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A Word to the Wise

Literature is how stories are immortalized. Authors use these stories to share, to educate or to transport readers into immersive fictional worlds. Words on a page have the power to influence how the human condition is collectively experienced by encouraging readers to listen, empathize and learn from one another.

Kentucky is full of intentional authors with stories that need to be told and educators capable of captivating the students that need them most — several of them right here in Lexington at the University of Kentucky.

Frank X Walker
Kentucky Poet Laureate and Director of MFA at the University of Kentucky poses for a portrait with his children’s book titled “A is for Affrilachia,” a term he coined to represent the African American artists, writers and musicians hailing from Appalachia on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at the Dickey Hall Education Library in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

The X in Frank X Walker’s name originated because people thought he looked like civil rights leader Malcolm X in high school.

That same X now appears on the covers of his 12 books, above “Director of Creative Writing” on the namecard outside his University of Kentucky office, next to “Professor” on syllabi and on a sign in his hometown that reads “Home of Frank X Walker Kentucky Poet Laureate 2013-14.”

A native of Danville, Kentucky, Walker is the first African American to be named Kentucky Poet Laureate. Inspired by his experiences as a writer of color in Appalachia, Walker coined the term “Affrilachia” and co-founded the Affrilachian Poets collective.

“That term, Affrilachia, forces and challenges people’s definition and perceptions and preconceptions of what Appalachia is and then allows people of color to exist in the same space,” Walker said.

Walker, who began reading at a young age, was introduced to creative writing while attempting to mimic the style of his favorite comic books. His love for comics and their heroes persists today. Walker currently has what he believes to be “the largest African American action figure comic collection in the United States” on display at the Lyric Theatre.

However, Walker said that he would not be a creative person or even believe he could make a difference with his words or art if it had not been for his mother.

Walker’s mother was a seamstress in addition to being a nurse and a Pentecostal minister, but he said she never thought of herself as an artist. One of 11 kids, Walker often watched his mother sew his sister’s clothes and even make wedding dresses in the home.

“Once she had sat down to make these pieces of clothing, she would do everything an artist did. The way she thought about them, the way she put them together, her sense of completion at the end … I marvel at that,” he said.

Walker entered his undergraduate years at UK as an engineering major. While he said he should have come to study writing, he wasn't encouraged to do so. His love for reading and writing led him to major in journalism for two years before ultimately switching to English.

“At some point I wandered into Gurney Norman’s fiction class and a lightbulb came on. I'm like, ‘I love this.’ He was able to pull these stories out of me,” he said.

Walker has since gone on to step into Norman’s shoes as a creative influence and driving force for his students. As a professor in the English department, he teaches a variety of courses including Affrilachian literature, large intro to creative writing classes as well as small seminars for graduate students.

Walker emphasized the impact that proper guidance and counseling can have on a young student attempting to find their career path in a creative field. He cautioned against using trial and error to stumble into a career simply because it's the last one left. “That's a lot of wasted money, a lot of wasted time,” he said.

“When you choose a major, or if you have a minor, or if you choose to double major in something, it should not be about, ‘I can be rich when I finish this degree;’ it should be about, ‘I really love this thing, I want to learn as much about it as possible and believe that there'll be opportunities for me to keep developing and become the best I can be at this thing and then find employment in it,’” he said.

A small pile of photos of Frank X Walker’s family and himself sit behind his office desk on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, at Patterson Office Tower in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Since high school, Walker said he now views the X in his name to represent the unknown, especially when it comes to understanding his past, his family's past and their history. He is currently in the process of writing a book about African American Civil War soldiers in Kentucky.

“I've found out all these things that I never learned in high school, or in a book or on television and I continue to be stunned at all this new information that was formerly unknown,” he said.

While researching, Walker said he came across the story of a soldier in the Union Army who had signed his name using an X on his enlistment form because he was illiterate.

“It kind of made me tingle inside to realize that that X is connected to my X. He was using the X because he didn't know how to write, and my using the X acknowledges that I'm connected to him. My commitment to literacy is somehow connected to his wanting to write and needing to be literate.”

Walker believes that stories like these should be general knowledge. The widespread reach of this kind of information may shape people’s perception of Kentucky history, Kentuckians and the role of African Americans in this space, he said. Walker himself plays a crucial part in the distribution of these stories through literature.

“I remember being in the library as an 11- or 12-year-old and asking the librarian why there weren’t more books about Black people and she said, ‘Why don't you write one?’ I remember being stung by that, you know, that hurt. I was just a kid,” Walker said. “But I also remember feeling challenged by it. In the back of my mind, I remembered that and it kind of gave me purpose; why not write one?”

Frank X Walker’s 13th book, “A is for Affrilachia,” is set to come out this year.

Beth Connors-Manke

Beth Connors-Manke sits at her desk surrounded by books and plants on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, at Patterson Office Tower in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Beth Connors-Manke chose a career in literature because she is interested in people.

Now an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky, Connors-Manke’s enthusiasm for studying English began her first year in college and led her to earning a doctoral degree in the field.

“I remember my first year of college, I thought, ‘I'm either gonna major in psychology or I'm gonna major in literature,’” Connors-Manke said. However, after taking a psychology course, her decision was made clear. “I'm interested in the way literature helps understand people in that deeply described way.”

In addition to already being an avid reader, Connors-Manke explored literary analysis, creative writing and everything in between during her time as an undergraduate student. Her educational background all falls under the large umbrella of English studies.

“I've ended up in all of them. It's fun, I've gotten to expand over time and go a lot of different directions,” she said.

Connors-Manke teaches a variety of writing, rhetoric and digital studies (WRD) courses that include both freshmen and upper division students. She said she leans heavily into the compositional aspect of writing due to her love for working with language and students in terms of how they find their voice and make arguments.

The biggest challenge of approaching undergraduate students who may be struggling to find their niche in a WRD course is identifying a method of instruction that works on a student by student basis, she said.

“Usually once we slow down, and I look a student in the eye and I’m like, ‘What's interesting to you? What have you written?’ and let’s take it apart. Once that connection is there, I don't have to do more persuasion because we can find what suits the student and how they can work through their learning,” she said.

She encourages her students to take inventory of their day-to-day lives and try to think of a time when they don't have to write something.

“We are so saturated in textual language, it’s almost the air we breathe,” Connors-Manke said. Between reading the subtext in text messages, to interpreting the tone on a social media post, to deciphering extensive technical writing, being asked to not use the skills of a writer is like being told, “don't breathe for a day and see how that goes,” as she puts it.

Many of the courses Connors-Manke teaches allow students to hone their skills in style, voice or other special topics throughout the semester and then use that developed skillset to create a final, cumulative project. Students are given the freedom to explore their own personal interests or interpretation of topics as long as they stay within the realms of the general rubric.

Connors-Manke told the story of a particular student who, as a freshman in an argumentation course, was tasked with creating a final paper depicting “the good life.” The student, being a political science major, wrote a political manifesto, rolled it up like a historic manuscript and tied it together with a string before turning it in.

“It was so cool because it was where she wanted to go in the future with her discipline and she was doing the work for our class,” Connors-Manke said.

Photo by Carter Skaggs.

Throughout her career, both as a student herself and an associate professor, Connors-Manke has been able to center her work around specific research interests. These interests include composition and eudaimonia, pedagogy and mentorship, style and voice in composition, editing and community publishing, argument and philosophy, and public rhetorics and advocacy, according to her profile on UK’s WRD department website.

She poses related research questions, including, “How can reciprocity be enacted? In particular, how is reciprocity experienced — and enacted — in the classroom?”

Connors-Manke described how the classroom setting is one of give and take between a teacher and a student. While both parties have something to offer each other, they are able to pick and choose which things to leave and which to enact. For this to occur, there has to be a certain level of respect present, she said.

Reciprocity in the classroom may prove to be one of the crucial ingredients to reach eudaimonia, one of Connors-Manke’s research interests, within the academic sphere.

Eudaimonia, an ancient Greek word loosely translated to “human flourishing”, was a topic largely explored by students in Connors-Manke’s recent “rewilding” course, a subtitle of WRD 401.

In the summer of 2021, a section of this course was conducted in the forests of Olympic National Park in Washington State. The four-week course was modeled with the first and last week on Zoom, with the middle two weeks as immersive, in-nature experiences. During those two weeks, students participated in reading, writing, hiking and mindfulness activities like meditation while staying at a lodge on Lake Quinault.

Connors-Manke explained how reciprocity was further emphasized during this course as students were encouraged to attach themselves to nature, to something that is not themselves and that gives back to them.

Connors-Manke aims to use these pillars of reciprocity in her personal life and in her career as an educator. “It means being willing to be like, every day, ‘What do my students need from me? What does my family need from me? What do my colleagues, what do my neighbors need?’ Because if they're not doing well, what do I have left?”

Crystal Wilkinson

Former Poet Laureate of Kentucky and University of Kentucky professor Crystal Wilkinson poses for a portrait in her office on campus on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at Patterson Office Tower in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

One of Crystal Wilkinson's favorite memories from her time as Kentucky Poet Laureate begins in the same library she worked at as a high school student in Casey County.

Wilkinson had traveled back to her hometown to take part in “Crystal Wilkinson Day,” where she would spend the day engaging in conversations with young, prospective writers, doing readings from her books and sharing her love for literature with the friends, family and teachers that had inspired it.

Wilkinson, who currently serves as Kentucky’s first female poet laureate, is the award-winning author of “Perfect Black” and three works of fiction: “The Birds of Opulence,” “Water Street” and “Blackberries, Blackberries.” She teaches at the University of Kentucky as a professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program.

Being raised by her grandparents in rural Kentucky without neighbors for almost a mile on either side, Wilkinson was what her grandparents would call “bashful” as a young child.

“I didn't speak a lot, and writing and reading were alway an outlet for me,” she said. “For me, it was a way to have company because I had a very lonely childhood … I entered a whole other world in my imagination, and it was to express that and be in touch with that.”

Wilkinson took this life she had built in literature and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Kentucky University. Following graduation, she told herself that if she could just get published in a magazine she recognized she would be happy if that's as far as her career went.

However, in adolescence, Wilkinson recalled looking up on her shelves and seeing few women writers and no Black writers.

“And I thought, ‘That's what I want to do.’ But I don't think that young, Black girls from rural Kentucky, that this is what we need to be doing,” she said. “I found out later that, of course, it's something that I could have done and did do. But I think if you can make that connection to your passion and continue to look for ways to do that, that is the way to go.”

As she continued to get published in more magazines and journals, Wilkinson began to recognize the very real possibility of seeing herself join the authors she had once seen on her shelf. She went on to earn an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University, which allowed her to step into the role of educator as well.

“When I'm teaching creative writing, one of the things I say is that we're all haunted by something, meaning that there are recurring thoughts or recurring feelings that we have or things that we want to talk about all the time.”

Wilkinson said her mother dealt with mental illness, leading her to be absent from the home during much of Wilkinson’s childhood. This experience solidified mother-daughter relationships as a “haunt” of hers. Readers of Wilkinson’s works of fiction, poetry and prose can recognize this complex idea explored as a recurring theme.

“What I do as a fiction writer, and even as a poet, is take the foundation of those personal experiences and layer the imagination on, and so then you get the fiction,” she said. “Or I examine it from a distance, and so then you get the speaker of the poem that is not necessarily me, but may have some common experiences that I had.”

Wilkinson does an exercise with her students where she encourages them to explore personal experiences, family relationships, connections to religion, to place, to food, and pretend it was not happening to them or wasn't their experience, but instead, a made up character. She poses questions such as, “What would you say to the character of your own experience?” “How would you diverge from the truth?” or “What are you curious about?”

“I think you have that thread of truth,” she said. “There are commonalities that are part of the human experience, no matter what race, no matter what religion. There are common experiences we all have.”

Crystal Wilkinson holds one of the handmade notebooks a student created for her on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, at Patterson Office Tower in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Carter Skaggs.

It can be easy to explore these situations in the classroom without the added pressure of hundreds of others reading the deeply personal words sprawled on the page. However, that secrecy is lost when it comes to publishing, a concept that can feel intimidating to young writers and creative students.

However, Wilkinson sees vulnerability as one of the crucial aspects of being a poet and a writer. She emphasized the importance of a willingness to stand up in front of the world naked, not literally but figuratively, she clarified.

“You have to be vulnerable enough to tell the truth,” she said. “To speak the truth and not flinch away from what the truth might be, no matter how horrible. And then you have to sort of walk around in it.”

Following the release of “Perfect Black” in 2021, Wilkinson saw the effect this bearing of her soul can have on readers. The collection of poetry and prose detailing her rural roots, experiences with racism, sexual abuse, religion and more won the 2022 NAACP Image Award and garnered a community of readers who were left forever impacted.

“I became so emotional because I started to get emails and letters from women — young women — all over the country for different parts of the book,” she said. “Some had gone through sexual abuse of some kind and they read that part and they clung on to it. Others of them had been brought up in rural geographic areas and had been called country before and had seen that as a negative, and so they reached out. Each one of those young women, each example of that kind of interaction, I think touches me, and each of them touch me in a different way.”

Wilkinson credits the close-knit group of Affrilachian Poets for initially fostering this sense of community during the drafting side of the writing process. She encourages her students and mentees to establish their own artistic and creative communities built on trust so they can all become better writers.

“The members of the Affrilachian Poets are my brothers and sisters. Not only in the word, but in our lives. We’ve all seen deaths of parents, deaths of grandparents, marriages, divorces, illnesses … We've seen each other through all kinds of milestones,” Wilkinson said.

As the literary community continues to grow in Kentucky, Wilkinson praises the younger generations for embracing diversity in creative voices and hopes to see social media used as a place of celebration for this.

“I’m extremely proud as a native Kentuckian to be the first Black woman poet laureate in the state. But I shouldn't be the first Black woman poet laureate in the state... I'll be so glad when there are no more firsts and it's just like, oh, you know, it’s Crystal Wilkinson, or it's Frank X Walker or whoever is the next one and the next one.”

Wilkinson’s culinary memoir, “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” is anticipated from Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House in 2024.


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