Jayne Moore Waldrop interviews Silas House, Kentucky Poet Laureate

Frank X Walker, first Black Kentucky poet laureate; Silas House, first openly gay Kentucky poet laureate; and Crystal Wilkinson, first Black woman Kentucky poet laureate.

In late April 2023, Silas House was inducted as the thirty-first poet laureate of Kentucky. He is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels including Clay’s Quilt, A Parchment of LeavesThe Coal TattooEli the GoodSame Sun Here, Southernmost, and his most recent, Lark Ascending (2022) (Read SLR review of this novel here). Lark Ascending was a Booklist Editors’ Choice, and the winner of the 2023 Southern Book Prize and the 2023 Nautilus Book Award. House is also a poet, essayist, playwright, environmental activist, and recipient of the Duggins Prize, the largest award for an LGBTQ writer in the nation.

Jayne Moore Waldrop caught up with Silas to talk about his appointment to serve as poet laureate, his writing, his faith, his beagle, and his current favorite music. Jayne and Silas worked together as author and series editor, respectively, on Drowned Town, a linked story collection published in 2021 by Fireside Industries, an imprint of University Press of Kentucky in partnership with Hindman Settlement School.


Jayne Moore Waldrop

JMW: To begin with, congratulations on your recent appointment by Governor Andy Beshear to serve as Kentucky’s thirty-first poet laureate. What does this selection mean to you? What does it mean to you to become the state’s first openly gay poet laureate?

SH: I’m especially honored to accept this appointment from a governor I admire and respect so much. I love how Beshear strives to represent all Kentuckians in a way no other governor during my lifetime has. And I feel like his main theme as governor has been empathy. We need more of that these days. And to be chosen as the first openly gay poet laureate in a time when there is so much anti-LGBTQ rhetoric means a lot, too, of course. But also, to be a first-generation college graduate, to have been raised working class and rural, to be an accented person—all of those things don’t often go hand in hand with this kind of appointment, so I just appreciate being trusted to carry the mantle. And I think visibility on all of those fronts really matter: to LGBTQ people, to rural people, to working class people. And I take that representation very seriously.

JMW: The list of Kentucky poets laureate reads like a who’s who of our literary heritage. How do you feel to be added to that list?

SH: Well, that’s one of the best parts, for sure. To be on a list with people I admire so much, and who have done so much to further the literature. Everywhere I go inevitably someone will make some kind of derisive statement about Kentucky, often about it being a place of illiteracy, so I tell them about our rich literary history. I remind them of the many writers they love who they may not realize are from Kentucky. And it doesn’t take long for them to see the light.

JMW: Your immediate poet laureate predecessor, Crystal Wilkinson, is your longtime friend and former colleague at Berea College. Crystal is also Appalachian, like you. She, too, is another groundbreaker among the Kentucky poets laureate as the first Black woman to be appointed. What’s it like to follow in her footsteps? Did she give you any advice?

Silas House

SH: The most special thing about that to me is that I feel like she and I really came up together in the literary world. Our first books came out within a few months of each other and we went to graduate school together (along with another recent poet laureate, Frank X Walker). And over the last twenty years we have found ourselves in the public eye and from conversations I know it’s really important to us both that we were raised rural, and come from families that are working class families—that’s rare in the literary and academic world, and so I think that’s been a big bond for us.  And I think we’re similar in that we have a deep love for language. We are both language-driven writers. I feel like I have really big shoes to fill, and I’m just honored to be on that list with her.

JMW: I was fortunate to have been present at the Kentucky state capitol rotunda on April 24 for the joyful and standing-room-only public induction ceremony when you became poet laureate. How did you feel at that moment? What has the response been to your appointment from across the state?

Silas House with Jayne Moore Waldrop at book launch

SH: Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the love I received at the ceremony and in the days following. I’ve never had so many big waves of love and support crashing on me, over and over. From flowers being sent to gifts, to notes and texts and letters. And when I say overwhelmed, I mean it. Like a lot of people from working class backgrounds, I suffer quite a bit from imposter syndrome and the main thing I kept feeling was “I’m not worthy” of all of that love and support. It can be a little debilitating, but I guess it’s also a great way of keeping one grounded. There was some hatred that came my way, too, but that was to be expected. I’m used to that. I won’t say it doesn’t faze me, because sometimes some of the name-calling and meanness is a lot to take, but I also have a very thick skin. I was a little gay boy with thick glasses who loved to read in the 1980s, so I can take just about whatever is thrown my way (laughter). I guess what bothered me most about some of the backlash was the suggestion that I am anti-Kentuckian. And anyone who knows me knows that nothing could be further from the truth. I love Kentucky to my bones. Sometimes loving a place means that you have to critique it, too. I think romanticizing a place simplifies it, and I would never, ever seek to do that.

JMW: Kentucky poets laureate have the opportunity to choose a focus or project for their term. George Ella Lyon used her tenure to focus on the statewide “Where I’m From” project. Crystal Wilkinson started a podcast called “Words for the People” to reach as many Kentuckians as possible during the height of the pandemic. What do you plan for your term?

SH: I have two projects in the works.  The biggest one is an initiative to work with several teachers to implement oral history programs in their classes that will get students to talk to their elders. Growing up, being with my elders was foundational for me, as a writer and as a person. And I don’t see that interaction happening as much these days, so I want to foster that.  I’ll go into classrooms, teach students how to take a good oral history and how to write a magazine-style feature for the project. They’ll write that, transcribe the oral history, collect some pictures, and we’ll make a website repository for them all as a living document—conversations between young and old Kentuckians. I hope to start that immediately in the upcoming school year.  I am also working with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning [in Lexington] to start a podcast that will focus on writing lessons.  Each episode I’ll focus on a particular topic—dialogue, sense of place, characterization, etc.—and I’ll give a little lesson on that, then bring on a guest to get their insights on that topic. We’ll also include a writing prompt.  So it will be available for teachers to use in teaching writing classes or it will also be there just for anyone who is interested in writing. Of course I’m also trying to visit as many schools and libraries as I can and try to lift up the voices of emerging writers.

JMW: You are a native Kentuckian, an Appalachian, a gay man, a person of faith, a devoted husband, father, and son, a teacher and editor, a writer of prose and poetry and music, an environmental activist, and a lover of nature, dogs, and trees. You remind me of that beautiful line – I contain multitudes – from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” How does your work reflect the many facets of your life?

SH: I identify a lot with that line from Whitman because I am not just one identity, I am made up of all of them. I talked a little about that in my induction speech. I think too often we get labeled as one thing when we are in fact a combination of many things.  And I think that’s important to talk about. Just as I said before that rural, working class-raised people are uncommon in the literary and academic world, I think that identifying as a person of faith is equally rare. Yet that’s a huge part of who I am as a person and as a writer. And I think that one is particularly important to talk about because I don’t like the way religion and belief is so often simplified in our culture. There is this idea that there is only one way to be a person of faith or a Christian when in fact there are many ways. I just so happen to be Episcopalian, and that’s a very centering thing for me.  The Eucharist is important to me and my creative process. Some people don’t like for me to talk about that, but some people don’t like for me to talk about being gay, either. I’m not hiding any part of who I am and one reason is because there are others out there who want to see themselves reflected in artists and poet laureates. I think that possessing many identities allows me to represent more Kentuckians, not fewer.

JMW: You moved to Lexington a few years ago. I also live in Lexington. How do you describe your adopted city and why you chose to live here?

SH: I was hesitant to move here. For the first thirty-five years of my life I lived within the same square mile in a very small, rural community, then I lived ten years in Berea, which is a small town, but still, it was the first time I had lived in a town. I was raised with pretty provincial notions, especially about cities. We were taught that everyone in cities was rude, highfalutin, that kind of thing.  The older I got the more I saw that that just was not true but I still had a hesitation to live in a city where homes are so much closer together, there’s more traffic, less of the natural world, etc. But I took the chance and I absolutely love Lexington. I love living in a city where I can walk down the street and hear many different accents—and even different languages. I love seeing so many homes and businesses with Pride flags hanging out front. There is such a wonderful writing community here, a dynamic visual arts community, and a great LGBTQ community here. Plus, the city is close enough to Appalachia that I can be back there within an hour. So it’s always within easy reach. I am homesick everyday, as most displaced Appalachians are, but I go back home a lot and I go to the mountains a lot, mostly due to the easy proximity. Best of all, I think, is that Lexington is a city of expats. So many rural people come here, for sanctuary. I love that, and it’s a very bonding thing to find those other people. Lexington is just a great city. The food scene, the music, the festivals, the people. I love it here and I feel welcomed here.

JMW: And, coincidentally, Lexington is home to both our current Kentucky poet laureate and United States Poet Laureate Ada Limón. How cool is that, especially since you and Ada are friends. Do you plan to collaborate on any projects during your term?

SH: We’re both so often going in opposite directions on the road that we haven’t had a chance to talk about that but I hope that we will.  I am just so glad that Ada is our poet laureate. She is the perfect choice. She’s so accessible and down-home and loving. And her poetry is accessible while also being profound. That’s a difficult balance to strike. She was the absolute perfect choice, and she has done so much work to make poetry more a part of our everyday lives. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.

JMW: Your novel Lark Ascending came out in 2022, a story set in the near future, a time of hand-in-hand political extremism and climate catastrophe. In many ways the story, though fiction, feels as if it could have been launched from current headlines and legislative agendas around the country. How did this story come to you?

SH: I was thinking about what is already happening and imagining the worst scenarios of it all getting worse. I think a lot about climate change and what we are going to live to see with that. And I worry a lot about our current political climate. There is so much vitriol and bigotry on open display. Something has to give with that, one way or another. But all of that is really in the background in Lark Ascending. My main job was to create characters who are reacting to those scenarios. They’re plunged into the chaos and what was most interesting to me was how they’d react to, how they’d survive in so much tumult. My goal was to focus on how one survives while also keeping their humanity intact. I’m bothered by the celebration of extreme violence in media. For example, I thought The Last of Us was a beautiful show until the penultimate episode, where one of our lead characters—who has been so empathetic up to this point—just starts mowing people down with gunfire even if he doesn’t have to. I know that he is dealing with PTSD of losing his daughter and all of that, but still, I don’t get it, this insistence on glorifying violence. I turn off a lot of shows that do that. To me it’s much more interesting, and complex, and challenging to write a story in which people learn to survive by trying to be the best people they can, not by shoving their humanity aside.

JMW: The characters in Lark Ascending confront loss on nearly every level. Loss of home, country, family, and beloveds, and yet, somehow, amid this profound grieving, the book is about the power of love and hope, isn’t it?

SH: I was going through deep sorrow when I wrote the book. Mostly because I had lost my aunt, but also because I felt like I was losing my country. So I just channeled that into the book and tried to find ways for the book to help me through my own grief. What I kept coming back to was if we can hold onto one little spark of hope, that’s all we need to keep going. And I also realized, while writing that book, that my grief was so large because the love had been so large. That was a comfort to me, and it allowed me to focus more on the time I had with my loved one rather than the loss.

JMW: I read Lark last year as I was making my way through a time of profound grief following my brother’s cancer diagnosis and death. As I read the book, I found comfort and the possibility of healing in your words, and I’m guessing that many of your readers feel the same. As a nation, as a world, and as individuals, we’ve just been through an extended period of loss from the pandemic, and perhaps prolonged grieving as our traditional routines of mourning were stymied by the virus. Have other readers mentioned this to you?

Jayne Moore Waldrop and Silas House have an editorial meeting during the pandemic.

SH: One of the most surprising things about book tour was encountering so many people who felt comfortable sharing their grief with me after they had read the book. I did that tour in fall of 2022, which was really the first full season that writers were able to tour without being interrupted by another huge occurrence of the virus. So people really came out and a lot of them shared their stories of loss with me, particularly people who hadn’t been able to publicly mourn their loved ones in funerals and such because of the pandemic. I was honored for people to share those stories with me and while it made book tour heavy, it was also uplifting to be in communion with readers that way. I’ve had many weeping people in my signing lines. But it was always a cleansing kind of weeping, I think. I wrote about all of this for Literary Hub and I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about that little essay.

JMW: Both before its publication and since its launch, Lark Ascending has been named to many lists of best and most anticipated books. In 2023 it won the Southern Book Prize and the Nautilus Book Award. What do these awards mean to you?

SH: It is always an honor when your book that you worked so incredibly hard on gets recognized, but at the same time we all know that awards are subjective. So I am very thankful to those judges and nominators but I do have to say that the best reward for writing a book is hearing from people who read it. Nothing touches me more deeply than a letter or an email from someone letting me know my book moved them in some way. Or meeting people at events who tell me about reading my book. I am always just blown away by the fact that someone spent hours of their lives—that impossible-to-get-back time—with me and my characters, with my words. It’s the biggest honor of all.

JMW: The beagle Seamus is an important character in Lark Ascending, and I understand that your sweet dog, Ari, was the inspiration for this important voice (dare I say yodel?) in the story. Ari accompanied you on many of your book tour appearances. He has quite a following now, doesn’t he?

SH: (Laughter). Yes, recently I was doing an event and I wasn’t able to bring him and someone stood in my signing line and said, “Well, I’ll get you to sign this book even though the main reason I came was to see Ari, and he wasn’t here.” At a recent book festival he sat with me for awhile and a line formed to pet him. People have gotten to know him mostly on my Instagram and he sometimes shows up on my Zooms and in videos I post online. He’s such a sweet presence. You can’t be with him and not be aware of goodness.

JMW: What are you currently reading? What’s on your current playlist?

SH: Well, I’m not allowed to say what I’m reading because I am one of the judges for this year’s National Book Award in Fiction. So I am reading a lot, I can say that much. As far as new music I’m listening to right now: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit have just released one of their all-time best albums, Weathervanes. It’s a perfect collection of short stories and Isbell’s vocals are the best they’ve ever been, the band is just on fire. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have a piece on Isbell that just came out in the most recent issue of Time. This is my fourth published conversation with him and it is always a joy to be with him. He’s so smart and empathetic. The latest Tyler Childers (Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?) is a marvel. The album I listen to on repeat is I Walked With You A Ways by Plains. Every song is a gem and their vocals just gut me. Oh, and the new Rufus Wainwright album, Folkocracy, is remarkable, too. S.G. Goodman’s Teeth Marks.  Kelsey Waldon’s No Regular Dog. Lord, there is so much good music out right now. I also go through phases where I have a long revisit with artists I’ve always loved. Right now it’s Sinead O’Connor. I’ve loved her music since I was in high school and I admire what she has always stood for, too.  They tried to destroy her for her activism but she was right about everything. Another one I’m revisiting is Mary Chapin Carpenter to prepare for seeing her live this summer. Her music was life-saving to me in my early twenties and it holds up so well. Plus, I listen to it and think, “I survived.” And partly because of music by people like her.

JMW: What are you currently working on? Are you able to keep your normal writing routine with your duties as poet laureate?

SH: I’m trying to put together a collection of short stories. I’ve published many over the years but they’ve never been collected, so I’m finding the ones that fit best together thematically. I’ve been writing a lot more poetry lately and would like to eventually publish a poetry collection. And I have an entire new novel in my mind that I hope to write over the next two years. I am trying to cut down on my freelancing, but I often enjoy it so much—just recently I got to spend time with Lee Smith and Jason Isbell because I’m doing features on them. Still, it takes a lot of time and I want to focus more on book-length projects. I’m always working on several things at once.  I like to imagine my projects as a stovetop: on one burner a pot is really boiling, on another there is a gentle simmer. On this one the water is warm. And on the last one, a pot full, but not yet turned on.







  1. Wonderful interview and I am excited about all the great opportunities Silas is opening up for KY and for writers.

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