Wednesday, July 29, 2020

With Luck, We All Become Persons of a Certain Age: an interview with Leatha Kendrick

Leatha Kendrick lives and works in Kentucky. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, the most recent one, And Luckier (Accents Publishing, 2020). She co-edited Crossing Troublesome, Twenty-Five Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop and wrote the script for A Lasting Thing for the World—The Photography of Doris Ulmann, a documentary film. Her poems, essays and fiction appear widely in journals and anthologies including What Comes Down to Us – Twenty-Five Contemporary Kentucky Poets; The Kentucky Anthology—Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State; Listen Here: Women Writing in AppalachiaI to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists, and others.

She leads workshops in poetry, life writing, and writing to heal at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, KY, as well as at workshops and conferences in Kentucky and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel that centers on sisters, small town life, relinquishment and adoption.

Review and Interview by Melva Sue Priddy

Leatha Kendrick guest taught in a few of my creative writing and English class rooms some 15 years or more ago. Engaging and organized, my students and I learned from having her in my high school classes. I also rubbed elbows with Leatha at The Hindman Appalachian Writers Workshop, KY, and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Lexington, KY. We have a mutual friend, Ann Olson (, who sent me a copy of Leatha’s new book upon its release during these months of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been an uplifting, inspiring and engaging read for this isolating time. I was reading Elizabeth Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon as I read Leatha’s And Luckier. Somehow they worked with and informed each other—but that could just be me and my luck.

Leatha’s readers, mature and young, will enjoy reading these 45 poems, divided evenly between “I. Home Fires,” “II. Broken, Various, Inscrutable,” and “III. Unasked-for Singing.” Her writing has honed deeper into the human condition with each new book, and, ever personal and real, she holds your hand as a friend who walks with you as you read. You might think I am exaggerating; well, not by much. Leatha caught my hand with her second poem, “Next World” and we walked from there.

            Tell an unborn child
            there is dancing here,
            a blaze of scarlet leaves
            at autumn, seas that whisper
            to the sand, vermillion rose-
            gold skies at evening,
            I dance, he’ll say. His legs,
            flexed, test a wall.
            I hear the ocean pulse,
            drift in warm waters,
            gaze on ruby skies
            bright and filtered.
            Sleep, dream. I know
            that other world—
            how it must be.

            Tell him galaxies, wind,
            houses, lightning,
            lover’s fingers, dinner’s
            warm steams rising,
            a flower. Yes, yes,
            he’ll say. I know.

Reading on, Leatha doesn’t gloss over the difficulties in life. In another poem, “How to Go On,” one line reads: “So much suffering. We cannot uncause it.” In her briefest poem, “Eviction,” she writes: “Most of what / I lost I took / from myself.” If that isn’t everyone’s truth! Her range of themes move through birth and death, order and chaos, finding and making home, joy and difficulties, and aging. General and very specific. And she conveys so much wisdom. Her skill with words is modest and fluent. And her poems are informed by what is going on in this world and what she has experienced in her lifetime. “Out the Door,” a sonnet, “stands / between us and the world”:

            It’s getting out the door that stands
            between us and the world. I know. Open
            the damn thing and step through. Broken
            promises are all that hold us. Plans
            we made and then ignored. The mess in the house
            we’re afraid will survive us. The quiet hours
            we thought to have. Access to the powers
            we felt as children, near in us, now lost
            to lack of faith. The only thing that changes
            is the heart. There’s the door. The dream
            kept the faith you dropped. Time arranges
            more second chances than they tell us. Clean
            breaks, old reservations waiting to be
            taken up.

The following interview was conducted via email.

MSP – The first poem in your collection that I fell in love with is your second poem, “Next World”. Tell me about that poem.

LK – The poem began with my trying to imagine the world from an embryo’s point of view. Imagining the sky, the “weather,” the sounds, the day/night cycles of it. An embryo late in its gestation might feel pretty certain about what life and the cosmos were all about. And then comes birth! So the poem is a playful, speculative look at the limits of knowledge. The poem is one of the oldest ones in the book, drafted in 2013 and published in 2014. And Luckier came together as a collection over the past decade, and “Next World” survived multiple drafts as the poems began to teach me what this book was going to be about. One of its biggest themes is limits: physical limitations, the limits of what we know and can know, and the limits of our courage and compassion. This poem could have been a first inkling of the book’s themes, if I had known enough to realize it!

MSP – “Reinvention” reads like a very coronavirus poem. When did you write this? Do you agree? What is it about?

LK – I first drafted “Reinvention” in July, 2013. For years I had juggled teaching and writing while commuting between Lexington and eastern Kentucky. As I worked on this poem I was clearing out the house we’d lived in for thirty years and our small place in Lexington as we downsized to the townhouse where we live now. It was another one of those times when I felt that I was never doing enough or being enough, and I wondered what it might feel like to simply stop. The poem is a playful response to my weariness with multitasking and trying to be all things to everyone.

I suppose that in the back of my mind were visions of a post-apocalyptic world in which we’d be forced to start over, though I certainly did not anticipate that we’d be living through a pandemic that would bring so much of daily life to a halt. I remember wondering what it might look like if we chose stillness. Many of us discovered in the silence of the lock-down a chance to reflect on what matters.

As in all utopias, however, human nature itself is the ultimate shaper of outcomes. To the extent that they can, old patterns of thought and being will reassert themselves, and the poem imagines some aspects of this as well.

If many poems in this collection seem fitted to our moment in history, maybe that is because the pandemic forced a recognition of pressures that have been building in our culture. For example, the opening poem of the collection, “Your Fear,” was written in December of 2018—not in response to pandemic fears, but out of my realization that our personal and societal fears are partly created and certainly manipulated by the headlines someone in some media outlet has chosen to present to us on a given day. I am conscious of writing to engage with moments of time in a broader context (on the planet, in our global society) as I age. I have my small sliver of vision about how things are – what do I have to say? what do I have to say?

MSP – Your poems include many questions, more than I’ve ever seen in any one collection. Can you tell me about that?

LK – I had not considered that the book is filled with questions until you pointed it out. Maybe part of that is a function, again, of age! I am acutely aware of all that I do not know and will never know.

Here are some questions from the poems: “What is the new?” “What did I want?” “What do I have to say today?” “What do I know?”

A question opens a door – it makes space for what I might not have considered before. Questions are about wonder – about taking a fresh look, taking a step back and saying, “Hmmm.”

At this point in my life I feel an urgency to look at everything differently, to consider possibilities. And part of recognizing what might be possible is learning to ask the right question—the best question to enlarge understanding. Ultimately, the poems are concerned with discovering what questions are important to ask and accepting never having a single right answer for any of them. And it is about having faith in the midst of the unknowable. As a writer, I want to come at the world with what Keats called “negative capability,” which he characterized as “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

The questions in my poems point to moments of understanding, but they also admit the limits of what we can know. It’s about trusting not knowing. Facts and reason have a important place in discursive writing, but art helps us inhabit other points of view. I want my poems to be about learning empathy, honoring the mysteries of other ways of being.

MSP – “Poem for a Daughter” appears, scattered in the collection, in three versions, I, II, and III. You chose different forms for each. Tell me about these poems.

LK – The three “Poem(s) for a Daughter” were written separately and over a long period of time. Each had its own title, and I did not think of grouping them until I was well into making this book. As I chose which poems to include I knew that this collection circled issues of identity: who am I? how do I know who I am?

For many years, mothering was central to who I was. I wrote my first poems and essays about mothering. “Mother,” of course, is not a static identity. Each of these poems was born of a moment of transition as I moved from parenting children at home to becoming the mother of young adult and adult daughters.

The poems appear in the order in which they were written – the first one dating from when our daughters were coming home from college, suddenly independent and distanced from me. I had wanted that poem to be a sonnet, but could not get it into fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. I settled for sixteen lines which range from ten to seventeen syllables each. The uneven rhythm mimics my struggle to reach through the changing roles that separated us, though the poem settles toward iambic pentameter in the last five lines.

“Poem for a Daughter, II” is a villanelle occasioned by our oldest daughter’s pregnancy with her first child. The poem began as a villanelle, though it went through ten years of revisions (our oldest grandson turned 11 in June) to find the truest and most accurate words to express the layers of feeling I was trying to convey. The repetition and variation of the form – and the liberties I took with the refrain – reflect the fact that every pregnancy is both common and one of a kind, endlessly repeated and unique. From the very first draft, the villanelle had be the form for this poem.

“Poem for a Daughter, III” is a fairly new poem, drafted late last summer on a day that brought back the intensity of mothering our first child in a little house on a hillside in eastern Kentucky above the Big Sandy River during the worst winter in decades (1976-77). Again, the poem leans toward a sonnet’s shape and musicality, though it is not quite a double sonnet. Written on an August day that recalled the heat of our first August in that little house next to the church on Cow Creek, the poem speaks to an “all-at-onceness” contained in some moments when time feels as if it’s collapsed. My daughter and her daughter on the phone talking about a smelly mess made by a broken washer brought back those diaper pails of forty years ago, as if they were not gone at all. Were they truly gone? How can everything be both here and not here at the same time?

MSP – You include about ten sonnets in the book, five of what I call “”very free verse poems” (pages 7, 27, 35,39, & 50—you may have a different name?), and two prose poems, and at least one villanelle, one ode and one triolet. Can you say something about how you know when a poem should be a particular form.

LK – As I was saying about the “Poem for a Daughter” villanelle earlier, sometimes a form suggests itself and sustains layers of meaning in a poem. Form, allows me to play with words and step outside my normal phrasing and thought patterns. Far from constricting expression, form is a vehicle for discoveries as I write a poem.

Fixed forms – like the villanelle or triolet, for example – offer a doorway into difficult material sometimes and other times allow a playful stance. “Dream Shop,” the triolet in AL, gave me a way to render a vividly recalled dream – the form’s repeating lines mimicked the stuckness of the dreamer, her self-questioning: How did I end up here?

Content pushing against form creates a fruitful tension that makes a poem more interesting – both to write and to read. Meeting the demands of form forces me to consider more deeply exactly what I mean to say. As Richard Wilbur put it, “The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” Pursuing a form as I write makes each decision conscious: every word and line break, the sound and rhythm of each line, the visual impact of the poem.

The sonnet is my favorite fixed form, a challenging and useful container. Though it seems counterintuitive, the sonnet’s rigid structure has been part of why it has endured: poets through the centuries have wrestled with, adapted, rebelled against, and ultimately made use of the form. It’s just the right length to contain a small argument with the self. Its fourteen iambic lines put a limit on how far you can go. Rhyme complicates and diversifies the conversation with the self, forcing me to find language I would not have used otherwise.

Most of the sonnets I write begin as sonnets, with me letting the form itself guide me into the content of the poem. Reaching for a line-ending takes the poem in unexpected directions and is very satisfying. It’s rare (and difficult) for me to revise a free-verse poem into a form.

Very free verse poems – which may be characterized as “astrophic,” or not written in regular stanzas – make use of white space as well as line breaks and stanza breaks. I love this form for its sense of energy and whimsy, as in e.e. cummings’ poems. I can deploy lines across the field of the page to set up another layer of tensions and juxtapositions. Lines can mimic the way thought moves – white space can say, “On the one hand . . . but also. . .” simply by where words are placed in relationship to each other. May Swenson is an influence on my use of this kind of form, and, more recently, the poems of Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Prose poems offer a chance to blur genres – to tell a little story yet keep poetry’s strangeness and lyricism. They are (for me) the hardest form to trust. The two prose poems in And Luckier spent years in other forms before I thought to try them as prose poems. Now I try to make it a practice to put poems into un-lineated form to see what happens. Every change of form as I am revising shows me what isn’t in the poem yet – or what needs to come out.

I usually begin drafting free verse poems in a long unbroken stanza, with the lines finding whatever length seems to suit the rhythm of what I’m hearing in my head. Deciding where to break stanzas and whether open up the lines and use the whole page is part of what is, for me, usually a long process of revision that includes refining the language of the poem and paying attention to sound. Finding the form for a poem is the same thing as finding the poem for me—the form is part of the poem’s content.

MSP – What did you learn about aging in writing And Luckier?

LK – It’s not so much a matter of what I learned as what writing these poems allowed me to articulate that I had not found a way to say before. My poet self loves words for themselves, she plays with language and speculates and riffs on lists and sounds and associations, and in the process, she names what she feels, as in the poem, “Naming It.” Here, the aging woman claims her right to sing, “unasked.”

Writing poems –especially in forms like the sonnet (in “The Warp,” for instance) – leads me to voices I didn’t know I had. In “The Warp” I found images of rust and heat and slivers of light that voiced a wiser and more joyful understanding than I had articulated before. Through those images, I let go of the person I used to be and put away the dream of the person I thought I might become. These surrenders made space for the person who is and allowed me to embrace her in the poem’s last two lines.

Aging is a lesson in confronting limits. Writing these poems I learned that limits are best confronted with humor (if possible) and a big dose of self-compassion. The latter is not always easy to practice. Courage and optimism are also essential. Singing helps – and dancing, too, whenever and however you can. One thing that did surprise me was that many of the poems of aging took me to light-hearted places.

Part of the joy of putting And Luckier together as a collection was the chance it gave me, at 70, to speak back to the circumstances of my life and of the world. The part of me speaking in these poems has made a space for herself and claimed and filled it. When I teach a workshop or write with friends, we are creating and owning space for the kinds of understandings and delights and self-acceptance that making poems can bring us. We are doing it together, and there is joy in that.

MSP – Do you want to say anything about how difficult it is to have a poetry collection come out during the coronavirus pandemic?

LK – What I am most aware of is how many writers I know who had books coming out this spring and summer. Artists of all kinds – particularly ones whose art is performance – have faced challenges getting their work to its audience. Most musicians and writers responded by generously sharing work they would have otherwise been performing live over virtual platforms. We’ve had extraordinary online access to all kinds of art these past months!

Platforms like FaceBook and YouTube and Zoom have allowed us to get our work heard. In one way, it’s been an amazing thing to reach people around the world this way. Despite the potential reach of a virtual event, however, the trade-off is a loss of the energy and spontaneity of an in-person reading, not to mention the serendipitous conversations and connections that happen at live events. Like my other writing friends with new books, I had scheduled readings and local and regional events beginning in April and throughout most of the year. All but a couple of these have been cancelled – and those will be virtual.

It is more important than ever to talk to each other about books that came out during these months of social isolation. Sharing poems on social media and in email and Zoom conversations, writing reviews (even brief ones in social media posts), attending virtual readings, and buying books (from local booksellers if possible) are vital to sustain and support each other. Podcasts, blog posts, and interviews (like this one you are doing – thank you!) keep us aware of new books we can come to love. These days I am more aware of and grateful for the many ways we stay connected as artists.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Leatha Kendrick’s title poem comes in response to a quote from Walt Whitman: All goes onward and outward nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one is supposed, and luckier.” This blog is always a a virtual event, and I thank Leatha for working this interview in, around all the everyday events that yank us up and sooth us down, especially during the coronavirus epidemic. I’ll give Leatha the last word, from “There Was a Door”:

     What do I have to say today?
             Only Oh and Oh and Oh
     let me cross my own boundary
              open the door—

Melva Sue Priddy, a native Kentuckian, earned degrees in English/Education from Berea College and The University of Kentucky, before earning an MFA. Her poems witness survivance and growth, bringing to light truths that arise out of felt experience. In addition to poems, she creates gardens, quilts, and some rustic woodwork. Her poetry can be found in ABZ, Accents Publishing’s LexPoMo, Blood Lotus, The Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Motif Anthologies, The Single Hound, and Still.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Some notes on Teaching Poetry in a Crisis

—by Cole Bellamy

“We’re rebuilding the plane in the air”

That was the metaphor administration kept using—it would be said at least once, in every one of the twice-weekly meetings—from March, when we closed the campus, until graduation in June.

In my dual-enrollment English class, the shutdown coincided with the end of a unit on Hamlet, and beginning a unit on poetry. The plan had been a straightforward end to the semester: something my high school seniors could handle amid the mad rush of prom, graduation, and the rest of the ceremonial dog and pony show. Of course, as we all know, that was not the case. When the order came to shut down and move to online learning, I was faced with the prospect of quickly changing everything to fit into a Zoom window.

The job of a teacher, much of the time, is to be an advocate for the material—to sell students on the importance of the subject—this is already a fraught prospect when it comes to poetry. In my nine years in classrooms, I’m not sure if I’ve ever fully managed to convince students of the importance of poetry; not for lack of trying, of course, but in the nakedly transactional age of Trump and Tik-Tok, it can be an uphill battle. Add in the obvious limitations of distance learning, and the looming global crisis, and I wasn’t feeling terribly optimistic.

Even in the best of times, online teaching can feel like shouting into the void—the organic flow of classroom discussion is lost, replaced with videos, message boards, and infrequent Zoom chats. Poetry has always been a staple of my classroom—it can be an excellent tool for education, as it distills so many of techniques of effective communication into a concentrated form. It’s also a natively communal medium, something that should be read out loud in a small group, as opposed to prose, which is best read silently to the self. Losing that ability to lead face-to-face discussions, and to emphasize the experience of reading and listening to poetry, presented a major difficulty. I tried to substitute with brief video lectures, discussion questions, but it couldn’t replace the experience of the classroom—when a class discussion is really “cooking” there’s nothing quite like it. Still, I woke up every morning, put on a shirt and tie, went out to my back patio, read poetry to my laptop, posted follow-up questions, and waited for the message boards to fill up.

Feeling out and responding to the needs of students can be difficult enough face-to-face, and nearly impossible at a distance. We always hope that students will let us know what they need, but it isn’t always so simple. It was in our discussion for the poem ‘Lineage’ by Margaret Walker that the character of the class changed. The poem is one that I’ve taught many times, it looks into the past, into the speaker’s ancestors, searching for strength in a difficult time. It ends with a pointed question “My grandmothers were strong. / Why am I not as they?” I asked for students to discuss how the author created an emotional reaction in the poem, and that opened the flood-gates. Students began sharing their anxieties about the pandemic, their doubts about the future, and the feeling of being suddenly derailed right on the cusp of the rest of their lives. That was my cue to shift focus, away from what we can learn from poetry—how it can inform our sense of language and helps us become better communicators—to what poetry can do for us—how it can provide us with words to fit what we might already be feeling, how it can let us know we are not alone in those feelings. I shifted my focus to poems that deal with isolation, grief, disappointment, and the possibility of hope in difficult times. I also moved toward covering and discussing more contemporary work-—recent poetry that I had read and enjoyed. My students particularly liked ‘February and my love is in another state’ by Jose Olivarez, ‘Ruminant’ by Clodagh Beresford Dunne, and ‘America’ by Sarah Maria Medina.

I would love to say that my online poetry unit was a glorious life-changing experience for everyone involved, a spark that starts a life-long love of poetry; realistically though, I’ll settle for the possibility that I was able to provide some comfort and stability during a difficult time.

Cole Bellamy is a writer and educator from Tampa, Florida. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Lancelot’s Blues, The Mermaid Postcard, and American Museum, and his work has been featured in The Louisville Review, Penumbra, Defenestration, and most recently in Muse/A. He teaches creative writing at the Morean Arts Center, and blogs about Florida history, nature, and culture.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Review of Sherry Chandler’s "Talking Burley"

Talking Burley

      by Sherry Chandler

Main Street Rag, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-58848-721-2

81 pages


The following biography is from Main Street Rag Publishing’s website: 
Sherry Chandler grew up in the hills near the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers, where her family farmed burley tobacco for generations. Talking Burley is her third full-length book of poems. Her work has received several awards, including the Betty Gabehart, the Kudzu magazine prize, the Joy Bale Boone Prize, and the Editor’s Choice Award from Waypoints. Twice nominated for Best of the Net, three times for a Pushcart Prize, she has received financial support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She lives on a small Kentucky farm.”

I first met Sherry Chandler around ten years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. I’ve enjoyed her poetry collections Weaving A New Eden (2011) and The Woodcarver's Wife (2014) which I reviewed and interviewed her for. Last year I was lucky enough to read with her and Leatha Kendrick at River Valley Winery in Carrollton, Kentucky. Sherry has a website at:
       —Karen L. George

Review of Sherry Chandler’s Talking Burley

Sherry Chandler's Talking Burley examines the hardships and traumas of farming and consuming tobacco, along with aspects of the industry’s troubling history, woven with personal memories of growing up in that complex world. The poems intricately braid cultural and social history of Kentucky and the nation, delving into subjects such as illness, loss, strained relationships, war, debt, and greed contrasted against moments of beauty, wonder, reverence, and tenderness. She roots her poems in concrete, sensory detail, particularly of the natural world, quickened by humor and wit rubbing up against clear-sighted seriousness.

The first poem of collection, "Cigarettes," sets the stage for the book with a stark, honest account of her own history with cigarettes:
            I smoked them.
            I smoked them because I was married at 17 and divorced at 23.
            I smoked them because, when I heard the pistol, one shot in the dark,
                   I felt nothing. There was nothing.
            I smoked them pregnant.
            I sucked on them while my baby suckled on me.
            I smoked them at a quarter a pack, at half dollar a pack, at a dollar a
            I smoked them through vows I wouldn’t pay more.
            I paid more.

The repetition suggests the power of the cigarette addiction alongside the narrator’s feeling of helplessness to give them up. The poem goes on to say she smoked them when her “mother-in-law died of lung cancer,” and when her father smoked while wearing oxygen, ending with the emotionally intense lines:

            I quit them.
            I sat on the kitchen stool and I hugged myself. I hugged myself and I
                   rocked myself. I rocked myself and I screamed.

In “Founding Principles,” she talks about our nation’s shameful history, how it was “built by slaves,” how the top of the Capitol’s columns is decorated with tobacco leaves, as are school rings. The poem ends with the acknowledgement of our troubling, complicated history, with a striking contrast of light and dark images:

            We re a city on a hill
            We are a thousand points of light
            We are burning crosses.

Several poems examine the tobacco wars of the early 1900’s in Western Kentucky and Tennessee. Because the American Tobacco Company priced tobacco so low that farmers couldn’t make any profit from it, the Planters' Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee (called PPA) was formed. The Night Riders, a militant group of the PPA, began to attack farms of growers who did not support the PPA—destroying tobacco crops, buildings, machinery, and attacking individuals.

The poem “Pearl Wilhoit” describes Night Riders in Hopkinsville, Kentucky that “destroyed property valued at over $200,000.” In “The Night Rider,” written from the point-of-view of one of the Night Riders, the state of Kentucky’s motto is praised, “United we stand, divided we fall,” urging all tobacco growers to join the PPA and boycott the monopoly of the American Tobacco Company:        

            Time to teach your old squirrel gun
            some new tricks. If those hillbilly holdouts
            take Duke’s bribe, if they don’t pledge
            their tobacco to the pool, 
            we’ll all fall.

            The ones who won’t starve with us,
            we won’t let them fatten against us.

The poem “How to Lose the Family Farm” lists incremental ways such a loss can occur, starting with such things as war; or when you’re forced to borrow against the crop so you can have enough money to grow it; or recessions and depressions. The poem lists other ways, repeating the same sentence structure, emphasizing the escalating manner of this plight:
            Start when the Night Riders call you hillbilly, scrape your plant beds,
            burn your barn in the name of solidarity.

            Start when you join the Night Riders, become the enforcer, so you don’t
            have to watch your children starve.
            Start when the juggernaut of agribusiness runs you down, when the
            American Tobacco Company swallows up all competition for your
            money crop.
            Start with having a money crop, all those eggs and only one basket. 

The above stanzas convey the sense of defeat those tobacco growers must have felt. While reading these poems, I noticed how timely they felt, though placed in the past, because unfortunately they point out a sad truth still present in today’s world—that money and big business control everything. 

The poem “Smoke Rings” powerfully conveys how tobacco provided many things, not all wanted: 

            Tobacco (dip chews at jawbone, teeth, and tongue) buys
             life insurance, health insurance, chemotherapy
            Tobacco (allotments laced with chemicals grow steroidal crops)
            crop my sister raised bought her first piano and necessary lessons
            Tobacco (smoke fills the organs of breath with carbon monoxide)
            tithes bought the organ my sister plays on Sundays, hymns ruined
            lungs can’t sing to save their souls

The poem also alludes to the child labor practice rampant on the tobacco farms. In a note to this poem, the author references a 2011 article by Sarah Bosely in The Guardian, which “estimates that there were 1.3 million [children working in tobacco fields] worldwide under the age of 14”:        

Tobacco farmers’ sons (unschooled) schooled in tobacco culture
paid the taxes, built the schools

The irony of the above lines perfectly portrays some of the quandaries associated with tobacco growing and its business.

Many of Chandler’s poems recount memories of her time growing up on a tobacco-growing farm. In “Fires at Night,” she’s reminded of a fire “sixty years ago” when they burned tobacco plant beds “to sterilize the ground, / ready it to receive seeds small as the dot / at the end of this sentence.” Such a beautiful image of hope—life rising from the ashes. 

In the collection’s title poem, “Talking Burley,” she speaks about the “Mysteries of language,” that tobacco had its own vocabulary, how “we spoke, our broad a’s and flat i’s / made a job of a jab, turned a harrow to a hire, / ware to wire, and wire itself to wahr,” and how cured tobacco was arranged “into ordered piles / / we called books.” 

She gives examples of her part in the family’s tobacco growing in “To Set Tobacco with the Season,” where you need: “a nine-year-old / granddaughter / willing to drop / the seedlings along / the laid-off rows.” In “The Jobber” she and her cousin assist Uncle James and her big sister in the planting process: 

            Uncle James shouts water boy! And me
            and my cousin take off with our lard
            buckets full. The bucket bail 

            bites my palm, sweat bees sting the bend
            of my knees. When I cry, Uncle James says
            sweat bees only sting lazy people. 

Many poems are alive with images of the natural world. In “Cicadas” she expresses their sound so exquisitely as “a conch-shell swell and fall…as if holding to ear a humpbacked larval husk / to hear the shimmer of the earth’s pulse.” She has poems about horseflies, tobacco worms, “soft as baby hair, / vulnerable / as exposed gut,” and grasshoppers who “bet / their lives on the thrust of their long / hind legs.” In “Grasshopper” we see her delightful sense of humor and wit: 

            A tobacco worm is soft as a Quaker.
            A grasshopper is hard-shelled as a Baptist. 


This poet apologizes to the Quakers. 


Take a July walk
down the farm road
just to look over your tobacco,
a sizzling scatter of grasshoppers
will mark your progress
like a child’s sparkler
shedding stars. 

What a lovely image to end the poem, creating a pleasing sense of awe, along with the marvelous onomatopoeic line: “a sizzling scatter of grasshoppers.” 

The poem “Thurston” opens with a beautiful description of a creek: 

            A thing of roots and mud, the high bank smells
            of fish, rotten sycamore leaves, the rank horseweeds,
            growing thick as a stockade wall along this deep hole
            where a grown man might wade up to his neck
            in murky water.            

In the poem “Rivers” she relates a memory and the poet’s deep connection to the natural world. It opens with rich imagery of sight, sound, scent, and motion: 

Smells of early morning rivers
lap at memory in small
wind-driven waves, slap
against a plywood boat. 

I love how it gives a heron and three buzzards equal footing in the next stanza, creating a gorgeous image of the buzzards: 

            Dragging its legs, a heron
            takes flight. Three buzzards
            on a snag open prayer-book
            wings to greet the dawn. 

The poem ends with a stanza of family with her in the boat, and how they are intricately braided: 

            Daddy’s rumbling
            volcano voice,
            his cigarette smoke,
            my brother’s chuckle,
            all helix-entwined
            in my watery cells. 

Those last two lines are so powerful, suggesting the spiral chain of DNA contains shared memory (genetic memory), and the idea that memories are held in your body at the cellular level. 

Many of the poems examine memories and various ideas of legacy. In “The Barn or Housing Kentucky Burley,” where the Kentucky burley hung to dry, is now a place where “a wake of turkey vultures roosts / in the ruin, nesting on rafters forty feet // above the ground.” 

In “Legacy North,” the poet speaks of, and to, her Grandfather Christoph, who emigrated from Silesia: 

            For all I know Silesia is all vampires and werewolves,
            Like Kentucky is all creationists and toothless meth cooks.  
            Like Kentucky, it’s a backwater.

            Like Kentucky, it’s known for mountains and cursed with coal. 

Further in the poem, she again brings up her family’s, Kentucky’s and our nation’s complicated history: “I am from those enslaved. // I am from those who enslaved others.”  

Several poems present her family history through the gaze of old photographs. In “Chandler Brothers, 1936” her father, “bent under the propped-up hood” of a “broken-down Buick,” “is a shadow obscured by deeper shadows.” Her Uncle James, “his body half out of the frame, / cud in his jaw…looking back to confront the camera.” The poem, “Father and Children in Sepia, 1937,” opens with a question as to what her sister is “looking at, off to the right,” and closes with that same sister “ready to run / to whatever it is that’s out of the frame.”  

Music threads through many of the poems. In “Rhapsody in Common Time, Episode 1,” she tells of a grandfather who plays the mandolin. “Rhapsody in Common Time, Episode 2” describes a great-grandfather as follows: “to survive a 19th century amputation, / chugged straight bourbon anesthetic, / his bone bisected by a bona fide sawbones / as he lay on the kitchen table singing.” 

The poems that explore the complexity of a troubled Kentucky and U.S. history are echoed in the personal history poems about difficult relationships. In “No Last Words” she writes of her father dying:  

“…in those struggling months I learned that old
and breathless men are not thereby made mild.
Those wasted stringy muscles hold 

the imprint of a power, a will both wild
and ordinary, strength enough to punch
a nurse. 

The poem goes on to reveal she wasn’t present when he died, and there was “No chance for deathbed drama, no chance to say / what we would not have said, our softer fealty/sealed in a steel-gray coffin, a church-yard grave.” There is such emotional intensity in the ending stanzas: 

            No chance to overwrite the day I failed
            a father stripped and strapped to a plastic chair
            without a sheet or curtain to hide his frailty, 

            the day I learned love can be trumped by fear,
            that I had no resources that could tame
            the alien eloquence of his hate-filled stare, 

            and since I could not speak to him of shame,
            I don’t remember that we spoke again. 

There is such power in the phrase, the image of  “the alien eloquence of his hate-filled stare,” through the odd pairing of “alien” and “eloquence,” along with the seeming contradiction of a “hate-filled stare” being “eloquent.” This complexity and duality of the phrase perfectly mirrors their fraught relationship. In “Little Man,” she talks about several generations of men (son, grandson), her husband (“my engendering lover is now the Old Man.”), and her father described as: 

            …my smoking, drinking, roofbeam-walking,
            mean-as-hell one-and-only-father,
            who would not have said those two words, [Little Man]
            but taught his sons what he knew:
            to build a barn plumb and never show fear            

The poem “Lost” contains another memory of the time her mother lost her solitaire ring down the drain. She says, “Daddy offered / the diamond with his promise of good behavior / after twenty-five turbulent years.” The poem ends with her musing: 

            …I like to think the ring washed
            all the way out onto the hillside slick, that it remains,
            claimed by clay and sod, leached like greasy water,
            an emblem of her union with the man, the house,
            the ridge, and me, the child that hard clay bred. 

The poem “Resolved” feels as if it’s set in the present day, resolving the past. It begins “This year let us hear our whispering better angels. / This year let us see from a more forgiving angle…” Then the poem shifts into a past memory: 

            When I was a child I’d hang from my father’s boat,
            up to my ears in the river. While he ran his trot 

             line, I listened to the grunting speech of carp and buffalo,
             he song the river sang when the sun was low. 

The poem ends with evocative images and again the wish to let go of what we can’t resolve, and a desire to see things in a different, kinder light: 

            How easy it was, at nine or ten, to float
            along the plane between, neither in nor out. 

            This year let us cut the knots we can’t untangle.
            This year let us see from a more forgiving angle. 

The last poem in the book, “The Monster Opens its Eyes While the Closing Credits Roll” takes place squarely in the present, speaking of a man who only ever wanted “a farm and a family,” who “expects to prove himself. Like his father / and his grandfathers, he wants to be / what he knows how to be: a good tobacco man.” The poem, and the book, ends with the following stanza: 

            For setting, housing, he hires brown-skinned
            immigrants he calls Mexican. Who cares
            how many borders the fake news says they’ve crossed
            or why –no one else will work like slaves
            in August heat at wages he can almost afford.
            Not slaves, no chain gangs, no coiled whips
            or shot guns. The bottom line:  he has to have
            cheap labor. Tobacco is making a comeback.   

These lines echo this legacy of the hard life and the dilemmas faced, of the tobacco grower now and in the past, as examined throughout this book. They also suggest to me that this hope for a tobacco comeback is in reality a false hope, which mirrors the idea of bringing back coal—a newer, clean coal—just one of the false promises made during the campaign of our current president. 

The poems in Sherry Chandler's Talking Burley capture tobacco farming, culture, and industry of the past that factored into forming our nation, seen through the eyes of various people who experienced it. She brings our country’s, Kentucky’s and her personal history alive through clear-eyed examination peppered with wit and humor. These poems are infused with multi-layered rhythm, imagery, and emotional depth, unflinching in their honesty and vulnerability, instilled with tenderness, longing, and a reverence for the land and our connections to it and our ancestors.

 Here are links to some of Sherry Chandler’s poems:

If you want to hear Sherry Chandler talk about her book “Talking Burley,” listen to this interview on Katerina Stoykova’s  Accents, A Radio Show for Literature, Art and Culture. 

Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, enjoys photography and visiting forests, museums, cemeteries, historic towns, and bodies of water. She is author of five chapbooks, most recently the collaborative ekphrastic Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and two poetry collections from Dos Madres Press: Swim Your Way Back  (2014) and A Map and One Year (2018). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Heron Tree, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Juniper, Thimble Magazine, South Broadway Ghost Society, and Gyroscope Review. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website at: