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Unleashing Knoxville’s Poetry Spring

The University of Tennessee’s poetry reading series continues through April 18 with Affrilachian poet Nikky Finney up next. 

by Tomi L. Wiley

“You happened to me.
You were as deep down as I’ve ever been.
You were inside me like my pulse.” 
― Marilyn Hacker

As with so many moving, inspirational moments, Poetry Spring is a project born of passion. Passion as a current, a soft tugging, drawing more and more people to an intimate auditorium tucked away in the sprawling library on the blooming campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Spring is unfolding tentatively in East Tennessee this year, taking her time, languid and uncertain. Budding Dogwoods could have frost-bitten tips come morning, yellow afternoons mellow into chilly evenings. Yet there is one constant that literature lovers anticipate as much as brightly-faced buttercups: Each year, April is National Poetry Month. A poetic pulse, as Marilyn Hacker notes, that happens deep inside us.

For Dr. Marilyn Kallet (pictured below) — longtime UT professor of poetry, former director of UT’s Creative Writing program and workshop curator — celebrating poetry only in April simply didn’t satisfy.


“I was on leave in fall 2015, so I asked my colleagues if we could do all poetry all the time in spring,” Dr. Kallet recalls, adding that Creative Writing instructors take turns with the library slots for presentations, in terms of genre. “We decided to call this Poetry Spring at UT, and we were off.”

Poetry Spring, hosted by UT’s Writers in the Library and Creative Writing programs, in association with the John C. Hodges Better English Fund, kicked off on January 25, when the season’s blooms remained curled inside their own petals, hiding deep in cold soil. The variety of poets — both in personalities and work — is a wide brushstroke beginning with two poet musicians from the South and spreading all the way to France, where Hacker has made her home. In the mix are poets living and teaching in Pennsylvania and Scotland, Nashville and Georgia. Two National Book Award winners, a mixed martial arts expert, social and civil rights activists, out and proud LGBT poets, this scintillating series is a poem’s dream and a poetry lover’s buffet.

The series began with opening acts Matt Urmy and RB Morris, both poet/musicians from Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively. At the center of Urmy’s existence is creativity and passion. His first chapbook of poetry, Ghosts in a House, was published by Finishing Line Press in Georgetown, Kentucky, in 2007, and he released his first album, Sweet Lonesome, in 2010. This fall, Iris Press will publish a new, full-length collection of his poems, and he will release his second album, produced by the late Cowboy Jack Clement.

RB Morris is a poet and songwriter, solo performer and band leader, and a sometimes playwright and actor from Knoxville. He has published books of poetry and music albums. He wrote and acted in “The Man Who Lives Here is Looney,” a one-man play taken from the life and work of James Agee. Morris served as the Jack E. Reese Writer-in-Residence at the University of Tennessee from 2004–2008 and was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame in 2009.

On February 8, Dr. Kenneth Pobo was featured during both an afternoon chat on the subject “How to Make Your Chapbook Count” as well as his reading in the evening. Dr. Pobo is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Widener University. He has published more than 25 books of poetry and short fiction, in addition to countless poems and flash fiction pieces in literary journals and magazines. Dr. Pobo is the winner of the 2009 Main Street Rag Poetry Chapbook Contest, the 2011 Qarrtsiluni Poetry Chapbook Contest and the 2013 Eastern Point Press Chapbook Award.

“Reading for Poetry Spring was an honor — and so much fun,” Dr. Pobo says. “Meeting students and reconnecting with Knoxville and Marilyn Kallet were highlights. It had been about 27 years since I was last in Knoxville — how great to see the foothills of the mountains again.  I returned to Pennsylvania re-energized and ready to write.”


Being ready to write is a daily endeavor for William Wright (pictured above), who is UT’s current writer in residence and read to students and fans alike on February 22. Influenced, he says, by Knoxville’s own Cormac McCarthy, Wright is the author of five books of poetry and the collaborative collection Creeks of the Upper South. He is also author of five chapbooks and editor or co-editor of 11 poetry collections, including all volumes of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry and two books centered on the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Born in South Carolina, living in Georgia and writing now in Tennessee, Wright’s work — most recently appearing in Kenyon ReviewSouthern Poetry Review and The Oxford American— echoes with the Southern experience in all its grit and glory.

“My students have made my experience as writer in residence enriching and fulfilling,” Wright says of his current residency at UT. “They are intelligent, convivial and curious. I’ve learned a lot from them.”

Wright, who recently accepted a core faculty position with the new Etowah Valley Writers MFA program at Reinhardt University, not only participated in Poetry Spring but is a captive audience member as well.

“Poetry Spring continues to refresh,” he adds. “Such a focused, poetry-centered series of events emphasizes the importance of myriad writers and their work, and I’m honored and humbled to have been a part of it.”

That myriad of writers and a diverse volume of work represented in Poetry Spring also included a former MMA fighter, activist and journalist, all enveloped in the dynamic, eloquent Cameron Conaway.

Now what could mixed martial arts and poetry possibly have in common? Weave into this tapestry poems and essays concerning child slave labor in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and poems about malaria, and you have Conaway: a poet who transitioned from honing and sculpting the art of his physical body to crafting lyrical verse so startling and close that one almost hears the insistent hum of a mosquito in their ear. He writes of mothers clinging to babies dead for months, of buses bouncing into dripping jungles, of a Rwandan boy wading through corpses hoping to find his mother, of the devastation and detritus of Hurricane Katrina; and he begins his readings with a moment of silence, of mindfulness.

“Reading at Poetry Spring reinvigorated my poetic soul,” Conaway says. “It was an intimate environment, filled with people both entirely new to the genre and those literary citizens like Marilyn Kallet who have dedicated their lives to it. When I was signing books, students asked the kind of challenging questions that propel my work, and listened with the kind of empathy that gives me hope for the future.”

Poetry seems to run through the very veins and into the ink of activists, as the series next two poets proved. Marilyn Hacker flew to Knoxville from Paris to read on March 28, with four decades of work — heady and sensual, polished and political — to share.

Hacker read from her most recent volume of work, A Stranger’s Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2013, which included a variety of poetic form sestinas to ghazal, which was originally an Arabic verse form dealing with loss and romantic love and was also embraced by medieval Persian poets. The fluidity of her verse, harnessed by form and melody, is undoubtedly influenced by her interest and immersion in the refugee population of Paris, namely the Syrian sect. She writes of inadvertent exile, sharing true stories of women so oppressed by the governing regime that these women, forbidden to write, share or publish poetry, memorized their work with one other woman until the words blazed inside them before physically burning the paper on which they laid bare their art.

Hacker’s 1994 collection Winter Numbers examines the loss of many of her friends to both AIDS and cancer and also explores her own struggle with breast cancer; this volume, considered darker than her previous work, won both the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and a Lambda Literary Award. In addition to being the author of award-winning translations, this versatile writer won a National Book Award for her 1974 collection Presentation Piece, which thrums with the assortment of poetic form that she has continued to stretch and grow throughout her career.

NikkyFinneyPosterPoetry Spring highlights not just one National Book Award winner, but two: Affrilachian poet and activist Nikky Finney will perform on April 4. Finney’s luminous collection Head Off and Split won the 2011 National Book Award, the 2012 GLCS Award, the 2012 SIBA Book Award and was nominated for the 2012 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work (each award in the Poetry category). Born in South Carolina as a child of activists, Finney came of age during the civil rights and black arts movements. At Talladega College, nurtured by Hale Woodruff’s Amistad murals, Finney began to understand the powerful synergy between art and history. She was the Guy Davenport Endowed Professor of English at the University of Kentucky for 20 years and is a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, consisting of black poets from the Appalachian region.

From the mountains of Appalachia to the rolling hills of Scotland and the dense, sprawling forests of Latvia, on April 11 Writers in the Library will host Adam Day – director of the Baltic Writing Residency in Latvia, Scotland, and recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Day’s work has appeared in the Boston Review, Guernica, AGNI, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, APR and elsewhere.

For another double-feature night, Day will be joined by Leslie LaChance. Assistant Editor with Sundress Publications, LaChance curates The Wardrobe and is developing a children’s literature list. She also edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, and her chapbook collection, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. Her work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. A University of Tennessee alumnus, LaChance is currently an Associate Professor of English at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, where she teaches writing and literature courses.

An appropriate end to the Poetry Spring series is also a beginning of sorts. On April 18, University of Tennessee graduate award winners in poetry and fiction will read their work for the public, their peers and professors. Perhaps echoes of poets past will linger in that hallowed space, that liminal place where words ring and rise, imprinting upon a new generation of poets and scribblers, writers and dreamers bound by nothing save their own imaginations, stepping off The Hill and into the world wielding words as swords and inspiration as shields.

All readings are part of the Writers in the Library program and begin at 7 p.m. in the Hodges Library Auditorium on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus.

Tomi L. Wiley is a freelance writer, editor and PR/social media maven. She has written and edited for media including Southern Living and The Oxford American magazines, has been published in the literary anthologies Milk & Ink: a Mosaic of Motherhood, Telling Tales, Maypop and the Southeast Review, has coordinated panels for the Southern Festival of Books, spoken on the creative writing process at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is a past president of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. She lives in Knoxville, where she is writing her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @twiley1012 and @TWiley_PR and on LinkedIn

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