Kallet to read new poems on Sunday

Betsy PickleDowntown, Our Town Arts, West Knoxville

Before 2020, Knoxville poet Marilyn Kallet would usually spend springtime in the village of Auvillar in southwest France, teaching and mentoring aspiring writers and gathering inspiration for her own poetry. The Covid-19 pandemic put that tradition on hold.

So in the early days of Covid, she mined inspiration from her own West Knoxville backyard.

“I wasn’t doing much socializing – I mean, none of us were – but everything speaks to a crazy poet,” Kallet says. “Whatever’s out there is going to give me a poem – magnolia leaves, spiderwort.”

Marilyn Kallet in the green room of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris with store cat Agatha before a reading (Photo provided by Marilyn Kallet)

She has channeled her pandemic creativity into a new poetry collection, “Even When We Sleep” (Black Widow Press, 2022) along with poems from prior times that reference everything from visits to Paris to romance to the Holocaust. Kallet will do a reading from her newly published book of poems at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 31, downtown at Union Ave. Books, 517 Union Ave.

The former two-term Knoxville Poet Laureate (June 2018-July 2020) finds humor in ragweed and forays into intimacy with her love poems. The latter is the kind of thing that sometimes unsettles younger readers.

During the Q&A after a reading at Indiana University that included some of her romantic pieces, Kallet says, “A young man raised his hand … and said, ‘How long are you going to keep doing this?’ I looked at him, and I said, ‘As long as I have breath, sir.’

“I heard a little bias on his part: ‘If you’re not 20, don’t write a love song.’”

She says she’s gotten a similar reaction from her own daughter, Heather, even though she’s now grown and has a young son of her own.

“She cringes,” says Kallet. “She does not want to acknowledge any part of that. No, no, no.”

On the other hand, her husband, Lou Gross, isn’t disturbed by any of Kallet’s expressions of passion – even if they’re not about him.

“There are a lot of love songs to Lou (in the new poetry collection),” she says. “He is my rock, and he is the heartbeat of this (collection) because we were cooped up together, and how did we do? We did great. So thank God for Lou, seriously.

“And he doesn’t care if I’m writing about other people. It’s a fantasy world; he doesn’t care. He’s very confident. Thank goodness for that. He’s secure.”

Kallet, who taught for 37 years and directed the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee for 20, is busy working even in her retirement. She’s counting on returning to Auvillar in 2023; that program is run by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Morning is her usual writing time.

“I’ll just write whatever’s there,” she says. “I’m taking dictation basically from walking or a line of a song that’s in my head. I just sort of see what happens.”

She calls that writing “finger exercises” and says, “Some of them become something.”

“I notice that there are poems of Jewish identity in all of my books. There’s a couple in here. That’s part of who I am.”

These days Kallet is also working on a memoir. She has plenty of material from her own life, which started in Montgomery, Ala., but adding tales from her family should provide extra fascination. Spoiler alert: Her father had to run from the law and the mob, and her mother was a “missionary” who shared Jewish culture and religion with their non-Jewish community in Long Island, New York.

And then there are the tales of what her relatives went through during the Holocaust.

“This kind of stuff is terrible, it’s painful, but it’s such good material,” she says.

Kallet is looking forward to Sunday’s event at Union Ave. Books.

“That’s (my) first public reading in two years,” she says. “That’s exciting, to see people again.”

Betsy Pickle is a veteran freelance writer and editor.



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