Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Erik Reece, February 4, 2010

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:11 - Introduction / Kentucky's literature of place

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Partial Transcript: It's February 4th, 2010, and I'm with Erik Reece at his home in Lexington...

Segment Synopsis: In his book "Lost Mountain," Reece mentions that there are more writers of place around Eastern Kentucky and the Appalachian region than there are elsewhere in the United States. He thinks that the urgency about Appalachia, derived by threats to the landscape through strip mining and other forms of environmental degradation, has shaped our literature. He traces the evolution of his own sense of the literature of place, which came into focus when he lived in Virginia and began reading Wendell Berry.

Keywords: "Geography of the Imagination"; "Lost Mountain"; Agrarianism; Berry, Wendell; Davenport, Guy; Kentucky writers; Landscape; Mountains; Mountaintop removal coal mining; Robinson Forest; Still, James; Strip mining; Thoreau, Henry David; University of Kentucky

Subjects: Appalachian Region--Social conditions; Authors.; Country life; Place attachment; Rural conditions; Writing

00:05:37 - Wendell Berry's importance

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Partial Transcript: What led you to start reading Wendell?

Segment Synopsis: While at the University of Kentucky, Reece was not interested in Wendell Berry's work, as he felt more attracted to the modernism that he learned through Guy Davenport. As Reece got older, he realized that Berry's tradition was profoundly insightful into the connections between nature and culture, and that Berry's work was not old-fashioned, but forward-thinking and necessary.

Keywords: Agrarianism; Davenport, Guy; McKibben, Bill; Modernism; Pollan, Michael; Self-reliance; University of Kentucky; Virginia

Subjects: Authors.; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; Writing

00:08:41 - Similarities and differences between the works of Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport

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Partial Transcript: Were you, uh, uh, in Charlottesville for grad school?

Segment Synopsis: Reece attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Guy Davenport. He reflects on the similarities and differences between Davenport and Berry.

Keywords: Charlottesville (Va.); Cities; Davenport, Guy; Lexington (Ky.); Modernity; Utopianism

Subjects: Authors.; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; University of Kentucky; Writing

00:12:02 - Importance for Kentucky writers of leaving, and returning to, the state

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Partial Transcript: I'm interested in what you said about, um, how you--when you were in Charlottesville, you, you started reading Wendell, and it wasn't until that point you did...

Segment Synopsis: Reece reflects on the importance for Kentucky writers of going away and coming back, which he says was important for him. About five years ago, many Kentucky writers coalesced around the issue of mountaintop removal coal mining; that coalition has diminished, in part because of how disheartening it is to battle with the legislature.

Keywords: "Stream saver bill"; Anderson County (Ky.); Baldwin, James; Berry, Wendell; Charlottesville (Va.); Kentucky; Kentucky legislature; Kentucky writers; Mason, Bobbie Ann; Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR); Robert Hazel; University of Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Coal mines and mining--Environmental aspects; Mountaintop removal mining--Appalachian region; Writing

00:17:26 - Committing to Kentucky as a home place and writing subject

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Partial Transcript: When you made the decision to come back, um, did you have, an i--a commitment at that point that you wanted to really stay and settle here?

Segment Synopsis: When Reece moved back to Lexington from Charlottesville, he made a commitment to embrace his "Kentucky-ness," to be rooted in his community and to be a Kentucky writer. He began trying to model his work after nature writers who are grounded in that tradition, applying this work to the subject of strip mining.

Keywords: "Lost Mountain"; "Where I'm From"; Coal mining; Community; Environmental writing; Kennedy, Robert; Kentucky; Kentucky writers; Lexington (Ky.); Lyon, George Ella; Nature writing; Place; Strip mining; Students; Teaching; University of Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Coal mines and mining--Environmental aspects; Mountaintop removal mining--Appalachian region; Place attachment; Writing

00:25:20 - Kentucky's strengths as a subject for writers

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Partial Transcript: I have to tell you that before coming over here I was at UK and I just, I, um, noticed that there's an oral history interview that someone did with, um, Guy Davenport...

Segment Synopsis: Reece discusses biases many people hold about Kentucky writers; they often assume that these writers must suffer from a deficit as a result of the places in which they live. Reece reflects on how Guy Davenport and Wendell Berry both considered their home places a great advantage in their own work, and he reflects on his own students' experiences regarding this subject.

Keywords: "A Place on Earth"; Berry, Wendell; Davenport, Guy; Kentucky; Kentucky writers; New York; New York writers; Oral histories; Students; University of Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Place attachment; Writing

00:30:05 - More on Wendell Berry's influence / Guy Davenport's mentorship

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Partial Transcript: Do you, do you have anything else to add about Wendell's, um, particular influence on the literary landscape?

Segment Synopsis: Wendell Berry's influence, Reece says, is "oracular." So many writers have a "what would Wendell do?" mentality. They answer the question not by moving to the country, necessarily, but by trying to live responsibly. Reece doesn't think any Kentucky writer has not been influenced by Berry; it's clearly apparent in Barbara Kingsolver; even Guy Davenport would quote Berry all the time. Reece also talks about his relationship with Davenport, first as a student, and then as a friend.

Keywords: "Every Force Evolves a Form"; Davenport, Guy; Kentucky Kernel; Kentucky writers; Kingsolver, Barbara; Painting; Poetry; University of Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Berry, Wendell, 1934-; Writing

00:35:24 - Employing writing as a tool for synthesis

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Partial Transcript: I always kind of thought that, you know, you had to choose Guy or Wendell, you know. You, you had to have the urbane, uh, Parisian or the provincial farmer.

Segment Synopsis: Reece talks about learning from Guy Davenport that you can synthesize things that don't seem to immediately have to do with one another, as he did in using poetry and shifting perceptions in his book "Lost Mountain." Reece was motivated by this sort of synthesis in putting together the poetry anthology "Field Work."

Keywords: "Coal River"; "Field Work"; "Lost Mountain"; "The Ovenbird"; Art; Berry, Wendell; Davenport, Guy; Eastern Kentucky; Frost, Robert; Mason, Bobbie Ann; Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR); Nature; Pastoralism; Poetry; Shanahan, Michael

Subjects: Authors.; Writing

00:41:22 - Forms and processes of writing / writing "Lost Mountain"

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Partial Transcript: Have you always written poetry?

Segment Synopsis: Reece discusses the forms in which he writes-- poetry and essays-- and the different processes and paces involved in each. He also discusses how the process of writing "Lost Mountain" changed him by giving him a sense of responsibility and a platform on which to discuss mountaintop removal coal mining.

Keywords: "Lost Mountain"; "Sacrifice area"; Appalachia; Caylor, Bill; Coal mining; Davenport, Guy; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Essay writing; Fiction writing; Kentucky writers; Larkspur Press; Mountaintop Removal (MTR); Obama administration; Poetry; Zeitz, Gray

Subjects: Authors.; Coal mines and mining--Environmental aspects; Mountaintop removal mining--Appalachian region; Writing

00:49:50 - Hope, faith, and meaning in the environmental movement

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Partial Transcript: So you feel like there's, there's hope that, that, we'll win?

Segment Synopsis: Reece reflects on religion, faith, and the environmental movement. He talks about his proposal in his book "American Gospel," that there be a "new trinity": creator, creation, and human being. He also talks about the many ways in which meaning can be found in connection with the natural world, which can be found in the book of Genesis, but this meaning does not require religious faith.

Keywords: "American Gospel"; "Christians for the Mountains"; Baptist churches; Biophilia; Book of Genesis; Charles Bowden; Christianity; Environmentalism; Faith; Farming; Gardens; Heaney, Seamus; Hope; Land stewardship; Religion; Wilson, E.O.

Subjects: Environmentalism; Religion

00:57:44 - Responses to "American Gospel" / Christianity and nature

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Partial Transcript: What kind of responses have you gotten to "American Gospel" from people of faith?

Segment Synopsis: Reece talks about responses he's received to "American Gospel," which have tended to represent extremes on the love-hate spectrum. He believes there's much to say on the relationship between faith and agrarianism, and thinks that religion may be environmentalism's best hope.

Keywords: "Against Easter"; "American Gospel"; "The Jesus movement"; Agrarianism; Berry, Wendell; Christianity; Christians; Early Christianity; Faith; Gnostic gospels; Gospel of Thomas; Louisville Courier-Journal; Pauline Christianity; Sermon on the Mount; Washington Post

Subjects: Environmentalism; Religion

01:06:22 - American democracy and the challenges of educating children on citizenship

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Partial Transcript: When you're, when you're tracing the, the kind of, um, development of, um, of the gospel that's predomin, predominated in American--in the American psyche...

Segment Synopsis: In "American Gospel," Reece explores the idea of Hamiltonian versus Jeffersonian democracy; he discusses that here, and how the American ideal of individualism has manifested in a more debased form he identifies as consumerism. He believes that we need to begin educating children about citizenship, and that our detachment from the sources of our livelihood leads to cynicism and a sense of estrangement.

Keywords: "American Gospel'; Capitalism; Citizenship; Consumerism; Corporations; Cynicism; Individualism; Popular culture; Self-sufficiency; Students

Subjects: Democracy--United States; Education; Teaching

01:13:51 - Current projects / maintaining hope

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Partial Transcript: Can you say more about what you're working on now?

Segment Synopsis: Reece talks about current writing projects, and about how he maintains his sense of hope, despite the fact that "you never seem to win environmental fights, you just seem to put off defeat." He talks about the importance of living in two kinds of time: historical time, and a kind of time that Wendell Berry has called "the eternal moment."

Keywords: Berry, Wendell; Coal River project; Hope; Logging; Poetry; Robinson Forest; Sustainable forestry; University of Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Environmentalism; Writing