Exclusive Conversation with Poet and Educator Jesse Graves

This Saturday March 17th, Jesse Graves will lead a narrative poetry workshop, sponsored by the KWG. Our recent interview with Jesse–see below–reveals his expansive mindset on poetry, learning, and East Tennessee.

Jesse Graves grew up in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, a community his ancestors settled in the 1780s.  He is an Associate Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at East Tennessee State University. His first poetry collection, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pinewon the 2011 Weatherford Award in Poetry, and his second collection of poems, Basin Ghosts, won the 2014 Weatherford Award in Poetry. His new volume is Specter Mountain, a co-authored book of poems with William Wright,

His poems have appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Connecticut Review. He is editor of several volumes of poetry and scholarship, including Complete Poems of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). Graves was awarded the 2014 Philip H. Freund Prize for Creative Writing from Cornell University, and the 2015 James Still Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

On March 17th at Central United Methodist Church, 10:00 am – noon, Jesse will lead area writers through a workshop in contemporary narrative poetry.  His workshop will include discussions and applications of the narrative elements and devices found in these works.

He was also kind enough to participate in the following interview to help us prepare for his workshop:

KWG: What were your first experiences with narrative poetry and what appealed to you about the genre?


I grew up hearing wonderful stories from my mother, my grandmother, an uncle who always had some adventure to share, and these were always told in what I consider a lyrical style. Before I had ever read the first poem, I had absorbed all these poetic narratives, so the fusion of poetry and narrative development feel very natural to me. Some of the first poems most readers encounter are stories embedded in poems, such as “The Raven,“ by Edgar Allan Poe, and most of the poems we read from Robert Frost. Narrative transcends genre, so this type of poetry appealed to me perhaps before I was even aware of it.

KWG:  When you were developing as a poet, did you attend workshops such as the one you will facilitate on the 17th? If so, what did you take away from these experiences that you still employ today?


I did attend workshops like this one, and I still do. In fact, at ETSU in April, we will host our 3rd annual Spring Literary Festival, and we have three great writers leading workshops in poetry, fiction, and young adult writing. I will take part in all of those. I think being together in a room with other engaged writers does good work for the spirit, and I truly believe in a communal kind of creativity that feeds the individuals within a group. This workshop will be well-suited for both beginning writers and experienced hands.

KWG:  When you conduct workshops, what is a challenge, or challenges, for you as workshop leader?


Good question—I always feel like the time passes too quickly! As I am walking out the door to go home, I never fail to think of one more thing I wish we could have talked about. I want every person in the room to feel inspired to write something new for a workshop, and while not always possible for me to know the outcome, I aspire to it.

KWG:  What should a participant bring to the workshop, both in terms of work in progress and mindset?


Bring an excitement for writing new work! I hope participants will bring a willingness to explore the range of what might fit into a narrative poem. We will focus on generating new work, and planting the seeds for future writing, so writers won’t need to bring works in progress.

KWG: You come from a very particular place and with deep roots in the community’s history. How have those realities informed your poetry and your work as an educator?


Place and community have probably shaped my work in more ways than I can recognize, or articulate. I realize the importance of those elements in my subject matter, and even in the way my poems develop time and voice. I come from an unwritten place. Its stories have not been fully told, and I feel a pull to contribute to that telling, to the sharing of the experiences that happen there. I grew up in a very rural setting about 40 miles north of Knoxville, where educational opportunities were limited—it means more than I can say to be teaching at ETSU, so near my home base, and working with students who often have backgrounds similar to my own. I hope I can give back to my students some small portion of the knowledge and encouragement my teachers gave to me, and if I can accomplish that, there’s no place in the world I would rather do it than East Tennessee.

KWG:  Will a fiction writer benefit from your narrative poetry workshop? Please explain why or why not.


Absolutely. I think a fiction writer, or an essayist, could benefit just as much as a poet from this class. One thing we will consider is how to compress narratives into the length of a poem, and I know fiction writers are concerned with clarity and economy in their writing. Plus, the prompts we will be working with could easily provide the foundation for short stories or novel chapters as well as poems.

KWG: Anything you would like to add?


Only that I think participants will enjoy our time together, and will leave with new material to develop into poems, stories, or any genre of writing they choose. I have several years of experience leading workshops, and some of the prompts we will be working with have produced excellent work from students in the past. Join us for a Saturday morning well-spent.


This workshop is open to everyone at the following tuition amounts: members, $30, student members, $15, and non-members, $50.

For this opportunity to improve your craft, sign up HERE

Time, date and location:

Saturday March 17th, 2018 from 10:00 am until noon.

Knoxville Writers’ Guild

Central United Methodist Church 201 E. 3rd Avenue (4th and Gill Neigborhood)


This Post Has One Comment

Comments are closed.