Lexington native and prize-winning poet Rebecca Gayle Howell wasn’t living in Kentucky when she experienced a string of career-defining successes that catapulted her to the national spotlight as one of the South’s leading poets and editors.
For the last five years, Howell’s career has taken her from Lubbock, Texas, where she earned her Ph.D. in English at Texas Tech University to Provincetown, Mass., and Columbus, Ga., where she completed writing fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center and the Carson McCullers Center, respectively.
During that time, Howell’s first full length book of poetry, Render: An Apocalypse, won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize before earning a stellar review from Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin and a nomination as a finalist for Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year.
The icing on the cake? Howell was offered the esteemed position of poetry editor for Oxford American Magazine, which showcases writing and art from and about the South and is often informally regarded as the New Yorker of the South.
“It is a thrill to be able to work toward some kind of legacy about what it means to be a Southern poet,” Howell says of her role, adding that there are “many Souths” and many writing traditions practiced by a plethora of diverse poets.
Howell beams with gratitude discussing her literary triumphs during an interview But there is one non-literary victory that makes her smile even brighter: coming home.
Having successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation in 2015, Howell has moved back to the Bluegrass, where she has deep, working-class roots in the community, roots that played a pivotal role in her development as a writer.
Howell, who will give a reading on Feb. 3 as part of Christ Church Cathedral’s Living by Words Series, was born in Lexington to hardworking parents who owned one of the first restaurants on UK’s Campus: Howell’s Dairy Dip, which served 15-cent hamburgers and an atmosphere of inclusion.
“The artist Robert Morgan told me he fell in love for the first time in our restaurant; that the LGBTQ community always knew they were welcome at our place. As did the athletes. And the African American students. The SDS. And ROTC. My father, fresh out of the Marines, looked after everyone's right to have a good time,” Howell wrote in an email.
Howell also spent a good portion of her youth in Elizabethtown, where her father is from, and where the family owned another restaurant, Hottie’s, named after her paternal grandfather. Howell started helping her parents out in the restaurant when she was 8 years old.
“I grew up in that place, being trained by my mother and father to work hard and fast and well, to be able to think quickly and globally to problem-solve — anyone who has waited tables knows what I mean by that — and to always treat people with respect, even when they aren't returning the favor,” Howell wrote. “I think being working class has informed my work ethic, yes, and my social ethic, and also my stamina for accepting or telling hard truths.”
Telling hard truths is one of Howell’s specialties as a poet. The poems in Render, for instance, intimately focus on the physical and psychological labor of farm life, from canning preserves to killing a hog.
The Los Angeles Times’ Ulin says the poems in Render “illuminate through the most mundane activities of daily existence, something of the struggle and nobility of living” in a way that is “pitiless but not unfeeling, knee-deep, waist-deep in the world.”
Howell has already penned another collection of poems, which is in the process of being placed with a publisher.
In the meantime, she’s teaming up with local illustrator J.T. Dockery to create a gothic children’s novella about a young girl in 19th century New Orleans during the coldest Mardi Gras on record.
Howell also plans to spend plenty of time alone working on her writing but is buoyed by the thriving arts community she’s returned to, especially the sense of neighborliness and possibility happening at places like the Wild Fig, one of her new favorite haunts.
“Crystal and Ron have somehow created a place that is part bookstore and cafe, part town hall and writing center,” Howell says, referring to Wild Fig owners Crystal Wilkinson and Ronald Davis. “I honestly can’t think of any other place like it.”
“I'm thrilled by all that's happening for and by way of the arts in Lexington and Eastern Kentucky, and I treasure our literary neighborliness,” Howell says. “But I just want to be home.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If You Go
Rebecca Gayle Howell
What: Reading from and signing her book Render: An Apocalypse and taking questions
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 3
Where: Christ Church Cathedral, 166 Market St.