Spring 2014

A Midwestern Poet in Kentucky

Jeff Worley and his cat Jaws
Shown with Jaws, who lived to be 23 years old, Jeff
Worley is a retired educator and writer who as a poet
continues his love affair with words. To learn more 
about his work, visit jeff-worley.com.

Jeff Worley '71/75 has always loved words.

He discovered what he calls the magic of words at age 9 when he got a collection of Mark Twain stories from his mother.

As he learned to play guitar, his playlist tended to be the poetic songs of folk musicians Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, Gordon Lightfoot and Simon and Garfunkel.

After changing his major seven times at Wichita State and enrolling in some English courses, Worley finally realized the depth of his love of words.

So much so that in 1975, he was the second graduate of WSU's new Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing and would have a career working at five universities as an English professor and academic journalist.

As a poet, he's published six book-length collections and three chapbooks, and has edited an anthology of Kentucky poets.

Worley, who has lived and worked in Lexington, Ky., since 1986, credits Michael Van Walleghan and Bruce Cutler, who co-founded WSU's MFA creative writing program, as influencing the direction his career and life would take.

As Worley switched from one major to another – history, French, PE, psychology and undecided – he eventually enrolled in some English courses.

"I truly didn't know what I wanted to do or be," he says. "A couple of English courses I took when I was a junior sparked my interest in literature as a serious subject, so everything fell into place: my early love of reading and literature, the poetic folk lyrics I mentioned, and then my first creative writing poetry class, from the magnificent teacher and poet Michael Van Walleghen."

But it was the close relationship he formed with Cutler that would have the most impact, leading to Worley's enrolling in the new MFA program and his first job teaching at the University of Maryland's European division, where he met his wife, Linda, who was teaching German. They met in 1977 when teaching in neighboring classrooms in Germany.

After graduating with his bachelor's degree in English, Worley set out for San Francisco, envisioning a job at a publishing house. "Talk about delusional," he recalls, as he was told by prospective employers that not even writers with doctorates were getting jobs with them.

Worley was intrigued by the new MFA program Cutler wrote about in the letters the two exchanged during that time. After being offered a teaching assistantship, Worley came back to WSU. "My job was to read and write and in a sense, I've never had such a pleasurable three years," he says. At night, he'd play folk music at such Wichita haunts as Ox Bow Tavern, The Cedar, Red Lion Club and Camelot Club. Sometimes he'd do a set with his longtime friend, Gaylord Dold, now a crime novelist. Worley still plays the Martin D-28 guitar he played on those gigs.

It was Cutler, Worley says, who saw the job posting for English professors with the University of Maryland's European division. "He saved my life," says Worley, about Cutler assuaging his fears of post-graduation unemployment.

Worley has always considered himself a Midwestern poet. As he taught and traveled in Europe, followed his wife to Cincinnati as she pursued graduate school, taught in New York, and then became a writer for the University of Kentucky's research magazine, Odyssey in 1989, he kept writing poems about the Midwest. His 8-to-5 job with UK's magazine meant he had more free time in the evenings and weekends to devote to his poetry, he says.

His poems – and even the cover art of his books – often reflect his personal experiences. The cover of Driving Late to the Party: The Kansas Poems, (2012), for example, depicts him and Dold in Dold's 1965 burgundy Mustang, in which the pair had many adventures, Worley says. (The title poem is featured in this magazine's Shock Art section.) His chapbook Leave Time (2005) relates to his father's diagnosis of Alzheimer's.

Since retiring in 2010 from his job as editor and chief science writer of Odyssey, Worley still enjoys working with words, writing research articles for various universities and penning poems, often in the screened-in porch of his lakeside cabin in the Daniel Boone National Forest at the foot of the Appalachians, where "the poems just jump out of the woods."


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