A Poet and a Teacher
Jane Gentry Vance Combines the Roles of Poet Laureate and College Professor
By Allison L. Elliott
Jane Gentry Vance, the new Poet Laureate of Kentucky, wrote her first poem in second grade. It began with the words "[t]he very first Christmas long, long ago? Took place in a manger where the cattle did low."
"Hardly great verse," she says, "but I was surprised at how it seemed to come to me with the beginnings of its form already in place. I knew that I'd discovered a new pleasure. I guess I first thought of myself as a decent poet when I took the beginning writing workshop my first semester at Hollins College in Virginia."
Today Vance, a professor of English, helps University of Kentucky students discover the pleasures of thinking and writing about the world around them. She credits her own teachers at Hollins and at Henry Clay High School in Lexington with encouraging her interest in writing. Well aware of the importance of mentoring in the lives of young writers, Vance notes that her "single most important teacher who helped me think of myself as a poet is critic and novelist Louis D. Rubin, Jr., who was my mentor both when I was an undergraduate at Hollins and when I was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. He has the gift of being able to see clearly what a writer is trying to do and to tell her what she needs to do to make the work better."
While serving as poet laureate, Vance will continue to teach poetry writing workshops for the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of English and humanities courses for the UK Honors Program. UK students will have the unusual opportunity to study writing with a poet who is splitting her time between teaching college students in the classroom and teaching Kentuckians about the importance of their literary heritage.
Inducted as poet laureate in April 2007, Vance has already begun her two year term of traveling the Commonwealth speaking on the importance of literature to groups at libraries, schools and civic clubs. When asked to describe her goals for her tenure, she has plenty to say about the rich literary history of her home state.
"I want to witness to and advocate for the importance of writing and literature in the rich culture of Kentucky. We’re lucky to live in a state with an inner life, as well as a definite place in the bigger picture. Many Kentuckians have written, are writing, eloquently about what it means to be human, in particular circumstances and times. Such contemporary writers as Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson, Gwyn Rubio, Lisa Williams, Maurice Manning, Nikky Finney, Tony Krunk, Frank X Walker, and others, aren’t as well known to Kentuckians, especially young Kentuckians, as their out-of-state reputations indicate that they would be. Like my predecessors, I want to spread the word of the richness of Kentucky story-telling in all its forms, and particularly to encourage the enjoyment of poetry as a form of story-telling. I have a deep attachment to Kentucky and my place here, and I feel unspeakably honored to be part of the Kentucky poet laureate tradition. The laureates of the last ten years, James Still, Joy Bale Boone, Richard Taylor, James Baker Hall, Joe Survant, and Sena Jeter Naslund, are company I’d like to prove worthy of."
In her teaching life, Vance understands the importance of helping students connect with their world in words and emotions. Having found her own path as a writer during college and graduate school (her childhood career choice was to be a detective "like Nancy Drew" and she wanted to join the foreign service until a poor grade on a college French exam intervened), she delights in interacting with students and "being in touch with their liveliness, their commitment to their future and the future of Earth, their hunger to know things and to learn to be good at writing. These energies keep me aware of the hope for the renewal of the world, even as we experience overwhelming chaos and violence both close to home and globally."
While it is a lucky thing for UK students that Jane Gentry Vance will continue to teach while serving as poet laureate, it only makes sense to her to continue the work she loves while expanding her reach as a writer and educator throughout the state.
"Getting to share with students my sense of how we have gotten to this time and place, from the beginnings of our cultures, feels like getting paid for what I’d like to be doing anyway."
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.
Gentry, Jane. "A Garden in Kentucky." A Garden in Kentucky. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. 3.