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April 2004
Rafting Rise
by Joe Survant

Joe Survant: A Brief Autobiography

I grew up in Owensboro on the Ohio, hunting, fishing, camping, and contracting a chronic love for rivers, woods, and damp bottoms where weeds “in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.” When I was a senior, I met my wife, Jeannie Ashley, and, with my friend, science fiction writer Terry Bisson, started the first literary magazine at Owensboro High.

After high school, I went off to the University of Kentucky, where a creative writing class with Robert Hazel (the only one I ever had), literature classes with Robert White and Bill Axton, and friendships with other writers, notably Lamar Herrin, Richard Taylor, and Louise Natcher Murphy, prompted me to change my major from physics to English; there was also some encouragement from calculus and organic chemistry. By the time I was a senior I was writing madly and was editor of the campus literary magazine, Stylus, following Richard Taylor.

After graduating from UK in 1964, I went to the University of Delaware on an NDEA fellowship, married Jeannie, and began a dissertation on Sterne and Joyce. In between seminar papers, I continued writing poetry and twice won the Academy of American Poets Prize at Delaware. Three years later, I came back to teach for two years (1967-69) at UK, without having finished my dissertation. After two summers spent wrestling with Sterne and Joyce, I gave up my job at UK and went back to Delaware, where I managed to get a one-year dissertation fellowship and Jeannie her first teaching job. I completed my doctorate in 1970. Since then I’ve been teaching writing and contemporary literature at Western Kentucky University and living with my wife in Warren County, where our daughters, Anastasia and Alexandra, were born.

A year (1983-84) spent teaching at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang on a Fulbright Fellowship and traveling in Southeast Asia was pivotal for my writing. The stimulus of Southeast Asia and the free time opened up by my light teaching load (because of a political squabble between radical and moderate Muslims over the use of English in the classroom) resulted in a renewed focus on my writing, which I had allowed to become too secondary to my academic life. I wrote daily for the first time in years and completed my first book, which I named In the Forest of Rain. Although I managed to publish more than 20 poems from this manuscript, both here and in England, including a group which won the 1987 Frankfort Arts Foundation Poetry Contest, I was unable to find a publisher. A portion of In the Forest of Rain was finally published on July 4, 2001 as The Presence of Snow in the Tropics by Landmark Books of Singapore, after the editor heard me give a reading at the National University of Singapore in 1999 and a poem of mine was published in the newsletter of the Singapore Buddhist Society that same year. When I returned to Bowling Green in the fall of 1984, I helped set up, along with Frank Steele and Mary Ellen Miller, the creative writing major at WKU.

By the early ’90s, tired of the lyric voice pacing the narrow room of its own consciousness, I was experimenting with joining the lyric to a narrative, hoping to hold on to the intensity of the one and gain the story of the other, all in the context of Kentucky’s rural past. The first result was a chapbook, We Will All Be Changed, which won a competition from State Street Press and was published by editor Judith Kitchen in Brockport, NY in 1995. The next year Anne & Alpheus, 1842-1882, a continuation of We Will All Be Changed, won the Arkansas Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

At this point I made the decision to write a type of epic of rural Kentucky in three books, each set in a different century. I designated Anne & Alpheus as the 19th-century volume and began work on a series of poems set in 1916 and 1917 centering on the rafting of logs down the Rough, Green, and Ohio rivers to the mills in Evansville. Somewhere along the way the lyrical voice of the sequence was hijacked by Sallie, an itinerant herb woman who wanders through the book with her dogs, hearing voices and perhaps cursed with second sight. Rafting Rise was published by the University Press of Florida in November of 2002.

In order to gain more time to write, I have just begun an early partial retirement at WKU, where I will teach only in the springs. I plan to begin work this summer on the 18th-century book, the final one of my Kentucky trilogy. Its working title is The First West. I have no idea where it will go or what people will inhabit it. I look forward to finding out.

—Joe Survant, November 2003

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