The Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection
On a steamy day in September, renowned poet and fiction writer Ken Fontenot welcomed Sean O’Bryan, Manager of Preservation and Gifts Processing at the UT Libraries, and I into his downstairs apartment. The walls in the living room and hallway were lined with bookshelves packed with brightly-colored poetry, poetry journals, writing guides, and stacks of chapbooks. This is a poet’s home, and Fontenot wants these bound words to feed our next generation of poets. Ken Fontenot received the Texas Institute of Letters Best Book of Poetry Award for his 2013 In a Kingdom of Birds (Pinyon Publishing), his second book of poetry; he has also published translations of German poetry and a novel. The poetry began when he attended a reading series at Tulane, his alma mater, and seemed more possible when he made his way to the Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection at The University of Texas at Austin Libraries.
In the 1980s Fontenot moved from his home in New Orleans to Austin and to UT where he would receive an MA in German Language and Literature. While here, he found himself at the Flawn Academic Center, in a room adjacent to what was then the Undergraduate Library, a room full of poetry. “You go on filling your jar of hope with yet more hope,” he wrote in A Kingdom of Birds. Ruth Stephan founded the Poetry Collection at UT Austin in 1965, and Fontenot realized amidst these books and poetry reading events that he was a poet. The influence of the Poetry Collection stayed with him.
Last year he decided he wants his collection to make poetry possible for other potential poets and readers. His donation will add hundreds of volumes and contributes to an ongoing revitalization of the Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection, now on the 6th floor of the Perry-Castañeda Library, in collaboration with the English Department and the New Writers Project. Ken Fontenot, along with the UT Libraries, hopes that the sweet cacophony of verse he has added to the Ruth Stephan Poetry Collection will feed you, poet. Revel in the work of Rosemary Catacalos, Kay Ryan, Cyrus Cassells, Ai, Louise Gluck, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, W. S. Merwin, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and many more. You’ll see these titles added to the shelves over the next couple of months.
Fontenot’s fiction towers still in his apartment on other shelf-lined walls. These books, he says, he is keeping as he writes his second novel.
- Kristen Hogan, English Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies Librarian