Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Muse: Kentucky's New Poet Laureate

I hope I will have opportunities to be visible,
to serve as a role model for kids who come
from humble beginnings like I did.*
~ Frank X Walker, Kentucky Poet Laureate

Frank X Walker was appointed in February to be Kentucky's Poet Laureate for 2013-2104, the first African-American to be named to the state's two-year post and, at 51, the youngest. He will be inducted formally on Kentucky Writers' Day on April 24, 2013.

A co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets collective, the highly accomplished poet, who travels widely giving lectures, leading workshops, reading poetry, and exhibiting, succeeds Maureen Morehead (see my post about Morehead here). Commenting on his prospective plans as Poet Laureate, Walker indicates that in addition to promoting poetry and other literary arts generally, giving readings, and taking part in various arts-related conferences, he will be advocating on behalf of required coursework on Kentucky writers, beginning in elementary school and extending to college.

Information about Kentucky's Poet Laureate position is included in my post about Gurney Norman, who served in 2009-2010. (An aside: Walker took a class with Gurney at the University of Kentucky and says Gurney influenced his decision to become a writer.) Go here for a list of Kentucky's past Poets Laureate.

* * * **
. . . [T]he highest quality of life is full of art and creative expression
and . . . all people deserve it. I believe in a broad definition of what
art is and who artists are: Barbers, cooks, auto detailers, janitors 
and gardeners have as much right to claims of artistry as designers,
architects, painters and sculptors. Every day, our streets and school
buses become art galleries in the form of perfectly spiked hair,
zigzagging cornrows and dizzying shoelace artistry. . . .**

Frank X Walker will publish this May his sixth collection of poetry, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (University of Georgia Press, 2013). He is the author of Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride (Old Cove Press, 2010), about African-American jockey Isaac Burns Murphy (1861-1896), who was the first to win the Kentucky Derby three times; When Winter Come: the Ascension of York (University Press of Kentucky, 2008), a re-imagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the sequel to Buffalo DanceBlack Box: Poems (Old Cove Press, 2005), which tells about Walker's childhood and home; Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York: Poems (Kentucky Voices, University Press of Kentucky, 2003), about York, an African-American slave and the personal servant to explorer William Clark; and Affrilachia: Poems (Old Cove Press, 2000; now in at least its eighth printing), 68 poems about Walker's experience growing up as African-American in the Appalachian south. His Buffalo Dance won the Lillian Smith Book Award in 2004; Affrilachia was nominated for a Kentucky Public Librarians' Choice Award.

Walker, who is also a playwright, visual and performance artist, and activist, is the editor and publisher of PLUCK! the Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. (The term "Affrilachian", whose coining is credited to Walker, is defined here. Also see the Coal Black Voices site.) Publications Walker has edited include America! What's My Name? The "Other Poets" Unfurl the Flag (Wind Publications, 2007) and Eclipsing a Nappy New Millennium (Haraka Press, 1998; available through resellers).

In an Artist Statement on his Website, Walker describes the subjects of his poetry this way: "I choose to focus on social justice issues as well as multiple themes of family, identity and place." Indeed, even a cursory glance at the titles of Walker's collections gives definition to his work, which is remarkable for its narrative potency, clarity of voice, vividness of imagery, accessibility, political astuteness, and profound insights into racial discrimination and injustice. His richly cultural poems are very much about making visible in his frank and honest words his life experience and that of other African-Americans of the past and present; as he's said, they're about "writ[ing] ourselves into the history of this region": 

. . . what I choose to talk about as an artist, and what I represent,
is as important to people who don't look like me as to those
 who do. It challenges stereotypes; it offers another image
 that's not out there.***

Walker has a particular talent for persona poems. His York series (Buffalo Dance and its sequel When Winter Come) are notable for how beautifully Walker captures York's and other narrators' voices, those of both men and women he writes about. Similarly, in Isaac Murphy, Walker takes on multiple voices (Isaac Murphy, his wife Lucy, his mentor, his parents) to advance his story and help us understand how the son of a slave could achieve international fame in thoroughbred racing. His forthcoming collection about Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers (1925-1963) includes poems told in the voices of Byron de la Beckwith, Evers's murderer; de la Beckwith's wife Thelma; Evers's widow Myrlie; and even the bullet that felled Evers. Walker's extraordinary poems also are marked by sharp characterization, an eye for apt historical detail, and a deep feeling and appreciation especially for the black experience throughout American history and the want both of and for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Here's a lyrical excerpt from a poem in Buffalo Dance, in the voice of York, Clark's personal slave:

If I could make my words dress
they naked selves in blackberry juice
and lay down on a piece a bark, sheep
or onion skin, the way Massa do.
If I could send a story home to my wife
float it in the wind, on wings or water
I'd tell her about Katonka, the buffalo
and all the big wide and high places
this side a the big river.

[. . .]

As I watched black fish as big as cabins take to the air
and splash back in the water like children playing
I though about you, us and if we gone ever be free,
then I close my eyes and pray
that I don't live long enough to see
Massa make this ugly too.
~ from "Wind Talker"

This excerpt exemplifies Walker's marvelous descriptive powers:

granddaddy's hands, like tree limbs
with the bark peeled off
were not dry and brittle
but strong and supple
polished mahogany when
chopping and hauling wood for mamma e's kitchen stove

quick and decisive
when wringing a chicken's neck
to feed his family. . . .
~ from "Handmade" in Black Box

Walker's poems can be deeply moving, as here:

When I was able to see beauty
in a world with so many scars,
when I discovered stores of memories
that a bullet couldn't quit.

When I watched a son
grow into his father's face,
his laugh, his walk,
I saw how faith could be restored
and I finally understood
trouble don't last always.
~ "A Gift of Time" (See transcription; also listed below.)

Read as many poems by Walker as you can. His is an important and eloquent voice.

Poems by Walker have appeared in numerous literary magazines and periodicals, including Appalachian Heritage, Indiana ReviewKudzu, Louisville Review, MiPOesiasRattleThe Shooting Star Review, and Verse Wisconsin. Walker's work has been anthologized in, among other publications, The Appalachian Journal, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009), Cornbread Nation 3: Foods of the Mountain South (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), Mischief, Caprice & Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press, 2004), The Kentucky Anthology: Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass (University Press of Kentucky, 2005), A Kentucky Christmas (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art (Third World Press, 2002; available through resellers), The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press, 2007), Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poets (Syracuse University Press, 1997; available through resellers), and What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Poets (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

Walker established the Faith A. Smith Poetry Prize in honor of his mother. 

Associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky and also director of African American and Africana Studies, Walker is the recipient of an Appalachian Heritage Literary Award from West Virginia Humanities Council (2013), a Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry (2005), a Thomas D. Clark Literary Award for Excellence (2006), a Cave Canem Fellowship, and an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council. He was named in 2011 to the Oxford American's list of "The Most Creative Teachers in the South". He holds an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the University of Kentucky (2001) and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Transylvania University (2002). In addition, Walker has been honored with the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice - Lauren K. Weinberg Humanitarian Award (2011; video here).


Photo Credit: Tracy A. Hawkins

All Poetry Quotations © Frank X Walker

* Quoted from "Frank X Walker New Ky. Poet Laureate", Associated Press at WHAS11 Louisville, and Kentucky Arts Council Press Release

** Quoted from "Creative Solutions to Life's Challenges", This I Believe for NPR, March 27, 2006

*** Quoted from "This Year's Model: 1999: Frank X Walker", ACE Weekly, December 20, 1999 (This is a particularly good feature about Walker.)

Kentucky Arts Council, Press Release on Appointment of Frank X Walker as Poet Laureate, February 14, 2013

"Frank X Walker Is Kentucky's Poet Laureate", ACE, February 14, 2013

"Frank X Walker Named Kentucky's First African-American Laureate", The Courier-Journal, February 14, 2013

Josh James, "Frank X Walker Named Kentucky's First African-American Poet Laureate", WUKY, Feburary 14, 2013 (Audio Included)

Mary Meehan, "Lexington Writer Frank X Walker Named Kentucky Poet Laureate", Kentucky Online, February 14, 2013

Frank X Walker Poems Online: "Elves" and "View Finder" from Black Box, "Wind Talker" and "God's House" from Buffalo Dance, "Statues of Liberty" and "Li'l Kings" from Affrilachia, All at Books Page at Frank X Walker Website; "Buring Albatross" at Poetry Society of America; "Real Costs", "Queer Behavior", Sorority Meeting", "After Birth",  and "Affrilachia" at Verse Wisconsin; "Affrilachia" and "Kentucke" at Coal Black Voices Website; "Elves" at Woodland Pattern Book Center; "Death by Basketball" at African American Registry; "True Black", "Step(Fathering) on Eggshells", "Protection", "Spell #13: Spell  to Eradicate Racism", "Til Death Due Us Part", "Ex-Men",  "April Fools", "Talking in Tongues", "The Right to Bear Arms", "Nyctophobia", All Excerpts Only, at Project Muse (Poems Published in Appalachian Heritage); "Homeopathic", at Siah Salma Bangai's Open Salon; "Promises" at Genuine Kentucky; "Wind Talker". "God's House", "Big Medicine", "Primer", "Sundays and Christmas", "Her Current", "Wasicum Sapa", "Swap Meet", "Promises", "The River Speaks", "Like a Virgin", "Like Raven from Head to Toe", "Art of Seduction", Lovers' Moon", "Midnight Ride", "Say My Name", "A Love Supreme", "Unwelcome Guest", "The Sunflower Seed Oil Conjure", "To Have and To Hold", "Real Costs", "After Birth", "Homecoming", "Fire Proof", "Sorority Meeting", "One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead", "Listening to Music", "A Gift of Time", "Heavy Wait for Mississippi", "Death by Basketball", All in Transcription of 2010 Frank X Walker Reading at University of North Dakota Writers Conference; "Mothers Day" at Blog This Rock: Poem of the Week; "Ornithologists" in "Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York by Frank X. Walker" at The Poetry Place; "I Dedicate This Ride", "After Birth", "One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead", "Come Sunday Its Derby", "I Thought Slavery Was a Song", "Oh Weep No More Today", "Fire Proof", All at From the Fishouse (Audio and Text); "Affrilachia" at What's Cookin' Now!; Introduction to "Fire Proof" and Introduction to "One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead" at From the Fishouse; "Canning Memories" at Nantahala Review

Frank X Walker Interviews at The Progressive (Audio); Pittsburgh City Paper (Text)

Frank X Walker Podcast, "Exploring Affrilachia", with Cheyenne Hohman; Podcast with Tom Godell for WUKY's "UK Perspectives" Program; Podcast with Lezell Lowe, Andrea James, and Dr. Sonja Fiest-Price for 1580AM Lexington (Audio); Podcast, "Race and Appalachian Poetry", at UK African American and African Studies Page; Audio of Walker Q&A on Historical Poetry at From the Fishouse; Audio of Walker Q&A on Medgar Evers Series at From the Fishouse

Frank X Walker for "This I Believe", PRX (Audio); and "Creative Solutions to Life's Challenges" (Audio and Text), NPR, March 27, 2006

Frank X Walker Columns for ACE Magazine: "I Dare You to Dream", "Love and (UK) Baseball", "Kentucky's 'Criminal Mischief'", "Luxury Items", MY Old Kentucky Home"

Affrilachia: Poems on GoogleBooks

Black Box: Poems on GoogleBooks

Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York on GoogleBooks

When Winter Come: The Ascension of York on GoogleBooks

What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets on Googlebooks

Review of Affrilachia at Southern Scribe

Review of Issac Murphy at Fogged Clarity

Review of When Winter Come at JPpoetryreader: poetry reviews and discussion

"Affrilachia in Words and Images", Series at Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, University of North Georgia (Walker provided the keynote and took part in other activities.)

Coal Black Voices, Documentary by Fred Johnson and Jean Donohue (The film, which Walker co-produced, features Walker and poets Nikky Finney, Kelly Norman Ellis, Mitchell C. Douglass, and others. A preview is here.)

Frank X Walker on FaceBook

PLUCK! on FaceBook

Videos Features with Frank X Walker: "Frank X Walker at MSU", "Affrilachian Poet Frank X Walker", "Direction: Northeast - Frank X Walker, Part 1 and Part 2", "Frank X Walker at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art", "Frank X Walker Reading from Buffalo Dance", "Kentucky Muse: Frank X Walker: I Dedicate This Ride" (Also available online are a series of Walker's poetry readings in various departments at the University of Kentucky.)

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