Monday, March 16, 2015

Monday Muse: New Kentucky Poet Laureate

Many people are afraid of poetry because they
don't understand it. I hope to reach past that
and welcome them, and that they infuse
poetry into their everyday language and hear
the poetry in their everyday speech.
~ George Ella Lyon*

George Ella Lyon (named, respectively, for her brother and sister), a prolific writer in many genres, is Kentucky's Poet Laureate for 2015-2016. Nationally known, she succeeds Frank X Walker, who served from 2013 through the end of 2014. Lyon's official induction ceremony is April 24, which is Kentucky Writers' Day.

The Kentucky Arts Council coordinates and administers the nomination and selection process resulting in the appointment of a state poet. Detailed information about the position is found in my Monday Muse profile for Gurney Norman (August 9, 2010).

The principal activities of the state poet are to promote the literary arts throughout the state via public readings at libraries, bookstores, schools, and numerous other venues, as well as writing conferences, workshops, and festivals. In the news release from the governor's communications office, Lyon is quoted as saying that as Poet Laureate, she will emphasize poetry's accessibility: "I am always trying to help people hear their own voices, their own stories and know that those matter; that they have weight and beauty and that they are worth sharing. Part of that is listening deeply to what people write or the questions they ask. . . ."

* * * * * 

. . . [I]t's still words and their transforming music that I love. 
Words amaze me . . . I believe that what we're doing when we write
 or dance, sing or draw or  practice any of the arts, we are listening 
to our hearts and expressing what we hear. . . And when we are
 the readers or the audience for what's been created, we hear
 someone else's heart speaking, which helps us hear
 our own, and feel how we are all connected.**

George Ella Lyon is a poet, writer of children's picture books and novels for juveniles and young adults, a memoirist, an essayist, a playwright, a lyricist, a devoted long-time educator and mentor, a freelance writer, and a political and environmental activist and advocate for Appalachia. Among Lyon's more than three dozen books are her poetry collections Many-Storied House: Poems (Kentucky Voices Series, University Press of Kentucky, 2013), She Let Herself Go: Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), and  Back: Poems (Wind Publications, 2010).

Lyon, who studied with the late poet Ruth Stone, also is the author of the combination memoir-and-poetry-writing guide Where I'm From, Where Poems Come From (Absey & Co., 1999), containing her well-known poem of the same name. The book Counting on the Woods (DK Publishing, 1998) contains a poem by Lyon and photographs by Ann W. Olson.

Several of Lyon's poetry collections have been award-winners, including her debut 1983 chapbook Mountain (Andrew Mountain Press; available through resellers), which received the Andrew Mountain Press Lamont Award, and Catalpa (Wind Publications, 1993; reissued 2007), Appalachian Book of the Year in 1993.

* * *

Lyon's Welcome Page on her Website uses the metaphor of a spider web, which she calls "a delicious image" of her vocation; it provides an insight into how this eloquent poet sees herself:

Though I write in many forms, I am first of all a poet,
which means my job is to see and sing the connections
between things. . . The strength of my web comes from
family, friends, words, music, dreams, mountains,
and the joy of making.

In response to a question in FAQs at her Website, she further states:

I don't write from ideas so much as from feelings.
When something touches me deeply, I write
to capture or explore or understand it. . .
I write to find out!

Place, especially sense of home in the eastern Kentucky coal-mining region where she was born, figures prominently in Lyon's poems. She also draws deep inspiration from her Appalachian background. Some themes or subjects of her poems are memory and the past, relationships, especially with family and community, self-identity, women's struggles, empathy and compassion, spiritual awareness, love, loss, and death.

Lyon is an astute observer of details, which, when catalogued, can be startling, as in "Stripped", from Catalypa, where she not only lists activities such as "shelling peas" and "quilting lettuce" but also "lifting pain / out by the roots". Her language is both precise and concise; her voice, not just sure but authentic; her imagery is vivid, especially when Lyon draws it from the Appalachian landscape:

I was born in a bowl of mountains.
Clouds filled it sometimes.
But that isn't all. [. . .]
~ from "George Ella Lyon: Autobiography Feature" (Essay) at Biography

Lyon's poem "Where I'm From" is, perhaps, her most famous; given all the sites on which it is found on the Web, it even appears to be world-famous. Many educators use it as a poetry-writing model and prompt. Here are the opening lines from the poem's first stanza (consider the images she creates with her details):

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own. [. . .]

A beautifully written poem whose declarative lines call for it to be read aloud, "Where I'm From" ultimately comes round to "a dress box / spilling old pictures" that recall to the poet "those moments — / snapped before I budded — / leaf-fall from the family tree." 

Lyon's profound belief in the equality and moral rights of all people, whatever their background, also finds expression in her work, as here:

[. . .] Don't forgive us
till we learn it is all for giving.
That salve you've got in a pot
on the back of the stove
only heals when everybody has some. [. . .]
~ from "Prayer" 

What's distinctive about Lyon's poetry is that while it is undeniably regional, its reach is longer and more influential than might be supposed; it gets through to the reader, makes connections through a storytelling strong of voice that manages to convey depth and emotion with the plainest or simplest of words.

* * *

Lyon's work is found in numerous anthologies, including Succinct: The Broadstone Anthology of Short Poems (Broadstone Books, 2013), The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, Common Core K-5 Edition (Pomelo Books, 2012), What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets (University Press of Kentucky, 2009), and Missing Mountains (Wind Publications, 2005). Several of her poems also are found in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia (on GoogleBooks). She co-edited, with Bob Henry Baber and Gurney Norman, the anthology Old Wounds, New Words: Poems from the Appalachian Poetry Project (Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1994) and, with Leatha Kendrick, Crossing Troublesome: Twenty-Five Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop (Wind Publications, 2002; available via resellers). She also is the editor of Harvest of Fire: New and Collected Works by Lee Howard (Motes Books, 2010) and A Kentucky Christmas (University Press of Kentucky, 2003; reprint 2012). 

In addition to the writing awards mentioned above, Lyon has received numerous prestigious honors and recognition for her many books for children and young adults, include a Golden Kite Award, an Aesop Prize, an American Library Association Schneider Family Book Award, and a Parents' Choice Silver Medal. She has been the recipient of a Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Fellowship, Hambidge Center for the Arts fellowships, and Kentucky Foundation for Women grants.

Lyon offers her own "Meet the Author" and "Writers' Workshop", which she explains on her Website in the section School & Library Visits; participates in community reading programs, and gives talks at libraries, where she also conducts writing and GED workshops for adults.


Photo Credit: LSU Press (via Press Kit)

All Poetry Excerpts © George Ella Lyon

* Quoted from "George Ella Lyon Named Kentucky Poet Laureate", News Release, March 13, 2015

** Quoted from "My Story" at George Ella Lyon Website

Kentucky Arts Council, News Release, March 16, 2015

Paul Hitchcock, "George Ella Lyon Named Poet Laureate", WMKY Online, March 13, 2015

Tom Musgrave, "George Ella Lyon Named Kentucky Poet Laureate", Columbia Magazine, March 13, 2015 (Musgrave is director of communications in the governor's office.)

Cheryl Truman, "Kentucky Writer George Ella Lyon Named Kentucky Poet Laureate", Lexington Herald Leader, March 13, 2015

Merlene Davis, "Author George Ella Lyon Secures Spot On and In Cereal Box", Lexington Herald Leader, April 3, 2013

Candace Chaney, "Lexington Author George Ella Lyon Let Herself Write", Lexington Herald Leader, July 26, 2012

KET Instructional TV, "An Electronic Conversation with George Ella Lyon", 2012/13 KETKY Program (Streaming Video Available)

"Poet Challenges Governor's Scholars to Use Their Imaginations", Centre College News, July 18, 2001

Rob Neufeld, "Rob Neufeld: Going Deep With East Ky. Author Lyon", Interview, Asheville Citizen-Times, September 27, 2014

Tracy L. Roberts, "An Interview with George Ella Lyon", Spring 2001

Carol Polsgrove, "George Ella Lyon on Books for the Young", Interview, Carol Polsgrove on Writers' Lives

George Ella Lyon Poems Online: "Bio" at Kentucky Herald Leader Article (see February); "Where I'm From" at George Ella Lyon Website (also at Digitalis; PBS Series The United States of Poetry at Internet Archive,  YouTube,  Smithsonian Education Educators Workshop, and Numerous Other Sites); "Prayer" at Gratefulness: A Network for Grateful Living; "Growing Light" at Half-Spoken Thoughts Blog (composer Elizabeth Alexander set the poem to music); "The Real Question", Poem on Milton Reigelman's MLK Experience, at Centre College News; "Mountain Bowl Honeycomb" at Biography; "Some Big Loud Woman" at Carol Polsgrove on Writers' Lives (Interview); "What I Looked Like in the 80's" at Women Writer's Web; "Radio Noel" at WVXU (Audio); "Invocation" at Poetry Corner; "Writer" at A Poem a Day (Lincoln Memorial University); "Gift" at Accent Publishing Blog (from Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems); Untitled Poem at Brenda Bowen's Bunny Eat Bunny Blog; "Archaeology" and "Papaw" in Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women's Poetry at GoogleBooks

Poetry Broadside of "Where I'm From" at Sunken Garden Poetry

George Ella Lyon, "A Part of All", This I Believe, April 21, 2014 (Text of Podcast)

George Ella Lyon, "Why I Keep a Journal", Creative Commonwealth/Kentucky Arts Council, April 24, 2013

George Ella Lyon Music on iTunes

Joanna Lin Want, "New Volume of Poetry from George Ella Lyon Is Memoir-in-Verse", Review of Many-Storied House, Arts - Louisville, September 17, 2013

She Let Herself Go: Poems on GoogleBooks (A number of poems in the book are available here.)

Wind Publications 

George Ella Lyon on FaceBook

Videopoem Based on Lyon's "Where I'm From" at YouTube and Vimeo

"Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children's Literature: 'Our Stories Are Important Stories'" on YouTube (Museum of East Tennessee History, 2014)

George Ella Lyon at "Head of the Holler" (In the video, Lyon talks with the director of Berea College's Appalachian Center about her childhood in eastern Kentucky, inspiration for writing, writing as spiritual practice, and her published work. It's an excellent introduction to the poet.)

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