|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 11 (1997)|
Joy Bale-Boone is the author of two collections of poetry, Never
Less Than Love (1972) and Even Without Love
(1992), and a narrative poem, The Storm's Eye: A Narrative
in Verse Celebrating Cassius Marcellus Clay, Man of Freedom, 1810-1903
(1974). For over sixty years, she has written poems about beauty,
love, and family (to and about her parents, her six children,
and her fifteen grandchildren).
In addition to writing poetry, Joy Bale-Boone has been a patron
of the arts in Kentucky for many of her eighty-plus years. She
founded the poetry magazine Approaches in 1964 (later
called Kentucky Poetry Review) which continued for
almost thirty years; she has reviewed books for the Louisville
Courier-Journal and other publications for more than fifty
years; she hosted a syndicated radio program, Looks at Books,
on WIEL in Elizabethtown for ten years; she served as president
of the Friends of Kentucky Libraries and as a member of the Kentucky
Educational Television Advisory Board, the Kentucky Council on
Higher Education, the Editorial Board of the University Press
of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Humanities Council. In 1969 she
received the University of Kentucky Sullivan Award for the Outstanding
Citizen of the state of Kentucky.
Joy Bale-Boone is currently serving as chair of the Robert Penn
Warren Committee at Western Kentucky University and as a member
of the board of the Robert Penn Warren Circle of Duke University.
She is a director of the Thomas Clark Foundation of the University
Press of Kentucky and a member of the Board of the Gaines Center
for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky.
Born to English parents in Chicago in 1912, Bale-Boone lived only
a few blocks from the office of Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry,
A Magazine of Verse. At sixteen, she found her way to
Monroe's office, introduced herself, and asked for comments on
her poetry. Monroe saw promise in Bale-Boone's poetry and encouraged
her to keep writing.
She met Kentucky native, Shelby Garnett Bale, while he was attending
medical school at Northwestern University. After their marriage
in 1934 and a few years of further medical training in New York
City, Louisville, and Lynch, Kentucky, she moved with him to Elizabethtown,
Kentucky. Her poetry from this period reflects her husband's roots
in Green and Larue Counties, her proximity to the central Kentucky
city of Louisville, and her growing family: Shelby, Jr., was born
in 1936, Barbara in 1939, Daryl in 1941, Richard in 1942, Bradley
in 1948, and Phillip in 1950. At this time Bale-Boone's family
began spending several weeks each summer at the island they named
Balewick, twenty-five miles by water from Kenora, Ontario. In
the early 1970s, Bale-Boone also spent some time with her husband
at Lyme Regis, the little fishing village on the border of Dorset
and Devon in southwest England. She returned to Lyme Regis several
more times after the death of her husband in 1972. In 1975 she
married George Street Boone and moved to his native Elkton, Kentucky,
where she lives today.
The following transcript is based on a conversation held October
25, 1994, at the home of Joy Bale-Boone's son Shelby Bale in Glasgow,
LMM: How did you become interested in poetry?
JBB: I really can't pinpoint it. I think maybe poets are just
born with a certain way of thinking because looking back I believe
I wrote my first poem when I was ten or twelve. It was rather
embarrassing--at least I find it so now. It was terribly expressive.
My mother loved it--she was so pleased that I had written something--and
had it placed in the church bulletin. Well, I'm glad my way of
writing has changed. But I don't remember anything except always
When I was twelve and in my early teens, I'd go to the public
library in Evanston, Illinois, and because hardly anybody checked
out poetry even then, I could take any number of poetry books
home. I'd have my arms loaded with poetry books. I'd be in my
room that night typing out lines from my favorite poems, I'm afraid
my parents thought doing my homework. I still have the scrapbooks,
five of them. There were all sorts of pieces of poetry. I was
just always excited by poetry.
LMM: I understand that you once met Harriet Monroe?
JBB: That was the nice thing about where I was born. Maybe that's
why I was interested in poetry. I was born in Chicago on a street
called Dearborn, which is pretty nice, and eight blocks away Harriet
Monroe--I, of course, learned a few years later--was starting
Poetry magazine. It was just called Poetry,
and it is still one of the leading poetry magazines or journals
in the world. It's just a wonderful one. Of course, she's gone
now, but it has been kept up by succeeding editors. When I was
just in my teens, I met Harriet Monroe. I know hardly anyone's
heard of her--it's not like Elvis Presley or something--but to
someone interested in poetry, she's just one of the wonders of
the world. So maybe I was just--some people might say doomed
to poetry--I'll say destined to poetry. She was
a very quiet, seemingly unassuming woman, but of course full of
fire or else how could she have done all she did with words? I
feel very lucky. I wish I could have known her--I wish I could
have been in her magazine!
But then after I married I moved to New York City a while and
worked. After we settled in Kentucky, which was my husband's home,
babies started coming and I didn't actively pursue poetry until
the children were fairly grown. Of course, I was writing all along.
Then started the Kentucky poetry magazine. That was exciting!
It was 1964, and I couldn't understand why there weren't any poetry
magazines in Kentucky because by then I knew Kentucky so well
I knew there had to be poets lurking around in the woods and hiding
their poems under leaves, maybe, this time of year. There was
not a single poetry publication in Kentucky then except the poems
that would appear in college or university magazines which mostly
carried essays or fiction. So I thought I'd like to do an anthology
of Kentucky poems, but where were they? So it occurred to me to
get in touch with librarians because they would really know who
came in and wanted poetry and maybe even had confided that they
wrote it. The librarians responded beautifully, and I ended up
with a list of poets, mostly in eastern Kentucky, which in a way
is not surprising because people are a little closer to the earth
there. So I wrote to these people, and most of them sent poems.
The anthology sold out in six weeks. Can you imagine? It was a
Than many of the people who were in it wrote to me asking if there
weren't some way they could go on sharing each other's work. So
I had a friend across the street who was very artistic and loved
poetry--didn't write it--and she also sketched, and so I asked
her if she'd be interested in trying. We put out the first issue,
then called Approaches; it became Kentucky
Poetry Review. It was the most miserable-looking thing
you ever saw. We didn't have money, so it was a moonlight job.
In today's world of desk computers, you can practically do good
publishing in your own home. I looked so horrible we were ashamed
to send it out, so we didn't. At out own expense, we had a decent-looking
copy made. From then on, it just kept going and got better and
better. But we never changed our policy of including only Kentucky
poets, which sounds terribly insular, but they just hadn't had
a chance before. After that magazine started, poetry magazines
have proliferated in Kentucky. Western Kentucky University has
Plainsong, a very good magazine.
LMM: Wasn't it about this time when you were involved in a poetry
JBB: After the magazine started, poets in that area would meet
in people's homes. Most of these poets were in Louisville. It
was too far for the eastern Kentucky or western Kentucky poets
to come. We had wonderful times. We'd bring works in progress
or a recently written poem. We would read it, and the whole group
would discuss it. And with one exception I never knew anyone to
have their feelings hurt. But there are a few poets who, if you
misplace a comma, are real upset and very often have a right to
be. Punctuation is as important in poetry as almost any other
part. A comma can make a big difference. Amazing--that's part
of the fun of poetry.
LMM: Do you think the poetry group influenced your poetry?
JBB: Oh, yes. We all stimulated each other so much. I'd go home
and, all of a sudden, here were three or four poems knocking at
my door, interfering with my housework and child care. I would
stay up late and take care of the poems too. I think it influenced
my poetry and everybody's because everyone was so outspoken. The
thing that came through the most, the criticism to everybody,
was, "Why did you make it so long? You said it all in the
first three stanzas." It made us tighten up our poetry and
give it more impact. "Why did you add those last two lines?
Do you think your readers are idiots and can't get the point?
Let them fill in with their feelings." No particular style.
Everybody has a different thing to say and a different way of
saying it. We could always made it a little better. Our friends
who are also poets could help with it.
I never felt I was influenced by any one writer except when I
was very young. That was in my teens. It was the time of Dorothy
Parker, Ogden Nash, Sara Teasdale. The love poems were always
heartbroken. It was a cynical time, oddly enough, not cynical
the way politics is today: "Men seldom make passes at girls
who wear glasses." It sounded cynical, but just part of the
LMM: How do you actually write a poem?
JBB: It starts in my head. The poem comes to me, and then I do
work with paper and pencil. Oh, Lord, this is going to shock so
many people, but I don't use a word processor. Everybody thinks
you should do that now. But the way I've done it suited me. I
work it out with paper and pencil. Then I start typing it. Some
poems take an endless number of rewritings, and some are almost
there to begin with.
That's what I like about love poems--they're lyrics. Sometimes
I wake up in the morning, and they almost get up with me. They're
easy and quick to do if they catch me--some get thrown away.
Most of my friends who write say, "Word processors! You wouldn't
have to retype!" What's wrong with retyping? That's one of
the things I loved about editing the magazine those years ago.
I made up the dummy. I had to type everybody's poem that was going
to be in that issue. Gosh, it's a wonderful way to lose yourself
in a poem! There you've got every word--even the the
or the a, and whether or not you put the the
or the a in is terribly important too. That's the
fun of poetry. Every little part, every single work, makes a difference.
It's a condensed thing. Maybe that's what I love about it.
LMM: Does your poetry fit into any category or is there any label
you would use to classify your poetry?
JBB: I sure wouldn't call myself a nature poet--I'm not good enough
to do what people have to do, and yet I've written a lot of poems
that include nature. One was about nothing but a magnolia tree.
I write more about people and their feelings, but I don't think
there's any category.
Symbolism is also important in writers. You can always isolate
a few things with any one writer or poet. I think hands turn up
often in my poetry. And I have people say I have a lot of religious
references and that always amazes me because they're entirely
unconscious. I'm not a church sort of person at all. It comes
out that way.
LMM: Do you think your poetry has changed over the years?
JBB: Oh, yes, I do. For one thing the cynicism is all gone. And
I perhaps write longer poems, occasionally, though I love short
poems. If I can get an emotion or atmosphere or idea over in a
few lines, that's the best way to do it. There are certain poems
that take more than that, like the one about the barn. I really
had to describe that it was falling down. And then I've written
several long poems about the old home I live in now in Elkton,
Kentucky, since my life changed and Garnett died a few years later
I remarried and moved to western Kentucky, which is an entirely
different part of Kentucky from any I've known. I must say that
living down there was more of a change in poetry than any other.
As far as I'm concerned, that part of Kentucky is a pocket of
the Old South about two hundred years ago. The feeling of it.
We talked about the fog that clings to the ground in the morning,
the "witch's breath." It's really a very odd and special
part of Kentucky and the country.
And living in a two-hundred-year-old house has influenced me.
When I was growing up in Evanston, I thought the Chicago water
tower was the oldest thing in the whole world because it had survived
Mrs. O'Leary's fire. It's still there, a darling little water
tower in the city. Now if I'm in the kitchen--I say if
I'm in the kitchen; I try not to be there too often--in the old
house, I realize over and over again that that kitchen is older
than the Chicago water tower. That has to affect me some way.
I'm more in touch with old things now, including myself, which
makes a difference too.
LMM: Did your friendship with Robert Penn Warren affect your poetry?
JBB: No, I don't think it affected my poetry. He's one of the
great poets of the world, one of the great men of letters. There
he was, born in Todd County, the same county in which I'm living
now. So it has certainly affected my life, particularly by the
Robert Penn Warren Center being founded at Western Kentucky University
on the Bowling Green campus.
Since Warren's death, his family absolutely overwhelmed us by
giving us--without even mentioning it--Robert Penn Warren's entire
personal working library: over 2400 books in which he's underlined,
made notes, or they'd been given to him by famous writers and
therefore been inscribed. They gave us his desk, his chair, several
pieces of other furnishings from his study. He was, of course,
the first poet laureate of the United States, and they gave us
his laureate wreath, which I'm sure if I'd been his daughter I
couldn't have given up. It's beautiful. They gave us his medal
And they still send books. The other day his daughter, Rosanna,
a beautiful poet in her own right who teaches at Boston University,
sent Warren's English translation of the French writer Flaubert.
"They keep turning up," she said. All the markings are
in it from when Robert Penn Warren was working on his poem.
Everybody who lives in Kentucky should go and see that marvelous
collection, but I also realize unfortunately there are some people
in Kentucky who don't even know about Robert Penn Warren. He's
really better known in some foreign countries. But I suppose that's
always true. Robert Penn Warren's novel All the King's Men
is required reading in the high schools and colleges of Russia.
All the King's Men has been translated into Russian,
and the Russian translator came to the Warren Center and spoke
several years ago.
The Robert Penn Warren Center has influenced my life. It has been
a lot of work to keep working with others on it. It is exciting
to touch books that some great writer has used and made his notations
LMM: What is your opinion of current poetry in the United States?
JBB: Ooooh! Depends on where you look at it. Some fine poetry
is being written, but I see a lot of poems in The New Yorker
magazine--there aren't many that still print poetry, Harper's,
The Atlantic--which are too obtuse. It's as if they
threw words in a hat and scrambled them out and put them together.
Yet every now and then I run across a poem that's just wonderful.
Maybe I'm a little behind the times now.
We're not seeing enough poetry to create many new admirers of
poetry, except in spoken poetry. There's a whole new movement
now of what I call (and maybe others do too) "platform poetry"--poetry
readings. Now they're attended mostly by other poets, but not
always. They get to be very popular in coffeehouses. Of course,
the YMCA in New York City has also had wonderful poetry readings.
And I learned a long time ago that there can be a difference too
in platform poetry and poetry you read. A person reading a poem
can give you a really good feeling about it, and then when you
read it at home, it's not that good. The really good poetry is
wonderful when it's read out loud and when it's read quietly.
I know Wade Hall who is well known in Kentucky and took over the
editorship of the poetry magazine when I moved to western Kentucky.
He used to be one of our editors--we had an editorial board of
four or five people. If Wade particularly liked a poem and the
rest of us weren't that enthusiastic, he'd say, "May I please
read it?" Well, by the time he's read it, he'd sold us. Or
if someone else had a poem that Wade didn't think was good enough
to go in the magazine, Wade would ask to read it, and he could
I'm lucky to have a son (Shelby) who reads poetry beautifully.
I'm never fearful when he does it. People can ruin a poem by reading
it. But the really good poem is good either way.
LMM: Shelby, what was it like growing up as the oldest son of
the poet Joy Bale Boone?
SB: It really didn't make any difference in our lives. We had
marvelous childhoods. If she was writing poetry then, she did
it when we were asleep.
I guess when I went away to college was the first time we really
began to share her poetry. She'd send a copy of what she'd written
and continued doing that until I moved--well, you still do once
in a while. I would write my reaction and ask questions about
certain things. That's the way we really began sharing poetry.
JBB: Shelby became so interested in English literature. He was
teaching me things too. He's the one who told me I'd like Albert
Camus, the great French writer. So I started reading Albert Camus
who turned out to be one of my most favorite writers of all times.
So Shelby and I started sharing more literature.
Shelby is one of the best people for exegesis I've ever known--he
can take a poem and see what's in it from the writer and even
surprise the writer by seeing things of which he or she was unaware.
So we got very close. We were always close as people. He was my
mainstay during World War II because he had so many younger siblings
and Garnett was overseas.
SB: As a child I probably wasn't even aware that you wrote poetry.
But it certainly has been a big part of our relationship since
I was eighteen.
LMM: Shelby, do you have any favorites?
SB: "The Supper" always comes to mind immediately. I
love "Letters from Lyme Regis" and "Letters from
Abroad." And each one I read is a favorite. I get new things
each time I read it or reacquainted with old feelings.
JBB: Shelby became an editor, so I've had great help from him.
LMM: Do you have any advice for a young poet?
LMM: Do you have any advice for a young poet?
JBB: For one thing, never try to force a poem. And always let
it be completely honest. Don't go in for contrivances that will
make a line fit better. Be really sold on what you're saying,
or don't bother saying it. I think freshness and honesty in poetry
are terrifically important. I don't think it's something to play
with, because words are so terribly important. A poem I love,
or a certain line, you might not like, but if one of us loves
it, then it's a good poem for that person.
When we had the magazine, one of our subscribers said very nicely
he'd like to put up an annual award for the best poem. We certainly
wanted it, but we editors did not want to decide what was the
best poem. The best for you might not be the best for me. Who
could say? We all have our own emotions and experiences. So we
told him we'd love to do it, but we'd like our readers to decide
the poem that had meant the most to them. We put a ballot in the
last of the four issues of each year, and our readers chose the
poem that meant the most to them. The poem that meant the most
to the most people was the one. And usually the poem that got
the greatest number of votes had been felt to be one of the move
"moving" ones--I'm avoiding the word best--by the editors.
LMM: Is there anything else you have to say about poetry?
JBB: Personally, poetry has been such a comfort, as well as an
excitement, in my life. Writing poetry is a great thing I think
because it's dealing with your own emotions and responses to things.
Now there's a word I don't like to use with poetry, but to be
honest I must use it, and that is therapy. If you
have a disturbing emotion or an extra happy one or you see something
that's enormously beautiful, to be able to express it is wonderful--it's
therapy. And the poems you write if you're upset, you can tear
up if you get too vehement.
And then you can write poetry whenever you are. You can write
it in your head. Many poems have started as I'm driving somewhere--Louisville,
Lexington--and enough will stay with me until I get to paper and
pencil. Of course many people have said, "Why don't you put
a recorder on the seat beside you?" That's getting too mechanical.
It's not too bad if I lose a poem every now and then. There are
millions in the world that will never be read. I can't think,
"Gee, I've lost a poem!" It would only be a loss to
me. And if it were something I needed to work out, it would come
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