My late father loved the work of award-winning University of North Carolina Greensboro alumna Kelly Cherry, whose newest poetry collection Beholder’s Eye was published August 18 by Groundhog Press. I told her how much one of her most acclaimed works, the 1997 poem “Alzheimer’s,” meant to him and me, and how, even as his memory and awareness dwindled in his last year, he would read it aloud with his FM radio voice slurred by strokes.
She was touched to hear of his love for her poem about her own father.
“He developed Alzheimer’s at the start of one year and died at the end of that year,” she wrote in an email. “My mother wrote me that she was living with a strange man, because her husband had been smart and this man wasn’t. Dying is terribly hard, isn’t it?”
The daughter of musicians, Cherry was born in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, and grew up in Ithaca, New York, and Chesterfield County, Virginia. She studied philosophy at the University of Virginia as a Du Pont Fellow and earned a M.F.A. in creative writing from UNCG. As the winner of too many awards to list here, she has published over 25 books including novels, collections of short stories, poems, essays and two translations of classical drama. From 2010 to 2012, she was the Poet Laureate of Virginia, the state where she now resides.
Cherry said in the UNCG writing program circa 1960s, when she studied with my former professor Fred Chappell, (who in the one photo I’ve seen from that time looks brooding and dangerous, rather than the impish and avuncular man I’ve known for decades) she wrote that she used to think he tried to model himself after Robert Mitchum. “Fred was pretty new to the job,” she wrote. “He reminded me and my parents of my brother.”
She recalls the first class she had with him as being difficult.
“Afterwards, I’d go to the women’s restroom, where I sat on the floor and wept and regained composure, and then I’d race to the Pickwick [now Walker’s] to listen to every word he said,” Cherry wrote.
Both Chappell and his former colleague David Slavitt have been her lodestones from what felt like forever to her. She has learned from both of them and still learns from them even today.
“The second class I had with Fred was not so tough,” she wrote. “Both he and David had amazing minds. Other poets around then included Richard Dillard, Henry Taylor, George Garrett and Monty Joynes. These three were not part of UNCG but would turn up, for a reading, maybe, or just to hang. Eudora Welty read there.”
When I interviewed Fred Chappell last February, he expressed keen admiration for Cherry’s work. Another person he recommended that work to was Okla Elliott, who passed away last March at the age of 39. In his preface to his 2011 interview with her for Inside Higher Ed, Elliott wondered if Cherry would be even better known if she wasn’t such a polymath. He speculated that if she only wrote poetry or fiction or essays, rather than all three, her star would be even brighter; as the critical establishment has trouble properly assessing those they can’t pigeonhole.
Thinking of that, I asked her how she feels about other writers who resist labels. Does she try to categorize them, or exult in their liberation from boundaries? She wrote that she rarely categorizes anyone.
“Lots of people work across formal boundaries. Poetry now resembles prose,” Cherry wrote. “On the other hand, I categorize my own work. I think that poetry, fiction and nonfiction are different ways of looking at the world. Or maybe I should say seeing the world. In general, I think the poem is the thing itself, fiction is a conversation with characters, and nonfiction must be truth.”
Close on the heels of her new poetry collection Beholder’s Eye, she has another book due out in October.
“Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End: Fictions is a collection of flash fiction and short-short stories,” she wrote. “I started writing little pieces at UNCG. I’d show them to Fred, he’d show them to Peter Taylor, and then they’d come back to me. I think only one of those appears in this book, but I idly went on writing them, and a couple of years ago I realized that I was close to having a book. I’m not planning to do another, but it was a whole lot of fun to write them and I hope people will have fun reading them.”