• Podcast
  • Apr 24 2019

Writer Jeff Worley Appointed Kentucky Poet Laureate

Jeff Worley, retired editor of University of Kentucky's research magazine, Odyssey, has been appointed 2019-2020 Kentucky Poet Laureate by Gov. Matt Bevin.

Worley will be inducted, as part of the Kentucky Arts Council’s Kentucky Writers’ Day celebration, April 24 at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives in Frankfort, Kentucky. “I’m grateful for the recognition, and I’m very eager to spread the gospel of poetry around the state,” he said.

An accomplished writer, Worley has published five books, three chapbooks and has edited a poetry anthology titled, "What Comes Down to Us," published by University Press of Kentucky. His poems have also appeared in more than 500 literary magazines and journals across the United States and Canada. One of Worley's most widely recognized collections, "Happy Hour at Two Keys Tavern," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

In addition to the accolades for his books, Worley has received three Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowships and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.

Worley was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. In 1975, he was the second graduate of the Wichita State University MFA Creative Writing Program. Following graduation, he pursued teaching and began his career at the University of Maryland's European Division. Worley worked for the university until 1983 — teaching composition, developmental writing, technical writing, creative writing and American literature.

In 1984, Worley became an assistant professor of English at the Penn State Altoona campus. He and his wife, Linda, moved to Lexington two years later. "And immediately, the first thing we noticed is just how open and friendly and welcoming, not only the writing community, but the academic community is at UK — various people were trying to get to know us, show us around and invite us to parties and so forth."

Worley joined the staff of Odyssey, UK's research magazine, and tried his hand at science writing. He became editor of the magazine in 1997.

"It was a brand-new subject matter I'd never considered before. And some of the articles that I wrote directly funneled into my poetry. One example was a piece, ‘The Rock Fences of the Bluegrass,’ where Karl Raitz, the geographer, was chronicling how many miles were left of the fences," Worley said. The description of how builders selected and stacked stones had a clear connection to the process of writing poetry. “I was alert to seeing how I might be able to use the experience of the writing I was doing with Odyssey."

Worley retired from UK in 2010, but he still works for several magazines across the country as a freelance writer. During his tenure as Kentucky Poet Laureate, he plans to promote Kentucky writers.

"Kentucky has a long history of narrative poetry. I just, probably unknowingly, tapped into that when I came here," he said. "I picture going to high schools, colleges, libraries and various civic groups to help spread the word. I’m looking forward to it tremendously.”

The governor appoints a poet laureate to a two-year term. That person acts as Kentucky’s literary ambassador, leading the Commonwealth in a variety of literary activities and events throughout their tenure.

Intro VO: Have you ever wondered who is doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you meet those people and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery. Here's Alicia Gregory, Director of Research Communications. 

VO: Today we’ll meet Jeff Worley. Jeff hired me in 1996, and he retired from UK as Odyssey magazine editor in 2009. He was just named Kentucky Poet Laureate. I talked to Jeff about this honor in his writer’s loft—the second story of the home he shares with his wife Linda in Lexington, Kentucky.

So first of all, congratulations.

Thank you.

Tell me how you reacted when you first found out about this honor.

I was happily surprised. And I just immediately started projecting ahead to-- because I know what the former laureates have done. And a lot of it is going to high schools, going to libraries around Kentucky, book clubs, civic groups, and talking about Kentucky writing--Kentucky writers. So I can't wait to get started, you know. I think it's going to be a wonderful two years. And I'm going to get to see a whole lot of Kentucky that I've never been to. And that excites me. That's going to be great.

So tell me a little bit about briefly how a Kansas boy ends up in Kentucky and being named Kentucky Poet Laureate.

I don't know if I can do that briefly. But I'll try.

Well, after I got my MFA and went to Germany. Where I was hired by University of Maryland's European Division-- this was '75-- taught over there for eight years. And not incidentally, that's where I met Linda. We were teaching in adjoining classrooms, and all this time I'm writing poetry, of course. I went back to Cincinnati for a year while she finished her doctorate. And then I got a job with Penn State in '84. So I was at Penn State for two years and all this time writing poems, sending them out, getting most of them back. Some of them stuck in magazines though. And so we came here in '86. And immediately, the first thing we noticed is just how open and friendly and welcoming not only the writing community, but the academic community at UK-- various people were trying to get to know us and show us around and invite us to parties and so forth.

And I'm continuing to write poems in the evenings. So after a number of years. I'd published six books, four chapbooks, and this anthology, which came out now 10 years ago almost to the day, which was great fun.

And I'd gotten awards here and there-- an NEA and three Al Smith Awards from the Kentucky Arts Council. So I started having, I think, a pretty decent resume. And well, we've been here 33 years now.

And somebody asked me maybe 10 years ago, well, when are you going to be poet laureate? And I said, well, I can't be, because I'm from Kansas. And I forget who I was talking with-- a poet at the time-- who said, well, I now deem you an adopted Kentuckian. So I became an adopted Kentuckian at some point. And so I guess I qualified. Yeah.


Excellent. So has or how has your academic experience teaching English as you did and then working at UK for the research magazine Odyssey for so many years-- how did that shape your writing in general?

Actually, I think teaching shaped my editing more than writing, because I taught a whole lot of writing classes-- English 101 and 102 and technical writing, some creative writing. So I was I was grading papers and editing in that way. I think with Odyssey, the research magazine, there are three things in particular that I think helped my poetry a lot.

One of them was just brand-new subject matter I'd never considered before. And some of the articles that I wrote directly funneled into my poetry. One example was a piece called "The Rock Fences of the Bluegrass," where Karl Raitz, the geologist, was chronicling how many miles were left of the fences and so forth and terrific work.

And a British stonemason named Richard Tufnell was working with Karl. And at one point-- and this was in the article that I wrote--he said, dry stone building is an art. Stones must be selected by shape to fit snugly and securely together.

To me that was an immediate analogy to what poets do. And so I use this quote as an epigraph to a poem about poetry. So I was alert to seeing how I might be able to use the experience of the writing I was doing with Odyssey.

nother example--I write a lot and always have about animals, especially since we have cabin at Cave Run Lake now. I have quite a few animal poems. And I wrote an Odyssey article in '97 right after I hired you--


I believe, about pheromones, work by Thomas and Marilyn Getchell. And so this new knowledge worked itself into several poems at the time--the role of pheromones in animal behavior.

So there was that clear connection. The most important, though, I think was the many research projects at UK that had to do with Alzheimer's. My father started showing signs of significant memory loss in the early '90s just when I was doing my research on Alzheimer's for an article featuring the work of Dr. Marksbery.

And so early on I was able to tell my father kind of what was happening to him. And he was open to that early on. He could he could understand it. And I felt grateful that I was able to do that. And apart from being better able to understand what was happening to dad, terminology worked its way into a number of poems.

For example, here's a here's a segment from The Body Snatchers from a chapbook of mine, titled "Leave Time." And it focuses totally on my parents. “I can tell you now what we know about beta amyloid covalent bonds, how free radicals can launch themselves into cell membranes, the imperceptible explosions that led you here.” That's language that I didn't have before I started writing scientific and medical articles for Odyssey. So some of the experiences I had led directly into my poetry.

So let's talk a little bit about narrative poetry style, which is what you focused on. Why is that something that excites you? Why did you choose that route?

Everybody likes a good story. I've always been attracted to good stories, to fiction in that way. And there are poets who are primarily narrative poets. Kentucky has a long history of narrative poetry. And I just, probably unknowingly, tapped into that when I came here. They are just great storytellers in Kentucky. I also write lyrical poems. But you're right. I think most of my poems are more narrative.

So I've read a number of your poems. I have a few of the chapbooks. And one of the things I've noticed is, while you do throw in a good $10 word here and there, you're not cluttered with that, and they always seem very accessible. Some poetry is over complicated, I think, and most people have trouble getting through it. I mean, is that a conscious choice, or is that just how you communicate?

It's a conscious choice. I want my poems to be accessible, if they're really good, memorable. I want the reader to always know where she is in a poem. And the language is pretty much conversational language. I think of poetry as heightened speech, and it's heightened by the tools of the poet-- metaphor, imagery, sound patterning, analogy. There's a there's a large toolkit that poets use, and it's a way to let the reader know that he is in the slightly rare atmosphere of poetry. But I'd like to think that any of my poems could actually be stated by somebody in some situation, somebody that's really attuned to language and gets a little lucky. But the last thing I want to do is write obscure, translucent poems, that the modernists like to do. But I'd like to connect with people through my poetry. And just simply being understandable is a good step in that direction.

So where is your favorite place to write? And what is your favorite time to write?

That is a great question. And I am so lucky I have two favorite places to write. You're looking at one of them. And I've showed you around a little bit here. The other-- we, 15 years ago, we bought a cabin at Cave Run Lake. And it's a fantastic place. It's not on the lake. It's close to the lake. And Linda pretty much redesigned the whole back part of the cabin. One of the things added on was a screened-in porch. It's probably 12 feet by 10 feet. And it needs to be screened in because of the insect activity out there. And on a good day, I'll sit out there in the afternoons, let's say, for two or three hours. And I have my pad. And we have, in back, bird feeders. We have a metal drum for deer food. And we get regularly deer, turkeys, the occasional fox, all sorts of birds, that come in. And I just love watching them and learning from them. And I'm looking out at the woods. So, I don't see how a place gets any better than that for a writer.

Absolutely not. So do you write everything longhand?

Yes. I start out on lined paper and write everything longhand, probably the first two or three drafts. Then I'm eager to see what it looks like typed up, because the shape of a poem on the page is important to me. And I think it is, too, to most poets. And from then on, it's a matter of sometimes there is still heavy revision that needs to happen, sometimes just a line or two. You just don't know until you get working with it.

But I know some poets who just start out on the keyboard. And I can't imagine that. I like that tactile interaction with the pen and the paper, which also, because I'm old, and I've always done it that way.

Have there been times when you've been kind of stuck creatively? How have you overcome some of that?

The only time that I feel stuck, or some people would say blocked, is maybe if I'm sick or really tired or just have other things that I have to do. I kind of don't believe in writer's block, because all you have to do is just put a line of anything on that blank piece of paper, and you're off and running. William Stafford has a great book on that called Writing the Australian Crawl. And basically, he says start anywhere, and see where that line wants to take you. See where the language wants you to take it and follow it along.

And it's important to not know where you're going. It's important to be surprised on the page by what you're doing. It keeps interest, for one thing. And here's the worst thing that can happen. It can be a lousy poem. So what? You get past it, and you go on to something else.

And I would say, too, especially younger poets, if you want to write a good poem or a great poem, write lots and lots of poems. Because most of them aren't going to be very good. 

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