Commentary

State's literary clout is rich and should be kept that way

writers' achievements defy stereotypes of state

September 22, 2012 

Bluegrass, bourbon, basketball ... and books?

Most Kentuckians readily identify with first three Bs on the list above. Now, a growing number are waking up to our state's literary clout as well.

In just the last year, Henry County author Wendell Berry and Fayette County poet Nikky Finney received another round of national acclaim. Berry was selected to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, the federal government's highest annual honor in the humanities. Finney, meanwhile, a beloved University of Kentucky professor, won the National Book Award for poetry.

These high-profile achievements add heft to the claim that Kentucky is the literary arts capital of our region. But there are more ordinary signs of our literary capital status too.

For 20 years, the Carnegie Center, where I work, has been supported by Kentucky businesses, individuals and government agencies. It is one of the few organizations in the country devoted to reading, writing and literary art at every level. On a typical day at our center, children receive low-cost tutoring to stay up in school; teens learn how to turn poetry into performance; and adults learn to write, publish and market their books to the world.

It's no accident that Lexington recently ranked No. 1 — just ahead of the famously cultured Ann Arbor, Mich. — on the so-called Kindle Index, which measures a community's purchases of e-reading devices and e-books.

Why is Kentucky, with its reputation of educational weakness, so solid when it comes to the literary?

One Kentucky poet laureate wondered whether it might be the gnarly caves beneath our soil. Do those caves, asked the late James Baker Hall, "work (writers) in our sleep, leading us to dig deeper and stay under longer, to comprehend more readily that the rocking world rests on the back of a turtle emerging from slumber?"

Not sure about that. But current UK teachers such as Finney, Erik Reece, Gurney Norman and Ed McClanahan — along with Transylvania University professors Richard Taylor and Maurice Manning — demonstrate a long-term academic commitment to Kentucky's literary heritage.

The Carnegie Center is committed to maintaining Kentucky as a literary capital. We recently sponsored our first Books-in-Progress Conference, which featured Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver. And next month, we'll be the host site for the 34th annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference, supported by UK. It's the longest running literary festival of women in the nation.

To celebrate all of the above, Carnegie is also creating a Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. We are seeking nominees right now. Whom would you put in this pantheon? Let us know!

Neil Chethik can be reached at neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

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