Nations and states often bestow the title of poet laureate onto venerated writers and Kentucky is no different. The commonwealth created the position in 1926 and those named to the post are expected to promote the literary arts and lead the state in literary activities. While Gurney Norman was just appointed to the position in April, he’s has been fulfilling many of the position’s duties for decades. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer has this profile.
About 20 Kentucky public school teachers are in a University of Louisville classroom to learn from Gurney Norman — who is teaching them about how to inspire their students to write. Norman’s created most of the characters and narratives from his memories of growing up in western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. He reads them a story he wrote about a boy and his dog.
“I tried to get in on the talk about Karo, but nobody listened to me,” he reads. “Grandma told Uncle Delmer they might have to shoot Karo. I thought it was something they’d talk about some more, and I went to the front yard to play. But then I heard a gunshot.”
Norman explains that this piece of fiction was taken from his emotional memories. He instructs them to try to remember any animal they have had some bond with and write a paragraph about a related experience.
He talks about how the act of writing — physically in longhand — accesses the subconscious and helps students understand more about themselves, others and the world.
“I think the students appreciate it when I ask them to write about earlier life experiences,” Norman says. “And I think it often happens that might be the first time any teacher has directed their attention to the very place that is their original home.”
Norman is conducting this workshop at an educators’ conference in his role as Kentucky’s poet laureate. But Norman has been leading classes like this for decades — as a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky and beyond. So says colleague and former student Erik Reece.
“Gurney has had so much influence doing writing workshops across Kentucky,” Reece says. “You can’t swing a dead cat in Eastern Kentucky without hitting somebody who’s been inspired by Gurney.”
Reece counts himself among many inspired by Norman. He recalls going to Norman when he set out to write his prize-wining debut book about mountaintop removal.
“When I started to write Lost Mountain,” Reece says, “I went to Gurney and he said, ‘You know you really have to be careful how you tell the story of Appalachia because this is a people who have been exploited over and over again by storytellers.'”
Norman’s writing has been shedding light on his home of Appalachia throughout his career: from the 1971 Devine Right’s Trip: A Novel of the Counterculture to his short stories, like those in the Kinfolks, which critics compare to James Joyce’s Dubliners. While some might classify his stories as regional and nostalgic, Norman doesn’t.
“I do view the world through the prism of local awareness,” Norman says. “To know one place well is a starting place to know the whole world.”
And Norman has seen a lot of the world. He left Kentucky in 1960 to study at Stanford University with literary critic Malcolm Cowley, followed by a stint in the Army. But he returned to Kentucky, where he had grown up with his grandparents after his father left for World War II and his mother was admitted to a mental hospital.
He says he dealt with his chaotic childhood by playing in the woods and exploring the land around him. And he learned how to tell stories from his family.
“I would hear stories over and over again, about my grandmother’s parents, my grandparents’ brothers and sisters and by the time I was 15, I knew their stories,” he says.
His experiences with storytelling have driven him to encourage others to tell their stories. Linda Blair is on the faculty at Hazard Community & Technical College and has participated in Norman’s workshops.
“His stories are like a looking glass for me,” Blair says. “It reminds me of where I came from and who I am today.”
She also uses his writing to teach her students.
“They recognize that they have these stories,” she says. “I think it takes away their fear of writing.”
Jane Gentry Vance, who was Kentucky’s previous poet laureate, says Norman is more than an accomplished writer; he’s a nurturing teacher.
“He’s a natural poet laureate,” she says. “He’s been a poet laureate of Eastern Kentucky for a long time, and it’s just wonderful that the rest of the state can experience some of his zeal.”
And Norman says he’s eager to meet more people throughout the state and learn their stories. In the coming weeks, he’ll be in the cities of Cynthiana, Greenville, Pineville and Glasgow, among others.