"I own these moments
when my skin like a drumhead stretches on the frame
of my bones, then swells, a bellows filled
with sacred breath seared by this flame,
— from Jane Gentry's poem A Perfect Day
When former Kentucky poet laureate Jane Gentry Vance died of cancer in October, her friends began to think of a way to celebrate her life and poetry in a special event.
The plans came together more than smoothly. On Monday, the Carnegie Center is hosting the event, "Jane Gentry: Poetry of Place." Nineteen participants — among them Kentucky writers including Bobbie Ann Mason, George Ella Lyon, Mary Ann Taylor Hall, Leatha Kendrick and Gwyn Hyman Rubio — will read Vance's poems.
It will take place on what would have been the 74th birthday of Vance, who wrote under the name Jane Gentry.
The event has proved so popular that some of those not scheduled to read have asked for an "open mic" portion during the evening, and a few video clips might be played.
"We who Jane has touched with her poetry as well as her teaching wanted to celebrate her life with her own words, with her poetry," said Kasia Pater, a former student of Gentry.
Vance taught at the University of Kentucky, and wrote critical essays and book reviews in addition to poetry. She won the UK Alumni Association's Great Teacher Award in 1986.
Sue Churchill, another of the event's organizers, said the atmosphere would be celebratory.
"We don't want this to have a funeral atmosphere," Churchill said. "This is a celebration of the blessing that Jane brought to all of us and to this area of the country, really. She was a remarkable person. We still cherish her and cherish her writing."
Churchill, a retired Woodford County schoolteacher, said she was a student of Vance in 1978 and her friend for 35 years thereafter.
"She had a magical quality about her, with her intellect ... and her persona," Pater said. "Everybody loved Jane."
Churchill plans to read a Gentry poem called At Newark Airport, Looking Toward Mecca.
"It illustrates some of the things Jane knew and shared with all of us," Churchill said of the poem. "It illustrates the way poems help us see and help us experience our lives. ... It's a very powerful poem, a very spiritual poem."
Gentry had many fans.
Garrison Keillor, a writer but perhaps better known as host of public radio's A Prairie Home Companion, used the Gentry poem A Perfect Day on his Writer's Almanac radio show in 2009.
National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finney wrote on her website after Vance's death that Vance was "one of the great blessings of my career at the University of Kentucky."
"When Jane walked in the room two things happened," Finney wrote, "Her headlight eyes and smile stopped you in your tracks and her dressed-to-the-nine's gorgeous sense of style made you realize you were is the presence of a radiant woman."