“Don’t do anything you don’t want the whole world to know about,” Marilyn Kallet’s late Southern mother used to tell her. It’s a line featured in one of the poems in Kallet’s newest book, “How Our Bodies Learned” (Black Widow Press).
Spending a recent winter weekday morning with Kallet, in the Bearden eatery Holly’s Gourmet Market, as conversation ranges from 30 years ago to last week and back, watching the revered professor and poet greet other people she knows, you understand what her mother meant about how small the human village is. In her three decades teaching at UT, Kallet has influenced and mentored thousands of students. Her mother would be pleased to know she’s been a very good example.
Kallet plans a two-part reading launch for her book. On Sunday, Jan. 14, at 2 p.m., she will be reading at Union Avenue Books, 517 Union Ave. On Monday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m., she will be reading as part of the distinguished Writers in the Library series at Hodges Library at the university. It may be her last reading at the library, as she is planning to retire in July.
During her time at the university, where she is currently the Nancy Moore Goslee Professor of English, Kallet directed the creative writing program for 23 years, was instrumental in starting the Ph.D. program in creative writing, and was instrumental in beginning the Master of Fine Arts program. She is a frequent guest at workshops and conferences, and she leads a writing workshop each year in Auvillar, France, for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Kallet lives in Riverbend with her husband of 33 years, Lou Gross, professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and mathematics. Their daughter, Heather, lives in Atlanta with her husband and their dogs. Born in Montgomery, Ala., Kallet moved to Long Island when she was 3 years old and lived in the northeast until her move to Knoxville in the mid-1980s. Kallet met Gross three weeks after, when her mother told her to go to Temple and find a nice young man.
“He’s a keeper,” Kallet says. “I pretty quickly felt myself at home here.”
Her latest project is creating a studio on her home property. “Where I can shut the door and not think about anything but writing,” she says.
In her latest collection are poems devoted to gun violence here and abroad: Kallet was in Paris at the time of the terrorist attack in November 2015. After the death of Fulton High School student Zaevion Dobson, shot to death while protecting friends, Kallet and one of her classes wrote a booklet of poems to honor the young man’s memory. Dobson’s mother attended a reading and hugged each poet afterwards, Kallet says.
“That reminded me of what poetry can do,” she says.
In addition to her poetry, she has published children’s books, translations, anthologies and other works.
“Having this body of work, I’m proud of that,” she says. She is also proud of the students she has taught – many of whom have gone on to publish and teach.
“It’s like an extended family, and there are all these milestones,” she says. “It feels like a beautiful legacy to me.”