Frank X Walker grew up in Danville, Kentucky, a part of Appalachia. This mountainous region is still considered an area inhabited only by poor, white people. As an African-American, Walker knows better, and he coined the term Affrilachian to describe himself and others like him. That was ten years ago, and today the Affrilachian Poets are an organized group with a strong identity and a regular publication: PLUCK! the Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture. “I believe it is my responsibility to say as loudly and often as possible that people and artists of color are part of the past and present of the multi-state Appalachian region extending from northern Mississippi to southern New York,” Walker says.
Walker is an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky, and he travels and teaches extensively at workshops and in schools. He has published four poetry collections, most recently When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, his second collection about the little-known slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark. Walker will read from and discuss his work as part of the Tennessee Young Writers’ Workshop on July 13 at Austin Peay State University. He answered a few questions from Chapter 16 in advance of his appearance.
Chapter 16: Tell us what Affrilachia means, and how you created the term. Were you trying to think of a word to describe your own identity, or did this word come to you in a moment of inspiration?
Walker: Affrilachia means African Americans who live or work in Appalachia. The word came in a moment of inspiration while writing a poem about what African Americans in the mountain South and folk identified as Appalachian had in common. I wanted to find a way to illustrate quickly and easily what I already believed: that the two communities had more in common than the media gave us credit for, that our lives, values, experiences and histories overlapped.
Chapter 16: Were you a poet as a child? When did you make the decision to make art and poetry your life’s work, and was that a hard decision for you?
Walker: I was not a poet as a child, but I was a bookworm. That experience alone probably defines my love for literature today. Books have always been there for me, but I don’t think I ever made a singular commitment to poetry as my life’s work, maybe to the arts in general (teaching, creating, sharing, experiencing) but not just to poetry.
Chapter 16: You have written two books of poetry about York, the personal slave of George Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame. How did you arrive at York as your choice of subject for extensive research and the outlet for your creative energies?
Walker: What ended up as a two-book project with York started as embarrassment and curiosity. I attended a lecture about York and came away surprised and embarrassed that I didn’t already know all about him, given his importance to history and to living in the same physical space. The more research I did, the more excited I became about his story. When I realized that most people, at least on this side of the Mississippi River, shared my ignorance, I made a choice to attempt to impact that and tell his story.
Chapter 16: Pessimistic studies point to a decline in reading among young people and a general concern about shortening attention spans in the wake of new technologies. As a teacher, do you share these concerns, and how do you address them in the classroom?
Walker: I do share those concerns, but I don’t think the results apply to everybody. I respond by giving students time to read during class. I’ve put books from my own library on the table and said, pick one or two and read for forty-five minutes. I’m always surprised at how many students have a hard time focusing for that “short” amount of time the first time it happens. But it’s nice to look up and see a whole class so caught up in their books that they don’t know the class is over. I also use a Facebook discussion board to keep the conversation about our class activities current.
Chapter 16: Your artist’s statement on your website reads, in part: “I have accepted the responsibility of challenging the notion of a homogeneous all-white literary landscape in this region.” Do you find audiences receptive to this message, and what kinds of responses do you get from primarily white audiences at events?
Walker: Audiences have been accepting in general. I can’t say that the racial disparity has been an issue at all, once audience members recognize their own lives and family members in my work.
Chapter 16: Any comment on the recent announcement of W.S. Merwin as the next Poet Laureate of the United States?
Walker: Good choice. He’s earned it.
Chapter 16: This is the question we ask everyone. What are you reading?
Walker: A Question Of Freedom, a memoir by Reginald D. Betts.
Frank X Walker will read from and discuss his work as part of the Tennessee Young Writers’ Workshop on July 13 at 7 p.m. in the Gentry Auditorium on the campus of Austin Peay State University.