Before her death in June, Western Kentucky University poet laureate Mary Ellen Miller made poetry a pillar of her life and inspired students as the university’s longest-serving faculty member.
That’s why we agree with the WKU English Department’s decision to recognize Miller’s life and work during this year’s Celebration of Writing.
During Homecoming weekend, the department will celebrate Miller’s legacy with readings of her work, poetry about her and tributes to her influence as a writer and teacher. The free event will take place at 2 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Kentucky Room of the Kentucky Museum and Library.
After more than 50 years teaching writing at WKU, the list of Miller’s accomplishments is long.
An influential writer, Miller viewed poetry as essential.
“I think it’s life-saving,” she told the Daily News shortly after being named WKU’s poet laureate in May 2017. “I think it’s the richest intellectual experience a person can have. … I do think poetry is, for me, absolutely central to my happiness.”
David Bell, an associate professor of English at WKU, directs the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. He recently described Miller as a constant source of advice and support for his career at WKU and work as a novelist.
“I always knew that if I had a question or a problem, I could go to Mary Ellen and she would be open and frank and candid,” he said in a recent Daily News article.
Miller, who was married to the renowned poet and author Jim Wayne Miller, created the annual Jim Wayne Miller Celebration of Writing after he died in 1996. It’s since been renamed the Mary Ellen and Jim Wayne Miller Celebration of Writing to honor both writers.
Bell’s favorite poem of Mary Ellen Miller’s, “Things in the Shape of Other Things,” comes from her book of poetry “The Poet’s Wife Speaks” (2011), which won the Old Seventy Creek Press Prize.
“This thing in me, shaped like a cat, poised for attack hissing, back arched, tail up – I don’t like that,” the poem reads in part.
Bell views Miller’s work as frank and unsparing, tapping into something real in the emotion it conveys. He said she never shied away from difficult emotions.
“When I read this poem, I can’t help but think of her,” he said.
Along with being an accomplished writer, Miller helped make poetry more accessible during her tenure at WKU.
When Miller started teaching at WKU, creative writing was a one-hour elective course that counted toward nothing, according to Miller’s obituary. She spent years helping it evolve into a minor, then a major and then a graduate-level emphasis within the English Department. In 2015, she became a founding member of WKU’s Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing faculty.
Miller democratized poetry outside the classroom as well.
She created the Winter Workshop to bring in established writers from across the country to mentor writers in the region. She wrote and produced the award-winning video “Poetry: A Beginner’s Guide,” according to a news release. She helped create the Robert Penn Warren Center at WKU, dedicated to the Kentucky native who became the nation’s first poet laureate.
For these reasons, and many others, we can think of no one better to be honored during this year’s Celebration of Writing at WKU. We encourage anyone interested to attend the event and support the legacy of the writer it honors.