Jeanie Thompson, executive director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum in Montgomery, never planned to write a book of poems on Helen Keller. In 2016 she did just that, publishing “The Myth of Water.”
The poetry collection, a culmination of a decade of Thompson’s work, paints pictures through the mind of Helen Keller. Thompson created the collection using a writing style called persona poetry, where the writer takes on another person’s voice and makes it their own.
The book is getting a fresh look (and its author getting new opportunities to speak on it) as Keller is among the icons being acknowledged during the state’s bicentennial celebration.
“I’m from Decatur, which as the crow flies is 70 miles east of Tuscumbia, where Helen Keller was born,” Thompson said. “When I was growing up, I read about her in Alabama history, I knew about her, but I had no pull to Helen Keller.”
Though Thompson said she recalls seeing “The Miracle Worker,” a movie about Keller at a Decatur drive-in theater as a child, she still didn’t find herself drawn to Keller until Thompson later read her book, “Light in My Darkness.”
“I didn’t know what an advocate she was and I didn’t know the depth of feeling in her life, that she had her heart broken because she was in love and her family wouldn’t let her marry the man,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know that she had traveled all over Europe and, like me, had fallen in love with Italy.”
Thompson said she also felt connected because Keller had a progressive mindset for the time in which she lived.
“As I began to know more and more about her, I felt this affinity with her,” Thompson said. “I just kept going back to her, and I knew that there was something I wanted to write about her life.”
While Thompson helps to keep the legacy of Alabama’s writers alive through her poetry and the AWF Writers Hall of Fame, she also works to support budding writers from the state. AWF does this by giving yearly grants to new writers through the Harper Lee Award and the High School Literary Arts Awards Competition.
“Alabama is so rich in talent,” Thompson said. “People across the country tend to think about Harper Lee and Truman Capote, but there’s talent times a thousand after those writers. Yes, (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) is an important story, but there are other stories being written that expand a lot on what (Harper Lee) started by talking about race in Alabama. It’s per capita in our state that our literary talent is really strong, just like our football and our basketball.”
In addition to supporting new talent, AWF works to cultivate the love of writing in Alabama youths through the Writing Our Stories program. The nine-month program teaches incarcerated youths to write poems and allows the chance to be published in the yearly publication, “Open the Door.”
“The program gives kids, who are sort of the thrown away children in society, a skill, which is writing, that they can translate across many different job opportunities,” Thompson said. “It also gives them tremendous hope and encouragement that they can go back to their homes or to wherever they’re going to live and be productive citizens.”
When it comes to upcoming projects, Thompson has a few on the horizon. She has thoughts of writing about her grandfather as well as Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s longtime teacher and friend.
AWF is also working on putting together a book about the Writing Our Stories program.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)