Poet pulls inspiration from life’s beauty

Published: Tue Feb 10, 2015

Tiara Holt • The Daily Beacon
Bill Alexander, also known as the Appalachian Hippie Poet, performs at the Tennessee Tourist Center on Feb. 6.

Appalachian Hippie Poet: a man who just returned from researching basket making techniques in Australia.

A man who is an eighth generation Tennessean.

A man who finds inspiration in a jar of moonshine, but not in the way you might think.

However, for most of his life, the Appalachian Hippie Poet was just known as Bill Alexander.

“My momma started writing poetry early in life, and I started later in life,” Alexander explained.

Alexander graduated from the University of Tennessee with a master’s degree in plant and soil science and went on to a career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory until his retirement 15 years ago.

“I started hiking the Smokies between ’99 and ’02 and hiked all the trails on the eastern side of the park,” Alexander recalled. “I started writing poetry inspired by something I would see or hear or feel on the trails.”

His style began to take shape in what Alexander describes as old Scotch-Irish second and fourth line rhyme.

“In 2006, my wife of 35 years passed away, and my poetry was filled with grief and alcohol at that point,” Alexander said. “I took the appropriate steps to heal and come out the other side.”

After his wife’s death, Alexander’s work could be split into three distinct phases which he coined: mountains, sad and drinking, and the rainbow.

Alexander describes the rainbow phase as “the healing after the pain and the grief like a beautiful rainbow after a storm.”

Chyna Brackeen, president of Attack Monkey Productions, met Alexander a few years ago and said the first aspects of him that struck her were his positive attitude, generous spirit and wild energy.

“I think you get a good understanding of who Bill is through his poetry,” Brackeen said. “His soul really shines through his work.”

Although the content and tone of his work has changed over the years, Alexander still draws inspiration from the physical world around him.

“I heard a fella one time say he was inspired by things he read, and I said ‘Well, I must not be reading the right stuff,’” Alexander laughed. “Mostly I’m inspired by things I do, feel, see, hear or experience, so it’s a very hands on, very active approach to being inspired.”

In a moment of inspiration, Alexander met up with a man he encountered briefly at Rhythm N’ Blooms to go for a ride in the man’s 1924 Ford.

“He had some original Popcorn Sutton moonshine, and we had a drink or two before he gave me a little jar of it,” Alexander said. “When I screwed the lid back on it popped, and before I got home, I had written a piece called ‘Popcorn.’”

Alexander credits most of his poetry to these types of chance encounters, whether it’s a phrase, sound or sight that sparks his imagination.

“Sometimes I felt bad about using other people’s words,” Alexander confessed. “Then I got to thinking that a camera captures an image in a moment, and as a poet, I capture words in a moment.”

As the MC at Rhythm N’ Blooms last spring, Alexander recited small pieces by memory between acts, occasionally doing full sets on his own.

Briston Maroney, a member of local bluegrass band Subtle Clutch, met Alexander at Rhythm N’ Blooms. A few months later, Alexander then showed up to the band’s album release party and introduced the group with an original composition in its honor.

Maroney was “really surprised and honored that Bill had done that since we only met him in the musician tent that spring.”

Although most of his work begins as a written composition, Alexander considers his public appearances more of a storytelling performance than a poetry reading.

“As a performing poet, I consider myself a storyteller,” Alexander said. “Somebody will ask me a question that may be answered with a simpler ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but I’ll take five minutes and tell a little story that will give you the answer in the body of the story.”

Brackeen can attest to Alexander’s storytelling prowess.

When she attempted to bring her son, Hayden, home from a birthday party for Alexander at the office, Hayden asked to go back saying, “Yeah, the music was okay, but I loved Bill. I just loved all of his old yarns.”

“You can’t know Bill and not be familiar with his work,” Brackeen explained. “You’ll be in mid-conversation with him, and he’ll start spouting off a piece he wrote the night before.”

After nearly 16 years as a poet, Alexander has no plans to slow down.

“The poetry and the basket research have just been retirement efforts and hobbies more than anything, because I really think you shouldn’t just sit down and waste away,” Alexander said. “The way to continue is to have young friends, which I do, and to just be a part of society in general and to contribute in ways that maybe you couldn’t when you were working or had other responsibilities.”

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