VIDEO: UK Creative Writing Program's Growing National Prominence Builds on Long Legacy of Excellence

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 6, 2016)  "Art … is the form we give to forces we feel and struggle to articulate."

— Erik Reece, associate professor, University of Kentucky

"Utopia Drive"

They are writers, working across dramatically contrasting styles — exploring diverse issues with distinctive voices and perspectives.

But they share a legacy. They are part of a thread – a thread of writers extending back generations at the University of Kentucky, names like Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Ed McClanahan, Nikky Finney, James Baker Hall, Jane Gentry Vance, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Percival Everett.

That legacy of excellence is reflected now in a combination of new artists and longtime stalwarts who comprise UK’s English and growing MFA faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences. Several of those writers have debuted new books and collections in recent months and are receiving an uncommon collection of national notice simultaneously in publications such as The New York Times Book Review, BuzzFeed, Slate and The New Yorker.

This Sunday, Oct. 9, several of them will take turns reading from their collections of new works in an unusual but appropriate setting — The Burl, a club and entertainment space in downtown Lexington’s resurgent distillery district. The event is fittingly named "UK Writers – 100 Proof."

“I don’t think it’s ever been done before, maybe back in the '60s,” Reece said of the unusual performance venue and setting of UK writers reading from new works. A former student of Reece’s owns the event space, and together they came up with the idea of several writers at UK, all with books and projects coming out at about the same time, reading from their art, celebrating literary and teaching excellence in writing at UK.

Reece explores socio-political and environmental topics, most recently with a road trip book embarking on a discovery of American utopian communities and the potential promise they hold for today.

Hannah Pittard writes literary fiction that delves deeply into domestic life, taking seemingly everyday conversations and tensions between couples and turning them into a mysterious thriller.

Frank X Walker uses his poetry to inhabit the mind of a slain civil rights leader as well as that of his bigoted assassin to frame a searing account of a turning point in American civil rights history.

Janet Eldred has moved from nonfiction explorations of literary life to sonnets that examine her family’s lineage in California.

Manuel Gonzales’ debut novel combines literary stylings with intense sci-fi action and comedic touches.

Julia Johnson’s poetry recounts the degradation and laments the loss of her native New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

And Gurney Norman, whose history at UK extends across decades, will read from a new experimental novel that continues to dig new ground from familiar terrain, the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky.

That commitment to place — Kentucky as a literary character itself as Reece calls it — has remained, reflected in voices like those of Walker, Reece and Norman.

But now it is infused with a new set of more diverse voices, who hail from different places and working in divergent genres and styles.

“There’s a legacy here,” Johnson said. “So, the tradition is here or has been here for a long time. I think what’s different now is we have a graduate program; we have an MFA program… The University of Kentucky has always had very well-known Kentucky writers … what’s happening now is that we have writers who are not only nationally known but internationally known.”

While Johnson serves as director for the MFA in creative writing program, students also learn from many other faculty including Eldred, Gonzales, Norman, Pittard, Reece, Walker, Andrew Ewell, DaMaris Hill and 2016 Writer-in-Residence Helen Oyeyemi.

“I think it’s great that we’ve also got a group of writers right now on campus who aren’t Kentucky born, but we’re bringing a national and international field to the campus that’s only strengthening UK’s commitment to creative writing,” Pittard said. “It’s making that legacy that already exists an even stronger one.”

They share, though, a commitment to craft and to teaching students, who come to UK to find their unique voices.

“It’s also just really exciting to me to talk to students who are just now discovering this desire to write or this urgency to see they write all over the map,” Gonzales said. “They’re young writers and when I was a young writer I was a mess of a writer, but it’s really gorgeous to find small paragraphs within these early drafts that show real heart and real brilliance or show something of themselves that they put on to the page. And it’s just a lot of fun right now, it’s working great.”

"We managed to assemble a faculty of creative writers who are not only amazing teachers in the classroom but are phenomenal writers,” Walker said.

On Sunday night they will bring their passion and craft to an entertainment venue to celebrate their works and growing prominence as a national writing program. 

They are strong and unique voices in their own right, giving form “to forces we feel and struggle to articulate.”

But, too, they recognize that they are part of the thread — a long tradition of literary excellence. Sunday night, they will continue to renew and strengthen it.

"UK Writers – 100 Proof"

Performances by UK authors and local musicians

7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9

The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd., Lexington

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