In the course of highlighting artists, writers, and community advocates for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, I decided to color outside the lines, as it were, and take a look down Lexington way. Like Cincinnati, Lexington, in central Kentucky, is a city that draws both people and inspiration from the Appalachian region. The proximity of Lexington to the mountains naturally means the culture of the area is at least partially defined by Appalachia. There I found Eric Scott Sutherland, a poet who has been shaped by Appalachian culture and issues and the founder of Lexington’s Holler Series poetry readings..
Eric Scott Sutherland is from Shelbyville, Kentucky. His early life was shaped by the time spent on his grandparents’ 100-acre farm. Life on that farm made powerful impressions that have lasted his entire life, Eric told me that “this is where my land ethic came from.” That land ethic led him to study Natural Resources Conservation at the University of Kentucky. While in college, Eric began to make contact with writers and musicians, and his earliest stabs at poetry grew out of this crucible.
“One of the first things I remember writing was about was the Rodney King beating,” explains Eric. “I grew up in a diverse and working-class community. That event lit something in my consciousness.” During his college years, Eric discovered people like Wendell Berry and other Kentucky writers. Issues of social justice combined with the ethic of the land to further form a poetic mission that continues to this day. This swirl of social context and literary inspiration ultimately put him on his way to being a Kentucky writer in his own right.
Eric started an open poetry reading that ran for a limited time. He put out his first chapbook. All of this further emboldened him to keep pushing the boundaries. It was in May of 2008 that he started the Holler Poet Series. Eric told me the name comes from “the hollers of the mountains as much as the act of hollerin’. Indeed, there was plenty of hollerin’. Eric told me he had to yell for people to shut up at times because the event got so rowdy. People getting rowdy about poetry… who woulda thunk? I wanted it to be a space for all voices. I wasn’t concerned about people’s level of expertise. I just wanted it to be something where people could express what they wanted to say.” The first night of what would become the Holler Series was inspired by the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Eric recounts, “I put together a Poets for Peace reading. We had, maybe, eight or nine writers.” Eric said he hoped it would make an impact, but this event packed the house. “The owner of Al’s Bar came up to me and said: ‘this is exactly the kind of thing I want in my bar!” With that, the Holler Series began.
The Holler Series ran until September of 2016. Over the years they hosted poet laureates of Kentucky. “We even had a dueling poet laureate night with the poets laureate of Kentucky and Montana,” Eric tells me. Our own core members Pauletta Hansel and Dick Hague read at the Holler Series. Eric Scott Sutherland never lost sight of his key inspiration. The ties to the land and the Appalachian region, and his deep investment in issues of social justice shaped the Holler Series. As Eric recalls, “The Poets for Peace in the Mountains was built around raising awareness of mountain top removal, among other issues specific to the Appalachian region. Sticking close to his roots and his social justice commitments threads through all Eric Scott Sutherland does.
His most recent book is called Earth is My Church published by Accents Publishing. The title says it all if you want to understand where Eric Scott Sutherland is coming from. As he says. “Issues that affect Kentucky and the region are always at the fore of my mind. I’m a working-class poet, and my thoughts are always with the people and the land.” You can choose any of his poems to find evidence of his personal poetic investments. Certainly, the poem “Kentucky is my body” is an obvious place to start. And even within the poem, choosing a stanza that stands out more than another is just about impossible. I took this one:
I am a crooked spine
of knobs and mountaintops
centered only by serpentine
sway of back roads, my soul
where front porch stories
The metaphor of the body works perfectly. The image of the crooked spine stands just as well for those who worked their backs into knots as it does for the meandering mountain tops of the Appalachian Mountains. Everything returns to center as the front porch provides the metonymy for family and culture as the generations echo through the poet’s voice.
The Holler Series ended in 2016, but Eric Scott Sutherland remains open to gatherings for special events. As Eric said, “I hit the perfect moment with the Holler Series. I didn’t want it to just burn out.” We can still read his books, and Eric Scott Sutherland also has a website: http://www.ericscottsutherland.com/. He described Lexington, Kentucky as a being an extremely literary city. That is something we can identify with as so many of the people crucial to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition are just as integral to the literary backbone of greater Cincinnati.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.