Canoeing quietly along the backwaters and slinking curves of the Kentucky River, a soft-cadenced, mustached man with broad-rimmed glasses talks simply, evenly to a camera. Something about him — perhaps it is the unkempt, floppy hair — smacks of reformed hippie, as if he is the kind of guy who might at any time smell like campfire smoke.
He tells the story of the river: its geography, the innumerable rivulets and tributaries that flow from higher ground, its history and important landmarks, and stories of the people who lived and worked along the banks over the centuries.
Every now and then among the narration springs a phrase or two of unusual elegance and insight.
"The great thing about spending time on the river," he ruminates, "is the way the river itself begins to speak to you, trying to remind you of what it is you have forgotten and how you might call it back to life again."
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It is 1987, and the cameras are rolling for Time on the River, one of several Kentucky Educational Television documentaries written and narrated by celebrated Kentucky writer and teacher Gurney Norman.
Norman treats the river and its stories with great curiosity and a kind of electric reverence, not unlike his attitude toward writing, teaching and his lifelong championing of regional literature and his native Appalachian culture.
Born in Grundy, Va., and raised largely in Kentucky's Perry County, Norman made a splash in the 1960s literary counter-culture scene when his novel Divine Right's Trip was released in the Whole Earth Catalog. Instead of driving west to California like everyone else at the time, the main character, D.R. Davenport, starts out in California and travels back to his native Kentucky. Full of drugs, casual and uncasual sex, and many far-out and psychedelic adventures, Divine Right's Trip was the quintessential novel of the counter-culture of the time.
On the heels of Divine Right's Trip, Norman released Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, decidedly un-trippy. Set in the rural mountains, Kinfolks is widely considered one of the seminal books of Appalachian literature in the past 50 years.
After working for nearly 50 years as an artist, reporter, publisher and most recently an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, Norman was named state poet laureate in an induction ceremony Friday at the state Capitol in Frankfort.
One of the poet laureate's chief roles is traveling the state promoting the literary arts. That wide mission statement calls for hundreds of visits to schools, libraries and community centers in every corner of the state, reaching out to citizens through public readings, informal discussions and workshops, acting as a kind of ambassador for the value of Kentucky literature, a role that Norman has unofficially played for decades.
Author and mentor
Norman is critically acclaimed for Divine Right's Trip and Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories, but it is his behind-the-scenes work that is perhaps his greatest legacy.
As a teacher and mentor, Norman continually reaches out to connect with younger generations, new writers and artists, often cultivating relationships — and careers — that build on Kentucky's rich literary tradition.
Frank X Walker, award-winning poet and founding member of the Affrilachian poets, refers to Norman as his "literary father." As a UK student, Walker changed his major from journalism to English after studying with Norman. Norman and his wife, Nyoka Hawkins, later helped launch Walker's career by publishing his first poetry collection through their small, local press, Old Cove.
"His modeling of an artist/teacher/mentor/grass-roots activist has shaped my personal and professional life," Walker says. "I get credit for inventing the word Affrilachia, but it was Norman who shaped my consciousness and thinking about the region in a broad, inclusive way."
Another former student-turned-award-winning author, Chris Holbrook, also credits Norman with helping to cultivate the early seeds of his writing career. Like Walker, Holbrook first met Norman in a writing class at UK.
"This was the first creative-writing class I had ever taken," Holbrook says, "and it was the class that first inspired me to want to become a fiction writer."
Walker and Holbrook are not the only former students who benefited deeply from Norman's influence. In fact, it is nearly impossible to speak with any established (or unestablished) Kentucky writer or regional literary group that has not had some direct benefit from Norman, as a colleague, teacher, organizer or friend.
Lexington writer Eric Sutherland, creator and host of the popular Holler Poets spoken-word series in Lexington, can still count on Norman for support. "You will find him onstage behind the mike and in the audience supporting those on stage," he says.
Willie Davis, 29, a writer and Eastern Kentucky native, was mentored by Norman at a young age. Now teaching at the University of Maryland, Davis emphasizes that Norman's literary significance expands beyond the regional bookshelf.
"If people thought of the Appalachian Mountains as vividly as Gurney Norman describes them, we'd never let people tear them down," Davis says in reference to mountaintop removal, one of the region's hot-button issues.
"Still," he says, "it's a mistake to think of Gurney as solely a regional writer. I teach the Kinfolks stories to college students who think Kentucky was founded by Colonel Sanders, and they not only love his characters, they relate to them. He doesn't write about Appalachia as much as he does America — the wild, interesting part of America."
Norman regards the expansiveness of his contributions to the emergence of regional literature with modest aplomb: "There is already a thriving world of artistically inclined people in Kentucky, including educators, who are just active — meeting, associating, creating, organizing — and I adore that. To me, that is a healthy society. And if I can contribute to that, along with other people, then that is a good feeling."
Crisis as inspiration
Two years before Norman floated down the Kentucky River for the KET documentary, he had a friend in a trouble. A woman he knew from Eastern Kentucky was down on her luck, so he made a phone call to another friend, Jane Stephenson.
Stephenson, the wife of Berea College's then-president, John Stephenson, says Norman "was searching for a program for a friend of his in Eastern Kentucky who was recently divorced, had no job skills, had low self-esteem, and needed help in getting a job. Did we have any program like that at Berea?"
"We did not," Jane Stephenson says, "but I told my husband that I thought Berea College, with its emphasis on outreach, was the perfect place for such a program. And, as they say, the rest is history."
Jane Stephenson founded the New Opportunity School for Women, a free, three-week program designed to help empower Appalachian women by teaching job skills, self-esteem and the benefits of creative expression and storytelling. Two decades later, the program is going strong, and countless women's lives have been changed for the better.
Norman cites his involvement with the New Opportunity School — he has taught Appalachian literature and creative writing since the school's inception — as one of his most personally rewarding achievements, particularly because of his affinity for engaging writers from working-class backgrounds.
"I enjoy working with people with limited education," Norman says, "people who have lived life, experienced it deeply, and have memories of struggles, love, you know, just life."
Norman has fostered countless other, similar programs over the years, many aimed at promoting diversity. He is an ardent supporter of the inclusion of African-Americans and other minority writers in the canon of Appalachian literature.
He hopes to make further inroads toward literary outreach in his work as poet laureate.
The state's growing immigrant population, Norman says, is largely unnoticed by the literary community.
"These people are Kentuckians, too," Norman says, "I think of them as pioneers, on a frontier. It is exciting to me that some of the new Kentucky literature is being written in Spanish."
Nourished by curiosity
If you can talk, you can write. That's a maxim of Norman's, who also thinks that it's more important to be interested than interesting.
His dedication to following the source of one's fascination is apparent upon spending only a few minutes with Norman. His curiosity remains potent, palpable and very much in the present. There is a youthfulness to his eyes that belies his 71 years.
You can almost imagine him as a young UK freshman, wearing his ROTC uniform, listening to UK senior Wendell Berry deliver remarks about T.S. Eliot during an English Club panel discussion. In the summer 2005 issue of Appalachian Heritage, Berry relates this first encounter with a young Norman and his ardent curiosity. After the talk concluded, the freshman walked up to the senior and said, "Now tell me more about this T.S. Eliot."
As Norman steps up his schedule of public appearances, readings, workshops and behind-the-scenes projects, he continues to make room for his own writing. But as is typical, his literary ambitions lack convention.
"Some years back, I realized that my mass of material for writing just will not fit one of those well-made novels we have all read and loved most of our lives," he says, "and I have about a thousand little narratives and personal and family stories that I want to get down in a fictionalized storytelling way, such as anecdotes that are complete in themselves in about 900 words.
"A few times, I have showed these little pieces to people who said, 'This is interesting; you could do something with this,' to which I have replied, 'I have already done something with it. I made a 900-word anecdote of it.'"
He might not be a very conventional guy, but Norman is committed to building tradition and community here in the bluegrass.
His M.O. in doing this? "Be willing to invest yourself for 30 years," he says. "It's consistency and continuity over time that create stability, and in the process, then, a kind of tradition."
"Sometimes I think of life as like riding a kayak through a canyon on white water," he says. "We get spun around, turned over, nearly killed sometimes, but hopefully we stay afloat long enough to have a life. I have had a full life up to now, and here I am at 71, rocking on into the 21st century."