Gurney Norman's new book combines folk myth and satire to make point

Gurney Norman, a former Kentucky poet laureate, is an associate professor of English at UK and directs its creative writing program.
Gurney Norman, a former Kentucky poet laureate, is an associate professor of English at UK and directs its creative writing program. Herald-Leader

There is a creek so far back in the mountains of Appalachia that it doesn't show up on any maps.

A woman lives there — some say she is more than 300 years old — who practices the old ways. She can grow her own food, make her own furniture, cure diseases with herbs and talk to the animals.

Aunt Haze is her name, and although she doesn't make an appearance until the end of celebrated Lexington writer and former Kentucky poet laureate Gurney Norman's satirical Appalachian folk tale Ancient Creek, she graces its cover in a painting by Eastern Kentucky artist Pam Oldfield Meade. Aunt Haze is an important, mythic symbol of the folk ways under attack by the tale's villains, King George Condominium the Third and The Black Duke of Cumberland.

Recently published by Old Cove Press, which Norman operates with his wife, Nyoka Hawkins, Ancient Creek is not a short story or novel or even a realistic depiction of recognizable characters. It's a satirical folk myth that has a good time lambasting the absurdities of modern life that threaten to eradicate the heritage and dignity of mountain folk.

"What it isn't is Kinfolks," Norman says, referring to his 1977 book of short stories about a mountain boy, Wilgus, and his relationships with his family. Filmmaker Andrew Garrison dramatized The Wilgus Stories for Kentucky Educational Television in 2000.

Wilgus makes a cameo appearance in Ancient Creek, but Norman departs from realistic fiction to create an unusual version of a folk tale. It's a twist on the "Jack tale," a genre of folk stories common in English and Appalachian lore, with searing political and social satire woven in the fabric of its imaginative storytelling.

"It's a story of ideas rendered in an exaggerated, comical way," says Norman, 75, who is an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky and directs its creative writing program. He draws parallels between historical examples of other satires, such as Jonathan Swift's classic Gulliver's Travels, which satirizes the many absurdities of 18th-century European governments.

"Sometimes the political realm of social affairs is so absurd that fantasy is required to deal with it," Norman writes in "The Story of the Story," a brief personal essay in the book.

What are the absurdities to which Norman is referring?

"The idea that corporations are people, that they are just one of the 'folks' is hilarious," says Norman, before talking about the irony of agricultural corporations that claim to be "sustainable agriculture" companies yet try to prevent farmers from saving and planting seeds from one season to the next.

"If the wind blows and their seeds scatter and grow on your land, they can sue you for theft," Norman says, laughing.

His examples are relatively new ways to disenfranchise people, but he says Ancient Creek points to injustices that have been in practice for decades, not unlike the story itself, which has taken various forms since the early 1970s. Norman read the tale at Appalshop in Whitesburg 1975. Appalshop's June Appal Recordings released the reading as a spoken-word album in 1976, and in 2012 it remastered and released Norman's original reading as a CD.

Ancient Creek's unorthodox, four-decade trajectory has something in common with the title character in Norman's 1972 novel of the counterculture, Divine Right's Trip: It began in California and worked its way back home.

The first pages of Ancient Creek were not written in the hills of Eastern Kentucky but in a secluded cottage on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Mendecino County, Calif., in the summer of 1974.

With no television or telephone, Norman's only contact with the outside world was a radio.

"The Watergate story and the narration of President Nixon's departure came to me in the oral tradition, into my ear, not my eye," Norman writes. "My imagination pictured the final scenes of the fall of the imperious King."

Norman had just read Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five before the Watergate story played out, and the combination opened his eyes to a new kind of storytelling.

"Satire, irony, absurdity and freedom from the burden of strict realism were available to me as never before," he writes.

Norman let his imagination run free, discovering the land of the Hill Domain, the evil King, the trickster Jack and the mythic mother figure Aunt Haze, telling their tale in an alternatively funny and solemn colloquial style.

In the following decades, Norman made additions, subtractions and updates to the tale, which he says is in keeping with the oral tradition.

"Stories, like everything else, evolve," he writes. "I have always thought that a true folk tale comes into being through slow time via the spoken word."

Norman sees the most recent version of Ancient Creek as one version of the tale, frozen in time.

"What if a written story evolves, or devolves, in the other direction and somehow returns to an oral tradition?" Norman wonders. "What if such a process might be the writer's intention?"

In one of three scholarly essays that accompany the 70-page tale, the late poet Jim Wayne Miller explains how Norman's use of the Jack tale is in keeping with tradition because it is timeless and yet tailored for contemporary audiences.

"He takes what he needs of the Jack tale tradition, what of it he finds useful for his purposes, and goes on from there, inventing," Miller wrote in the essay "Living Into the Land."

"His traditionalism is not static, but dynamic. Any genuine traditionalism allows for innovation," Miller wrote.

Norman's embrace of the folk-tale tradition is the kind of regionalism the villains of Ancient Creek are trying to stamp out.

When a band of rebel storytellers is captured, half are condemned to "life at hard labor as public relations workers for various imperial enterprises" and the rest are forced to be "scriptwriters for an epic film based on the life and work of King Condominium the Third."

Norman's use of such humor is a hallmark of his storytelling style, but when the mountain folk are wounded in an uprising against the King, the story takes a serious turn in the form of a ritual healing by Aunt Haze, who doctors their wounds with a poultice made of herbs and the pure, unspoiled waters of Ancient Creek.