Kentucky poet Tony Crunk sounds a voice for the uprooted

A big thanks to the Louisville Courier-Journal for this wonderful feature of T. Crunk’s poetic narrative of western Kentucky’s tragic past.

From the Courier-Journal:

Tony Crunk’s verse speaks in anger, in despair, in sorrow and in questionable hope. All of those emotions, and many more, are present in his latest poetry collection, New Covenant Bound, a testament to generations of Kentucky families displaced by vast federal projects to reshape the land around them.

A Kentucky native (he grew up in Hopkinsville and earned a bachelor’s degree from Centre College in Danville and a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Kentucky), Crunk is one of those writers who defy ready categorization. He writes picture books for children and poetry for adults. In Birmingham, Ala., where he now lives, he teaches in a state-run program for incarcerated juveniles.

“I don’t have to do much except to give them a pencil,” he mused during a phone interview. “They are so starved to have someone attend to them and listen to the stories they have to tell.”

One day, perhaps, those young students will absorb Crunk’s verse-driven narrative about the contentious, often shattering relationship between the U.S. government and some of its poorest citizens. It is a story that began in the mid-1930s, when more than 100 Western Kentucky families were relocated to enable construction of the Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge.

In ensuing decades, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other agencies would resettle thousands more residents to create Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley and the Land Between the Lakes National Recreational Area.

“Though no official count exists,” Crunk writes in a preface to New Covenant Bound he calls “Memoriam,” “it is estimated that between 28,000 and 30,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes, many of them multiple times, to make way for these federal land and water management projects.”

“My own, personal perspective on it reminds me of nothing so much as a classic Greek tragedy,” Crunk said. “The TVA started with some good ideas, but by the time they ended, those folks had pretty much gone by the wayside. … There was a lot of hubris, and misrepresentation of the people of the area. They were often presented as a very backward, ignorant people — and they weren’t, and aren’t.”

Crunk dedicated New Covenant Bound to the surviving family members he interviewed, “and the many other people of Between the Rivers who shared their lives and stories with such kindness, and without whose generosity this book would not have been possible. It is offered with deepest gratitude, in honor of your profound love for this sacred place.”

At age 54, Crunk has garnered praise for the keenness of his observations. He came to wide attention in 1994, when his debut poetry collection, “Living in the Resurrection,” won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. New Covenant Bound, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is his fifth work of poetry.

He credits various mentors for showing him how, even while a boy in Hopkinsville, there was immense possibility to be grasped.

“As you grow up in a small town like that, you become more aware of the world around you,” he said. “I had the benefit — or curse, as it may be — of teachers in high school who did their best to show me the larger perspective of the world. And as I continued to grow, there was a kind of tension of wanting to take my place in the larger world on one hand, but not wanting to let go of what I had.”

Before long, Crunk appreciated “ways of conceiving the world through language.”

“I think I have tried to be true to that cultural voice I grew up in,” he acknowledged. “Sometimes I think I am channeling the voices inside of me.”

Those voices speak proudly, and resolutely, amid the pages of New Covenant Bound. Consider its introductory poem, “Nightfall,” which recalls the town of Birmingham, Ky. — swept away in the 1930s by the tide of ostensible progress:

Blue clouds

smother a pale ghostmoon

above the cluster of roofs

like hulls

of capsized boats…

Lamp on the table

remains unlit

letting darkness take it — day gone

beyond all ease. In the next room

my grandmother,

watching night take the houses

and the street

watching it take her hand

resting on the sill,

is five years old

sitting on her iron bedstead

at the window

looking downriver. …”

Crunk is no dreamy aesthetic centrist. He rejects the notion that lyric poetry, as many poets conceive it, “is generally assumed to be speaking about emotions and feelings that are universal.”

“I just don’t buy that,” he states flatly. “Emotional language and feelings are determined by a person’s places and experiences. To get a sense of lyric feeling and emotion, you have to know the context of where the speaker is coming out of.”

To those ends, Crunk traveled widely through Kentucky, talking with the residents (and their descendants) directly affected by successive uprootings. You might think he then had a definite structure in mind. Not so.

“It started out much more chaotic than that,” he admitted. “One day one piece would come out in poetry, and the next day it would come out in prose. The relationship between the two sometimes is a little testy.”

Unlike some writers who move easily among literary styles, Crunk early on confronted several fundamental limitations. “My terrible little secret is that I wanted to be a fiction writer, but I’m just no damn good at it. I couldn’t write a short story to save my life.”

Enrolling in a graduate writing program at the University of Virginia, Crunk intended to be a prose writer. “I started out in one fiction class, and they wouldn’t let me in the second one,” he recalled. “I had to jump genre ships. Poetry was my fallback.”

He had to learn, and learn quickly. “I hadn’t read a lot of poetry before. Just the usual undergraduate stuff, a few sonnets and such. But once I had to look at poetry, I got really excited, and that kind of set my pants on fire for a bit.” Before long, “I could never see myself doing much of anything else.”

Emerging with a master of fine arts degree, Crunk spent seven years teaching at the University of Montana in Missoula. It was far from Kentucky — and not so far at all.

“It’s a rural culture out there,” he said of the Montana life, “more cows, obviously. But in many ways I didn’t feel dispossessed while I was there.”

More years passed, and eventually Crunk landed in Alabama, where he taught for a time at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. These days he lives in the city’s Southside neighborhood with his wife, poet and social worker Mariah Morrison, “and a lot of cats.”

With New Covenant Bound and its sweeping thematic landscape behind him, “it’s time for me to go back to some lighter stuff,” Crunk said. “After thinking about God and death and Jesus for a while, I’ve got to do something else now and then.”

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