Jeff Richey attended the Workshop in poetry in 1988.
I teach at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where I chair the Asian Studies Program and offer courses on Chinese and Japanese religions. Berea is a small town with a progressive history and a vibrant arts community located between the Appalachian Mountains and Kentucky’s horse country. The College charges no tuition and admits only students who demonstrate both high academic aptitude and great economic need.
As far as poetry is concerned, I’m still inspired by the great Chinese and Japanese writers: Wang Wei, Bo Juyi, Bashō, Ryōkan. The work of Alan Shapiro, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and my teacher Stuart Dischell also reward repeated reading. Musically, I savor classics by The Kinks, Big Star, and Brian Wilson, while more contemporary artists who interest me include Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, and Stornoway.
My poetic impulses long ago were channeled into songwriting – a transition that began during my summer at YWW. My musical group, The Jeff Richey Experience, recorded a 6-song EP of my original material over the summer and now is at work on a 12-song album-length project. I like to think of my songs as a blend of both the poetic and musical influences that I have absorbed. Classical Chinese does not distinguish between the term “song” and the term “poem,” so why should I?
I’m happy with the aforementioned EP, Let It Shine (CD Baby, 2014), but am even more excited about the project now underway. Beyond my songwriting, I am an academic author. My study of Confucian traditions across East Asia, Confucius in East Asia: Confucianism’s History in China, Korea, Japan, and Viet Nam (Association for Asian Studies, 2013), seems to have fulfilled my goal of bridging scholarly and student audiences, and I’m looking forward to the publication of my next edited volume, Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture (Routledge, 2015).
My YWW experience was an exercise in serendipity. I came to study poetry (and did), but left a novice songwriter and session musician. I arrived as a fairly conservative youth from Georgia but departed as a budding bohemian interested in mysticism and philosophy whose journey eventually led to China and Japan, not to mention Massachusetts and California. YWW’s most memorable and lasting influences on me took place outside of the formal program to which I was committed, but it was YWW’s free-wheeling, border-crossing atmosphere that made such influences possible.
Study the work of writers whom you admire and don’t sacrifice your artistic growth on the altar of originality (an overrated quality, in my view). Experiment with modeling your own work after theirs, but don’t be afraid to discover your own voice. In my experience, one finds one’s voice only after successfully imitating the beautiful voices of many others. “Irish poets, learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well made…” (W. B. Yeats, “Under Ben Bulben,” V, 1939)