The Metro Scene

Jeanie Thompson: Poet and Literary Advocate

By Patsy Robertson

Photography by Darren Freeman

It’s amusing to Jeanie Thompson.  The shocked, blank look that strangers wear when hearing she’s a “POET!”  

“I am just an ordinary person who writes poetry,” she explains. “I’m like everyone else. I go to the grocery store. I do laundry.  And I find that gardening is the most stress-relieving activity I have.”

She’s being modest, of course. Jeanie is the executive director of a dynamic, non-profit organization called the Alabama Writers’ Forum.  She is also a poetry faculty member with the Spalding University MFA Writing Program (Louisville of KY). And she is a celebrated, published author in her own right. 

Her day-to-day schedule would leave mere mortals in the dust.

Jeanie came to Montgomery when the Forum she founded in 1993 opened headquarters in the Capitol City. Its goals are to promote writers, writing, publishing and teachers of creative writing in Alabama. 

In effecting those goals, Thompson partners with the State Council on the Arts, the Alabama Arts Alliance, universities, community colleges, public schools, historical institutions and other adjacent groups to create awards and produce many kinds of literary programs.

Tracing her earlier years:  Jeanie grew up in Decatur, Alabama, on the banks of the “deep and blue” Tennessee River. (From the state song, “Alabama.”)

She remembers her first “paying job” as a page in the public library in Decatur. “It was a treasure trove for me,” she said. “There was no end of things to discover. . .  I didn’t realize I was soaking up the great writers of the day — Southern, American, and International.”

Thompson muses that those times “shaped who I am as a writer through shaping my curiosity and wonder.”

“Art can save us from ourselves,” Jeanie believes. “I started writing at age fourteen.” She remembers, “It saved me from the pettiness of high school society. I look back now and realize I was severely bullied by gossip.” 

In the following years, college became a catalyst for Thompson. “Once I got into classes as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, I started to understand a lot more about how to write and the importance of reading other poets, listening to wiser, older teachers, and starting to develop my voice.”

In 1977, she received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama, where she became the founding editor of Black Warrior Review literary journal.

To date, she has published five collections of poems, and three chapbooks, and has co-edited a collection of memoirs by Alabama authors, “The Remember Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Writers.”

Among her books of poetry are: “How to Enter the River,” “White for Harvest,” “Witness,” and “The Seasons Bear Us.”

Her latest, and a major work is “The Myth of Water, Poems from the Life of Helen Keller.” Jeanie’s extensive research helped her feel a resonance with Keller, “Especially that her spirituality reminded me of how I felt about poetry.”

For Jeanie it’s the “musicality that is inherent in all water . . . language in general — poetry in particular” which draws her to writing.  She explains she wants to “hear” the lines most of all.

Interestingly, she and Keller grew up along the same Tennessee River flowing past their hometowns. Keller’s childhood years were spent at the family home, “Ivy Green,” in Tuscumbia, Alabama.

While reading a biography of Keller, Jeanie learned the story of Helen’s thwarted engagement, a poignant drama that happened in Montgomery. Keller was visiting at the home of her sister on Felder Avenue. 

Jeanie described her serendipitous revelation: “A dramatic event happened just blocks from where I was living at the time I read the book, and I felt as if the universe was pointing me toward this material of Helen’s adult life.”

Thompson composed lines pulsing with musicality throughout the thirty-four poems cycling the life of Helen Keller. The collection is written as if through the eyes and voice of the world-renowned celebrity herself. As if Helen Keller were sharing life events in her own words.

“The Myth of Water” was selected as a finalist for the prestigious “Foreward Indie Book Awards.” And it is the same book from which she gave readings throughout the state for the Alabama 200 Bicentennial “Read Alabama” series.

All this sounds exhausting, and yet it doesn’t even begin to include the poet’s professional day job! 

Jeanie is passionate about her full-time work heading the Alabama Writers’ Forum. She believes in action and being hands-on. There is no time to waste. 

She will tell you straight-away, her mission is “helping every child in Alabama get the chance to be the best writer he or she could be.” The director worries about those in rural, underserved areas. The inequities of life weigh on her.

In one program, “Writing Our Stories,” Jeanie has seen young men “appear to mature, grow and become more self-aware.” The nine-month program, within the Department of Youth Services, teaches incarcerated youth through a curriculum of poetry and fiction. It allows each one the chance to be published in the yearly publication, “Open the Door.”

The writing program gives them a skill which can translate to many job opportunities. Thompson said it also gives them “tremendous hope and encouragement that they can go back to their homes or to wherever they’re going to live and be productive citizens.”

Incarcerated adults, and those returning to society, admit being thankful that AWF literary arts programs kept them sane while inside. 

Jeanie states: “It’s very hard to keep joy front and center these days, and poetry can help salve the wounds of all the strife in the world today. That’s not a cliché but a statement of fact.”

“We are not an academic association,” she would have you know.  Her vision is for Alabama, and the rest of the world, to know the community of writers we have.

“People all over the world know about Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Winston Groom and others, but we have so many talented writers yet to be known and I’m always interested in finding them.”  

Jeanie’s work can be stressful and constant, but she is proud that, “Ultimately, we know we have made a difference in many writers’ and readers’ lives.”

 For more information contact the Alabama Writers’ Forum at:

 writersforum@bellsouth.net, or 334-265-7728                                                        

                                                               

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