Born 21 December 1940, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Daughter of J. Milton and Mary Spooner Cherry; married Jonathan Silver, 1966 (divorced 1969)
Kelly Cherry was born into a home filled with music. Her father taught music theory at Louisiana State University and both he and her mother were accomplished violinists specializing in the string quartets of Beethoven. When she was four, the family moved from Baton Rouge to Ithaca, New York, to enable her parents to further their careers. Although it was often a struggle to survive economically, they demonstrated an unflagging dedication to their art, and this sense of the importance of creative work was communicated to Cherry and her brother, who became writers, and to her sister, who became a solo concert flutist.
After receiving a B.A. from Mary Washington College in 1961, Cherry was awarded a Dupont Fellowship and pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy until 1963. She then attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she earned an M.F.A. in 1967. Prior to taking her degree, she had gotten married in 1966 to Jonathan Silver, who was a visiting lecturer in art history. In The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography (1991), Cherry looks back on her decision to marry and sees it as an error in judgement due in part to an uncertainty about her future. "Women's lives were so proscribed then, especially in the South. I had ambitions but no understanding of how they might be spelled out in a professional life and very little encouragement and no guidance."
Another underlying factor was the vulnerability she had been feeling over what she believed to be the end of her relationship with Imant Kalnin, the Latvian composer she had met and fallen in love with during a visit to Moscow in 1965. She had not heard from him in several months and assumed he had lost interest. But the relationship was in fact far from over, and the story of how it continued to unfold is the central subject of The Exiled Heart. After Cherry and her husband were divorced in 1969, the correspondence with Kalnin resumed. Through letters they affirmed and further developed their sense of deep connection, which was personal and also professional, as they collaborated on projects that combined music and words.
In 1975 she was able to obtain a visa for a few days to see him a second time. Their hope had long been to marry and live in Latvia, but the Soviet authorities continually found ways to prevent them from going forward. In the end, after every recourse had been exhausted over a period of 15 years, there was nothing to do but go their separate ways, an abiding friendship between them. When Kalnin was in the U.S. years later to attend the premiere of his fifth symphony in Boston, they got together briefly in New York City. Cherry writes about the moment at the airport when he glanced up and saw her: "I looked into his eyes and realized, for the third time in nearly twenty-five years, that this was the most remarkable man I had ever known."
While she was contending with Cold War bureaucracy and living with her parents, who had moved to England, Cherry received an invitation to teach at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She accepted a visiting lectureship for 1977-78 and remained on the staff, eventually becoming a full professor and writer-in-residence. She was named Eudora Welty Professor of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities. As she teaches the various forms of literature—poetry, short story, essay, and novel—she continues to write in all of them herself, because she believes that each form has its own particular uses. Her first collection, Benjamin John and Other Poems, was done as her M.F.A. thesis, and the years since have seen a steady outpouring of poetry works. For Cherry, poetry is closely allied with philosophy and the act of thinking. She commented in Writers Digest, "To be a poet is to be wholeheartedly committed to the search for meaning." Indeed, as she sees it, all literature is a kind of knowing, one that urges us to go beyond our solipsistic selves. In this regard, literature has a kinship with science, another of her keen interests: "Both make it possible for us to recognize one another as real beings moving in the real world."
Cherry's prose works include four novels. Her short fiction has been selected for Best American Short Stories, the Pushcart Prize, and Prize Stories 1994: The O. Henry Awards. Her collection of essays, Writing the World (1995), explores the art of writing and what it means to be a woman writer and a Southern writer. In 1989 she was awarded the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize presented by the Fellowship of Southern Writers for a distinguished body of work. The citation naming her as recipient states, "Kelly Cherry's poetry is marked by a firm intellectual passion, a reverent desire to possess the genuine thought of our century—historical, philosophical, and scientific—and a species of powerful ironic wit that is allied to rare good humor."
Lessons from Our Living Past (coauthor, 1972). Teacher's Guide to Lessons from Our Living Past (1972). Sick and Full of Burning (1974). Lovers and Agnostics (1975). Relativity: A Point of View (1977). Conversion (1979). Augusta Played (1979). Loneliness: Words for a Secular Canticle (1980). Songs for a Soviet Composer (1980). In the Wink of an Eye (1983). The Lost Traveller's Dream (1984). Natural Theology (1988). My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers: A Novel in Stories (1990). God's Loud Hand (1993). Time Out of Mind (1994). Death and Transfiguration (1997).
CANR 68 (1998). DLBY (1983). Georgia Review (Spring 1994, Winter 1996). Midwest Quarterly 35 (Winter 1994). New Literary History 23 (Winter 1992). Writer's Digest 76 (July 1996).
—MARLENE M. MILLER