Conscious Narratives: Exploring Historical Poetry with Frank X Walker
By JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp
I had the pleasure of being introduced to Frank X Walker, also a Spalding University MFA graduate (2003), while attending a panel discussion in 2009. I mentioned to Spalding faculty member Jeannie Thompson that I was currently interested in the persona poem for an alternative approach to my study of the life of Mary Jemison. Frank happened to be in the ballroom of the Brown Hotel that day, and Jeannie said, “Well let me introduce you to someone!” The result was a deep appreciation for not only his poetry collections, but the example he sets for us all regarding earnest research when representing the life of our heroes and heroines.
A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, Frank X Walker is the editor of America! What's My Name? The "Other" Poets Unfurl the Flag (Wind Publications, 2007) and Eclipsing a Nappy New Millennium. He is the author of six poetry collections: Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (University of Georgia Press, 2013); Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride (Old Cove Press, 2010); When Winter Come: the Ascension of York (University Press of Kentucky, 2008); Black Box (Old Cove Press, 2005); Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), winner of the 35th Annual Lillian Smith Book Award; and Affrilachia (Old Cove Press, 2000).
A Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Fellowship recipient, Walker's poems have been converted into stage productions by the University of Kentucky Theatre department and Northern Kentucky University's Theatre and Dance Department and widely anthologized in numerous collections; including Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. III, Contemporary Appalachia, Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry and Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art.
He is the first Kentucky writer to be featured on NPR's This I Believe and has appeared on television in PBS's GED Connection Series, Writing: Getting Ideas on Paper, in In Performance At the Governor's Mansion and in Living the Story: The Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky. He contributed to Writing Our Stories: An Anti-Violence Creative Writing Program Curriculum Guide developed by the Alabama Writer's Forum and the Alabama Department of Youth Services. He co-produced a video documentary, Coal Black Voices: the History of the Affrilachian Poets, which received the Jesse Stuart Award presented by the Kentucky School Media Association, and produced a documentary exploring the effects of 9.11 on the arts community, KY2NYC: Art/life & 9.11. A multidisciplinary artist, Walker's visual art is in the private collections of Spike Lee and Bill and Camille Cosby.
Walker is a native of Danville, Ky., a graduate of the University of Kentucky, and completed an MFA in Writing at Spalding University. He has served as founder/Executive Director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium, the Program Coordinator of the University of Kentucky's King Cultural Center and the Assistant Director of Purdue University's Black Cultural Center. The University of Kentucky and Transylvania University awarded Walker honorary Doctorates for his collective community work and artistic achievements. He is the recipient of the Thomas D. Clark Literary Award for Excellence, Actors Theatre's Keeper of the Chronicle Award and a Recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship in Poetry. He has held board positions for the Kentucky Humanities Council, Appalshop and the Kentucky Writers Coalition as well as a government appointment to Cabinet for Education, Arts & Humanities and the Committee on Gifted Education. He has served as vice president of the Kentucky Center for the Arts and the executive director of Kentucky's Governor's School for the Arts.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: I was introduced to your work in the fall of 2009 upon reading Buffalo Dance and When Winter Come. These historical poems travel through and beyond the scope of social justice in order to create the profound sense of empathy the reader feels for York. What happened in the very beginning of this journey that inspired you to explore this man’s story?
Frank X Walker: My initial journey with York and my initial interest in historically based persona poems began with the embarrassment of acknowledging my own ignorance. After attending a Chautauqua presentation given by Hasan Davis in the character of York, I tried to rationalize how it happened that I had never heard his name before, given his Kentucky connections, given my background in African American culture and history, given the fact that I was living in the same city and walking the same streets, and given his significance to the success of the expedition. I wasn't sure if the education system failed me or if had failed myself. I thought I was familiar with the Lewis & Clark story, but the more I learned about York and the other young men from Kentucky who participated and other important details regarding their interactions with Native peoples, the richer the story got.
LoVerde-Dropp: In the poem “Revisionist History,” York brings to light the omission of his own role in the journey in the lines,
The truth seemed to stretch so
that by and by I seem to disappear from they tongues
as if I had never even been there
as if my blackness never saved they hides.
Them twist the tales an leave out my parts in it
so much so, that directly I become Massa Clark’s boy, again
just along to cook
Here the speaker offers at least part of the explanation. Now in regard to your discovery of the revised history of York’s role in the expedition, I’m wondering if you experienced similar serendipitous events that led you to begin researching the lives of Isaac Murphy and Medgar Evers.
Walker: It would not be a stretch to say something similar happened in each case. Part of my interest in all of them is admittedly what I perceive as erasure. In Murphy's case, the degree to which African Americans participated and in many cases dominated thoroughbred racing is so invisible that it rarely comes up, though it wasn't my motivation for pursuing his story. And Medgar Evers' invisibility in a larger discussion of the Civil Rights that is often condensed to something as simple as 'MLK had a dream and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat' is equally unfortunate.
LoVerde-Dropp: In When Winter Come, the sequel to Buffalo Dance, you begin including voices other than York’s to tell his story. These voices manifest in the form of The River; Watkuweis; Sacagawea; William Clark; York’s Nez Perce wife, his slave wife, stepmother (Rose), father (Ol’ York), hunting shirt, hatchet, and knife. You state in the prologue, Another Trek, that these voices “provide the emotional undercurrent” in this second book. Could you talk more about this?
Walker: Buffalo Dance is told in one voice, York's. By the time I was ready to write the sequel I had traveled more extensively throughout the Northwest reading from the first York book and had enjoyed significant exchanges with Native American scholars and members of the Nez Perce tribe which gave me a chance to hear another side of the story. I believed the sequel could get closer to the truth and be more authentic if other missing voices had a chance to contribute. I also believed that adding female voices would humanize the narrative even more. Those new voices were the emotional undercurrent I was referring to. I have seven sisters and was raised by women so I know from experience that women see the world differently than men. I wanted to add their acute, honest, insightful perspectives to what had always been offered as a counterweight to an overtly patriarchal and predominantly white superman mythos.
LoVerde-Dropp: Your third book of persona poems, Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride, emphasizes the fierce devotion within Murphy’s circle as much as it does his rise to fame. I am thinking specifically of the poems “Keeper of the Flame” and “Too Heavy,” which were attributed to his wife, Lucy. What were you able to borrow from your devotion to your own family in order to create voices so real?
Walker: I feel confident in how I perceive human interaction especially between women and men. I'm old enough to have loved and lost enough times to have become wiser for it. When I craft collections of persona poems, I'm building from source material gathered from memory, research and imagination. It’s the emotional currency that comes from a first person voice and the imagination that keeps it from just being another history text. I'm fortunate to have survived enough personal experiences to create the authenticity that I want my readers to experience.
LoVerde-Dropp: You’ve now released your fourth book of historical poetry, The Unghosting of Medgar Evers – how has your approach to the persona poem evolved over the past decade?
Walker: My approach to building a narrative driven by persona poems or what I now refer to as Historical Poetry, has definitely evolved over the four collections. I think I can say with confidence that multiple voices, especially those voices in opposition, lend more authenticity to the narrative and create a greater sense of truth for the reader. I've learned that much of what we accept as history is often simply the point of view of the one individual who wrote it down. I've learned that there are great rewards in spending the time, money, and effort in the research. I'm a better human being having encountered these men, their families and their stories.
LoVerde-Dropp: What do you feel are the most important lost details about the life of Medgar Evers that Turn Me Loose has restored to public consciousness?
Walker: I would hope that Turn Me Loose helps push Medgar Evers' name back into the conversation about civil rights. I think more people know about the details of the tragedy of Emmett Till than know about Medgar's assassination and even fewer know how responsible Medgar was in bringing the Till case to trial. I hope the book corrects some of those injustices.
LoVerde-Dropp: I get a sense of this the most in the poem Arlington, which is written in the voice of Medgar Evers’ wife, Myrlie. Each tercet is like a note higher than the last as the poem, which withholds its only period until the very last line, thus resisting both closure and complicity. Arlington reveals the incongruity between the ceremony offered upon Evers’ death and the reality of the lack of acknowledgement that should have honored his life. This poem also integrates craft on a larger scale than what your readers are used to seeing, and I am wondering if you chose the tercet for this extended metaphor for a particular reason.
Walker: The tercets in this poem are intended to extend the image of the triangularly folded flag directly onto the page. Additional efforts, which include contemporary forms like the contrapuntal and hinge poems that are used throughout the collection, allowed me to illuminate the juxtaposition of voices that are in dialogue throughout the collection. I really worked hard on raising the craft in this last collection to something worthy of the narrative, where in the past I had been more concerned with just getting the narrative right. It was important to me that there was as many rewards for the reader looking for poetry as there was for the reader looking for a history lesson in these pages.
During the flag ceremony
soldiers folded, creased, tucked,
smoothed, and folded again
with such precision and care,
I imagined they were wrapping
a red, white, and blue
which they passed, and saluted
and honored so much so
everybody stopped looking
at the casket
by the time they placed that triangle
of husband in my arms,
they left no doubt
I was holding his future
and what we were burying
was only his past.
LoVerde-Dropp: The topic of social justice appears in your role of editor as well as writer. The August 2013 issue of Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture is themed “The Lost Ones” and cites “the wake of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case” as the inspiration for its title. In this regard, you have a voice, unlike writers with compartmentalized public and private personas, that is steady and consistent. What can you tell us about how this carries over into the classroom when you are teaching in a University?
Walker: I don't try to hide the fact that I see myself as an artist/activist and teacher actively engaged in the world around me. I encourage my students to tune into what's happening in their own worlds and to consider what they are or can be emotionally invested in and to use that emotion as a starting point or an emotional center for their own work. I also use some of my own work in the classroom. When the students can make the connection between the writer and the work and have access to the entire backstory, they really understand the writing process, especially how authentic emotion vs. sentimentality can impact a piece of writing.
LoVerde-Dropp: Could you talk a little bit more about this – teaching the difference between authentic emotion vs. sentimentality – as it applies to creating a more three dimensional backdrop, especially in Historical Poetry?
Walker: Many students mistakenly initially believe that receiving an emotional reaction from an audience after sharing the details of a tragic event makes it a good piece of writing, which could spiral a peer workshop away from craft and into a tragedy contest. This evokes a kind of sentimentality that has more to do with the subject and less to do with the quality of the writing. When they fully understand the historical context, the motivation of the speaker, the possible emotional state during that poem as it relates to the other poems and other variables in a series that portrays the subject as a multi-dimensional character it is truly instructive.
LoVerde-Dropp: You also write in other genres besides poetry, and you are currently working towards finishing a fiction novel. What was it that prompted you to explore the lives and circumstances of these men and women in the form of historical poetry as opposed to the biography?
Walker: I like the under-the-skin-closeness of poetry. I like getting so deep inside a character's head and heart that you start to imaging what they dream about. That would be breaking the rules in a biography. You're not supposed to take those kinds of poetic licenses. And I also love the fact that a small collection of poetry, can take you as close or even closer to a subject as a thick biography or book of history.
LoVerde-Dropp: You noted that African American poets Kevin Young, Natasha Trethaway, Tyhimba Jess, Marilyn Nelson, and Adrian Matejah, among others, have also contributed to the genre and that an effort is being made to convince libraries, bookstores and publishers that Historical Poetry deserves its own shelf space. What exactly is it about Historical Poetry that draws you in so closely?
Walker: I think I’m drawn to the fact that the poetry is doing more than what most people expect of poetry, that it is misbehaving, that it has taken on a level of activism that allows it to break new ground and is creating new poetry fans.
LoVerde-Dropp: You’ve stated, “I feel that the research and character studies necessary to building the authentic narratives in the historical poetries made for an easier transition back into fiction.” This brings me back to your current fiction project; what can you tell me about its inception and storyline?
Walker: This novel project comes out of a group of stories I've been carrying around with me for a long time. The one I'm focusing on in the current manuscript is probably closest to the life I've lived these fifty plus years but is still fiction. It’s a coming of age tale and an exploration of black masculinity that centers on a father and son separated at birth, both of whom become writers. After a secret interracial relationship results in an unplanned pregnancy in a state institution in rural Kentucky, the father is charged with rape and sentenced to twenty years in prison and the mother is transferred to a home for unwed mothers where she is forced to give her son up for adoption. The story really begins when the father and son's lives cross for the first time twenty years later via an exchange of letters just before the father's release from prison. As much as I enjoy the craft of poetry I must admit that I've been excited about having a project that has allowed me to bring these characters to life on the page and to take everything I've learned about writing and things I've experienced in the real world and repurposing it all in an imaginary space on a much bigger screen.
Frank X Walker has taught in writing programs like Fishtrap in Oregon and SplitRock at the University of Minnesota and currently serves as Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Kentucky where he serves as the founding editor of PLUCK!, the Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture.
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp is a full-time instructor at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia and serves as Secretary on the board of directors for the Georgia Writers Association. Her article, “Accessible Poetry” appears monthly on the Georgia Writers website http://www.georgiawriters.org/. JoAnn received her MFA in Creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, Public.Republic.net, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems.
Photo by Noah Dropp