William Wordsworth on Benjamin’s tombstone.

Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet, was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Benjamin’s monument was erected by a fraternal organization a decade after his death.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven this white Dodge van to visit the graves of more than 500 poets over the past six years, came to Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street to visit the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.


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.”


Lexington artist, poet has made big career with tiny paintings

January 6, 2015

141218Woolfolk0007Miriam Woolfolk holds a painting she did of Loudoun House. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the street artist MTO came to Lexington’s PRHBTN festival last fall to paint a mural on a Manchester Street warehouse, he showed how huge, bold and controversial art can be.

141218Woolfolk0034At the other end of the spectrum, Miriam Lamy Woolfolk, an award-winning Lexington painter and poet, has been showing for decades how tiny, delicate and beautiful art can be.

Woolfolk, who turns 89 on Valentine’s Day, paints intricate watercolor landscapes that take up no more than a few square inches. About 30 of them will be on display at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning beginning Jan. 16 for Gallery Hop.

She has been a regular, prize-winning exhibitor at miniature art shows around the world for decades, but this is her largest Lexington show in years. It was organized after her work was included in a Carnegie Center exhibit last year featuring images of surrounding Gratz Park.

“After that, we were fascinated by her art,” said Luisa Trujillo, the center’s art director.

Woolfolk is from Louisville, where she remembers always dabbling in art and poetry. She worked in a World War II ration office, for an oil company and for the magazine of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad before raising four children.

She moved to Lexington with her first husband in 1951. Her second husband, the late Patch Woolfolk, was a professor of animal science at the University of Kentucky.

Woolfolk’s only formal art training was in high school. But she took night classes after her interest was rekindled while working as a bookkeeper for a physician, whose office housed the Lexington Art League in its early years. (Later, she would serve as the league’s president.)

141218Woolfolk0015Woolfolk discovered a love for miniatures at her first out-of-state art show.

“I flew up to New Jersey and was absolutely stunned by all the little pieces,” she said. “I’ve always liked little stuff.”

In 1980, she won “best of show” at a prestigious art exhibit in Washington, D.C. Her pair of small watercolors were the only miniatures in that show, and the prize led to an invitation to join the Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers Society of Washington.

That involvement led to many prizes at miniature art shows around the country and as far away as Russia and Tasmania. She also has illustrated several books for Lexington authors and organizations.

Trujillo said the Carnegie Center also was interested in Woolfolk’s art because she has always excelled in both images and words.

A poet since childhood, she is a past president of the Kentucky State Poetry Society and edited its journal, Pegasus, for 21 years. Two of her poems were included in The Kentucky Anthology: 200 years of writing in the Bluegrass State, published in 2005 by the University Press of Kentucky.

That book was edited by Wade Hall, a longtime English professor at Bellarmine Univeristy and a collector of regional quilts, more than 100 of which he donated to the University of Kentucky for display in the W.T. Young Library.

Woolfolk has always done needlework, too, and she wanted to contribute to Hall’s collection. But, because of her love of miniatures, and a good sense of humor, she gave him a potholder instead of a quilt.

141218Woolfolk0020Woolfolk said she never used a magnifying glass to paint her miniatures, just very tiny brushes, some with just a few hairs. Her scenes were drawn from photographs she made, many at spots around Central Kentucky she found while driving back roads with her husband.

Age finally dimmed Woolfolk’s eyesight, and she has given up painting. She recently entered what she said will be her last art show, in Maryland. She also completed a big, small project for the Carnegie Center.

As part of a November event celebrating J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, Woolfolk made 100 tiny paper boxes that were given to attendees. Each contained a piece of paper with a quote from the book.

Woolfolk has been making similar tiny boxes for years and giving them away to friends. Usually, though, they come with a line of her own poetry: “A secret place to hold your dreams, for dreams take little space.”


Kentucky poet Jeff Worley talks about his art and craft

January 1, 2014

WorleyJeff Worley, a Kansas native who moved to Lexington in 1986, has published six book-length poetry collections and three small chapbooks. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

When Jeff Worley was young, he loved word games, puns and puzzles. He was certainly the only kid in English class who thought diagramming sentences was fun.

But what opened his eyes to the power of language was a Christmas gift from his mother when he was 9: a collection of stories by Mark Twain.

“I thought it was magical how these words could make me feel like I was with Becky Thatcher in that cave,” he said. “And that I was Tom Sawyer. He was so much cooler than me.”

Reading led Worley, 66, to earn bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts degrees in English from Wichita State University in his Kansas hometown. That led to careers as an English teacher, an academic journalist and a persistent poet.

Worley has published six book-length poetry collections and three small chapbooks, the first of which won a national award in 1991. He edited the anthology, What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets, published by University Press of Kentucky in 2009.

worleybookWorley’s most recent collection, A Little Luck, won the 2012 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, the latest of several national and regional awards he has received.

Like many of Worley’s books, A Little Luck includes a mix of lyrical and storytelling poems. A reviewer once used James Joyce’s made-up word jocoserious to describe Worley’s poems. They are serious and funny, and sometimes seriously funny.

The subjects Worley chose to write about in A Little Luck range from an awkwardly humorous “facts of life” discussion with his father at age 13 to his first evening after retirement and watching birds from the porch of his cabin on Cave Run Lake.

His poems resonate with readers because they often are about personal experiences others can relate to, such as playing Little League baseball or coping with the death of a parent.

“He’s a wonderful poet who has a terrific sense of humor,” said Gray Zeitz, the notoriously choosy publisher of Larkspur Press in Monterey, who in 2000 produced a handmade edition of Worley’s collection A Simple Human Motion. “He should be more popular than he is. He’s one of the state’s best poets.”

Worley moved to Lexington in 1986 when his wife, Linda Worley, an associate professor of German studies, was hired at the University of Kentucky.

They met in 1977 when both were teaching university classes for American military families in Germany. When they came to Lexington, she had just finished her doctorate and he was teaching English at Penn State Altoona in Pennsylvania.

Jeff Worley said he quickly realized two things: Lexington was a much nicer place to live than Altoona, and if he kept teaching English 101 to undergrads, “I would start eyeing open windows in tall buildings.”

After a couple of years of free-lance writing “that was amazing un-lucrative,” Worley was hired as a writer for Odyssey magazine, which covers innovative research at UK. He became the editor when Susan Stempel retired in 1997.

Since Worley’s own retirement three years ago, he has devoted more time to poetry. He writes and reads for a few hours each morning in the upstairs study of the couple’s 1930s cottage near Commonwealth Stadium. He also teaches poetry classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

“As a poet, it’s been wonderful for me to be in Kentucky,” he said, “It is so rich with writers.”

After years of declining popularity, poetry is big again. So I asked Worley what advice he would give to aspiring poets.

He suggested they read widely, and not just poetry. They should write a lot of poems, because many of them won’t be any good. They should travel, if possible, to expand their minds. And although writing is a solitary business, writers need company.

“Find other poets who have some sense of what you’re trying to achieve, and form some kind of group that meets regularly or at least exchanges emails,” he said.

Worley and Marsha Hurlow, who teaches English at Asbury University, formed such a group of poets in 1989 that is still meeting.

“These poet friends of mine have frankly saved me a lot of embarrassment, and they always make useful comments about how to make a poem better,” he said.

“What I encourage students to do … is to simply get something down on the page, some line or sentence, and see where it wants to take you,” he said. “Then you can always go back and throw some out and polish.”

Polishing through multiple revisions is key to any good writing, he said.

“It reminds me of the quote by Paul Valéry, that a poem is never finished, only abandoned,” Worley said. “I am always writing new poems and I have got a thick folder full of drafts that I go back to that are in the process of being abandoned, or not.”  


Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013

Manning1

 Poet Maurice Manning lives in an 1850s farmhouse on 20 acres near Springfield, fulfilling a pledge he made when he was in graduate school in Alabama. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

“One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky,” he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

“Most farmers wouldn’t think much of what I’ve done with the place,” Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning’s daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name “Morris,” is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning3Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection,The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

“For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana,” said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

“I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky.”

The poems in Manning’s most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from “Fog Town Holler” in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

“There’s something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation,” said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes “intense descriptions of the natural world,” he said. “The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world.”

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

“It made everything seem less mysterious,” he said. “She wasn’t an aloof, obscure person.”

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren’s poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren’s 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

“One of the nice things about being a poet is there’s no money in it,” Manning said. “Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom.”

Manning2Maurice Manning has cut four miles of walking paths through his 20-acre farm. 

 


Writers celebrate 40 years of Kentucky’s unique Larkspur Press

June 4, 2013

130531GrayZeitz-TE0010

The University of Kentucky honored Gray Zeitz, center, last Friday on the 40th anniversary of his Larkspur Press in Monterey, which publishes hand-crafted books by  Kentucky writers. Before the ceremony at Margaret I. King Library, Zeitz, center, talked with Gay Reading, left, whose aunt, Carolyn Reading Hammer, taught Zeitz the art of printing at the King Library Press at UK. At right is Zeitz’s wife, Jean.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Richard Taylor recalled that when Gray Zeitz was establishing his Larkspur Press in the mid-1970s, he received a printing commission from the Kentucky Arts Council. Anxious state officials asked for a deadline, but Zeitz would not be rushed.

He replied to them with a metaphor drawn from his love for Kentucky’s native plants: “Who knows when the phlox will flower?”

Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, told that story last Friday evening as more than 130 writers, artists, friends and fans gathered at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library to honor Zeitz for four decades of continuous flowering.

Zeitz was lauded by Taylor and eight other writers and artists whose work the small press in rural Owen County has published over the years: Wesley Bates, Gabrielle Fox, Nana Lampton, Ed McClanahan, Maurice Manning, Maureen Morehead, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and Jeff Worley.

The ceremony opened an exhibit of pieces produced by Larkspur Press, which has published more than 100 handmade books and countless broadsides since 1974. The free exhibit will be up through August. The library at 179 Funkhouser Dr. is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Larkspur Press, on Sawdridge Creek Road near Monterey, has a public open house each November, on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Last Saturday, Zeitz led a letterpress printing workshop at the King Library Press on UK’s campus. That was where he learned his art and trade, first as a student and then as an apprentice to director Carolyn Reading Hammer.

In the 1950s, Hammer and her husband, Austrian artist Victor Hammer, began a Kentucky tradition of fine letterpress printing using hand-operated presses, hand-set type and woodblock engravings.

130531GrayZeitz-TE0043Zeitz, 63, is one of their most successful protégés. Using century-old presses and thick, creamy paper, he prints elegant books that are hand-stitched and bound, in both fancy collector’s editions and affordable paperbacks.

“Gray is stubbornly and endearingly independent,” Taylor explained in his remarks. “He has steadfastly refused to become ensnared by the Internet. One of his friends designed a web page (larkspurpress.com) that Gray has no means or desire to see.”

But, as the writers and artists explained, Zeitz is much more than a printer. A poet himself, he carefully selects the writers, artists and works he wants to publish. Most are from Kentucky.

In addition to those who spoke Friday, they have included Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman, Frederick Smock and the late Guy Davenport and James Baker Hall.

Bates, a Canadian wood engraver, said he first encountered Larkspur Press nearly two decades ago and was impressed by the quality of the printing, the large volume of books produced and Zeitz’s curatorial skill in choosing work to publish.

“It was above and beyond the idea of book as art,” Bates said. “It was book as communication, as preservation of culture.”

As for Zeitz, a burly man with a long beard who always wears blue jeans and suspenders, Bates said, “I thought he looked like he was part of the band ZZ Top.”

Taylor-Hall talked about how Zeitz consults with writers about how their books should look, down to such things as the color of ink. Worley joked that even if readers hate his poetry, they won’t throw away his Larkspur Press editions because the books themselves are too beautiful.

Several others remarked on Zeitz’s craftsmanship, exacting standards and placid demeanor. “Every time I see him, he seems filled with joy,” Manning said.

When it finally came time for Zeitz to speak Friday, he was, as always, a man of few words. He introduced two longtime collaborators, Carolyn Whitesel and Leslie Shane, and thanked audience members for writing and illustrating his books, buying and reading his books and even helping him on occasion move heavy, iron presses.

Then, Zeitz read a poem he had written, which the King Library Press printed as a broadside to give those in attendance:

Printer’s Note

Sweet rain yesterday.

We have put your book on the press.

My hands do not tremble

because I’m unsure,

but shake in the finalizing of page

as a foal, newborn,

begins to stand.

It should be said

there will be absolutely no deadline.

Who knows when the phlox will flower? 


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.


Holler Poets celebrates 5 years of showcasing Kentucky writers

May 25, 2013

130510HollerPoets0018

Eric Sutherland, founder of the monthly Holler Poets series, poses outside Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Streets. The series will celebrate its fifth year, and 60th session, on May 29. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approached in March 2008, Eric Scott Sutherland was frustrated and angry. So he fought back the best way he knew how: with poetry.

The writer organized Poets for Peace, a protest reading in the newly reopened Al’s Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street. The event featured an all-star lineup of local literary talent, including Jane Gentry Vance, who was then serving as Kentucky’s poet laureate. Nearly 100 listeners packed the house.

“It was just electric,” Sutherland recalled. “You could sense it.”

Sutherland had tapped into more than public outrage over a tragic, costly and unnecessary war. People seemed hungry for poetry and a venue for self-expression.

“There was pent-up demand for what this guy was doing,” said Josh Miller, one of the bar’s owners. So Miller’s brother, Lester, asked Sutherland if he would organize an event like that at their bar every month.

The Holler Poets Series was born.

The series celebrates its five-year anniversary, and 60th session, on Wednesday. The free event will begin, as always, with an open microphone for any writer wanting to share his or her work.

Then there will be the featured writers. This month’s are Frank X Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and his fellow Affrilachian poet, Mitchell Douglas. The evening concludes with a musical act. This month’s is Christian hip hop artist Justin Long, who performs under the name JustMe.

Holler’s format has changed little since the series began in 2008 with the award-winning poet Maurice Manning, who now teaches at Transylvania University. Since the beginning, events have been promoted with unique posters created by artist John Lackey, whose Homegrown Press Studio is a couple of doors down from the bar.

About 80 writers have been featured at Holler, including other well-known Kentucky names such as Nikky Finney, Silas House, Richard Taylor, Erik Reece, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Bianca Spriggs and Leatha Kendrick.

Lexington’s poetry scene has flourished in recent years. Holler Poets — some of whom were born in mountain “hollers” or like to speak loudly — is a big reason why.

Since the beginning, Holler’s goal has been to both raise the profile of experienced poets and encourage the development of new ones. “The open mic has inspired a lot of people to develop their craft, given them something to work toward every month,” Sutherland said.

“Holler Poets has been extremely important in encouraging new voices to emerge, to go from writing for themselves to writing for an audience,” said Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, a Bulgarian-born poet, WRFL radio host, and owner of the Lexington poetry book press Accents Publishing.

“I thought I would go and mingle with like-minded people,” said Tina Andry, who had written poetry all her life but mostly kept it to herself. “Everyone was so welcoming, and the next thing I knew I was publishing a book.”

The Poets for Peace event on March 30, 2008 was followed a year later by Peace in the Mountains, where writers decried what environmentally destructive methods of surface mining for coal is doing to Kentucky’s land, water and air. Holler readers frequently critique an American society that values money more than people. Several of the events have been fundraisers for peace and environmental groups.

“For me, everything is political,” said Sutherland, 41, a Shelbyville native who studied natural resource conservation at the University of Kentucky and has earned his living as a baker and arborist. “It has been rewarding to use art as a way to inform people about what’s going on.”

Sutherland has been surprised by Holler’s popularity. He can’t remember an event where Al’s Bar wasn’t filled with people.

“I knew that our literary heritage would support it and that it was needed,” he said. “But I didn’t know it would catch on. I think the time was just right.”

Sutherland knew he had arrived when, at Holler’s three-year anniversary, Lester Miller surprised him on stage with a fancy certificate proclaiming him as the poet laureate of Al’s Bar.

Accents Publishing will soon publish Sutherland’s fourth poetry collection, Pendulum, inspired by his experiences working at the lobby café of Lexington’s downtown Central Library. Books are important, but Sutherland thinks Holler shows that performance can make poetry a more powerful artistic medium.

“When you hear people up on stage baring their soul, which takes a lot of courage, it ignites something in the listener,” he said. “I think people yearn to feel connected to other people. Poetry is really the last vestige of a direct expression of humanity.”

If you go

Holler Poets 60Five-year anniversary

When: 8 p.m., May 29

Where: Al’s Bar, 601 N. Limestone

Who: Affrilachian poets Frank X Walker and Mitchell Douglas, hip hop performer JustMe. Open microphone for other poets, with sign-up beginning at 7 p.m.

Cost: Free.

More information: EricScottSutherland.com

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption: 


Neighbor’s garden inspires young poet to national award

July 10, 2012

Maura Reilly-Ulmanek, 17, enjoys taking care of her friend and neighbor Esther Hurlburt’s garden when she is away. But she never expected it to help her win a trip to New York City and a gold medal in the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

The Given Avenue garden is small but elaborate. There is a well-tended mixture of flowering and edible plants, a small koi pond and sculpture. “It’s just a really lovely place to be,” Maura said.

The little garden became a big inspiration for the young poet, who this fall will be a senior at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School.

Maura’s poem, esther’s garden, was one of five she entered as a poetry portfolio in Scholastic’s annual competition. She was one of 32 students from Kentucky to win 41 medals — 15 gold, 23 silver and three special awards — in several categories of writing and visual arts. Maura was the state’s only gold medal winner in poetry.

“I think the poem basically is about spirituality and the similarities between religion and spirituality,” Maura said. “It’s hard to ignore how spiritual nature is, and I think just being surrounded by that much life in a garden is touching.”

Hurlburt didn’t see the poem until it was published in Lafayette’s student literary magazine, The Laurel.

“When I read that poem, I was brought to tears,” said Hurlburt, 56, a nurse and Unitarian Universalist minister. “I think she captured God in nature to perfection. I couldn’t have captured that or described it in the way she did in that poem.”

The gold medal included an invitation to attend the awards ceremony last month at Carnegie Hall in New York, where the keynote speaker was Meryl Streep.

“She was just so humble,” Maura said of the acclaimed actress. “It was really nice to hear people who have made it as artists and still feel insecure about their art. She was just so honest; that was my favorite part.”

After the ceremony, there were workshops and presentations for Scholastic winners at Parsons The New School for Design. She also visited relatives in Brooklyn as several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Maura made college visits to two “dream schools,” Columbia and Yale, during the six-day trip. She also is considering the University of Chicago, Centre College and Transylvania University, where last summer she participated in the Governor’s School for the Arts.

Maura traveled with Rebecca Powell, a close family friend. Her mother, Siobain Reilly, a Montessori teacher, and step-father, Darrell Wiggett, who works with computers, stayed home with Maura’s sisters, 6 and 1.

In addition to writing, Maura likes photography and has a small business making portraits for other high school students. She donated her services to shoot brochure pictures for Legacy Home Ministry, a non-profit organization Hurburt founded that provides housing for elderly women of limited means.

Maura is considering careers in museum curation and journalism. She has loved writing stories for “as long as I can remember,” but has focused on poetry since entering SCAPA as a freshman.

“I like the way words fit together,” she said. “I think I was always intimidated by poems because you have only so many words to express what you’re trying to say. Eventually, I started to enjoy the challenge, because every single word is important.”

Hurlburt thinks her young neighbor will continue to impress others, as she has impressed her. “She’s a cool, sophisticated thinking young woman with immense talent,” she said.

 

Here are Maura Reilly-Ulmanek’s winning poems:

 

esther’s garden

i wish you could have seen
mother teresa holding hands
with Him for the first time
their soft fingertips
tasting of lavender
and lemongrass

i’ve tried to tell father daniel
that esther’s rain-glazed benches
are as good as any pews
and i’d like to feel moss and
soil under my knees
when i stoop to pray

you’d think she’s trying
to teach all things to speak
in latin greek and love

can’t the black-eyed susans
say amen?
let the junebugs
baptize us with rain water
we’ll whisper our confessions
to the steady koi

the cicadas hum
the sweetest sermons
you’ll ever hear
listen they’ll coax
the hallelujah
from your lips

i don’t know much about the bible
but you can’t tell me
that He hasn’t written His will
in spiderwebs and slug trails
that we weren’t each born
with a little eden in our bones
teaching us to dance
to the holy murmur
of what is here

 

 

hope & dust

this is a poem for anyone
who has ever felt lost
and that is to say
this poem is for you
a stranger once told me
we all feel made of dust sometimes
and i know this to be true
but sister brother silent friend
dust is sometimes beautiful
the way it collects on windowsills
and carries through the air
just as you are beautiful
in the way you wear short sleeves
even with your scars
and the way you hold hope
so awkwardly in your palms

 

salsa

our kitchen is
paul newman’s vinaigrette
such a sweet saucy smile
plastered to cans
mason jars
and movie screens

we watch him waltz
across the counter
with elvis presley
and he is the queen
as they share a smoke
ignore the jealous glances
from chef boyardee

marilyn monroe is holding
a black umbrella
above them
as they slide towards
the sink

because she is tired
of assuming the same roles
the same compromising positions

she wants it to be love

 

frail bones

i think i’m
beginning to realize
how afraid you are
of being more
than hips and breasts
and the gap between your thighsi saw your hand slip
while you were cutting
and i saw the look on your face too
realizing that there is only
soft tilapia flesh and
plum patterned blood vessels
separating you from each of your
two hundred and six lovely bonesyou fear them each equally
because it would be such a shame
to realize that even one
inch of you isn’t perfect
and i don’t know that you
would see the beauty
in your mango pulp organs
the pink flesh that puckers
a redblue bundle of nervesi wondered once
what facts were stitched
into the fabric of our skins
if our palms and ankles
and birthmarks
could betray us as brutally
as our wordsi wanted to ask you
if you thought skeletons
were ever ugly

 

Dear Mona

I love the poem you wrote
and I’m sorry you felt
like it didn’t belong to you.

You should know
that it ended up stuck
to the postman’s boot
and he took it home
and gave it to his wife.
She decided to give
him another chance, Mona.

And this is part of the reason
that I’m writing to remind you
to be gentle with yourself.

I’m sorry that your boyfriend
has stopped holding your hand
in the grocery store and that
your father doesn’t remember his name
or why you don’t make casseroles
like your mother.

Please remember
that my offer still stands.

The tulips and I
are in agreement
that you are destined
for far greater things.

Love, always
Sam

 


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.

 

 


Idea Festival: preserving humanity in a virtual world

September 22, 2011

LOUISVILLE — Spoken-word poet Azure Antoinette struggles with the problem as much as others do.

She worries that we are losing our humanity in a virtual world of digital communications, where many people pay more attention to their Facebook friends than their actual friends. Still, she said, she is addicted to her BlackBerry and is constantly on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s this false popularity that’s very strange,” Antoinette told her audience Thursday at the Idea Festival. “We are all so self-centered.”

Technology has opened up amazing new ways to expand communication, she noted, but we must avoid short-changing the genuine interpersonal communication that enriches our lives. “We are moving away from a time when things are physically tangible,” she said, and that is not good.

As a poet, she also worries about what social media is doing to young people’s language and grammar skills. And she fears that popular culture is being confused with meaningful art and literature.

During a question-and-answer session after her lecture, an audience member had the best line I have heard this morning: “I’ve heard it said that a book commits suicide every time somebody watches Jersey Shore.”


Poet brings words and a smile to nursing homes

July 15, 2009

Poet Sunny Montgomery reads to Glyn Dawson and staff member Tonya Perdue at Homestead Nursing Center. Photos by Tom Eblen

Art expresses the human spirit. It also can nourish it, especially in places where the human spirit can feel challenged.

That was one of the ideas behind local poet Sunny Montgomery’s visit to seven Lexington nursing homes Wednesday.

Montgomery visited dining halls and went from room to room, asking if she might spending a few minutes reading poetry.

The project was organized by the ELandF Gallery and the Nursing Home Ombudsman Agency of the Bluegrass.

“Just having artists or anybody from the outside coming in consistently creates a culture that’s good for the residents and staff and more open to the community,” said Bruce Burris of ELandF.

The ombudsman agency plans a public meeting July 29 to seek ideas for other arts programs that might be done in local nursing homes. Those could include visiting artists, or participatory arts programs for residents. The meeting will be at 2 p.m. at the agency’s office in the senior citizen center at the corner of Nicholasville Road and Alumni Drive.

Montgomery visits with Emma Hutchison, right, and daughter Emily McCarty after reading poetry Wednesday at Homestead Nursing Center.