Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon reads at Sewanee

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Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu, Executive Staff

Students and community members recently filed into the backyard of The Sewanee Review house on South Carolina Avenue to hear Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon read her poetry. Lyon is the author of popular children books such as All the Water in the World and The Pirate of Kindergarten and has published numerous of poetry collections such as Many Storied House and She Let Herself Go.

The event, sponsored by the English Department, The Sewanee Review, and The Mountain Goat Journal, began with an introduction from The Mountain Goat editor, Simon Boes (C’18). He spoke about Lyon’s Where I’m From project, where she received 731 poems from writers in 83 of 120 counties in Kentucky. She is now involved in a national Where I’m From project that encourages writers from all over the country to write about their hometowns.   

Lyon then took to the podium to recite her first poem about her name. She remarked on the difficulties she has faced because her first name is more commonly a male name.

“In fact, my birth certificate was rejected,” she quipped, “but that’s another story.”

Lyon started writing when she was a child. Her father read poetry aloud to her, and she “fell in love with the sound of it and with the feelings.” Because she was a timid child, she found that writing served as an expressive outlet for her thoughts.

Her second poem of the evening was “Some Big Loud Woman,” where she stated: “I need some big loud woman to listen to/ Orangey red wild haired, her voice like a waterfall of kettles/ Her head back, her eyes shut, to roar that music out.”

Lyon then described a project that eventually grew into her book, Many Storied House. It began with an exercise that involved mapping a memory house, drawing the floor plan, making a note of the memory in the house, and then answering a number of questions pertaining to said memory. She focused on her childhood home, which was built for her parents by her grandfather, and therefore had a lot of sentimental value.

The first poem she read from Many Storied House involved her memory of being pushed through a window when her parents had forgotten the keys inside.

“It never occurred to me till I was writing that poem the power that I had,” she remarked after reading it. “I didn’t have to let them back in. The kingdom was mine, but I never thought about that. Nobody ever just waved out the bedroom window.”

The evening progressed with more poems from Lyon, interspersed with her entertaining and often inspirational commentary throughout. When introducing her newest book, Girl Who Knows Too Much, she stated that it was yet an unrejected book.

To the gathered crowd of literary aficionados, she said, “I sent out books for 11 years before I got one published. Rejection is like getting calluses on your fingers if you want to play guitar. You want to play, it hurts. You want to publish, you get rejected.”

She went on to speak about her love of Virginia Woolf and ended with a song that she played on her washboard. After her official reading, Lyon spoke with several students who attended the event about her own writing processes and inspirations.

Her advice is best summarized in a poem she read earlier in the evening: “The page is not your limit/ This book, this room, they are not your margins/ You can write on a street, a state, a continent/ You who wove your words out of meadow-grasses and hawk feathers, write on the river, write on the sky, write in between November sycamore branches, on the line of a prairie horizon.”

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