Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker: The Persona Poet

Chris Cooper – 1,503 Words

Frank X Walker:  The Persona Poet

One of Frank X Walker’s goals as a writer, specifically poet, is to show the world that there are not only white writers from the Appalachian Region, but African American writers as well, and he is one of them.   

He is the editor of Pluck!  The Journal of Affrication Arts & Culture, and he is the author of five collections of poetry:
            Affrilachia Old Cove Press, 2000

            Buffalo Dance:  The Journey of York University Press of Kentucky, 2004

            Black Box:  Poems Old Cove Press, 2006

            When Winter Comes:  The Ascension of York University Press Of Kentucky, 2008

            Isaac Murphy:  I Dedicate This Ride Old Cove Press, 2010

            Walker has taught at the University of Kentucky in the English Department since January 2010, and is Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2013 to 2014 term, the first African American to be given the title.

            On April 13, 2013 Walker came to the Auburn University of Montgomery to give a reading from his most recent book of poems and sixth collection Turn Me Loose The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, 2013, published by The University of Georgia Press.

As people gathered in the Goodwyn Auditorium to hear the poet speak, it was surprising to see him sitting down, his eyes closed, and his hands clasped together as if in prayer.  One could interpret this as him being nervous; but a more correct theory could be that Walker takes his poetry and his responsibility as a poet seriously.  

            Walker, despite his prolific and award winning career as a poet, was humble to his audience and stated that he would “not extend a kidnapping any longer than necessary” and began reading his poems, offering an explanation before each read poem – not about the poet, but about the poem and the experience of writing that specific poem and his conviction of getting each poem just right – not only poetically but historically as well.
“This is the longest book I’ve written time wise.  4 ½ years when it normally takes an average of two years per book.  I wanted to get it right and I was afraid to get it wrong.”

Walker talked about the importance of National Poetry Month throughout the month of April and how he as well as other poet friends of his made a commitment to write a poem every single day for the month of April.
“We don’t focus on critiquing or editing the poem – just getting the thing written.”
Walker also revealed his favorite part of doing poet readings – not in reading the poems themselves or even being the center of attention, but rather the questions and answers that the audience and he participate in.

What makes Turn Me Loose The Unghosting of Medgar Evers different from Walker’s other works is that he felt two convictions.     
His first conviction started when he read Lucille Clifton’s poem “The Son Of Medgar” from Clifton’s poetry collection The Terrible Stories, published by BOA Editions Ltd in 1996.  Walker couldn’t forget the poem and he couldn’t forget Evers.   

He started his intense research in every aspect of Ever’s life, 

including his assassin Byron De La Beckwith.  Walker stated that if it were not for him reading Clifton’s poem Turn Me Loose The Unghosting of Medgar Evers would never have come into being.  

His second conviction was his conviction as an educator when he learned that 90% of the students surveyed could name the assassinations of the 1960s – President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Junior, and Robert Kennedy – but that they could not name Evers or Ever’s assassin Beckwith.

His mission was not to entertain, but to retell the true story of Evers and his assassination, filling in those missing pieces of history that seemed to be unknown to so many people; and in doing Walker hoped his book would “offer a blueprint for racial reconciliation.” 
He likened writing the book to that of writing one’s family tree.  “The story of building the family tree is half empty and as a teacher I try to fill in those gaps.”
On June 12, 1963, after attending a civil rights workers meeting at a nearby church, Evers was shot in his own driveway, in front of his wife and children, then placed on a mattress by his neighbors 

onto a station wagon, and driven to the hospital, where on the hospital bed, he said “Turn me loose”, and dropped dead.     
Evers a World War Two Veteran was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full honors.

Beckwith was tried three times for the murder of Evers- the first two trials resulting in hung juries; the third trial resulting in a first-degree murder conviction in 1994, when Beckwith was 73. 

The book Turn Me Loose The Unghosting of Medgar Evers is a collection of persona poems via the voices of Myrlie Evers (Ever’s wife), Byron De La Beckwith (Ever’s assassin), Charles Evers (Ever’s brother), Willie De La Beckwith (Beckwith’s first wife), and Thelma De La Beckwith (Beckwith’s second wife).
Walker described a persona poem as being a poem where the poet does not speak, but rather the poet imagines what the person would say in a specific poem.
Hate was a dark place that Walker had to inhabit and to research in order to write some of these persona poems, especially the ones in the voice of Ever’s assassin Beckwith, specifically “Rotten Fruit”:  “It’s hard to appreciate Beckwith as an adult until you first appreciate Beckwith as a kid with his grandfather – mistranslating life’s lessons darker than what they were intended.”
Walker learned the daily fear that the Evers lived with constantly.  To escape from this fear, when Evers would come home from work, he and his wife Myrlie would lie down in the dark and listen to the radio. 
            “I went online and found out what radio shows they listened to and what the top songs were and purchased them on Itunes and listened to them at night.”  The result is Walker’s poem “Listening to Music” through the voice of Myrlie Evers.
            In fact, music played a huge role in writing of the book and the music adds a psychological and emotional depth to the people speaking these persona poems.   Walker said the song “Dixie” and “Strange Fruit” were the basis of the structure of the book.

Walker wrote the poem “One-Third Of 180 Grams Of Lead” from the voice of the bullet.  When asked why he would write a poem from the voice of a bullet he responded that he was a big fan of Spike Lee films. 
“I like specifically the slow motion of objects – such as a head turning or a bullet hitting a window, or a human target within the film.   The point of view of the bullet is not very realistic but I wanted the challenge of it.  The bullet is not invested in either of these guys.  It’s just a bullet.  I like the objectivity of that voice.”
One of the questions asked was, “Does your poetry keep us separated?”  to which Walker immediately responded with an unhesitant “No.”  

            “You have to confront all your ignorance.  To pretend it doesn’t exit – there is nothing to forgive.  When you say it out loud you can move past it.  It’s liberating.”
Then he added, “The book is not the solution, only a tool to start communicating (and) a vehicle to start a framework of conversation.” 
Walker’s advice on how to become a poet is to read voraciously and to read everything.  “You need to read so much that you hear the difference in voice.  If you are not trying to hear other voices you will never hear your own.” 
The second piece of advice to is to seek instruction on how to revise, reedit, and rewrite one’s work.
Presently Walker is writing a coming of age novel that takes place in a fictional town in Kentucky.  The hero of the novel is a bi-racial young man who yearns to be a poet but is not doing a good job thus far.  He graduates from college, becomes part of the working world, and, in the process accidentally runs into his biological father.  The two men reconnect and the young man realizes that though he is educated and his father is not, his father is more of the poet than the he is.
Thus far Walker has produced no autobiographical work.  The closest he’s come to producing an autobiographical work is that he mentions his mother’s name Faith in all of his works. 
            “I use my mother’ s name in every book, but I’m still married to what exists as the facts.”
            Walker is also the editor of the anthology America What’s My Name The “Other” Poets Unfurl the Flag by Wind Publications, 2007.

Contact Walker at for more information.

Photograph Copyright Information

Photo One - Frank X Wright by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Photo Two - Pluck - Public Domain

Photo Three - Affilachia - Public Domain

Photo Four - Buffalo Dance:  The Journey Of York - Public Domain

Photo Five - Black Box:  Poems - Public Domain

Photo Six - When Winter Comes:  The Ascension of York - Public Domain

Photo Seven - Isaac Murphy:  I Dedicate This Ride - Public Domain

Photo Eight - Frank X Walker by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Photo Nine - Turn Me Loose The Unghosting of Medgar Evers - Public Domain

Photo Ten - Frank X Walker at AUM by Chris Rice Cooper

Photo Eleven - Frank X Walker at AUM by Chris Rice Cooper

Photo Twelve - Lucille Clifton - Public Domain

Photo Thirteen - The Terrible Stories -Public Domain

Photo Fourteen - Medgar Evers - Fair Use of the United States Copyright Law

Photo Fifteen - Byron De La Beckwith - Fair Use of the United States Copyright Law

Photo Sixteen - Home of Evers When and Where He was Killed - GNU Free Documentation License

Photo Seventeen - Evers Arlington Grave Site - GNU Free Documentation License

Photo Eighteen - Evers Widow & Children At Gravesite - GNU Free Documentation License

Photo Nineteen- Byron De La Beckwith- Fair Use of the United States Copyright Law

Photo Twenty - Frank X Walker by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Photo Twenty-One - Frank X Walker at AUM by Chris Rice Cooper

Photo Twenty-Two - America What's My  Name The "Other" Poets Unfurl the Flag - Public Domain

No comments:

Post a Comment