Eric Scott Sutherland is the creator, curator, and host of Holler Poets, a reading series held in Lexington, KY @ Al’s Bar (601 N Limestone St.) at 8pm, usually on the last Wednesday of each month. The series will celebrate its fifth anniversary at Holler 60 on May 29th with readings by Kentucky’s new poet Laureate Frank X Walker and fellow Affrilachain poet Mitchell Douglas. Musical segment by JustMe. Eric is also the author of three collections of poetry and his fourth, pendulum, is due out soon from Accents Publishing.
[Note: “regional literary scene” refers to literary happenings in Lexington, Louisville, Frankfort and surrounding areas.]
BS: Frank X Walker, our new poet laureate here in the commonwealth, is your featured reader for Holler’s fifth anniversary (May 29th). Aside from starting the Affrilachian poets and teaching, I’m sure Mr. Walker has more than earned his honors. I’m unfortunately less-than familiar with his involvement in the regional literary community…so could you perhaps tell us about the man, his work as a writer, and his contributions?
ESS: Frank has been a tireless promoter of poetry in Kentucky and beyond our borders. His work has helped enlarge our story, adding an Affrilachian point of view to our incredible literary heritage. Frank opened the door, no, kicked it in with kindness and persistence for many to walk through. Throw in his positive presence and you have Kentucky’s first African American Poet Laureate. He’s also the youngest and so deserving of this honor. In several conversations at his historic induction ceremony in Frankfort, the consensus was that he has been doing the work of Poet Laureate for years.
Brandon Stettenbenz: Holler Poets has welcomed over 80 writers and dozens of musicians over the last five years. Man, I wish I’d heard of it sooner. Could you tell us the origin story of Holler, and perhaps a few of your favorite Holler moments?
Eric Scott Sutherland: [In] February 2008, everybody I knew was drained of significant life force after enduring two [presidential] terms of George W. Bush, to the point of depression. The Iraq invasion had become an all out debacle and was closing in on the five year anniversary. I had been writing about the invasion and war in general for years, which in the wake of September 11th only escalated. I had marched on Washington with 200,000 other fellow human beings of all faiths and nationalities the fall of 2002, before it all began. Back home, I had performed at protest events, held signs and chanted slogans at rallies, and published a collection of poems in response, [titled] incommunicado, but somehow I [still] felt like there weren’t enough [voices] being heard. One night I was sitting in Al’s Bar, my favorite neighborhood hangout, where I have [now] been appointed, Poet Laureate, belly up to the worn bar, having some beers on a crowded rock n’ roll night. The bar was full of conversation, artists and activists and others who don’t fit into the manufactured box of modern society. All of us [were] pioneers in [this] poor part of town: men and women of action, artists and entrepreneurs reclaiming what had been in decline for years; the abandoned communal spaces and cultural spaces. My friend Chuck Clenney and I were getting into the deep end of U.S. foreign policy and venting a desire to speak out against the runaway war machine. Chuck is a poet, as well and his work always speaks to the climate of the times. No holds barred. We are certainly brothers in word when it came to matters of [U.S.] politics. By the time we’d finished our beers, we’d cooked up a poetry event to be held around the time of the fifth anniversary [of the U.S. invasion of Iraq]. The idea being, poets would speak out in a public forum and address our country’s role in [both] the creation of war and the maintenance of peace. It was a segment of the population we both felt was being shut out of the conversation by mainstream media. This was a way to become more actively involved. Poets for Peace was born.
We went our separate ways that evening with the idea that we’d be in touch. I left inspired and promptly began assembling names and thoughts as to how it would go down. Within a few days I had secured eight commitments (myself among them) to perform, including the [then] current Poet Laureate of Kentucky, Jane Gentry Vance. My friends Jeremy Midkiff and John Ferguson would perform as The Joybombs. When I spoke with Chuck, I told him it was all set and he was blown away by how fast it came together. He volunteered to handle the poster and we were off. Sunday evening March 30th we packed Al’s to capacity and then some. The crowd buzzed in anticipation. Folks mingled as the place became packed, adding an electric charge to the air. The stage was set for a night of catharsis, free speech and collective action for peace. Chuck Clenney, Affrilachian Poets Bianca Spriggs, Jude McPherson and Mitchell Douglas, Leatha Kendrick, George Ella Lyon, Jane Gentry and I all delivered impassioned readings of our work. The audience, in a gospel-like call and
response mood, surged with each poem and shouted out when they felt compelled to do so. It was such a special moment, to bring these writers of different pedigree together, to speak out against the war and the strange silence and complacency that had swept the nation.
At the end of the show, Lester Miller, one of the owners of Al’s and a north side neighbor, approached me with handshakes and congratulations. He was as energized as the crowd. He told me that was the kind of thing he wanted to see happening in his bar. He also wanted to know if I was interested in doing something like this on the regular. I told him I was interested, but only monthly. He said let me know when you come up with a date but Wednesdays would be great for us. And thus, holler was born.
As far as memorable moments, several come to mind: Whitney Baker beginning his feature by the bar, which was loud and not paying attention. After gathering their attention, he returned to the stage and blew the crowd away earning a rare standing ovation in the process. Maurice Manning’s second feature brought the house down. Silas House, Marianne Worthington, Daniel Martin Moore and Joan Shelley putting together a seamless hour and a half masterpiece. Ron Whitehead’s wild rant-a-thon when he ripped the UK banner off the wall behind the stage, later licking a shot of Patron off the stage. Nikky Finney’s riveting feature six months before her National Book Award. The July 2010 Holler when there were so many literary luminaries in the audience I quipped from the stage that if the powers that be wanted to wipe out modern Kentucky literary history all they’d need to do was bomb Al’s bar. Just a few weeks ago, Ross Gay’s amazing debut just a week after he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. And to be honest, each month’s show is so unique to itself that they are all memorable in their own special way.
BS: Now let’s talk about your poetry. Aside from being an outgoing, supportive literary community leader, you’re also an active writer with three books published and a forth coming soon from Accents Publishing. You also had a poem featured in Accents’ “Bigger Than They Appear” anthology, and its worth mentioning that Accents is, like your Holler series, a beacon of literature in the bluegrass. Tell us about Accents Publishing and your forthcoming collection pendulum.
ESS: Katerina Stoykova-Klemer is a dear friend; my poetic sister, if you will. We are the same age and have brought our own unique energy to the current Kentucky literary scene. It has been a fulfilling, synergistic relationship where we support each other’s projects while raising up everyone in the community simultaneously. From Poezia to Accents the Radio show and Accents Publishing, Katerina has helped shine a wider light on the amazing powwow of talented writers in our region. [Accents Publishing] has given voice to some of our best local poets. Her exquisite chapbooks are a steal at $5, but have helped make poetry more accessible for those who might be hesitant to purchase a book of poems for $20. I think what we both understand is that you have to develop appreciators of poetry. There are plenty of writers; we need more readers and listeners.
I am excited to have a full length collection being published by Accents. Pendulum was inspired by my time running a café in Lexington’s Central Library. I was there for 8 years and met many memorable characters. Several of them will be immortalized in this book, though not every character in the book is an exact portrait of a real life person. I’ve also attempted to mystify the setting to keep it from being too literal. Those that know me the best will get it, but for those not familiar, they could read it and have a totally different idea of where the action unfolds in the book.
BS: You’ve also been published in more than a few journals over the past decade, including many regional journals such as Kudzu and Still: the journal (named after the late poet James Still). Your love for the land is also apparent in your poetry. Did you grow up in Appalachia? Could you tell us about your connection with Kentucky and the Appalachian region?
ESS: I am not from Appalachia, though I do own some acreage in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Menifee County. I grew up in central Kentucky, Shelbyville to be exact. It’s not exactly Appalachia, but it is similar in a rural sense. On my grandparents farm I learned about the small wonders of nature along Rattlesnake Creek. It was this early exposure to the miracles of the woods that lead me to fall in love with Kentucky. Once I was old enough [I wanted] to move out west, like most of the people I knew, [but] I couldn’t escape the pull of this place. It was always home, a place to defend and cherish, calling me back like a Siren.
BS: I could say “I’ve seen Eric read and he’s a moving, sincere poet with a talent for conjuring the magic of Kentucky hills, valleys, and mountains” or “I’ve been to Holler, and it’s a raucous yet respectful vaudeville of poetic performance”, but I think readers want to hear your sentiments. What can we expect from your new collection, pendulum, and from the Holler fifth year anniversary event in May?
ESS: Pendulum is a departure from what I call my earth poems. Nature’s revelations recede in these poems to favor the psychological landscape of the cast who inhabit the book. I hope those who read it will be emotionally touched by each character and the stories unfolding in each poem. What happens in the dim rotunda and in its vicinity is a microcosm of the greater world, the struggle between light and darkness.
You can expect a literary celebration and a large, jubilant crowd for the fifth birthday event on May 29th. Newly appointed Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker will be joined by fellow Affrilachian Poet Mitchell Douglas. Holler is always a monthly family reunion of writers with heaping helpings of words, but this one will be extra special.
Eric Scott Sutherland is the author of the chapbooks tall tales (1999), the psychonaut sails (2000), incommunicado (2007) and the forthcoming full length pendulum (2013). He lives, teaches, and curates/hosts the Holler Poets Series in Lexington, KY. You can find Holler Poets Series online via Facebook or his fan page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eric-Sutherland/133556093940 and read some poems, check coming Holler dates, and keep up with Eric’s news and events at his website http://www.ericscottsutherland.com/.