In her 32 years as a Jefferson County public school teacher, Louisville writer Maureen Morehead published three volumes of poetry, and her work was featured in dozens of anthologies and literary magazines. But she was an English teacher long before her first poetry collection, In a Yellow Room, was published in 1990 by Sulgrave Press.
Morehead — who will be installed Monday as the 2011-12 Kentucky poet laureate at the Kentucky Writers' Day celebration in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort — credits a spate of teachers and a passion for reading and analyzing literature as major influences in her evolution as a poet.
As a student at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Morehead was torn between several interests, but it was her English teachers who helped shape her life's trajectory.
"Even though I had an affinity to language," Morehead says, "I had other interests. I loved music and science, especially biology. Had I had the quality teachers in those fields that I had in English, I could have easily gone in other directions."
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Morehead, 60, cites two high school teachers as particular influences.
"I had a teacher when I was a junior in high school who recognized that I could write," Morehead says. "But the main thing was that she actively tried to get me published, and she sent some poems I had written to the Kentucky English Bulletin. ... I had a poem accepted, and that was my first published."
The personal encouragement Morehead received was followed by an introduction to serious literary criticism in her senior year.
"The teacher I had in my senior year wasn't so personally connected to me," Morehead says, "but she had studied at Vanderbilt with the new critical poets like Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and she taught us how to analyze literature in the way that it was being done at that time on the university level. I fell in love with how literature works through her teaching us that approach to criticism."
Although her high school instructors helped point her toward teaching English as a career, it wasn't until she enrolled in a graduate writing course at the University of Louisville with writer and 2005-06 Kentucky poet laureate Sena Jeter Naslund that Morehead began to consider herself not only a teacher of literature, but a writer in her own right.
"I wrote poems, especially in high school, but without instruction, and I read a lot of poetry," Morehead wrote via email. "I continued to read literature, especially poetry, through college, preparing to teach. I wrote, trying to imitate the difficult modernists."
"Thinking back," she wrote of Naslund's class, "I was writing and getting feedback, but the most important thing is I was involved with a group of people who were serious about what they were doing."
"Students in the class, such as Aleda Shirley, were really good writers and passionate about their writing," Morehead wrote. "I think being with these people, who happened to think I was a pretty good writer, enabled me to see professional possibilities. So, when I was ready, I began submitting poems to publications, and once I began getting acceptances, I was hooked."
As Morehead began to spread her wings as a writer, she was also learning how to manage a teaching load that required her to manage, instruct and inspire more than 150 adolescent students while she pursued a master's degree and then a doctorate from U of L.
"I took me a long time to find my identity as a teacher," Morehead says, "and part of that was because it was just really hard. I don't think there were ever any years my first 15 or so of teaching that I didn't have 150 kids, and I had to spend a lot of time learning how to manage large groups of people and to create lesson plans that would interest them."
Introducing accessible material to entice folks who aren't avid readers is a skill from Morehead's teaching days that will pay off in her role as Kentucky poet laureate. Part of the charge of the position, which is appointed by the governor every two years, is to travel the state promoting the literary arts. Morehead tackled that challenge in her very first teaching job.
"I loved literature and I thought, 'Wow, this stuff can save the world,'" Morehead says, "but my first job was with seventh-graders, and they were concerned about boys and body image."
Morehead's teaching career gave her skills beyond persuading youths to read; it also informed her creative work as a poet.
"Teaching has made me a critic of my own work," Morehead wrote via email. "I analyze my poems similarly to teaching a work by Dickinson or Dillard. Teaching has also made me focus on craft. Though I'm a free-verse poet, I know things like how meter works and what is the shape of a sonnet. This information informs my work: I'm aware of placement of stresses in a line; I'm aware of where my poems make a turn."
In 2004, two years before she retired from public school teaching and more than 30 years after she enrolled in Naslund's pivotal class, Morehead was tapped by Naslund herself to teach creative writing in Spalding University's Master of Fine Arst program.
Naslund was more than just a fan of Morehead's teaching abilities: She wrote the introduction to Morehead's 2003 collection of poetry, A Sense of Time Left, published by Larkspur Press.
"With understatement and language clear as air," Naslund wrote, "Maureen Morehead acknowledges beauty and its transience. People move from place to place, time passes inexorably, but with the two hands of imagination and memory, she holds out the globe of the poem toward us. We notice our breath has been taken away, and we are suspended, more fragile and full of wonder than we were before."