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Fennelly Named Mississippi Poet Laureate

Acclaimed author will spend four years working to promote poetry in schools, creating works for state

AUGUST 11, 2016 | BY UM COMMUNICATIONS 

Gov. Phil Bryant has named noted poet and UM educator Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate. Photo by Mike Stanton

Gov. Phil Bryant has named noted poet and UM educator Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate. Photo by Mike Stanton

Governor Phil Bryant has named noted poet and University of Mississippi educator Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate. The prize-winning author will spend the next four years as the official state poet while working to make poetry more accessible to Mississippians.

Fennelly, professor of English, is director of the UM Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, and she teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the university. She will leave her position as director, which she’s held for six years, to fulfill her new duties.

She said she’s honored to be selected to replace Natasha Trethewey, whom she admires, as poet laureate.

“Southerners in general and Mississippians in particular are known to have produced many of our nation’s greatest writers,” Fennelly said. “It will give me joy to help promote literary arts throughout the state and encourage future generations of Mississippi storytellers and writers.”

Her new duties include creating and reading poetry during state occasions and participating in school and community events that promote appreciation of poetry. The distinction of Mississippi poet laureate dates to 1963. Fennelly said she has major aspirations for her new role.

“I look forward to continuing and deepening my work with the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Out Loud Initiative in Mississippi, the fabulous Mississippi Book Festival, and the schools, libraries and organizations that grow and nurture talent from our rich Mississippi soil,” she said.

The governor said he is pleased Fennelly will continue Mississippi’s rich literary tradition.

“Mississippi’s reputation for the written word is unmatched the world over, and Beth Ann will strengthen that reputation,” Bryant said. “I am pleased to appoint her poet laureate.”

W. W. Norton published Fennelly’s second and third collections of poetry, “Tender Hooks” (2004) and “Unmentionables” (2008), as well as her book of nonfiction, “Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother” (2006). In 2013, HarperCollins published “The Tilted World,” a novel that Fennelly co-wrote with her husband, author and associate professor of English, Tom Franklin. It was named an IndieNext Great Read, became a finalist for the 2014 SIBA Book Award and has been published in six foreign editions.

Her sixth book, “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs,” will be published by W. W. Norton in fall 2017.

Fennelly’s poem “The Kudzu Chronicles,” from “Unmentionables,” is grounded in her experience in Mississippi and references William Faulkner, the Neshoba County Fair and her home in Oxford. Its closing stanzas were used as lyrics for Jackson musician Claire Holley’s song “Kudzu.”

In 2011 she was named UM Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. Her first collection of poetry, “Open House,” was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick and won a Kenyon Review Prize, a Zoo Press Poetry Prize and a Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award.

Born in New Jersey and reared in the Chicago area, Fennelly has written and taught around the United States and world before settling in Mississippi in 2001. She received a bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, then taught English for a year in a coal mining village on the Czech-Polish border.

She returned to the United States to earn her M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas. She then completed a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin and went on to teach at Knox College in Illinois. She has completed residencies at the University of Arizona and MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, fellowships at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Sewanee, and a 2009 Fulbright grant studying poetry in Brazil.

Fennelly has received a number of national awards, including a 2001 Pushcart Prize and a 2002 National Endowment of the Arts grant in poetry. She received a United States Artist Grant in 2006 and the Subiaco Award for Literary Merit in 2012.

The Mississippi Arts Commission awarded Fennelly grants for nonfiction in 2005 and 2015, and for poetry in 2010. In 2015, the A Room of Her Own Foundation presented her with the Orlando Award in Nonfiction, and in 2016, she received the Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction from The Chattahoochee Review.

The poet laureate title has been a time-honored way of drawing attention to the importance of poetry in national discourse, said Ivo Kamps, chair and professor of English. The title dates back to 1616, when King James I of England gave poet and playwright Ben Jonson a pension, with the expectation he would write occasional verses to commemorate the country’s major events.

“It is an incredible honor for Beth Ann Fennelly and for the University of Mississippi that she is called to join in this tradition,” Kamps said. “I can’t think of a better person in the role than Beth Ann because she has written lyrically, lovingly, but also poignantly about the state of Mississippi.

“Her verse confronts readers with poetry’s best attributes: a clear understanding of proportion and form, captivating rhythms, striking imagery and startling insights.”

Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, said he’s also thrilled with the selection.

“Beth Ann’s accomplishments in literature are too numerous to mention,” White said. “We are thrilled that she has chosen to make her home in Mississippi and contribute to arts and education in our state. She is an excellent choice for Mississippi’s poet laureate.”

UM’s very own Beth Ann Fennelly chosen as new poet laureate for Mississippi

Photo by Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Photo by Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Three volumes of poems, two books of essays, and a book co-authored with her husband has led to Beth Ann Fennelly being named Mississippi’s Poet Laureate.

Fennelly’s selection was announced Wednesday by Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, at the Rotunda of the Capitol Building.  She was chosen from among three finalists submitted to Gov. Phil Bryant by the state poet laureate selection committee.

Although Fennelly submitted an application to be considered for the post, she says her only reaction was to giggle when she found out she had been chosen.

“I’m really tickled, I’m so happy. Even though I knew I was nominated and knew that my application had been progressing through the system, somehow I just didn’t imagine it would happen,” said Fennelly.

A Chicago native, Fennelly, a University of Mississippi associate professor directing the master of fine arts program in the English Department, says it’s an honor to be recognized by a place she loves:

“To leave the place where you are from, and to find a new place, and to think this is my spiritual home. I want to die here, this is where I want to raise my kids, this is where I want to educate my children, this is where I want to live and make my friends. And for that place to claim me as I have claimed it has been a profound experience.”

Being in the South, she says is a great place to be a writer, especially in Mississippi. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and her master of fine arts degree from the University of Arkansas.

“I feel like Oxford specifically, and in Mississippi in general, reading still matters. It’s still a place where the stories we tell about each others lives influence our lives,” Fennelly said.

Fennelly says she thought she began to think about being a poetess in college, but that turned out not to be the case. At a reading, a person in the audience asked her when she knew she wanted to be a poet.

“I told them the story about being in a great college creative writing class,” Fennely recalled, “and my mom was in the audience, and she raised her hand. And she said, ‘that’s not true Beth Ann, I have a letter you wrote when you were seven saying you wanted to be a poet, p-o-i-t.’”

Now that Fennelly is Mississippi’s poet laureate for the next four years, she hopes to spread the enjoyment she gets from poetry to other people in the state.

“That’s always been my lifelong mission,” said Fennelly.

She thinks Mississippi is a perfect place to do so with its storied traditions in oral history, literature and music.

“I want to remind Mississippi that poetry can be there in such a rich way, and if I can help spread that message I’ll be very content,” said Fennelly.

She really wants to focus on exposing children to poetry

“I feel like poetry is pleasurable, and children understand because they nonsense rhymes, and they clap, and they like Dr. Suess,” said Fennelly.

She believes that a disconnect for students comes through the way poetry is taught in schools.

“I hate to say it,” said Fennelly.

Some students, she says, are taught that poetry must have a rigid structure.

“You can’t approach poetry with the heart or the ear; you have to approach it purely with intellect and knowledge. I think you start with the heart; I think you start with the ear,” said Fennelly.

She notes that people who don’t live in Mississippi like to harp on the state’s negatives while ignoring its rich literary history.

“I want to say, you know what? Most Pulitzer Prize winning authors, best book store in the South, how about we talk about that?” asked Fennelly.

Fennelly was named in 2011 as Outstanding Teacher of the Year at Ole Miss. Among her publications are three full-length poetry books — Open House, Tender Hooks andUnmentionables — and a book of nonfiction (Great with Child). With her husband, Tom Franklin, she co-authored the 2013 novel The Tilted World.

See Professor Fennelly’s interview here.

Jennie Lightweis-Goff

Jennie Lightweis-Goff earned a Ph.D. in English and Graduate Certificates in both Gender Studies and Africana Studies from the University of Rochester. Her dissertation, Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus, won the SUNY Press Dissertation / First Book Prize in African-American Studies, and was published by SUNY Press in 2011. Her current project, Temporary Housing: Slavery in the American City, examines the conthumbnail_IMG_0711strained literary archive of urban slavery in the South and beyond. Articles from this project have appeared in American Literature and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 
Presently, she is at work on a critical edition of Abraham Oakey Hall’s
 The Manhattaner in New Orleans (1851), a bald piece of economic propaganda encouraging Northern investment in Louisiana sugar slavery written by a one-time mayor of New York City. She has an essay on the status of the 19th century in the “New Southern Studies” forthcoming from Mississippi Quarterly, and an essay on The Wire and Treme (David Simon’s two distinctly Southern shows produced for HBO) forthcoming in Small-Screen Souths: Interrogating the Televisual Archive(LSU Press). On the way to completing a book on captive cities in the 19th century, she has begun writing a series of meditations on modern and contemporary representations of the urban South (including John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind) called Peculiar and Characteristic: Reflections on the Southern Cityscape.