Five Kentucky Poets Laureate: An Anthology
James Baker Hall (1935-2009)


James Baker HallJames Baker Hall (1935-2009) lived in Sadieville, 25 miles north of his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. He taught English and creative writing at the University of Kentucky for 30 years. He authored several volumes of poetry – Stopping on the Edge to Wave (Wesleyan University Press), Fast Signing Mute (Larkspur Press), The Mother on the Other Side of the World (Sarabande Books), and The Total Light Process: New & Selected Poems (University Press of Kentucky). He was also the author of a novel-in-verse, Praeder’s Letters (Sarabande Books). His poems have been published individually in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Mr. Hall received an NEA fellowship in poetry, and won both the Pushcart and O. Henry prizes. He received his B.A. from the University of Kentucky in 1957 and his M.A. at Stanford University in 1961. He was also a well respected photographer. He served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2002.

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Excerpt from The Loving Nowhere

University of Kentucky basketball and a rollicking narrative will lure students into this stylistic tour de force, though they may need a little orientation provided for the journey, so that they don’t get lost in the spiraling pattern of the sentences. Hall’s story of a "bull-moose-loony bonkers of a night full of fans gone crazy" offers a fascinating opportunity to explore the connections between fiction and nonfiction, as well as the fineness of the line between them. On a first reading, the piece may seem to be nonfiction, but savvy fans or a little research will reveal that one of the main characters, "Lights Out Lukens," never played for UK and that there was no "Year of L.O." The blend of fiction and nonfiction in the story provides an ultimate example of what writing teachers preach: "Write what you know." Thus, it can be a valuable model for students telling a tall tale of their own. Finally, the story’s open-ended quality makes it useful in helping young writers conceptualize how short fiction might be developed as part of a longer narrative. Teaching suggestions below split the story into a two day reading, with associated activities extending Into a third day when students begin their own stories.


Literary Features:
Fictional Narrative — Storytelling
Nonfiction versus Fiction
Parallel Structure
Fictional Elements


Words to Consider:

After vocabulary work with the Words to Consider (may be in-depth or cursory according to teacher preference), ask students if they have ever been to a Wildcat basketball game at Rupp Arena or seen one on TV. Have them free write on what they remember about that game. If the students have never been to a UK basketball game, ask them to describe the most exciting sporting event they have ever attended (or, if necessary, a game they have seen on TV). Tell them to focus on what made the event so exciting. Give students ten or fifteen minutes to complete their reflection and then ask them to read aloud from their writing. Use student images and memories as an entryway into the reading.


The teacher or carefully selected volunteers should read the selection aloud to make sure students understand the richness of style and voice. However, sentences are often unwieldy, and only the most accomplished readers will be comfortable in this role. Before students listen, display the focus questions to help them follow. Make sure students know that they don’t have to catch everything the first time through but should simply follow along and prepare to answer the questions below. Read the story only down to the line "Set 'em up, the boy is hungry, everybody is hungry" on page 45 and then pause for discussion.


Focus Questions:

  1. Write down what most surprised or interested you about the story so far.
  2. Write one question you had about the story.
  3. Is the story fiction or nonfiction? Explain why you say so.
  4. What does the word "Faithful" mean in the story?
  5. Do you think the author of this story, James Baker Hall, is a UK fan? Why or why not?
  6. How are the parts of the story connected? What is the author’s most obvious strategy for organizing all this material?

After reading down to "everybody is hungry," on page 45, lead a discussion with student answers to the questions above. Answers will vary, but question 4 should reveal that some of the characters in the story may be fictional. This question will be asked again after the story is completed, so it is fine if students believe the story is nonfiction at this point. Students will undoubtedly consider Hall a fan, but may find his tone irreverent and wonder if he is poking fun at UK fans. Question 6 should clarify that parallel structure is used to organize the material.

After this preliminary discussion, have students complete the group work below to digest the story so far and to analyze it from the perspective of a writer, to examine the skeleton of the story in preparation for telling their own "whopper."

Put the students in six groups of four to five depending on the number in the class. Assign each group one section of the story as listed in the instructions that follow. Allow 25 to 30 minutes for students to complete their answers. Then, lead a large group discussion in which groups contribute their findings as the teacher or a student volunteer lists them on the white board.

Before students leave the class, have them write an exit slip predicting what they expect from the rest of the story.

Handout JBH-1 PDF


In order to understand how the narrative from The Loving Nowhere was built, we will break it down into its elements. For this analysis, you have been assigned a group and a passage from the story as listed below:


Group A: Paragraphs 1-3 Group D: Paragraphs 10-11
Group B: Paragraphs 4-6 Group E: Paragraphs 12-14
Group C: Paragraphs 7-9 Group F: Paragraphs 15-17


In your group, please complete the following tasks. You have approximately 25 minutes (about three minutes per question).

  1. SETTING: Explain whether your section has a clear setting, and if so, what it is. Specify whether the section you have offers a wide angle (panoramic) view or a close up and whether it "zooms in" at any point.

  2. CHARACTERS: List any key characters in your section. Explain whether the characters are shown from a "public," "personal," or "behind the scenes" perspective (or a mix).

  3. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: In your section, what do we learn about Buford?

  4. STYLE: First, count the sentences in your section. Next, analyze for style. Describe the diction or word choice (difficulty, colloquial, formal, etc.), the complexity of the sentences, and use of images and metaphors. What do you notice that is unusual or distinctive about the language in which the story is told? Select one particularly notable passage to share with the class. Explain what made you notice it and how it works. (Is it a piece of dialogue? A metaphor? An image? etc.)

  5. CONTRIBUTION: Describe what your section contributes to this almost cosmic view of UK basketball.

  6. SUMMARY: Write a one sentence summary that describes the content of your section. For instance, "This section describes the cleanliness of the restrooms at Rupp Arena," or "The section describes a famous loss by a UK team after a key player was injured."

  7. AUDIENCE: Consider what your section shows about the audience for the story. In storytelling — and in all writing — the storyteller must carefully gauge what the audience does and doesn’t know. If he/she tells too much that the audience already knows, the story may be boring. On the other hand, if the story does not connect at all with what the audience knows, if they don’t have a context for the story, they may lose interest in the other direction. Does James Baker Hall expect his readers to be UK fans? Does it help to read the story if you are a UK fan? Would anybody who was not already a UK fan find the story interesting? In your section, are there any passages that seem to be directed toward helping out those who lack background knowledge? Where? Would you say that your section was primarily written for UK fans or not? Explain.

Though you should discuss all questions and answer them as a group, members should take turns writing the answers to turn in. During class discussion, group members should be prepared to share the answers they wrote. Be sure that all members’ names are recorded when you turn in the written copy for evaluation. All answers will be worth two points, except for number 7, which is worth three points (15 points total).


While students are working, the teacher will need to circulate to assist. He or she should also put the following categories on the white or black board for use during class review of group work. As groups take turns sharing their work, the teacher or a volunteer should add to each category on the white board, making a list for each. Some suggested answers have been filled in below:


"History" Rupp Arena, Pitino years, zooms in to half time on the court, and later to Buford and fans in stands

"History" UK Campus, Rupp years (no specific setting or angle)

"History" Rupp Arena seating area, Tubby Smith years, slight zoom in to VIPs in stands

Lexington Airport on game day, wide angle view from the sky, national fans

Interstates on game day, statewide (panoramic) view, zooms down to fans’ yards

Lexington roads, car interior on game day, more of a "close up" — specific conversation

Rupp Arena food court on game day, close-up

Hyatt lobby on game day, close-up

Upper arena, game day, close-up

Rupp Arena, pre game on game day, wide angle zooms down to players on court

After student findings have been listed on the board, make sure they note how the story has started off from a very, very wide lens, that of history, and has narrowed and sharpened its focus all the way through, to "funnel down" near the end of the first section to the court in Rupp Arena for a particular game on a particular day.


Fictional Characters Players Coaches Fans
Sunny Boone
Lou Tsioropolus
Rex Chapman
Cliff Barker
Cliff Hagan
Rick Pitino
Adolph Rupp
Tubby Smith
Ashley Judd
Happy Chandler the
Billy from Hazard
(Buford may be listed here)
Many others are included — these are the most essential.


Character Development:

Group 1:
Buford, his friends and family are introduced as they sit in the upper arena watching a Pitino child playing on the court at halftime. Buford’s father went to Henry Clay High School and dated a girl who married a basketball player.

Group 2:
Buford’s father was very involved with UK basketball — made game films.

Group 3:
Buford is not included; the "character" of the UK "Faithful" is developed instead.

Group 4:
Buford sometimes flies up in a helicopter before the games.

Group 5:
Buford likes talking to other fans and has attended games since his children were little.

Group 6:
Buford went to jail for roughing up a referee who he thought made bad calls against the Wildcats. He refused an offer of $15,000 for three upper-arena tickets "in the year of L.O." He could enter the arena and sit on the bench with the team if he wanted to but prefers to sit in the upper arena like "every fan."

When all this information is listed on the board, point out how much more this conveys than the type of description that students sometimes mistake for characterization: "He was about 5’ 10" and balding, with brown eyes, dressed in a blue and white polo and khakis."

Students will note that Hall uses extremely long sentences. The difficulty of his prose is due to the length and complexity of the sentences rather than the diction, which is more colloquial and welcoming. They should note that he uses lots of compound words and phrases and that he frequently coins words or uses them in unusual ways (however, the latter occurs more in the reading for day two). They may point out his heavy use of the dash and hyphen.

Answers will vary but major elements are outlined below:

The narrative includes team history including stats and records, biographies or the professional and personal history of star players and coaches. It includes accounts of memorable plays and team stories or "lore" and team disgraces. It contains profiles of VIP fans, fan dialogue, pre game lobby scenes, halftime scenes, and food court scenes. It represents fan dedication on the national level, symbolized by those who fly in; statewide, as indicated by the scenes on the roadways; and on the local level, with the scene in Lexington, particularly at the arena. Fanatical fans are depicted in a radio talk show and in a list of amazing fan facts. The day’s reading ends in Rupp Arena with the windup before a big game.

After these answers have been listed on the board, the teacher should point out that when combined, the passages create an overall view of UK basketball from multiple perspectives.


Student summaries will vary, but should involve the key elements listed below:
Group 1, paragraph 1-3 Team History: stats and records, some personal history,
halftime scene
Group 2, paragraph 4-6 More of a behind-the-scenes and under-the-table history
Group 3, paragraph 7-9 VIPs and fans — wide angle and panorama, no Buford in this section
Group 4, paragraph 10-11 Fans — zooming in — in cars and on talk radio
Group 5, paragraph 12-14 Fans — close-up at the food court
Group 6, paragraph 15-17 Game day scene at Rupp and fanatic fans


Responses will vary, but here are some examples. The first paragraph assumes some knowledge of basketball in talking about "line scores" and about a UK player referred to as "King Rex" (Rex Chapman). However, the narrative often gives help to younger readers or less knowledgeable fans with specifics or clarification in parentheses such as, "when six-five was tall and weight lifting was strictly for body builders. "As another example, the fourth paragraph includes an anecdote about "Fabulous Fiver Cliff Barker" but gives all necessary information to the reader who does NOT understand the significance of the struggle between Barker and Rupp. For those who don’t know, it specifies that Happy Chandler was governor. The voice is often tongue-in-cheek, acknowledging the fanaticism of the narrator and fans in the story. The narrative essentially assumes an interest in basketball and knowledge of the game’s basics, but offers to educate its readers about UK basketball. UK fans would most likely find it interesting with such a detailed setting "on their home turf," but in the end, the story asserts that even if you were the ultimate Big Blue fan, and knew ALL the Wildcat lore catalogued in the first pages, you could NOT know what it was like to be part of the team on the day of the big game — which it proceeds to describe. (NOTE: Students may point out that they are confused about what is meant by "The Year of L.O." as a failing of the narrative, or expectation of a more knowledgeable audience, but in fact this is part of a strategy to build suspense, described below. Buford, L.O. Lukens, and Coach J.C. may also confuse students before they realize that these are fictional characters.)





1. Optional Punctuation Exercise for Bell Ringer or Focus Activity:

  1. Review the section you studied for group work yesterday.
  2. Find any examples of dashes or hyphens used in punctuation.
  3. Write a rule for the use of each type of punctuation that explains how it is used in your section.

Have students share their rules and give their examples. Discussion will show that these punctuation marks are heavily used throughout the reading. Hall, of course, uses the shorter hyphen to connect or combine compound words, mostly compound adjectives or compound nouns, but also, to attach some prefixes and compound numbers. The longer dash, by contrast, is used primarily to set off interruptions or shifts in the narrative.

Literary Features:
Fictional Narrative  —  Storytelling
Nonfiction versus Fiction
Fictional Elements
     Action Description

2. Focus on Dialogue
There are two primary sections of dialogue in the story, the dialogue among friends on page 34 and the radio talk show dialogue on pages 40-41. (There is a less fully developed dialogue between fans in the food court on page 42.) Having students review this dialogue will help them understand the story and prepare them for writing dialogue themselves.

  1. Invite students to volunteer to play a "role" in the reading, including "someone," "someone answered," "a preteen," "someone else," "her father" and "Buford."

  2. Have them come to the front of the room and read their parts,without the intervening narrative.

  3. Ask students whether they think the dialogue is realistic and what they notice about the way it is written, about the language itself.
    Student responses will vary, but they should notice that the dialogue is not always written in full sentences, it doesn’t always flow logically, and is sometimes repetitive.

  4. Ask students what this dialogue contributes to the story. What do we learn about UK basketball or about its fans? Their fascination with the basketball VIPs (coaches and players) and their private lives.

  5. Repeat the process with the dialogue from the radio talk show on pages 40-41, but this time, focus on why this piece of dialogue is included: This passage uses the comments of the fictional "Billy from Hazard" to illustrate fans’ unreasonable expectations of the coaches and players and to build up suspense for the first appearance by L.O. Lukens later in the story. The talk show dialogue seems to be actually AFTER the game that will be featured, and gives away its "ending" — an overwhelming victory by UK — that serves to build up the anticipation of reading about that great game.

Words to Consider:

By way of review, have students use new vocabulary words to write sentences about the previous day’s reading. Then, after reading their sentences, expand the review using the materials still on the white board from the previous day.


  1. Begin by rereading from where the group work left off, paragraph 17 (page 43), which begins "You could know the stir that passed throughout the crowd ..." Before beginning, warn students that they will need to identify the major shift that occurs in paragraph 18.

  2. Have student volunteers paraphrase the first three lines of paragraph 18 (from "You could know your endless Wildcat stuff …" to "… and play the game".)

  3. Ask students to explain why there is a longer dash, what is about to happen, and who the main character seems to be at this point. The focus has sharpened and zoomed down "inside" Kentucky basketball, into a team about to play a game, in particular into the immediate experience of a particular player, the boy with the towel, "the most hyped-out eighteen-year-old athlete in U.S. hyped-out sports history," who will turn out to be #8 in the next scene. Help students see that the character is slowly being introduced here in a mysterious way to build suspense.

  4. Tell students that they will be required to summarize the rest of the story after reading.

  5. READ to the end of the story!


A. Have students summarize the reading in ONE sentence. Take up their summaries.

B. Lead a discussion with the following questions:

  1. Are Barbarsweet Zee, Lights Out Lukens, and Coach J.C. real or fictional? How do you know? The characters are fictional — there has never been a coach named "J.C." nor a UK player named Lights Out Lukens. Barbarsweet Zee seems obviously made up, like "Ali Ali Akbar." We have entered the realm of fantasy.

  2. How much of this story is fiction? How much is nonfiction? MOST of the story is nonfiction, with a fictional heart.

  3. How is Lukens presented to the reader? Find passages that build up his character. Use quotes to support your answers. Answers will vary, but should be something like this: He is the boy with a towel over his head, shrouded, the one everybody is waiting to see, he enters differently, more deliberately than the other players. He’s presented almost as a superhero — he is "skied" "up where the fireworks had been, his lassoing left arm stirring up the wafting smoke ... His moment up there among the constellations went on and on." He is consistently called "the boy," and is presented as confident and even cocky — "he wanted to find out what there was to all this Barzee muscle talk."

  4. How much of the game is included in the story? Only the tip off and one dunk by Lukens. The rest is build-up, though the final score is given. The whole game is NOT presented, just the crucial moment.

Extend the discussion of question 3 by reading student summaries, highlighting the fact that the story only covers a small amount of time and a couple of plays in a basketball game. Try to wedge a distinction between plot and story: it isn’t what happens in a story that counts, it is how the story is told. Use this observation about storytelling to lead into the writing assignment below. (The first part of the assignment can be done in class or for homework.)

Handout JBH-2 PDF


In the excerpt we read from The Loving Nowhere, to create a context or "stage" for fictional characters and a fictional event, James Baker Hall drew on something he obviously knew very, very well, Kentucky basketball. You are to begin work toward a short story about something you know very well.

  1. Getting started: What you know!!! Maybe what you know is the candy counter at a local store, or more specifically, one particular kind of candy. Maybe it is fishing, the lures, the tackle, the different ways to cast, and different fish you might pull up. Or cats. Or muscle cars, or tattoos, or cell phones or trucks. If you can’t think of a topic, think in terms of a setting, such as a river, a bowling alley, a baseball diamond, a soccer field, a school bathroom, your car, a barn, a certain road, etc. It could even be your own room! If you have a topic, settle on a specific setting for that topic — for instance, a certain pond for the fishing, or a tattoo parlor, or a parking lot (muscle cars). As a first step in writing your story, free write one page about your topic and setting. Yes, you can do additional research for your story as Hall probably did, but make sure that you pick a topic you know very well from personal experience.

  2. Write a one-sentence description of an event that could take place in your setting, regarding your topic. With the example of the truck, a wreck or theft comes to mind. But perhaps an act of vandalism or a set of lost keys would be more effective. Remember Hall’s story. What matters isn’t what happens, but how you tell it. Keeping the central event small will mean you can focus on telling the story. At this point if the central event is something you have actually experienced, that is o.k.

  3. Adding a "What IF ..." A story does need conflict, as in the case of Barbarsweet Zee and Lights Out Lukens. What will the conflict in your story be? Who will the characters in conflict be? (It is possible for a story to have only one character, in which case the conflict will be internal.) Think broadly here, and jazz up your sentence from yesterday. Let your mind wander. What COULD happen? To continue the truck example — what if someone STOLE the keys? who? Why? Then what?

  4. Re read the description of the dunk in Hall's story: "so there they went to the hoop, the big mean hammer, the boy, and the ball: like they were all one glorious, uprising DNAish thing: swirling and thrashing body parts looking for a shape, until the boy’s left hand emerged at the top with the ball in its palm, voila, like a cherry on top of a sundae — frozen there momentarily, or so it surely seemed, an impression confirmed on replay, a moment out of time you were called to notice — before he threw el sweet cherry ball into the hole with a mighty thonk and rattle, leaving the very hammer on his athletic powder-blue backside sliding into the photographers."

    Write a description of the central event or moment of central conflict for your story. Try to show very precisely what happened. Practice by watching and writing a description of a person doing a similar action, if possible.

  5. Extend your story by writing backward and forward from this central event. In other words, write what happened just before and just after the central event. Remember that you can’t include everything, and don’t worry about giving all the background or completely narrating the event. You can skip things to just focus on the "good parts." When you have completed this step, you’ll have a first draft for peer and teacher review!



Five Kentucky Poets Laureate: An Anthology was published by the Kentucky Arts Council (an agency in the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet) and is made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Page last updated: June 27, 2016
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