Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > A Derby Winner at the Talbot County Free Library
I boarded the plane with my usual care. As we were flying east to west, Baltimore to Louisville, I knew the sun would blind anyone trying to look out the windows on the plane's port side, so I chose a window seat on the starboard side, way back at the rear of the plane. I'm not afraid of heights, so I like to look out during a flight, but I am afraid of violent death, so I always sit at the rear of the plane on the off chance I might survive any unexpected nose-dives into planet Earth.
The plane filled up, as they all always do, front to back, and, for a while, I thought I might have an empty seat beside me all the way home. But, as the last group of boarders made their way haltingly down the aisle, a large African American gentleman threw his carry-on into the bin overhead, bent his head beneath that unforgiving mass, and, leading with shoulders and back, began to work his considerable size into the tiny space Southwest allots each of its passengers. Before he completed the maneuver, I tossed out my usual ice-breaker: “I'm sorry, sir, I'm saving this seat for the next pretty girl to come down the aisle.” Most men are momentarily taken aback when I say this, then they chuckle and settle into their seat. But this fellow didn't miss a beat. “Well you're in luck,” he said, wedging himself in place, “you got ugly old me instead.” I had the feeling I was going to like this guy.
And I did. Turned out he had trained in the military as some sort of aeronautical engineer, and, a civilian now, he did consulting work for the government. Normally, after the niceties are observed, I don't talk much to my seat mates on a plane, preferring to study the topography of cloud and land passing below, but an hour into our flight, instead of getting a stiff neck from watching out the window on my right, I realized I was getting one from listening to all the fascinating engineering stuff pouring out of the fellow on my left.
Somewhere along the line I shared a little information about myself as well, and when he found out I was a writer, the man told me his daughter was a poet. I smiled politely. By this point in my life I've known any number of people who claim to be poets and, sadly, few who actually are. But in the spirit of all the entertainment I had received from his side of the fuselage, I gave him my card and told him I'd love to read some of his daughter's poetry someday.
Not long after that, I began an email correspondence with the man's daughter, a young woman named Joy Priest, and, not long after that, she casually mentioned that her first book of poetry, Horsepower, would be coming out shortly and that it had already won The Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. Now it was my turn to be taken aback. The Donald Hall Prize constitutes one of the few poetry prizes “greater than which”—as my grandmother used to say—“there is no whicher.” And what was so unexpected and refreshing about the news of this award was that it was delivered in such an offhand manner. I honestly believe the young woman hadn't a clue just how remarkable a feat she had accomplished. With her first book!
That plane ride with Joy's father took place almost two years ago. As bad luck would have it, just as her book was about to come out, Covid-19 struck and its publication was delayed. I didn't receive my pre-ordered copy of Horsepower from Amazon till sometime in October, and I've only just finished reading it. But oh my goodness is this young lady a poet!
I won't kid you, the poems in Horsepower tell a sad, difficult story. Joy is the daughter of a black man and a white woman. Growing up in the South, literally in the shadow of Churchill Downs' twin spires, she lived out her childhood in her mother's home, forever avoiding the disapproving stares of her maternal grandfather—an unabashed bigot. She was told almost nothing of her real father, didn't even meet the man I met on the plane till she was already in her teens.
I know, it sounds like something out of Faulkner, but unlike Faulkner's tales, Joy's poetry, mysteriously enough, manages to lift the heart. I've thought about this and I believe it may be because, despite the story they tell, despite all that was hidden and taken from her, Joy's poems remain unrelentingly beautiful. Reading them gave me hope. If my home, poor benighted Kentucky, can still produce something as radiant and wise as the aptly named Joy Priest, then who knows what wonders humanity might yet achieve.
I loved Horsepower so much I donated my copy of it to the Talbot County Free Library. I want everyone to get to read this book. You can watch an interview I taped with Joy for The Talbot Spy and the library at https://talbotspy.org/the-library-guy-donald-hall-award-winning-poet-joy-priest/. If you like it and decide to read the book, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would very much like to know what you think.
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