Two Cumberlands Professors Win Artist Fellowships
By Samantha Swindler, The Times-Tribune, Corbin, Ky.
Aug. 4–Of only eight Kentucky artists who were granted Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowships Awards this year, two of them work right here in Williamsburg, for the University of the Cumberlands.
Marianne Worthington, associate professor of communication arts, and Nancy Jensen, associate professor of English, both received $7,500 fellowships to support their writing careers.
Jensen, of Whitley City, received an award for fiction writing, while Worthington, of Williamsburg, was awarded for poetry.
“To get one of these awards was just mind blowing,” Worthington said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
The grant will help Worthington in two current projects — one is her second collection of poetry and the other is a collection of poetry by others artists with music-related themes, titled, “Motif, Writing by Ear,” which Worthington is editing. She’s accepting submissions through August and hopes to have the book completed by Christmas.
Her first collection of poetry, “Larger Bodies Than Mine,” was printed in 2006 by Finishing Line Press in Georgetown.
“And it’s not about fat people either,” she said with a laugh. The title is actually taken from the novel, “A Death in the Family.”
“Bodies Larger Than Mine” included about 25 poems that she had collected over 30 years. She turned in her first collection in the summer of 2005. By Christmas she had a contract and by May 2006 she had a book.
The second collection Worthington is working on is inspired by the women of early country music — the female singers like Maybelle Carter, and even the country music genre of murder ballads about the deaths of women.
“It was just something that really intrigued me, the idea of women’s contributions to early country music. It’s kind of a good ol’ boys club and women had to break through that, and we’ve kind of forgotten that,” she said.
Worthington said she didn’t write as a young person at all, but she really began to explore the craft about 15 years ago.
A turning point was attending the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, which she called “life changing.”
“I started going a little over a decade ago and it was just very inspiring to me,” she said of the workshop, “and that’s really how I got started getting published and making connections and doing some writing.”
Worthington attended Carson Newman College and studied under poet Danny Marion, who encouraged her to attend the Hindman workshop.
“That was where I got my first taste of creative writing,” she said.
Her first teaching job was at Ball State in Muncie, Ind., where she had received her master’s degree and met her husband.
She grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. and when an opportunity opened up to move to southeastern Kentucky in 1990, she and her husband, Keith Semmel, took the chance to get closer to home. Semmel is the chair of the communication and theater arts department at U of C.
At U of C, Worthington teaches communication, and journalism and some nonfiction writing. She is also book reviews editor for “Now & Then” magazine and continues academic-style writing through her profession.
“Our department resurrected the campus newspaper and we have a journalism minor in our department and we’re working towards getting a major,” Worthington said.
While the worlds of poetry and journalism are at opposite ends of the writing spectrum, Worthington sees many parallels in her two types of work.
“I always think that a good journalist is very lyrical and uses language skillfully, so there are some similarities, I think,” she said. “Obviously, the approach is different and the structure is different, but any time you use language in a descriptive way, whether it’s journalism or poetry, you’re pretty much doing the same thing.
“I prefer writing poetry, but I seem to do more academic writing,” she said. “I wish that I had more time to write creatively, and maybe this fellowship will allow me to do that.”
Jensen, who was awarded for her work in fiction writing, plans to dedicate part of the grant money toward completing her first novel, tentatively titled “Tread Softly,” a line from poet W.D. Yeats — “tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
The novel joins three pairs of sisters across three generations (and 80 years) of one family, beginning in 1927 in the fictional town of Juniper, Ky. It was a chapter from “Tread Softly” that won Jensen the fellowship award, along with a 2007 enrichment grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women for feminist work.
“That, for me, works, at least in my mind, as something of a theme that joins the six point of view characters,” Jensen said of the title. “So much of what happens in their lives is the result of mis-apprehensions, mis-communication… In that way, without meaning to in any direct way, they sometimes thwart and even trample on the hopes of the others.”
Jensen has traditionally written short stories and essays. Her first book was a collection of pieces written over many years, titled, “Window: Stories and Essays.”
“I just wanted to see if I was going to be able to meet the demands of a longer narrative,” she said of her novel. “It seemed a natural progression.”
Jensen said she’s been writing since she was a child.
“My grandma taught me to read and write when I was 3 years old. I was one of those strange little kids that walked around narrating what was going on,” Jensen said.
She published her first story while she was in college, attending Indiana University in New Albany, Ind.
She began her teaching career in Malaysia, where her husband had been sent for work. When she came back to the area, she had teaching jobs at Lees College in Jackson, Ky. and Bellmine College before coming to University of the Cumberlands 14 years ago.
A “personal trauma” kept Jensen from writing anything for about 10 years, but she finally returned to her craft around 2003.
When she learned of her Al Smith Fellowship award, Jensen said, “I really thought I was going to pass out.
“I’m going to be sort of dispersing it among several projects,” Jensen said. “I have a book coming out in January from Fleur de Lis press out of Louisville, and the grant money will help enormously for allowing me to travel and for promotion. And some practical things like a laptop, and also I’m hoping that there will be enough in the pot left to begin some research on a third book.”
The Kentucky Arts Council’s annual fellowships were awarded this year in the artistic disciplines of literature, music composition and dance choreography. They are named after retired Kentucky journalist and past Arts Council Board chair, Al Smith.
In alternate years, the fellowships are awarded to visual and media artists. Last year, another University of the Cumberlands professor, Russell Weedman, was awarded his second fellowship for his visual art.
“At University of the Cumberlands, we recognize and appreciate the extraordinary caliber of our teaching faculty, and it is always encouraging when organizations like the Kentucky Arts Council corroborate our opinion,” said Dr. Jim Taylor, president of University of the Cumberlands. “It is especially heartening to learn that out of the six Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowships Awards in Literature given this year, two honored the stellar achievements of UC faculty members, Nancy Jensen and Mary Ann Worthington.”
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