|Kentucky Literary Newsletter
The Kentucky Great Writers Series connects authors to readers and writers in an intimate atmosphere.
Born in Logan County, West Virginia, Janet Steele Holloway grew up in the coal mining camps of Sarah Ann, Omar and Switzer, where her father worked in the mines and her mother worked as a waitress. She and her brother and several cousins spent summers working on her grandmother’s tobacco farm near Abingdon, Virginia.
She credits her grandmother and several teachers with giving her the support and confidence to be the first in her family to seek a college education; a full scholarship to Marshall University, sixty miles from home, made that possible. She worked her way through school, received her B.A. in Spanish and English in 1963, and went on to teach high school in the Detroit area after marrying her college sweetheart. They later moved to New York City where both worked in the theatre and, later, Janet worked in various settlement houses in East Harlem, developing youth leadership and anti-drug programs. She continued to live and work in NYC while completing her M.S.W. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and all coursework for her doctoral studies at Columbia University. She moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1990 to take a position at the UK Gatton College of Business, as director for the Kentucky Small Business Development Center network. Continue reading “Author Spotlight: Janet Holloway”
Marcia Thornton Jones is an award-winning author who has traditionally published more than 130 books for children with sales totaling more than 43 million copies world-wide. Her works include WOODFORD BRAVE (mid-grade novel), RATFINK (mid-grade novel), CHAMP (mid-grade novel), GODZILLA ATE MY HOMEWORK (chapter book), THE TALE OF JACK FROST (picture book) and LEPRECHAUN ON THE LOOSE (picture book). She is also the co-author of seven popular series, The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids, Keyholders, Ghostville Elementary, The Bailey School Kids Jr. Chapter Books, Triplet Trouble, Bailey City Monsters, and The Barkley School for Dogs as well as the Writer’s Digest Guide, STORY SPARKERS: A CREATIVITY GUIDE FOR CHILDREN’S WRITERS. Her most recent work is, WOODFORD BRAVE published by Calkins Creek. Cory Woodford, aka “The Kid”, is determined to live up to his family legacy of bravery. But right and wrong and the meaning of bravery become much more complicated when he discovers a secret about his neighbor…and one about his family’s own past.You can see Marcia read at The Morris Book Shop on Saturday, October 23 at 3 pm, and she’ll be signing books at the KY Book Fair, November 13-14, 2015. Continue reading “Author Spotlight: Marcia Thornton Jones”
This past weekend the Carnegie Center celebrated its third annual Books-In-Progress conference and were excited to host almost one-hundred writers who filled our building from Thursday’s pre-conference workshop with award-winning novelist, AJ Verdelle to the culminating Literary Luncheon featuring keynote Bobbie Ann Mason. Writers had the opportunity to take workshops with authors such as Kentucky Poet Laureate, Richard Taylor and award-winning nonfiction author, Erik Reece, to a “Books-In-Progress Idol” segment where first pages of novels were critiqued by agents. Here are ten of the things I took away, or was reminded of, during this year’s conference (in no particular order):
1) The greatest minds always seem to have more questions than answers.
2) There’s no one route or timeline that equates success. We’re all kinda wingin it over here and everyone moves at their own pace.
2b) Someone else’s success should not motivate you to write. Telling a good story should motivate you to write.
2c) IF success knocks on your door, you better have the work ethic to back it up.
3) Become obsessed (in the way only a writer CAN be obsessed) with verbs.
3a) Every detail in a work should have a PURPOSE. From minor characters to objects in the room.
4) You gotta have enough swag to wanna make your work public, but not so much you take yourself too seriously.
5) You can’t learn imagination, but you can learn technique. Only thing is, technique takes practice.
6) Rejections are an occupational hazard. Wear a hard hat if you must and get back to work.
7) No one….I mean NO ONE is immune to self-doubt.
8) Successful writers seem to maintain a balance between being product AND process oriented.
9) No one owes you anything. At the end of the day, writers write. Just focus on keeping your pen moving and the rest will come out in the wash.
10) Finish your book, then go back and start over at Page One.
Happy writing, and we’ll see you next year!
Melissa Goetz McCaughan is a freelance writer and teacher. She has Master’s degrees from Xavier University and Northern Kentucky University in English and Teaching. Last fall, she taught Journalism at Transylvania University. She writes for Chevy Chaser magazine and updates social media accounts for local businesses. You can often find her giggling in a coffee shop, reading in the park or writing in a cemetery. She lives in Georgetown, Kentucky with her husband, son and pugador. You can check out her blog here!
Tell us some about your novel, Legacy.
Where do ideas begin? For me, it began with a childhood fascination with ghosts and things that go bump in the night. I devoured the works of V.C. Andrews, R.L. Stine and Anne Rice like candy. As I entered adolescence, I was drawn to artistic boys dressed all in black.
And where do those boys take girls on dates? They take them to the cemetery.
Spring Grove Cemetery is a very large, beautiful cemetery in Cincinnati that was built in the 1800s following a cholera epidemic. It covers 733 acres and an artist was once quoted as saying about it, “Only a place with a heart and soul could make for its dead a more magnificent park than any which exists for the living.” It was to this cemetery my boyfriend took me on date when I was 18 years old.
He wanted to show me a specific grave that he liked. It was off the main road and hidden by trees. When we walked back to it, I saw a large monument of a steeple with a female statue inside. Behind the monument were stairs leading down the hillside to a platform guarded by two lion statues. You can sit on the stairs and stare out over the grounds, a breathtaking view. It is so peaceful.
Long after breaking up with that particular boy, I would visit this grave site and write. I went there to think. I went there to cry. I went there after milestone events and on ordinary days. In snow, rain, summer, fall I kept going back to sit on those steps. And I noticed every time I went, I left feeling a little better.
I began to wonder who this man whose grave had become my refuge was in real life. I figured he was very rich to afford such a spot, but I knew nothing about him. One day, as I was walking around Northside (a neighborhood in Cincinnati) I noticed a sign that said “Hoffner Park.” Hmmm….Hoffner Park – Jacob Hoffner. Coincidence?
I tried an internet search for him, but it was the mid 1990s and there wasn’t a lot out there. So, I made my way to the Cincinnati Historical Society and requested every document they had. I read his letters. I saw pictures of his home. He was described as an eccentric. He had these elaborate grounds with ornate landscaping and statues from his travels around the world. He was a great philanthropist. He was a Mason. Hoffner Park sits on the land that was once his home. He founded Northside. The lion statues in front of the University of Cincinnati were gifts from him.
I found him fascinating and liked the fact that this grave site was my secret spot even more. I began to imagine him as a character in a book. Then I imagined a girl visiting him and talking with him and the story started to enfold. So, 10 years after first visiting the site, I wrote the first 20 pages of the story.
I took 10 more years to finish it. People ask me if they are characters in the book or if any of it is true. There are some true details – real places, real people. But, it is not my story. It is my creation, something from me and yet with its own evolution. Like my son, who has his own distinct personality and own mind, you can sometimes catch glimpses of me in the way he smiles or tilts his head. It’s a little like that.
My favorite part of researching this novel was learning about Jacob Hoffner and imagining him as a fictional character. I also enjoyed learning about Masonic rituals. The most difficult part to pin down was getting historical details right and making what the character did in the 1850s seem plausible.
What are some writing techniques or approaches to craft that work for you?
Like the main character in Legacy, I often write in cemeteries in a notebook. That’s where I get ideas for characters and start brainstorming. I write down a loose structure for the plot. Then, I go home and start typing. I write for about 3 hours per day when drafting. I don’t let anyone see my first work until the first draft is finished. Then, I give it to my team of beta readers before beginning revisions.
My favorite part of the publishing process is getting the proof of the book in the mail. After hours of writing and revising, months of hard work, it’s very rewarding to see it all come together. My least favorite part of the publishing process is worrying about sales.
What is your favorite writing utensil?
My favorite writing utensil is a blue pen.
What are your thoughts on maintaining a career as a writer?
I think it’s difficult financially to start a career as a writer unless you have an additional job or some other financial support. However, writing is the most emotionally rewarding job I’ve ever had.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently formulating ideas for a new novel set in central Kentucky.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
If I wasn’t a writer, I would be teaching. I’ve been a teacher for over ten years. I like expressing myself through writing and encouraging others to do the same.
Do you read reviews? Why or why not?
So far, I’ve read my reviews. However, if the reviews started to bother me, I would probably take a break from doing that for a while.
Any guilty pleasures?
My guilty pleasures are apple crisp and Game of Thrones.
You can watch Melissa reading from Legacy here and read an excerpt below! If you’d like to meet her in person, her next book signing is from 12-2 PM on June 4 at Down to Earth Cynthiana, 129 E Pike St, Cynthiana, KY
Excerpt from Legacy:
Anna watched as the light beams danced from one leaf to the next as she drove under the ornate archway inside the cemetery gates. She knew the way intuitively. Yes, she had been to graveyards before, but this was her sanctuary. A right, then another right, then another right–this was the path to her past, and she hoped to a future that would illuminate the shadows in her mind.
Anna parked. She walked along the gravel road back to the private gravesite, her family’s ancestral plot. Blocked by a sawhorse, it was one of the few spots in the graveyard where cars weren’t allowed to drive up by the graves. The sky was fading to gray and Anna wondered if she should turn back. She pulled her travel umbrella out of her pocket, hoping her notebook wouldn’t get wet, as she planned to stay until it got dark. She brought her rain jacket in case it started to pour, and a snack of raisins and chocolate – can’t leave home without chocolate. This cemetery, Pine Grove, was where Anna liked to do her writing – quiet, peaceful, no sounds except the distant hum of traffic along the interstate. Somehow her thoughts flowed more freely here – the dead quieted her inner critic. Images flashed across her mind, thoughts flowed like a solemn cavalcade of hearses at a funeral, mindful and not in a rush – if she ever was to write a novel, this was the place it would come to her.
Erin Fitzgerald is a community arts enthusiast and writer of stories, songs, and snapshots. Her creative work has been included in various journals, compilations, and anthologies. Her first book for young readers, Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (starring Earlene), was published in 2014 by MotesBooks. Erin is passionate about the power that can be found by exploring one’s own voice. She facilitates workshops and small group sessions in various community settings, encouraging others to explore their own strengths through creative expression. She lives in Louisville, KY with her brilliant children, who inspire her every day. You can listen to Erin’s Accents Radio interview with Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, here!
Tell us some about Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (Starring Earlene).
This book could be described as a short novel – because of the intended audience (kids in grades 4-6) – but is more the length of a novella. I say its intended audience is “middle grade” readers, but of course the hope is that it appeals to a wider audience as well. I have gotten positive feedback from adult readers, so I take that as a good sign. Earlene is the main character, and she is just turning 12 years old. She lives with her Mom, her Aunt Nettie, and her younger brother Arlo. She also bonds with a homeless (by choice) neighborhood dog named Tripod, who steals her heart. Earlene is dealing with some tough stuff within her family, as do many kids out there. Her mother is in recovery, her dad is in jail, and she has had a lot of responsibility for a child her age. The book is written in Earlene’s voice, and the focus of the book is hard to nail down. It fluctuates between her complex relationships with family members, to situations with Tripod, to navigating the social dynamics of her neighborhood and school. It is written in very short chapters – a series of snapshots, really – but there is also a thread or story arc that connects the pieces. That story arc focuses largely on the dynamic with her mom, and her relationship with Tripod.
When was the moment you knew you needed to write this book?
I knew I wanted to write from this voice in 2011, not long after taking a Writing for Children class with George Ella Lyon at Hindman Writers’ Workshop. Some variation of Earlene’s voice emerged during that week, and in the following months she showed up more and more in my life and in my writing. Eventually, she demanded a book. What choice did I have, at that point?
What was the most difficult scene to write?
There is a chapter called “Resting Place” which is followed by a chapter called “Close to Home,” and I think those were the two most difficult parts to write. The first is more of a single scene, and the second involves a quick progression of scenes, but both are near the end and include a lot of stuff in a short amount of space. A lot of ponderings there, and the culmination of various themes and storylines, so it was pretty intense to tackle.
Which character was the most challenging to pin down?
That’s hard to say. Earlene’s arch-nemesis at school, Penny Wellington, was pretty challenging to pin down. Not so much writing her scenes, but getting inside her head and examining the reasons why she may have done certain things the way she did. And it was a tricky balance to explore that without wrapping things up too neatly, or revealing more than ought to be revealed about her motives. As I was in the revision process, I realized I needed to further explore her character after the initial draft, and include some (but not all) of that exploration in the final draft, so that was a challenge.
Where can we buy your book?
Smart Butt is available at Carmichael’s Bookstore (Louisville, KY), The Morris Book Shop (Lexington, KY), and on Amazon.
Schools, libraries, and regular wholesale customers may order from Ingram, or directly from MotesBooks at: order@MotesBooks.com
Anything else you’d like the readers to know?
The book was published by MotesBooks in the summer of 2014. No readings scheduled right now, but I am currently working with a couple of local actors to develop a short play adaptation of Smart Butt, to be performed for school and community groups. I am both intimidated by and excited about that project.
Do you have a favorite conference to attend? What is it?
I really enjoy the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) in the summer. I especially enjoy the Cumberland Gap Writers Studio, which takes place the week after the festival. The festival is a jam-packed weekend of classes, short sessions, readings, lectures, and presentations of all kinds. There are also great music gatherings in the evenings, which I love. The weekend is inspiring, but honestly a bit overwhelming by the third day, if you’re an introvert. Once the festival ends and most people leave, a smaller group stays back for a mostly unstructured week of writing in the same setting, with some sharing of work in the evenings. It is the ideal scenario, really. Get inspired by a flurry of literary sessions, and then afterward just take time to breathe and write. I am excited to revisit that element this year.
Do you work with a writing group? How’d you guys meet?
I am connected with a group in Louisville called Women Who Write, and I joined a few years ago to meet other writers in the area. I also have had the good fortune of getting to spend some time retreating with some writers from Women Writing for a Change. Truthfully, though, I find myself connecting with people all over the regional writing community in different ways, and that has been a wonderful experience. I have been coordinating a weekly flash fiction email group for about 5 years now, and that has been fun. There are so many ways to connect with other people through writing. You just have to find them, or if you don’t find them, create them.
Favorite writing utensil?
Ball-point pen. Plain old ball-point pen. I love a pencil too, but tend to write with pen most of the time.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a second book about Earlene, which takes place during the summer between the end of 5th grade and the start of 6th grade (middle school). I hope to have a draft of that completed by the end of this year. I am also working on another project – a YA storyline – though mostly still getting to know the characters at this point.
What book do you wish you had written?
Hard to say. Maybe Blubber by Judy Blume. Or In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. But really neither, of course, because then I would not have grown up with them, and that would be unfortunate.
What authors are inspirational to you?
Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Toni Morrison, Anne Shelby, George Ella Lyon, Sandra Cisneros, Jacqueline Woodson, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Al Perkins, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak. To name a few. All for different reasons, obviously. I like strong voices, and people who are not afraid to be quirky or unconventional in their writing style. I like reading books that deliver the unexpected.
Do you have any scars?
No visible scars, really. I have never scarred worth a darn. My skin tends to heal over like nothing ever happened. It’s strangely maddening. I would like to see the scars stick around, and feel them, and remember. Sometimes I look at an area where a scar used to be, and wonder if there was ever one there at all – if anything ever really happened, or if it was just a dream.
What’s in your pockets right now?
Keys, wallet, phone, guitar pick, pen. Ask me tomorrow, I’ll tell you the same thing. Unless I am in my pajamas. Then it’s just a pen.
If someone made a movie about your life who would play you?
Stockard Channing. I hope.
Read an excerpt from Smart Butt below!
Tripod and I were never what you would call “fast friends.” It took us a while. We both had our reasons, I guess.
I can tell you my reason—or one of them, anyway. When I was real little, a big dog jumped up on me and it scratched up my face. I kind of freaked. From then on, all dogs looked different to me. They went from looking brownish-gray to looking bright red. (Not their actual fur, but the feeling of them. Kind of like how some days feel yellow and other days feel blue. That kind of different.)
I don’t know what Tripod’s reason was, but I’ll bet it has something to do with that leg that doesn’t work. There’s no way to know for sure, because he has had that limp since I first saw him. He has also always had that look—the one that says, “I don’t know you. Why should I trust you?”
I have never been afraid of Tripod. He is the first dog I can say that about. He has never moved fast in my direction, or growled, or acted mean. He just runs away if you look at him. I never understood that, but it never scared me, either. And the weirdest thing of all is that he never
seemed red to me, or even brownish-gray. From the first time I saw him, the only feeling I had was cool green.
Before we even moved into this house, it was Tripod’s territory. In fact, Mom stepped right into that territory (if you know what I mean) the first time we came to meet the landlord.
She was so mad we almost didn’t stay to see the place. Once we were living here, he was always either in our yard or across the street watching the house. I tried to coax him in. I left a trail of dog treats up to the door, but he wouldn’t go past the driveway. He just wasn’t going to be my
dog, and that was that. Mr. Carson said he wasn’t anybody’s dog and never had been. Said that’s how he’d been since the first day he showed up on Woodrow Street, years before we moved in. That should have made me feel better, but it didn’t. I trusted Tripod right away, and I needed for him to trust me back.
Aunt Nettie said not to do anything that scared him, and he would come around. Trouble was, everything scared him. I started leaving food and water out back for him, near the spot where he hung out most often. I didn’t make a fuss about it—didn’t even look him in the eye. I just left it, and walked away. At first he would run, if he happened to be back there when I brought it out for him. I started shaking the food in the bowl as I came back there, to let him know I was coming. That seemed to help. He still moved away from me, but not as fast. After a while he stopped going so far. Now he just steps back a few feet and waits. He even looks at me when I set the stuff down. I look at him too, but only for a few seconds. I don’t want to ruin it. It’s been 6 months now and he still won’t come too close, but he trusts me a little. I can just tell. Those few seconds each day when we both look—I can see it in his eyes.
Brenda Bartella Peterson’s writing and speaking mantra is “keep it real.” Her topics, her life stories and her humor all point toward the goal of teaching others to live authentically. Brenda’s career path reflects multiple skills and interests. She was the senior advisor for Religious Outreach for the Democratic National Committee and executive director of Clergy Leadership Network, the first religious-left political action committee. Brenda has been a corporate trainer, non-profit executive and minister as well as successful speaker and writer. Her writing can be viewed on her website and blog. Brenda and her husband, John, live in Lexington, Kentucky to be near the brightest, prettiest, most charming grandchildren the world has ever known, objectively speaking, of course. Her most recent work, No Rehearsal: A Memoir, is now available Morris Book Store, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Barnes and Noble, as well as, Amazon.com and www.itascabooks.com.
Tell us some about No Rehearsal: A Memoir.
I had been told since college days that I needed to write a memoir. My answer was always, “I lived through it once, don’t need to live through it again.” About seven years after my son’s death, something in my brain clicked and I was ready to write. Even then, I resisted writing a narrative memoir. My writing colleagues like to joke that I had to be hit in the head nine times with a mallet to finally understand that my story needed to be in narrative form. I didn’t want my story to be the next “misery memoir.” I knew the real message of my life was that one could live through the most difficult of life’s challenges and still experience hope, joy and all that makes life worth living.
When was the moment you knew you needed to write this book/work?
About seven years after the death of my son.
What was your favorite part of research for this title?
Viewing old photographs in order to remind myself of past events.
What was the most difficult element to pin down with this book/work?
The self-examination that is required to write a memoir can be daunting. I wanted the portrait that I drew of myself to be honest and revealing.
What does your writing process look like? Any rituals that ensure literary gold? Rewards system?
The secret to my writing is Carnegie Center classes, especially those led by Leatha Kendrick. The classes kept me focused on the difficult task of revising, revising and revising some more. Find a good editor who will be brutally honest with you about your writing. An editor who merely tells you the writing is wonderful constitutes no editor at all. I wish I could say I had some secret formula that always rendered literary gold but I am too peripatetic for such routines.
What is your favorite part of the publishing process? Least favorite?
It was a delight to get that final copy in my hands from the printer—like giving birth. All the years of hard work became worth it in the holding of that book in my hands. I found the publishing process to be easier than the writing process. Less personal, less painful. However, I hated copy editing. I’m not good at finding typos. Hire a good copy editor for that specific task.
Do you work with a writing group? How’d you guys meet?
There are a few writers that have formed as a result of Carnegie Center classes. We meet on our own when classes are not in session. Theses writers are post-graduate level writers and brutally honest with each other.
Favorite writing utensil?
Definitely a laptop. I have too much arthritis in my hands to comfortable write with pen or pencil.
What are you currently working on?
I have two books that I’m currently working on: When You’re Pissed at the Church, a book for those who have left the church, particularly Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials. The second book is a follow-up to my memoir—a book of essays on my life experiences, not yet titled.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you do for a living?
I am also a speaker and ordained minister. Writing is such an introverted activity and I am an extrovert. So speaking and preaching give me an outlet for my extroversion.
Do you read reviews? Why or why not?
I love reviews. They are one person’s opinions and I enjoy hearing all opinions.
What authors are inspirational to you?
For memoir—Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls come closest to writing as I dream of writing. For essay-type memoir, Anne Lamott.
O Magazine and Real Simple magazine, junk food for the mind.
If someone made a movie about your life who would play you?
This has been a great parlor game at the book clubs I have spoken to. Of all the suggestions, I’m leaning toward Ashley Judd or Katherine McFee.
What’s your middle name and where did it come from?
I was a week old and still not named. My aunt and ultimate role model, Bertha Jane Marshall, sixteen at the time, came to the hospital and asked my mom if she could name me. She named me Brenda after her pen pal in England. My middle name is Jane after her and a series of aunt-to-niece for four generations in our family.
Worst job you ever had?
Working in a book bindery one summer, endlessly pulling books off the sewing machines as the seamstress threaded the pages together.
You can read an excerpt of No Rehearsal below!
Memorializing My Raggedy Ass Father
The call from my half-brother Dennis at 8:30 on a Monday morning could only mean one thing — Dad had died. The last few weeks, he had wandered in and out of consciousness, and we all knew he was ready to go. I have shed no tears since that day, but on the other hand, I have received a gift of healing I never thought possible as related to my Raggedy-Ass father.
Weeks before Dad’s death, I had offered to do the funeral service. I knew officiating was a gift I could extend for my half-brothers that was unique to me. Then, leading the service was an abstract thought: One day I will preside over Dad’s service. Now, reality hit me: In two days, in Evansville, Indiana, I will stand in front of others and say something about Dad. The downward spiral began with a conversation between my rational self and my irrational feelings.
What the hell was I thinking? I can’t say something about him to even a small group of people.
I have to go through with it if for no one except Dennis and Greg. He was far more father to them than the rest of his scattered lot, but that’s still a low bar to set for parenting.
I will not stand up there and say lies. I will not preside over a religious service for someone who, as far as I know, never entertained a spiritual thought in his life.
That narrowed down the repertoire for a funeral service drastically.
I sat in my comfortable chair all day Monday and read through three books of poetry hoping the light would dawn. No light dawned. I sent an email to Dennis, Greg and Margaret asking for memories of Dad. Surely, I will find material there. I asked my son Sims what came to mind when he thought of Pap-paw-on-the-river (my children’s name for him). Their exposure to Dad was limited but Sims came up with the one word: fun.
As they had on so many occasions, my friends Don and Vonda Lichtenfelt brought wisdom and words. They arrived at our home on Tuesday morning with a file folder and books that might spark a flame and ease my anxiety. Those words from great thinkers sparked the magic, and by bedtime that night, I rested easy that I could speak to who he was and retain my sense of integrity.
Incongruous but true, Dad’s favorite watering hole, Leroy’s, owns a Facebook page. Their tribute stated he “sat at the corner bar stool, ordered a cheeseburger with onion and a 7 and 7. RIP Shoestring.”
So I began the service at Alexander’s Funeral Home West on Franklin Street in Evansville where Dad’s father was eulogized in 1952 and his mother in 1992. I moved out from the lectern and pulled up a bar stool. I invited everyone to join me in spirit at Leroy’s, order their imaginary cheeseburger and maybe even a “smart alec” as we prepared to remember “Shoestring.” I made clear that we would honor Dad by keeping it real.
Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Life and death are one even as the river and sea are one.” This rang true for the River Rat who spent many of his 87 years on the Ohio River and loved it as well as he loved any human.
No pretense or exaggeration was necessary to say we were remembering a unique and special character — truly one-of-kind. A River Rat, a brilliant contractor, builder, carpenter, bricklayer, a son, brother, husband (more than a few times), a father and friend.
Along with recounting the memories gleaned from my sibs, I also retold the story of his journey to the Super Inn in his wheelchair and how he got caught on the railroad track on the way home. My aunt, Aggie, Dad’s only sibling present, shouted out from the audience, “It was probably a lie!”
Dad somehow missed out on winning a Pulitzer or a Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar, Emmy or Tony award, but he did know the pleasure of small things:
A full moon
A four-pound bass
A full hog on the spit
A cold beer
A fast boat
A good day of skiing
A good belly laugh
And lots of women.
Dad built impressive structures all over the tri-state area with his hands and his intellect. He grew beautiful flowers in his back yard. He roasted whole pigs in his BBQ pit and entertained the entire neighborhood. Although incapable of expressing it, Dad held the transcendent in his heart, and that includes each of us.
There may have been a few among us that day who were old enough to remember the play Our Town or maybe even played a part in that classic while in high school. The character called the Stage Manager in the play had this to say,
Wow, there are some things we all know, but we don’t take ‘em out and look at ‘em very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years, and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
That statement held true for Dad. His eternal something is us. Through Dad’s numerous branches on the family tree and our kids and grandkids, Dad lives on. And I have seen in my own branch of this family tree that Dad’s inheritance is a mighty strong one.
As I began to close the service, Aunt Aggie shouted out again. “You know his name wasn’t Clarence William Sims Sr. It was just Clarence William Sims, no Senior.”
It didn’t seem apropos to argue with her that Dad became a senior the minute they named my brother, Clarence William Sims Jr., so with the mood of the last story destroyed I turned to what I know best and closed with a prayer.
This interview was conducted in November of 2013 in Atlanta, GA, between Gerald Coleman and Forrest Gray Yerman. Coleman is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy and theology. He currently lives in Atlanta where he is working on his second book in his series, The Three Gifts. Forrest Yerman is a masters student in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University where he focuses his research on the Affrilachian Poets and race and ethnicity in the Appalachian region.
F: How would you define your Affrilachian identity?
G: For me, Frank [X Walker] thinking of the name [Affrilachia]. Not that, here’s this thing outside of us that we’re going to place onto us, but that this is what we are already. We are African Americans in Appalachia—Affrilachia. This is what we are. For me that formalized who we were, what we thought of ourselves, formalized our identity, and gave us a name for it. As human beings that’s one of the ways that we make sense of the universe around us, by naming things. That’s how we—a fortiori—that’s how we, after the experience, quantify the universe around us. We name it. In our earliest kind of venturing beyond just sleep and eat as we evolved as a species, one of the ways that we made sense of the world was to name things. And so for me the important part of that was we knew kind of intimately and in a nebulous kind of way who and what we were, but by putting a name to it that kind of solidified it, that formalized it. This is who we are.
F: When did you first identify as Affrilachian?
G: I guess ’90. Maybe more formally ’91. I think we were calling ourselves that at least a year prior leading up to it; allowing it to sit in our mouths for awhile. I was one of the persons who read in front of Amiri Baraka with my Affrilachian Poets t-shirt on at the UK. You have all of these folk in the alumni hall come to hear Amiri Baraka, and I was one of the ones who got to read in front of him. So that was a point where it became formal—this is who we are. But that’s who we were at least a little before that. So if you want an official, what do you put on the bio, it’s probably ’91; but ‘89, ‘90.
F: How does activism play a role in your life and your identity as an Affrilachian?
G: Well, I think the whole process of the creation and the participation in the Affrilachian Poets is activist. Which goes back to that whole, we don’t need your permission to be who we are. We took that space. So much of that is activist in and of itself.
If you listen to some of our writing, obviously some of our writing is activist writing. I just recently wrote a piece called “Missing Malcolm,” which at one point talks about I don’t want a t-shirt, I don’t want a poster, I want him here instantiated in a think-tank in Harlem, gray-headed, wise, still making a contribution to public intellectual of—how did I put it? I’d have to go look, but something like, the father of black intellectuals and black presidents.
It’s about, this is what we believe in, this is who we are, this is what we ask of the world around us. I think much of that is activist. That’s the artistic part of it. But then when you look at the lives we are leading. For example, I am finishing up my first—I’m the fantasy sci-fi writer in the Affrilachian Poets—and I’m finishing up my first novel [When Night Falls], first in the series [The Three Gifts], and it has a black protagonist. You know, you don’t do that in sci-fi fantasy. The hero is always a white guy. I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan: Rand al’Thor, you know, tall, red-headed white boy. So as you look through the spectrum in that genre, and when an Affrilachian writer takes up that genre to sit down and write, what do you do? Well, my protagonist is black. Activist in that respect, that’s activist to me.
F: Is place important to your identity, and can you talk about any special places?
G: In terms of personal particular places, obviously for me the University of Kentucky where [the Affrilachian Poets] were born as a group is very important. Like I said, I arrived in 1986 and I think that was the very beginning of Frank and I interacting, and then pulling in other poets. So from ‘86 on, the UK, the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center, that elevator in the student center has a very special place for us. I was in a poetry/creative writing class with George Ella Lyon. I don’t know if you know that name. In Kentucky you know, love, George Ella. She did a lot to help me find my voice.
The Original Alfalfas. We did poetry readings there, which is right next to the Lexington Theological Center (is where it used to be; it’s moved to downtown Lexington now). And now I’m talking about places around Lexington. The Carnegie Center was very important to me, particularly when Dr. Laurie Bottoms was the director, the first director. She was the one who basically built the Carnegie Center. She was the one who got the old public library from the city. Who did the fundraising to have it renovated and create that first space. That was a very special space for me. She was really a mentor of mine. We lost her to cancer.
F: Can you talk about some of your African American influences?
G: My grandmother and her cooking. Food is a big part of Affrilachian culture and writing. You’re going to find that across the board in people’s writing. Talking about everything from brown sugar pie to cornbread and greens, you’re going to see that throughout people’s writing. Family, the size of our family. I only had one other brother, but he and I and all our cousins, twenty-five of us, we were all kind of raised together. So that kind of extended familial village was important.
The fact that hip hop was born and came of age as I was coming of age, that was a big influence. Because it was when I was a junior and senior in high school that Run DMC and Rock Box first hit MTV, followed by LL Cool J and that whole hip hop culture of break dancing and big boom boxes. I mean, I had one of those. You know, carrying around 12 inches under your arm. That whole Public Enemy—I was in college when Public Enemy dropped—black boots and, you know, that whole thing.
Traditional black fraternities—I’m a [Phi Beta] Sigma, just like Frank and Ricardo [Nazario-Colon] and Mitchell Douglas. So, you know, several of us are Sigmas. And that whole tradition of historically black fraternities. So, yeah, those are some of the other influences.
F: How does the history of this country affect your writing?
G: It’s probably always present in both macro and micro ways. It’s present, for example, in my choice to make the protagonist of my series of novels a black character. It’s present in subject matter, probably when I’m writing poems, in terms of my selection. Some of the last few poems I’ve written, one of them is entitled, “The Unbearable Blackness of Being,” kind of a take on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But it was a response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. As I said another recent piece was, “Missing Malcolm.”
So, it affects probably subject matter sometimes, obviously it affects perspective, character choice, those kinds of things. There’s definitely an effect. I think all of us try to acknowledge it, allow it to be what it’s supposed to be, but at the same time to not allow it to overshadow our writing.
F: Did you have a lot of freedom in your childhood and adolescence to explore life on your own terms?
G: Oh, yeah. I guess it plays itself out in two ways. I think the first is, my mother was always very supportive of me in terms of whatever it was I wanted to try she would let me try. And summers were always a fun time because, like I said, we were raised by a single mom, so basically during the day we were left to ourselves in the summer. And we had all of the uncultivated farmland, which was basically wild fields, to go back in and explore and play around; or just around the neighborhood. And as I said, it wasn’t a bad part of town, so we had the opportunity to, we spent a lot of time on our own as kids, teenagers, I guess from the time I was 12 or 13 on. We had a lot of freedom. You know, we had the chores that we had to do but once we did that, particularly in the summer when school was out, we were free to explore and do basically much of what we wanted to do.