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Frank X Walker Looks Forward to Being Kentucky's Youngest Poet Laureate

Video by UK Public Relations and Marketing
By Sarah Geegan

Frank X Walker first discovered that he had been named Kentucky's poet laureate through the most appropriate medium, the written word. He received a letter from Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear informing him of the honor as he left home to teach an English class.

"I was walking back into the house, opening the mail, and trying to put stuff down and pick up my books and walk out again, and I kept walking around in circles because I kept thinking, 'this didn't just happen, this says I'm the poet laureate, wow.' And I was almost late to class because I just couldn't get my bearings straight," Walker said.

Walker, now the fourth professor from the UK English Department to earn this accolade, is also the youngest, as well as the first African American.

As poet laureate, he will promote the arts and lead the state in literary endeavors through readings and public presentations at meetings, seminars, conferences and events, including Kentucky Writers’ Day. He will be formally inducted at a public ceremony and reception, in conjunction with Kentucky Writers’ Day, on April 24, 2013, in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort.

The Danville native said that his Kentucky roots have integrally shaped his perspective as a writer and teacher.

"One of the things I know, having lived in other states than Kentucky, is that it means something to be a Kentucky writer," Walker said. "And living in Lexington, there's a true sense of community among the literary artists and writers; you can feel it. You can feel it in the audiences, you can feel it in the conversation about anything happening that's connected to literature, to writing, to books, and when we celebrate something, we do it in a very broad way."

Having been to several poet laureate induction ceremonies before, Walker had in the past imagined what it would be like to be on the other side of the podium and saying thank you. Now that he'll have his chance, he has begun to brainstorm how he can engage with the community and strengthen connections with the Commonwealth's rich literary tradition.  

"The most exciting thing I've considered so far is to take my love for biking and to try to map out a trail that would allow me to ride a bike from William Wells Brown Elementary, (William Wells Brown was the first African-American novelist in the United States), southwest to Robert Penn Warren's house in Guthrie, Kentucky. That's about 207 miles by car, so who knows what it would be by the back roads. Or maybe over from the Wild Fig, which is named after a Gayl Jones reference in some of her novels (she's a Lexingtonian novelist) all the way to Hindman, Ky., to James Still's cabin."

Walker described this kind of activity as very "Frank"— something that ties into his passion of bringing more attention to prominent African-American writers in Appalachia, both past and present.

"I think that, if done right, we could do it in the name of raising money for literacy, drawing attention to this kind of chasm that exists between who is recognized as an African-American writer, a Kentucky writer, an established writer. And oftentimes in Kentucky, when you hear that litany of great names, the William Wells Browns and the George C. Wolfes, and the Effie Waller Smiths and the Gayl Joneses are left off the lists. And I think this is a chance for me to bring that list together and to make it a lot fuller and more fairly representing of the state, and who has written and who still writes here."

Having spent several decades leading a literary movement that encompasses the idea of Affrilachia, giving voice to previously muted and silenced voices of African-American writers in Appalachia, Walker will bring this passion into his new position as poet laureate. He will also bring his passion for teaching.

"Some people say that you teach if you can't do, but I think of myself as a teaching artist," Walker said. "I think that teaching is important because the people who shaped my life outside of my household were teachers and coaches. I'm proud of the fact that when people think of me, they use teacher and writer in the same breath. And that's my goal in the world. I want to be a master teacher, and it would be nice to publish a few hundred books too."

Walker said he looks forward to what will be a whirlwind of two years.

"It means a lot. I'm really proud, I'm excited, and I really want to do some special things to make it significant," Walker said.

Frank X Walker is associate professor in the Department of English and director of the African American and Africana Studies program in the UK College of Arts and Sciences.

The Kentucky poet laureate nomination and selection process is coordinated and administered by the Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency. An independent panel reviews the nominations and submits its recommendation to the Governor for appointment.