Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Welcomes Silence
Poet Frank X. Walker ends a business call at the dinner table where he does much of his work in Lexington, Kentucky, April 17, 2013. Walker was recently named Kentucky poet laureate. (Pablo Alcala/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)
Lexington, Ky. — Writer Frank X Walker is driving to Alabama with a trunk full of books.
The eight-hour trip is not out of the ordinary for Walker, who is promoting his latest collection of poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.
Another job that will take him on the road started last week: He was installed as the 2013-14 Kentucky poet laureate, the first black writer and the youngest person to hold the post. Walker, 51, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky department of English, welcomes the solace of the open road. Whether driving or biking, one of his pastimes, the long stretches of silence are conducive to his creative process. When Walker’s poetic subject was a slave’s role in the epic expansion of the American West, he and his son spent summers driving across the country, following the trail of early 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Walker was working on Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, his 2003 collection of poems written in the voice of Clark’s personal slave, York, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their historic journey.
“We made all of the stops at those historical sites,” Walker said of the trip out West. “Once I was in that space where the expedition happened, I realized I had left out a main character, and that was the landscape.” Walker included the landscape in the poems and added a map that was a more accurate representation of York’s journey, which began in Louisville.
“And now York, finally, has a voice,” acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni wrote of Buffalo Dance.
Giving a voice to the voiceless, or to those whom established history has largely overlooked, is a major component of Walker’s artistic work. Turn Me Loose gets its name from the last words reportedly spoken by Evers, a black civil rights activist who worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi. He was assassinated by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith on June 12, 1963. At his first two trials, in 1964, all-white, all-male juries failed to reach verdicts. In 1994 that De La Beckwith was convicted of murder for killing Evers; he died in prison in 2001.
The book is unique because, except for the title and an epigraph, readers never hear the voice of Evers. Walker instead paints Evers as a ghostlike figure haunting the pages and the lives of those around him, including his wife, Myrlie, and his brother Charles, a theme punctuated by the book’s subtitle, The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.
“Even though he doesn’t speak, he’s very present,” Walker said.
Turn Me Loose also includes poems written in the voice of De La Beckwith and his two wives.
Walker is not the first artist to focus on Evers. Musicians Bob Dylan and Nina Simone wrote songs about the injustices of the era, and the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, based on a book by Maryanne Vollers, centered on De La Beckwith’s eventual conviction. But Walker is the first writer to devote a full collection of poems to Evers’ life and legacy.
“I would like to think that I don’t consciously choose my subjects,” he said. “I like to think that they choose me or something happens that makes it seem like an obvious choice, and in the case of Medgar Evers, it was actually a poem by Lucille Clifton.”
The poem by the acclaimed poet, herself a poet laureate of Maryland, talks about how De La Beckwith would have the opportunity to become an old man, but Evers, dead at 37, would not. “There was something about that poem that stuck with me,” Walker said. “A week later I was still wondering about it and trying to dig deeper into it.”
Soon Walker realized he was fully immersed in research, and “It was too late to turn back.”