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Arts Commission News

For Immediate Release

Contact: Melia Dicker, Communications Director (mdicker@arts.ms.gov / 601-359-6546)

Gov. Bryant Announces Beth Ann Fennelly

as Mississippi’s New Poet Laureate

Beth Ann Fennelly. Credit: Mike Stanton

JACKSON, MISS. – August 10, 2016 – Gov. Phil Bryant has appointed celebrated writer and educator ¬Beth Ann Fennelly as Mississippi’s poet laureate, honoring her as an outstanding Mississippi author and ambassador for the literary arts for the state. During her four-year term, Fennelly will serve as the official state poet and will work to make poetry more available and accessible to Mississippians in their everyday lives. This includes creating and reading poetry during state occasions and participating in school and community events that promote appreciation of poetry as an art form. The distinction of Mississippi poet laureate dates back to 1963.

"Mississippi’s reputation for the written word is unmatched the world over, and Beth Ann will strengthen that reputation," said Gov. Phil Bryant. "I am pleased to appoint her poet laureate."

In order to focus on her new role as Mississippi poet laureate, Fennelly is transitioning out of her six-year position as director of the M.F.A. program at the University of Mississippi, where she teaches poetry and nonfiction writing. In 2011 she was named the University of Mississippi Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. Her first collection of poetry, “Open House,” was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick and won a Kenyon Review Prize, a Zoo Press Poetry Prize and a Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award.

W.W. Norton published Fennelly’s second and third collections of poetry, “Tender Hooks”(2004) and “Unmentionables” (2008), as well as her book of nonfiction, “Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother” (2006). In 2013 HarperCollins published “The Tilted World,” a novel that Fennelly co-authored with her husband, Tom Franklin. It was named an IndieNext Great Read, became a finalist for the 2014 SIBA Book Award and has been published in six foreign editions. Her sixth book, "Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs," will be published by W. W. Norton in fall of '17.

“Beth Ann’s accomplishments in literature are too numerous to mention,” said Malcolm White, Executive Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. “We are thrilled that she has chosen to make her home in Mississippi and contribute to arts and education in our state. She is an excellent choice for Mississippi’s poet laureate.”

Born in New Jersey and raised in the Chicago area, Fennelly has written and taught in locations around the United States and the world before settling in Mississippi in 2001. She received a B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame, then taught English for a year in a coal mining village on the Czech/Polish border. She returned to the States to earn her M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas. Fennelly then completed a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin and went on to teach at Knox College in Illinois. She has completed residencies at the University of Arizona and MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, fellowships at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Sewanee, and a 2009 Fulbright grant studying poetry in Brazil. She now lives with her husband and their three children in Oxford, Miss.

Fennelly has received a number of prestigious national awards, including a 2001 Pushcart Prize and a 2002 National Endowment of the Arts grant in poetry. She received a United States Artist Grant in 2006 and the Subiaco Award for Literary Merit in 2012. The Mississippi Arts Commission awarded Fennelly grants for nonfiction in 2005 and 2015, and for poetry in 2010. Most recently, she was awarded the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of her Own (2015) and the Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction from The Chattahoochee Review (2016).

"I'm truly honored to have been chosen as Mississippi's poet laureate, a post held most recently by Natasha Trethewey, whom I greatly admire,” said Fennelly. “Southerners in general and Mississippians in particular are known to have produced many of our nation's greatest writers. It will give me joy to help promote literary arts throughout the state and encourage future generations of Mississippi storytellers and writers. I look forward to continuing and deepening my work with the NEA's Poetry Out Loud Initiative in Mississippi, the fabulous Mississippi Book Festival, and the schools, libraries, and organizations that grow and nurture talent from our rich Mississippi soil."

Fennelly’s poem "The Kudzu Chronicles" (published by W. W. Norton in “Unmentionables,” 2008), is grounded in her experience in Mississippi and references William Faulkner, the Neshoba County Fair and her home in Oxford. Its closing stanzas were used as the lyrics for “Kudzu,” a song by Jackson musician Claire Holley:

Listen, kin and stranger,
when I go to the field and lie down,
Let my stone be a native stone.
Let the deer come at dusk
from the woods behind the church

and let them nibble acorns off my grave.
Then let the kudzu blanket me,
for I always loved the heat,
and let its hands rub out my name,
for I always loved affection.

The Mississippi poet laureate selection committee panel included representatives from state agencies, institutions recommended by Gov. Phil Bryant, and a published writer. The members of the panel, facilitated by Connie Souto Learman of the Mississippi Arts Commission, were Stuart Rockoff and Carol Andersen of the Mississippi Humanities Council; Leila Salisbury, formerly of the University Press of Mississippi; Susan Cassagne and Tracy Carr of the Mississippi Library Commission; Kendall Dunkelberg of the Mississippi University for Women; C. Liegh McInnis of Jackson State University; and Katie Blount and Joyce Dixon-Lawson of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The panel recommended the names of the three finalists from which the Governor made his selection.

For interview and appearance requests, please contact mspoetlaureate@att.net.

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The Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC) is a state agency serving more than two million people through grants and special initiatives that enhance communities, assist artists and arts organizations, promote arts education and celebrate Mississippi’s cultural heritage. MAC is funded by the Mississippi Legislature, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mississippi Endowment for the Arts at the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson and other private sources. For more information, visit www.arts.ms.gov.

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