Meet the poet laureate: An interview with Gurney Norman

Gurney Norman was a “mountain kid.”

Born in Grundy, Va., in 1937 and raised in western Virginia and eastern Kentucky, Kentucky’s poet laureate has a unique understanding of the Appalachian region, an understanding that has helped him give back to that area again and again through his labor of love — writing.

Kentucky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman

Kentucky Poet Laureate Gurney Norman

He has produced a number of works focusing on the Appalachian region. His novel Divine Right’s Trip follows a young man who travels from California back to his native Kentucky. Kinfolks is a collection of short stories about a Kentucky mountain family. He has co-edited two anthologies, Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region and An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature. He has written and narrated three documentary films about eastern Kentucky’s rivers and trails for KET: “Time on the River,” “From This Valley” and “Wilderness Road.” He is co-author of three screenplays based on stories from the Kinfolks collection: “Fat Monroe,” “Nightride,” and “Maxine.” His forthcoming novella, Ancient Creek, is a contemporary Appalachian folktale.

A graduate of Stuart Robinson School in Letcher County, Norman majored in journalism and English at the University of Kentucky and studied writing at Stanford University as a Stegner Creative Writing Fellow. Thirty years later, he is leading UK’s Creative Writing Program. He serves as advisor to schools and community-based arts groups in Kentucky and the Appalachian region.

Learn more about the 2009-10 poet laureate, who is also a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau, in his interview with KH.

Q: When and how did you discover that you were a writer at heart? What was the first thing you wrote that truly inspired you?

A: My childhood during World War II was pretty chaotic. My nuclear family sort of imploded and my older brother and younger sister and I were cared for at different times by two sets of grandparents. Then when I was 9 and my brother was 10, we were enrolled in a boarding school which accepted a lot of mountain kids from broken homes. The school turned out to be a good experience for me and I lived there until I graduated from high school. I was a quiet, solitary boy much of the time and, I guess you could say, I observed the world around me. “Spy” might be a good word for my attitude in those days. My father died when I was 15 and I wrote my first short story soon after. My brother, who had always been a cheerful, gregarious, outgoing popular boy, died in a car wreck a year after we lost our father.

In a creative writing class at UK I wrote a short story about that experience. I felt that I had truly engaged a deep personal truth in that story, had really found expression for a chaos of feelings. I knew then that I would make writing central to my life.

Q: This year, there has been a tremendous amount of national attention surrounding Appalachia, which is a major focus of your work. How has growing up in Appalachia influenced you as a writer, and as a person?

A: I think most people, particularly of my generation, who have grown up in the Kentucky coal fields are marked by the experience. It is such a dramatic world. And there is something about the mountain landscape that has affected the culture, shaped personal identity in ways that stay with you and leave you feeling attached in enduring ways. Even if you hated your experience, still, that is a form of attachment. But I don’t want to overly stress the impact of Appalachian life on my own identity. I feel shaped just by being a Kentuckian, born into the grand story of this Commonwealth. For me, the Kentucky story begins with the retreat of the glaciers, 12,000 or so years ago. My feel for this place goes back to the Ice Age! I am rather obsessed by the subject. Like so many people in this area, I have a powerful regional identity. I carry around in my mind a map of the entire Appalachian mountain chain and a picture of the rivers of Kentucky, as if looking down from a great height. The Big Sandy, Little Sandy, Licking, Kentucky, Salt, Cumberland and Green rivers form a familiar pattern in my mind that I find very reassuring. For me, the regional perspective is a starting point for considering the whole world. It is like a lens that helps me see, focus.

My world view and my entire sense of self have developed as a direct result of  being born as an Appalachian person, and in particular, as a native of eastern Kentucky. As a child I lived among relatives whose way of life was very much rooted in the “old time way.” My maternal grandparents owned about 40 acres of steep mountain land divided about equally between woods, pasture and level farming acres. They raised most of the family’s food; kept cows, hogs and sometimes ponies or horses; made their own lye soap; built chairs by hand; bottomed chairs with tree bark; heated their houses by coal fires in open grates; and had some understanding of herbs for healing. They piped natural spring water into the house, relied on an outdoor toilet, and worked outdoors all day, every day, except for Sundays. In their years they built seven or eight frame houses by hand, without power tools. Grandad was also an underground miner for 30 years. My grandparents were masters of the old traditional subsistence-farming skills while also being exceedingly modern in their outlook. They believed in education, pushed eight children through high school and saw their four daughters get college educations and become teachers. To have been part of such a family fills me with great pride and admiration, even today.

Another aspect of mountain life I came to know was what I would call the rural industrial world of coal mining camps built around the big coal mines that flourished all over the coal fields in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the camps had the amenities of a typical small town and when times were good and money was circulating, mining families found coal camp life quite satisfactory. But coal has always been a “boom and bust” industry and the bad times left many families destitute in an era when our nation had no developed “social safety net.” Here the division of the social classes was most evident. My father was a miner and a union man and I inherited my own sense of working class solidarity in the face of big coal’s exploitative corporate management. I learned early that without labor unions, American workers would never have achieved the now-standard eight-hour working day, an end to child labor, decent wages and progress in the realm of workplace safety. Millions of Americans today enjoy the fruits of labor’s struggle in the 20th century, with no idea from where they came.

Q: Talk a little about the work you continue to do in Appalachia with schools and community-based arts groups. What is your goal, and what does this work mean to you?

A: I think many Americans who reach adulthood with some feeling for the places and the people they have lived among have a sense of loyalty to their old communities. Not all Appalachian people remain emotionally bonded with the mountains, of course. Many leave and never want to see the place again. But that in itself is a form of attachment. In general, I think it is fair to say that a continuing feeling of connectedness to family and place is a common experience among people who have grown up in the Appalachian mountains. In my own case, I knew when I left home to go to college that I would always think of the mountains as my true home. I strongly felt that in my life I would like to make some sort of contribution to my old community, to be of service to the people somehow.

One way to think about it is to consider all the teachers, doctors, engineers and other professional people who grew up in the mountains, completed their college educations and advanced professional training and then returned to dedicate their talents to their home communities. This is a very familiar pattern, one of the strengths of the culture that is not often mentioned. In my own case, without making too big a deal out of it because it is actually a fairly common experience, I felt from an early age a call to participate in the life of my home community. I felt that pull, that instinct, to serve. My early life, growing up in the church, nourished that instinct but I think the reasons lie deeper than that.

I first returned to the mountains as a professional person the summer following my junior year in UK’s journalism school, to work as a reporter for my hometown newspaper, the weekly Hazard Herald. I worked for the newspaper three summers, then after my military service and some graduate school, I came home and worked full-time for the Herald. Then in the late ’60s and early ’70s I began to publish fiction. Since then I have been invited to visit schools to talk about writing and literature. After I moved back to Kentucky following some 15 years in California, part of my pleasure has been to participate in the cultural life of the region, sometimes functioning as an all-purpose “resource person” for arts groups in communities. It has been exciting to watch the growth of the dynamic arts world that flourishes, not just in the mountains, but everywhere in Kentucky.

Q: What are some of your most memorable experiences growing up in Appalachia?

A: As for memorable experiences of growing up in the mountains, where would one start? Among the more beautiful experiences, I could name living at Grandma’s on a hillside farm, being part of a big family of aunts, uncles and cousins who all loved each other even when they could not get along. In those days, we kids were free to play in the woods for hours at a time, beyond sight of any adults. We weren’t coddled or micro-managed or fussed over every hour of the day. I think the space for uninterrupted, unscripted, unrefereed play for hours at a time allowed our imaginations to develop in rich ways. We improvised our games, which included climbing trees, crawling around on big rocks, building small dams across creeks — very physical outdoor activities. By age 10 we had daily chores to carry out. My favorite was to walk out through the woods to the pasture to drive in the cows for milking twice a day. I spent much time alone in the woods and the pasture. I was very capable of entertaining myself for hours on end.

I was witness to a lot of violence in my early life. In Allais coal camp, we kids playing around the commissary in the afternoons would fairly often see men mangled in mining accidents being carried into Dr. Ray’s office. In 1965 I was part of a small crowd leaving the courthouse on lunch break during a trial when bullets started flying. The trial had caused passions to boil over. One man fell dead just in front of where I was standing.

Q: What do you find most gratifying about being a college professor and directing the creative writing program at UK?

A: I have been a member of the English department faculty for 30 years now. I continue to teach because I truly enjoy working with people who are interested in writing, in literature, in ideas, in life itself. I have always felt a great debt to my writing teachers when I was young. I was encouraged and felt validated as a person and as an apprentice writer. I don’t presume to “teach writing,” but rather, I hope the classes are nourishing environments where people can practice the arts of fiction and poetry. Students provide an audience for each other, and helpful critique. I feel like a coach most of the time, and an editor. Editing is its own art. I always look for good phrases and sentences to cite, as a basis for pointing out the weak spots. Somehow, I never tire of this work. I find it stimulating, energizing.

Especially gratifying for me as director of our creative writing program is the sense of continuing a rich tradition at UK. The creative writing program is one of the few places in the university infrastructure where we have strong institutional memory. Since Pulitzer Prize winning novelist A.B. Guthrie Jr. started teaching fiction writing classes at UK in 1947, there is a known line of succession of writers who have taught the creative writing classes. I have known most of those teachers in one way or another, down through the years. They have maintained an excellent undergraduate creative writing program that has made a solid contribution to the development of letters in Kentucky and the nation.

Q: What are some of the highlights of your first few months as poet laureate? What do you hope to accomplish during the remaining time of your appointment?

A: Well, let me say that I am having a lot of fun in my role as Kentucky’s poet laureate. “Reader’s Day” at Oneida Elementary School in Clay County was an impressive event. The whole school had worked the entire year to create a wonderful day of celebration of reading. The pride and enthusiasm of the kids and local people was contagious.

When I visit a county or community I try to learn something about the local history. Friends at the Clark County Library escorted me to the site of an 18th century Native American trading post called Eskippakithiki a few miles south of Winchester. I had passed a roadside historical marker referring to the “Indian Old Fields” for years, but to get an informed look at the historic landscape was special.

I am finding that interest in writing and literary matters is strong all across Kentucky. It isn’t that a writer shows up and creates interest where none existed before. The writer shows up to participate in the ongoing activity. For me so far, to visit a community is to be part of the rhythm of the life of the place and the people. I enjoy calling attention to certain books and writers I have enjoyed. I enjoy working with young people in the schools, perhaps talking a little about my own early life and development as a literary person. Living the reader’s life, and the writer’s. I don’t have any big agenda, beyond enjoying being with Kentucky people who care about books, writing, stories and poems. I’m sure I get more out of a visit to a community than anyone.


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