April is National Poetry Month and poet Kiki Petrosino will begin it in the nation’s capital, invited to explain current issues in her craft during the ACCelerate Festival.
The UofL English associate professor and creative writing program director is one of eight scholars chosen from ACC universities to participate in the festival’s “Bridging Chasms” conversations. Two accomplished professors from different studies – say, an author and a scientist – are paired for each exchange to explain essential elements and details from their fields in the hope of increasing understanding across disciplines.
The ACC Smithsonian Creativity and Innovation Festival also will include interactive installations from the conference’s 15 schools, including “The Sweet Way to Preserve Blood” and “Whiskey Webs” featuring UofL researchers. UofL theatre arts also will perform “The Mountaintop,” a fictional retelling of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night. The events are April 5-7 at the National Museum of American History.
For her part, Petrosino expects to discuss the rise in intensely personal viewpoints in contemporary poetry, with writers celebrating identity issues of race, class, gender and sexuality and incorporating their own history in their work. With that shift comes a “movement against the patriarchal gaze of traditional poetry,” she said. “What do you do with all the old stuff?”
Instead of pushing aside all the canonical works as problematic or no longer useful, she suggests that scholars need to “open up the work” and examine those standards and lesser-known pieces in different ways.
Petrosino, teaching in her ninth year at UofL and finishing up her fourth poetry volume, is venturing into the personal realm herself through the help of new national and statewide awards in her field. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a $25,000 creative writing fellowship this year, one of 35 in poetry. She is concluding her Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, one of its 16 $7,500 awards last year.
“It was really wonderful to be recognized as a Kentucky author through that grant,” she said.
She plans to use the resources to work on “White Blood,” due for 2020 publication by local literary press Sarabande Books, and a fifth, related volume.
“These two projects look at the legacies of slavery and discrimination in the Upper South,” particularly in Virginia and Kentucky. Petrosino is conducting genealogical research into her own family’s Virginia history “to see what their lives were like before and after the Civil War.”
In reclaiming this heritage, Petrosino has been trying to piece together family oral history and records for enslaved and newly freed people, plus get a sense of her relatives’ environment.
“There’s something about standing in the physical spot where certain ancestors lived,” she said. “That’s important for a poet too.”
The poem “Europe,” her favorite from her third volume, “Witch Wife,” recently attracted national and local attention. U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith read and discussed it during her Feb. 18 poem-each-weekday podcast “The Slowdown,” produced in partnership with the Library of Congress and the Poetry Foundation. UofL President Neeli Bendapudi read from it during her March 5 Louisville public lecture about the liberal arts in a global economy.
Petrosino strongly believes in the liberal arts too and not just because she is a poet.
“No job I’ve ever had has been completely what it says on the job description,” she said. “If you are a person who can write well and communicate and solve problems and work with others….Even in the hard sciences, the narrative is very important.”
The state has a long history of celebrating the arts – from music to the storytelling tradition, from gastronomy to visual arts, she said. Various arts communities are collaborating and reaching out, as happened last year when Petrosino was invited to contribute a live spoken-word performance as part of the Louisville Ballet’s annual choreographers’ showcase. Louisville magazine recently asked her to write a poem reflecting on the fatal shootings at a Louisville grocery store.
“The creative economy of Kentucky and particularly Louisville has always been strong,” she said. “For there to be a creative writing program at the University of Louisville is just as it should be.”
Next year will be the 20th for the English department’s creative writing program to offer the Anne and William Axton Reading Series, which brings distinguished authors to Belknap Campus not only to share their work but also to lead free, public master classes to describe their creative process and to critique student work.
“The point of the Axton endowment is to bring students into interaction with the writers,” Petrosino said. “To have as much interaction is a unique thing.”