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First James Still Fellow: Christina Parker

by Heidi Bright Parales

Christina Parker, a 1997 graduate of Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, received the $15,000 James Still Fellowship for this academic year. The fellowship, awarded through the UK Graduate School, is given each year to an alumnus of a private Appalachian college who is pursuing graduate work at the University of Kentucky. The fellowship is renewable for a second year for master's students and a third year for doctoral students.

Photo of James Still and Christina ParkerChristina Parker with James Still, at a book signing in Lexington

"I'm thankful every day for this fellowship," says Parker, a doctoral student from Cookeville, Tennessee. "I didn't have any support like this as an undergraduate; I had to work my way through." Last year she worked full time for a small newspaper in Newport, Tennessee.

Parker is studying English and is especially interested in creative writing. In the fall semester she took Gurney Norman's fiction writing class, and she's currently enrolled in a creative writing class taught by James Baker Hall. Both Norman and Hall are in UK's English department. Parker has already had some of her poetry published.

She first read Still's well-known novel River of Earth in an Appalachian studies course at Carson-Newman College, and the book left an indelible impression. "It's simply one of the most intense novels I've ever read," Parker says. "The imagery has really stayed with me, and the universal themes move it beyond being thought of as only a regional novel. His style in this novel is very poetic."

Parker met Still for the first time at a book signing and reading in Lexington last November. "I loved hearing Mr. Still read. He read several poems that are my absolute favorites." She adds that when she talked with him after the reading, he was encouraging and gracious. "It was all very inspiring," she says, adding that meeting such a prolific writer in his '90s (Still is 92) reminded her that she has "a lot of years yet to write."

Still was in Lexington to promote a new book of verse titled An Appalachian Mother Goose, published by the University Press of Kentucky. "I'm astonished how well this book is doing," says the Knott County native. "In the first place, I never expected the University Press to publish it. I did that book just for fun. I was just playin'." He explains that novelist Lee Smith first read these poems when she was visiting Still in 1997 when he had pneumonia. "During her visit, she asked me if she could see them," Still says. "Her reaction was: These have to be placed. It's great to have friends like that."

Still says that in his many readings and classroom visits throughout the Appalachian region, the most common question asked of him is, Should I become a writer?

"I get this especially from high-school students," Still says. "I rather facetiously say, 'Don't become a writer-you don't know what you're getting into.' I do try to clarify that writing is a lifelong commitment, not something you do in your spare time." Still advises would-be writers to get a good liberal arts education. "All the writers I've known are great readers. They don't just write poetry, they know who else is writing it and in which magazines and journals the writer's poems appear."

Parker, encouraged rather than dissuaded by Still's words, says she plans to continue to take creative writing courses at UK and, beyond that, to perhaps get a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing somewhere.

"I definitely plan to go back to eastern Tennessee or eastern Kentucky and teach writing after finishing my formal education," she says.

"The James Still Fellowship is one of the University of Kentucky's most prestigious awards and is open to graduate students entering one of the university's humanities or social science programs," says Mike Nietzel, dean of the Graduate School. "UK is pleased to offer this award plus full tuition under the name of one of the state's most venerable and respected writers."

For information about how to apply for the James Still Fellowship (eligibility requirements, nomination process and due date for nomination) contact
the UK Graduate Fellowship Office,
365 Patterson Office Tower,
Lexington, KY 40506-0027;
e-mail wheeler@pop.uky.edu
or call 606/257-3261.