Alumna and author speaks on vision of her book

Sarah Yaacoub

Author Sarah McCartt-Jackson, a Lexington native and WKU alumna, said her love of writing goes back a long time.

“When I was in second grade, we did a poetry unit,” she said. “I never took my first formal [creative writing] class till I got to Eastern [Kentucky University], but English was always my favorite subject in high school.”

She said the driving force behind her decision to pursue writing in college was a professor who taught at EKU, where McCartt-Jackson earned bachelor’s degrees in English and anthropology.

After graduating with her second degree in 2008, McCartt-Jackson applied to a master’s program in poetry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She said she began writing “Stonelight,” her first published book of poetry, as her master’s thesis. When she received her master’s from SIU in 2013, she was still working on “Stonelight.”

“It took a while for it to all come together,” McCartt-Jackson said.

McCartt-Jackson finished writing “Stonelight” in 2016. In 2017, the book won the Airlie Prize, and it was published by Airlie Press in 2018.

“A lot of these poems I started in a folklore literature course,” McCartt-Jackson said.

McCartt-Jackson studied folk studies at WKU and graduated with a master’s degree in 2012. While taking a class taught by Tim Evans of the WKU Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology, McCartt-Jackson said she first began to tie “folk tales, beliefs and oral history” into her creative writing.

“I’m proud to say Sarah was my student a while back,” Evans said. “It was clear to me then that Sarah was not only a skilled folklorist but also a very impressive poet. She wrote a portfolio of poems for my folklore and literature class, some — or maybe all of which — I’m proud to say, are in her book ‘Stonelight.’”

McCartt-Jackson said Stonelight has a narrative arc like a novel, although she wrote the poems out of order.

“I took a cue from novelists and tried to map it out beforehand,” she said. “I looked for holes, and I wrote poems to fill the holes.”

“Stonelight,” set in eastern Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century, follows coal miner Eli, his wife Ora and their children who, in violation of tradition, are named before their births. Although some of the names in the book are derived from members of McCartt-Jackson’s own family, McCartt-Jackson said the book is still a work of fiction.

“I started writing poems about my granny, whose name is Ora, and it was just really hard for me to capture her, like, her essence,” McCartt-Jackson said. “I just couldn’t do it.”

However, she said the historical Kentucky setting was an intentional choice and that she researched the time period for context.

“I think, for me, going to the past helped fictionalize the story,” McCartt-Jackson said. “For one, it helped me remove my family from what I was trying to get at.”

“You’ll see a lot of folk belief in this [book],” McCartt-Jackson said. “A lot of people know that as superstition. We call it folk belief where I’m from in the folk studies world.”

Evans said McCartt-Jackson’s writing is informed by her own history and experience.

“She has family roots in eastern Kentucky, and that association with place and traditions rooted in place — that is, folklore — is crucial in her poetry,” Evans said.

McCartt-Jackson said that even after years of working on “Stonelight,” she faced disappointment before finding success. She said the book’s manuscript was rejected nearly 20 times before it was accepted.

“Don’t be afraid to put your work out into the world,” McCartt-Jackson said. “You get rejected all the time, but you’ll get some really sweet acceptances.”

Features reporter Sarah Yaacoub can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow her on social media at @sarah.yaacoub.