Ron Whitehead

Whitehead is a poet with a higher vision

Pulitzer Prize nominated author
to read at Carrollton library.

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

CARROLLTON, Ky. (April 2003) – One of Ron Whitehead’s major goals in life seems to be that of opening doors for other people. This is a pretty generous act from an internationally known Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, who could have the world at his own fingertips.
To the world, Whitehead is seen as a poet, writer, editor, publisher, organizer, independent-scholar and teacher. But to many who have attended his creative writing classes at Jefferson Community College’s Carrollton Campus, the 52-year-old appears more as a simple, down-to-earth man who hails from a western Kentucky farming area.

Ron Whitehead

Photo provided

Ron Whitehead

Throughout 11 years of teaching college classes and workshops, Whitehead has never produced a book by his students – until now, he said. “Twelve Kentucky Poets” is his latest compilation of work from which he and his students will read at 1 p.m. on April 9 at the Carroll County Public Library.
“Most people in it took several classes with me,” he said. The book was published through Wasteland Press, an independent press in Louisville, Ky. It is available locally at the Gen. Butler State Resort Park gift shop and My Best To You gift shop in Carrollton.
Whitehead said that his original intent had focused on requiring each student to hand-make a book. But after brainstorming with his students, Whitehead said he decided to produce an actual book. Each writer will read for three minutes, and Whitehead said Sarah Elizabeth, a performer with whom he occasionally tours, would accompany the reading with her old-time mountain music singing.
Sarizel Robbins is one of the 11 students who contributed to the book. Each student was asked to compose 10 pages of poetry. Robbins said the class was a great experience for her, enabling her to become a better writer. Students were able to attend readings held by Whitehead and other poets, giving them greater incite on the world of literature.
Susan Carlisle, coordinator for the college campus, said Whitehead has the ability to help students, “realize they have artistic capabilities.” She said he strives to help his students find the spirit to express their creativity.
Robbins said Whitehead brings a class together to make them feel as if they were old friends sharing secrets. She moved to Carrollton from Tennessee not knowing anyone but her husband. But she said she felt totally comfortable in Whitehead’s class. She was impressed with his philosophy on life and spirituality.
Whitehead labels our society as one that adheres to the principles of “specialization.”
“We are conditioned to believe we have to do just one thing in life,” he said. Whitehead said he has so many interests that he is pulled in a multitude of directions, constantly experiencing new ideas, places and peoples.
“I encourage my students to follow the muse,” he said. Whitehead writes in a wide variety of mediums: poetry, articles, short stories and academic literary pieces for scholarly journals, just to name a few.
One of his more recent projects is a work he described as creative nonfiction of an autobiographical nature. “Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon” is a book based on an actual event that occurred in 1973 in Beaver Dam, Ky., where Whitehead rocked for four days in a marathon rocking chair event.
Whitehead has worked on this book for 29 years and said it is a portrait of a young man named Bone who considers himself an outsider. As he participates in this event that he ultimately wins, the young man has ample time to reflect on his first 23 years of life.
“The thread that holds it together is the actual event,” said Whitehead. The book has been nominated for the Kentucky Literary Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The Kentucky Library Association recently named it one of the top 20 books by a Kentucky author.
To advance its accolades even farther, Hollywood filmmaker Mark Reese (son of famed baseball player, Pee Wee Reese) is writing a screenplay based on the book. Whitehead said Reese would visit Kentucky later this year to shoot scenes for a 30-minute film to be shown at the Sundance, Cannes and New York film festivals.
This versatile man did not shine as a writer until he dug “deeper and deeper, to embrace my Kentucky roots.” Born into a family of coal miners and farmers in Ohio County, Ky., Whitehead said he grew up in a violent environment, which instilled in him a desire to leave Kentucky to seek out whom he really was inside. Not until he had traveled full circle, finding his way back to Kentucky, did he find “my voice as a writer.”
He now lives in Louisville with his wife, Nancye Browning, who manages 16 Louisville branch libraries. They have three children.
Whitehead has traveled the world extensively, producing more than 800 events throughout Europe and America. “I’m inspired by the people I meet,” he said.
Whitehead said that everywhere he goes he is met with the comment that Ireland produces the best poets and writers. Although he agrees with this and has himself read his works many times in Ireland, he said he often responds by saying, “Pay attention to Kentucky.”
He said there has been a literary renaissance in the last decade that has propelled Kentucky to become one of the recognized centers of poetry and writers in the world. As to the future of poetry in the state, he said, “Kentucky is making an impact all over the world.”
Whitehead recently embarked upon The War Poet’s Tour with New York writer Frank Messina. The two traveled to Iceland, Scotland and England in what Whitehead termed “an intense experience.” Messina lost many friends on 9/11 and has written poems about his experiences at Ground Zero. Both men share opposing views on the current world situation in Iraq and took their tour abroad to “show audiences in Europe that we (Americans) have the freedom to disagree and remain friends.”
Whitehead has eight books in print and numerous CDs, including “Kentucky Root,” which will be used as the soundtrack for the film for “Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon.” Whitehead’s books and CDs are available at www.watelandpress.net. Read more about Whitehead at his website: www.tappingmyownphone.com.

• For more information on his April 9 reading, call the library at (502) 732-7020.

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