Tag Archives: Helen Matthews Lewis

Gentry Named Recipient of AWA Book of the Year for Poetry

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Author and former Kentucky Poet Laureate Jane Gentry (1941–2014) has been named the recipient of the Appalachian Writers Association’s 2017 Appalachian Book of the Year for Poetry for her posthumous collection The New and Collected Poems of Jane Gentry, edited by Julia Johnson, professor of English and creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

Alternately startling and heart-wrenching, The New and Collected Poems of Jane Gentry offers a valuable retrospective of the celebrated poet’s work. Upon being diagnosed with cancer, Gentry and her daughters began collaborating with editor Julia Johnson to organize this definitive collection. The result is the entirety of Gentry’s published work alongside new, previously unpublished poems.

“In poem after poem in this rich and important collection, Jane Gentry commemorates her personal history through the lens of poetry — family, friends, the seasons, the flora and fauna she moves through. This book is a love song to Kentucky,” commented Jeff Worley, editor of What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets.

Poet and professor Jane Gentry spoke to UK College of Arts and Sciences about her life and work in 2013.

The New and Collected Poetry of Jane Gentry is the ninth University Press of Kentucky book to win an AWA award, joining Driving the Dead: Poems by Jane Hicks and From the Mountain, From the Valley: New and Collected Poems by James Still as winner of the poetry award. In addition, Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers by Joyce Dyer, Songs of Life and Grace: A Memoir by Linda Scott DeRosier, My Appalachia: A Memoir by Sidney Saylor Farr, Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South by T.R.C. Hutton, and Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia by Helen Lewis all won the AWA’s Book of the Year Award for Nonfiction, and The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson, UK associate professor of English, won for fiction.

Gentry’s work is deeply rooted in place, exuding a strong connection to the life and land of her native Kentucky. In honor of this consummate poet, who possessed an uncanny ability to spin quietly expansive and wise verses from small details, objects, and remembered moments, we are sharing one of her poignant pieces, “A Garden in Kentucky.”

A Garden in Kentucky

Under the fluorescent sun
inside the Kroger, it is always
southern California. Hard avocados
rot as they ripen from the center out.
Tomatoes granulate inside their hides.
But by the parking lot, a six-tree orchard
frames a cottage where winter has set in.

Pork fat seasons these rooms.
The wood range spits and hisses,
limbers the oilcloth on the table
where an old man and an old woman
draw the quarter-moons of their nails,
shadowed still with dirt,
across the legends of seed catalogues.

Each morning he milks the only goat
inside the limits of Versailles. She feeds
a rooster that wakes up all the neighbors.
Through dark afternoons and into night
they study the roses’ velvet mouths
and the apples’ bright skins
that crack at the first bite.

When thaw comes, the man turns up
the sod and, on its underside, ciphers
roots and worms. The sun like an angel
beats its wings above their grubbing.
Evenings on the viny porch they rock,
discussing clouds, the chance of rain.
Husks in the dark dirt fatten and burst.

 

 

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Celebrating Appalachia and Helen Matthews Lewis

Home to approximately 25 million people, Appalachia is nestled in hills and steeped in tradition. It ranges from the southern tip of New York State down to the northern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. It is a region of abundant natural beauty and natural resources, of folk songs and farmland, of dialects and powerful voices that hold powerful opinions.

However, some Americans don’t see Appalachia in such a light. Their view is clouded by jokes and stereotypes of the ignorant, racist “hillbilly” who doesn’t speak properly, of the “trailer trash” who always drinks moonshine and never wears shoes. Although the region struggles with certain problems such as poverty, its people and culture are not stereotypes to ridicule. They are diverse, intelligent, and ever-hopeful.

Helen Matthews LewisThis is what Helen Matthews Lewis, known as the “Mother of Appalachian Studies,” has helped others to see throughout her lifetime and career. A Georgia native, Helen has worked with miners in the coalfields of southwest Virginia and has worked with the communities of Jellico, Tennessee; McDowell County, West Virginia; and Ivanhoe, Virginia. She helped give birth to Appalachian Studies and has taught and lectured at many of the leading educational institutions in the Appalachian region. Among her other contributions, she has mentored seminarians working in the mountains; been involved in adult and community educational programs throughout the region and abroad; served as President of the Appalachian Studies Association; and held major leadership roles at the Highlander Research and Education Center and Appalshop.

Helen’s story counters negative images and stereotypes, as she has confronted rural poverty, racial prejudice, economic injustice, and traditional gender roles. Her ability to empathize, her moral courage, and her intellectual honesty have made her well-equipped for the fight for social and economic justice in Appalachia. Her life story demonstrates that, with perseverance and passion, change can occur. Communities can be impacted. Lives can be bettered—for generations to come.Helen Matthews Lewis 2

If you want to learn more about Helen Matthews Lewis’s work and Appalachia, pick up a paperback copy of Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).