Next Door to the Dead got a new breath of life earlier this month, and it was a pleasant surprise to Kathleen Driskell.
The director of Spalding’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program was delighted to get the news that her Next Door to the Dead, a 2015 collection of poems inspired by Driskell’s observations of an old cemetery that’s next to her house, was named the winner of Transylvania University’s Judy Gaines Young Book Award. The award honors an outstanding recent work from the Appalachian region.
“It just kind of dropped out of the sky for me,” said Driskell, who had been unaware that her 3-year-old book was even eligible for the award. “But it’s a really important book to me, a book about where I live.
“I’m glad for (the award) to give the book a little more attention. I feel like it’s going to give it a little more lift. It got some good attention when it came out, and this extends its life in the public eye.”
Driskell will accept the Judy Gaines Young Award and read from her book at 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 21 at Transy’s Cowgill Center, Room 102. It’s the second straight year a member of Spalding’s MFA in Writing faculty has won the award, following Crystal Wikinson in 2017 for her novel The Birds of Opulence.
Driskell and her family have lived for more than two decades in an old former church. Beside it is the Mount Zion Lutheran Cemetery, and the graveyard is “always in my mind,” she said. She was first moved to write the book after the tragic death of her neighbors’ 23-year-old son and the subsequent process of mourners visiting his grave.
“Mostly the people who are buried there were really old, and this was a younger person,” Driskell said. “So there was more activity around it, and balloons tied here and there, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. I kind of conceptualized the book from that.”
Driskell researched and imagined other stories about the graves in the cemetery. The book, published by the Lexington-based University Press of Kentucky, has poems about family relationships, the Civil War, slavery and many other issues.
Driskell was pleased to see a book from UPK earn the recognition.
The governor’s proposed budget has called for eliminating public funding for the nonprofit publisher, which for 75 years has printed scholarly works and literature by regional writers and about regional topics. Wilkinson’s The Birds of Opulence was also a UPK production.
“The University Press of Kentucky is really important to the commonwealth,” said Driskell, whose book is part of UPK’s “Kentucky Voices” series of literary titles. “I’m hoping the legislature will continue to support it. It’s good for all us. It fights, frankly, the stereotype of Kentucky. We have an amazing literary heritage.”
Driskell is the author of five books, including most recently Blue Etiquette, published by Red Hen Press. That book was a finalist for Berea College’s Weatherford Award, and Driskell won an award from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs earlier in her career. Driskell currently serves as vice chair for the Mid-Atlantic region of AWP.
Plans for MFA program
As for her teaching career, Driskell was promoted to director for Spalding’s top-10 national low-residency MFA in Writing program in January after serving as the longtime associate director under the program’s co-founder Sena Jeter Naslund, who retired. Driskell’s first residency as director will be in May.
“I’m really excited to grow (the program) and put my own spin on it,” Driskell said.
A past recipient of the Spalding Trustees Outstanding Faculty Award, Driskell plans to add optional programming intended to polish students’ professional writing skills and make the MFA program more attractive to potential students who are eager to learn creative writing but may work in a field outside of teaching.
“I think there’s just such a lack of good writing in the business world, communication-wise,” she said. “I think our students can really benefit from learning how to write grants, learning how to do profiles and interview pieces, learning more of the ins and outs of publishing and editing, even copy editing, which is a skill that most people don’t have any more and can be incredibly valuable.
“I’ve told my own kids, ‘You can do OK in school, but if you know how to write well, you can do whatever you want.’ … I’m really looking forward to establishing that and fostering that along for our students. I think it’ll be a good service to them.”
Along those lines, Spalding has begun offering a post-baccalaureate certificate in creative writing. Students are fully integrated into the MFA program, taking courses in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting or writing for children. The certificate, however, requires fewer semesters and credit hours for completion than the master’s degree.
Driskell said she also wants Spalding’s MFA students to learn how to write speeches. Alumnus Graham Shelby, who is a speechwriter for Louisville Metro Government, has been invited to do a lecture.
Writing book reviews will be taught, too. Driskell said book reviews are “a dying art” that can provide a way for writers to break into the business and make connections with editors and magazines.
Driskell is also excited about the MFA’s program’s residency abroad in Japan this summer.
The group of 40-50 will visit Hiroshima, the gardens of Nara and the former imperial capital of Kyoto.
The MFA program takes a 10-day trip abroad every summer to learn about culture and gain inspiration. Previous stops have included Edinburgh, Dublin, Rome, Athens and Crete, and Berlin and Prague.