Kentucky Poet Laureate

UK's James Baker Hall displays photos,
to speak at Hanover College in October

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(Sept. 2002) – James Baker Hall has held the prestigious title of Kentucky Poet Laureate since April 24, 2001. Before his two-year tenure expires, Hall will have been able to share his experiences through written words and images with a wide audience.
He currently has an exhibit at the Smith-Berry Gallery and Winery in New Castle, Ky. The winery opened in mid-August. Hall’s exhibit there is titled, “Tobacco Harvest, an Elegy.” These photographs were taken on the Owen Flood farm during the 1970s. The art gallery will rotate works by various artists every six to eight weeks.

James B. Hall

James Baker Hall

Hall, a native Kentuckian, was born in Lexington in 1935. He said he cultivated an interest in photography at an early age, working for a relative at the University of Kentucky. He later learned a great deal about this art form from Lexington optician and photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Hall attended UK along with fellow Kentuckian, Wendell Berry. The two also met up again at Stanford University. Hall is a recipient of the prestigious Wallace Stenger Fellowship from Stanford.
Teaching, photography and writing have intermingled with his life throughout the years. His teaching resume includes jobs at MIT Cambridge and the University of Connecticut. Since 1973 he has been Associate Professor of English at UK, teaching classes in poetry and fiction.
In 1995 Hall displayed an exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum titled, “Orphans in the Attic.” Rachael Sadinski, curator of collections at the museum, described this work as “a haunting and evocative collection of photographs.”
Sadinski said Hall has the ability to manipulate the medium. In reference to his nature-based photographs, she said he “captures the essence of the moment; you can see the sun, smell the grass.”
Hall said he knew at age 19 that he wanted to be a writer, in response to an introduction to literature class he had taken. Until that point he had been an all-sports athlete and had never considered a career in the literary field, he said.
His latest book is titled, “A Spring-Fed Pond. “It contains photographs made over a 40-year period with five Kentucky friends,” he said.
Hall has photographed many of his Kentucky peers, and the five who appear in this book are his friend, Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and his wife, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.
Hall was named Kentucky Poet Laureate during the Kentucky Writer’s Day celebration in Frankfort, Ky.
“It’s an important program,” said Daniel Strauss, Arts Program Branch Manager for the Kentucky Arts Council. “It’s not very formulized, meaning each Kentucky Poet Laureate decides what they will do,” said Strauss.
A selection committee studies the different nominations for the position and decides who best qualifies, said Strauss.
There are two duties the Kentucky Poet Laureate must perform: Must make a presentation at the annual Kentucky Writer’s Day on April 24 and strive to promote the literary arts in Kentucky through readings of their work at meetings, seminars and conferences across the state.
There are three criteria the nominees must meet: Be a Kentucky resident, be a published author of a work that is informed by living in Kentucky, and have written a work which exhibits a high degree of creativity and clarity of form and style.
“Hall meets all three criteria very well,” said Strauss.
Hall has also been a featured speaker with the Kentucky Humanities Council since August 2001. “Our poets laureate are ambassadors for Kentucky writers,” said Executive Director Virginia Smith. “I believe that ‘in person’ readings and presentations make all the difference in the experience we call poetry, which is an ‘out loud’ art.”
Hall takes his position as Kentucky Poet Laureate very seriously, frequently traveling throughout the state to present lectures and poetry readings, he said.
“I am quite surprised at the interest in the Kentucky Poet Laureate,” said Hall. In order to bring about an increased awareness of Kentucky literature to the public, Hall said he has given readings to colleges, retirement homes, historical societies and women’s clubs.

NOTE: On Oct. 11-13, Hall is tentatively scheduled to be the keynote speaker and workshop leader for the Kentucky State Poetry Society’s Annual Poetry Workshop and Awards Weekend. This event will be held at Rough River Dam State Resort Park, falls of Rough, Ky. He will also give the keynote address at a writers’ conference Oct. 4-6 at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind.

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