George Ella Lyon’s term as Kentucky Poet Laureate has only a few months remaining, but the Harlan County native’s story collection project, “‘Where I’m From’: A Poetry of Place,” will live beyond her tenure as the state’s literary ambassador.
Lyon’s goal with the project is to collect, from each of Kentucky’s 120 counties, individual stories fashioned on “Where I’m From,” her iconic 1993 poem that has been used as a model for poetry writing in communities around the world.
Groups in several Kentucky communities have accepted Lyon’s challenge with enthusiasm. Janine Musser of the Appalachian Heritage Alliance in Campton has collected a dozen poems from women of a wide range of ages and backgrounds. She also leads a group of senior women that meet once a month to collaborate on a group poem.
“‘Where I’m From’ is a beautiful way to realize that each of our personal stories is a poem, and the simplicity of the format gives the encouragement to write it,” Musser said. “In my community, where the oral tradition is the standard of remembering, ‘Where I’m From’ has served as a reminder that it is important to write it down to preserve a way of life that is no longer common. It also reminds us that you don’t have to be a scholar to write your own story.”
Suszanne Jones, a paraeducator for the Morehead Youth Development Center, which serves at-risk young women between the ages of 15 and 18, said the poem has been helpful to her students. Jones herself wrote a “Where I’m From” poem, adding hers to the 11 contributed by young women at the center. The exercise was enlightening for students and staff.
“In the students own words, their lives were a touchy subject, and for others it forced them to remember things that they had forgotten, and it made them cherish them even more,” Jones said. “Our greatest and most appreciated responses, though, were from our staff. It opened a door for many of them into our students’ backgrounds.”
The project has been helpful in educating the community at-large about her students, Jones said.
“Many people, though I cannot speak broadly for all, see our students as criminals, truants and sometimes bad kids. This project isn’t going to change that overnight, but it did allow some people to see, through their written words, that these students are just like any other teenager. They remember sweet memories of where they came from. It also allowed us to see a small glimpse of the hurt and feeling of being unwanted.”
People interested in participating in the “Where I’m From” project can do so by emailing their county contact. If there is no contact listed for your county or you are interested in being the county contact, email Tamara Coffey, individual artist director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.