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April's Book
by Frank X Walker

KET’s Tim Bischoff, producer of bookclub@ket, conducted the following interview with Frank X Walker in April 2001.

Much of this poetry, as with much of the poetry that we have read on the bookclub@ket, is very, very personal. Can you talk a little bit about how poetry comes from very deep, how poetry is very personal?

Certainly. I think that, at least for me, and as a teaching artist, when I talk to young writers about a safe source to use, where to get material from, I think in concentric circles. I think that the writer, the artist, should be at the very center of that, and the things that you know the most about should be next to you. And as you go out in concentric circles, there is more information there that’s usable, particularly if you are interested in the emotional content. I think that a lot of my work is emotionally charged, and it’s important to me that I try to verbalize what that content is, what the emotional temperatures of each of those pieces are. I don’t think I can make that up. It needs to be familiar. It needs to come from some kind of personal position or reaction to whatever I’m feeling. So when I use family and personal experiences, it’s not that I’m not interested in anything else; it’s just that I think it has the potential to have more impact on the reader, and because of the universality of poetry, that even if it’s about my family’s divorce, everybody who has experienced divorce will still make a connection to it. I think that’s one of the early lessons I learned about having permission to write about personal stuff.

You also talk a lot about family. And one of the interesting themes of family that you use is about the next generation: the youth of today and how they are growing up and what are their influences. In several poems you talk about the idea of the hip-hop star versus an idea of education. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, I think all that’s a few circles out from a personal experience. When I was in high school, my public image in school was a jock. I played football and ran track and [played] basketball. I was a really good student, but the part of me that was an artist, that wrote poetry, that was in love with making visual art, that was almost a secret. Nobody, not even the school institution where I was, really respected the production of art or the investment in art for young people. If you scored a touchdown, you could end up on the front page in color. If you got straight A’s, the same kind of attention. But if you wrote a poem, you know, that was “nice.”

But I think I have been personally involved in trying to at least define for myself where the division happens with young people. There was a time when kids could be an athlete and an academic star, and now kids are self-selective and are being forced to be one or the other and not both. I think there are several pieces in the book that talk about what’s happening in today’s culture, particularly in a state that is basketball-crazy. The poem “Death by Basketball” really attempts to address that division and what happens when you just pursue the athletic. In my opinion, you experience a kind of intellectual death. And I don’t think we talk about the opportunity costs of being basketball-crazy. We don’t talk about trying to make whole children. And as a parent, I’m very interested in trying to produce kids that can survive as adults, who have some kind of balance in their lives and who aren’t penalized in the way that I felt like I was by not being allowed to be interested in the arts as much as they are interested in sports or other kinds of things. And I think that when it shows up in the work, it is very conscious. I think I am trying to make that point but not beat people over the head with it.

In another theme of family, you talk about fathers—not only your father but also being a father. How has that influenced your work?

Well, if I consider the fact that one of the reasons I probably started writing in the first place was because I didn’t have a therapist, I think a lot of what I write now will be the same thing I would tell to a professional if I was lying on the couch. There is something about having that journal and writing these issues out and thinking about them and trying to make the problems tangible and putting them on paper and then closing the book on them. There is something about that process that has become part of my personal health maintenance.

But the situation with my father is an extension of the situation with my family’s divorce. You know, there was a lot of pain there, and in a subtle way I would like the poems to be considered to have potential to provide healing—or at least create a dialogue, and the dialogue could provide some healing. And I think that’s what therapists do for their patients. If for no other reason than to get people to talk about certain things, I include a lot of social-justice issues in my work. There are things that deal with AIDS and homelessness and racism and other isms and all the things that are generally painful to talk about. I think if you can talk about it, you may talk your way into a solution. I don’t offer the poems up as individual solutions but as a bridge to have a conversation around finding a solution or discussing the problem enough to feel better about it when it’s over. I think that that’s really all I was trying to do by not being afraid to talk about difficult things.

I was criticized in a review when the book first came out. They said that the book was too political, that it took on too many social themes and didn’t offer any solutions. I don’t think poetry can solve world problems, but we can certainly point them out and underline them and draw people’s attention to them. Maybe that was unfair criticism—I don’t know—but that was not the intent in the first place.

I grew up in Kentucky, and often growing up in Kentucky you have a feeling of being ashamed of Kentucky. Kentucky gets a bad rap overall nationally sometimes. But you don’t write ashamed of Kentucky. You write, in many ways, very connected. I don’t know if shame is the right word, but you are very connected to Kentucky and point out and mention it many, many times.

Oh, absolutely. I am, in fact ... I can say easily that I am very proud to be a Kentucky product. And I’m proud to be a Kentucky artist and to help promote positive things—not just positive but the honest things about Kentucky—because I think that nationally, particularly in mass media, the images, the one-dimensional, shallow images about our state exist; and what they say about Kentucky suggests that the state is homogeneous, devoid of culture, and that there’s really not enough here of anything to come or to keep people from leaving. And I don’t believe any of that. I’ve experienced the exact opposite of that.

So one of the challenges I have when I leave the state is to deal with those stereotypes. People always express surprise, first of all, that there are black people from Kentucky. And once they get around to being comfortable enough to ask that question, it always makes me laugh that I know they have been thinking about it for ten minutes and they are leading up to that particular question. But part of my responsibility as an artist from Kentucky is to do battle with those stereotypes. And I think stereotypes are dangerous particularly when they are negative, and even more so when young people who have the potential to be anything are kind of limited because they believe those stereotypes and they repeat them themselves, and it comes to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. So when I have a chance to be in front of young people, I always like to talk about those images of Kentucky and encourage them to challenge them and ask them to think about what they’ve experienced and how other people see us and where those images come from: that we don’t have plumbing, that we all have tobacco fields and horses, and we don’t wear shoes and we can’t read books. We didn’t make that stuff up. So I think it’s part of our responsibility to offer a different image, to show that it’s a very diverse state, commonwealth: that Eastern Kentucky has a lot of riches and resources and there is a lot of art culture here that we can be proud of. So I celebrate Kentucky.

I think at least one poem, called “Kentucke,” deals with place, and there are several poems that deal more specifically with places inside Kentucky, like “Clifton I” and “Clifton II” that open and close the book. I think the whole issue of identity and place are probably equal themes next to social justice and family in my work, and those are very conscious decisions. I hope I never run out of things to say about those particular areas. Those are important to me as an artist and as a Kentuckian.

Would you read “Kentucke” for us?

I would love to.

OK. It’s in the back. I will let you find it—you probably know!

My son could tell you where I still have to use the table of contents ... 95. He wrote in the book. This poem is dedicated to James Still because one of my other favorite poems about Kentucky was written by Mr. Still, the dean of writing in the state. But his poem focused more on the landscape and how beautiful Kentucky is, and I wanted to write something that acknowledged that but really focused on the people and the icons and all the things that are stereotypically Kentucky, plus everything that in my opinion has been left out. So this is “Kentucke”:

once bloody ground
hunting Eden
for native tongues
apologetically eliminating buffalo
for sustenance
not sport or profit
or pleasure

un common wealth
with immigrants
and freedmen
who discovered black lung
was as indiscriminate
as calluses
& hunger

you remain north & south
interstate highways
your crucifix
blessing yourself with
64 and I-75

you have derbied
and dribbled yourself
a place in a world
that will not let you forget
co-Rupped basketball
your cash crop causes cancer
& the run for the roses
is only two minutes long

kin tucky
beautiful ugly
i too am of these hills
my folks
have corn rowed
laid track
strip mined
worshipped & whiskied
from Harlan to Maysville
old Dunbar to Central

our whitney youngs
and mae street kidds
cut their teeth
on bourbon balls
and though
conspicuously absent
from millionaires row
we have isaac murphied
our way
down the back stretch
cassius clayed
our names in cement
we are the amen
in church hill downs
the mint
in the julep
we put the heat
in the hotbrown
gave it color
some of the bluegrass
is black

That’s “Kentucke.”

Thank you.

Another theme that you touch upon on a lot of different levels is the theme of religion and faith. You explore in the poetry many traditions of faith. Can you talk about that a bit?

Well, again, I think ... I always say this collection is not autobiographical, but almost everything at least was born from a personal something. When you look at the themes that collectively are about religion, [there are] dozens of things that preface that, which include the fact that my mother was a Pentecostal minister for 22 years. There is no way you can experience that and not have it affect you forever. At the same time, my parents and family were originally Catholic and after the divorce became Baptists and Pentecostal. And then as I grew up and was exposed to people from all over the planet thanks to the University of Kentucky and some of my other friends and my mom moving to New Jersey, I had a chance to be really interested in world religions. At the same time I think that at least Frank as a spiritual being was always consistent and open and interested in everything that was happening all over the planet. And I think I am still, in a sense, exploring that particular area, but I enjoy writing about it.

I think there are a lot of things that different faith systems have in common that they don’t talk about, and I think if you are outside those traditions, they’re more obvious. And I’m more interested in the things that tie them together. I mean, I think somewhere in that connection is the truth. And as I get closer and closer, it’s important to me to write about. And I think there’s a whole section, even though they are not in chapters, that deals with religious themes. I know the one poem called “Amazin’ Grace”—I had a chance to read that in the men’s federal prison. I went in as part of a prison ministry program, with a choir, and the choir sang “Amazing Grace”: the first verse and the second verse, and then they hummed the third verse while I read the poem. And it was wonderful.

The only downside to that was it has been almost impossible to read since then, because I always ... I would rather have a choir do that, because it seems like that’s the way that’s supposed to be shared, and I didn’t know that until we experienced it in that particular setting. But you know, it’s important; it’s part of those concentric circles; you couldn’t take it out. And it is amazing how many people I meet that come up afterwards, and their experience after poetry reading is something akin to church—I mean the level of feeling and emotion that they connected with. They say they haven’t felt like that since they were in a church setting, and to me that’s a compliment. I think that means that somewhere in there I’m talking about some truths that other people can connect with regardless of where they come from or who, what they look like or what they believe in; that the truth is consistent, period.

We were talking about “Amazin’ Grace,” and I was going to ask you, particularly with that poem, how do you see poetry as similar to the preacher, the cadence of the preacher? Especially when poetry is read, it often can sound like a sermon or a great piece of oratory.

My mother always said that she was raising me to be a minister, since she was one. And then sometimes she jokes that she was still successful. She feels like that after she has heard certain pieces, particularly ones that have a religious tone. I think poetry is meant to be read aloud. I think that it’s hard to read a novel out loud and have people enjoy it because you can take slices of stuff and it’s a whole unit. People can come and go in a coffeehouse setting or sit through a whole reading of different people. There is something about that particular genre that really begs to be shared with other people. And I don’t think that is that much different from a really good sermon. I think some sermons are powerful, but not because of what was said, but because of the performance aspect of it. You hope it’s not people just wanting to be entertained on Sunday, but I think on Sunday when people feel like they have had a good sermon, what they are commenting on is the level of connection and the personal message they felt like they got from it—like “the preacher was talking to me today. I needed to hear that, and I feel better now.” It’s that emotional stuff that makes that work, and I think that when people make the connections or compare the, at least poetry’s potential to do that, I think they are trying to measure the same stuff.

I think that when you talk about cancer, for instance, and the pain connected with surviving that and the people that are going through it, and somebody else just needed to hear that because they were going through that, suddenly you have this catharsis and cry. I have seen people cry at readings because the reader said something that connected for them. They took them to that place they couldn’t get to by themselves. So I think that there is a natural connection there, but it has more to do with the emotional content of it and the potential it has to connect to people’s everyday existence.

One of the things that I have taken from my book as a compliment is the fact that there have been people who have said that they don’t buy books and they don’t read poetry—they don’t even like poetry—but somebody gave them the book, they read it, and they liked it. So I try to interpret that to mean that there was something comfortable and everyday about what they read that made it accessible to them. And I know that the language is simple by design. The themes are things that happen to real people.

I think that poetry gets a bad rap mostly because when people connect it to academia, they think it’s going to be this mysterious, rhythmic thing that they won’t understand. There is this intellectual difference that comes up as soon as people know it’s poetry, and they go, “Oh, OK, I’m not going to like this; I’m not going to understand it.” And then when they do [read it], they think, “Wow, I enjoyed that.” Sometimes they are surprised, and, hopefully, they will pick up another book and find out that it is also poetry. But I think that is a legitimate feeling that people have when they make the connection to the work. And it doesn’t happen with everybody’s work. There have been readings that I just wanted to walk out of because it wasn’t making a personal connection for me, but I think I want that. A lot of people want that personal connection, too.

Speaking of readings and “Amazin’ Grace” ... You don’t have a choir [laughs], but ...

If you sing, then we could pull this off.

No, I don’t know about that.

You know, I’ve been tempted to try to do this poem by first singing the song, but I ... My mother always said that that was the one thing that kept me from being arrogant—the fact that my voice is so bad [laughs]. So she said, “Now please never sing in public; don’t even pretend to sing.” So I won’t. But I think that the thing about “Amazin’ Grace” is that I have been asked where inspiration comes from. Sometimes just watching TV at three o’clock in the morning. I watch a lot of the Learning Channel specials, and I was up watching TV one night and this special came on about “Amazing Grace” and the story behind “Amazing Grace.” I think a lot of people assume that “Amazing Grace” is just one of the songs in the body of Negro spirituals, and it’s not. When I found out, I was kind of taken by surprise. And it was just a story I wanted to share with other people; there was so much there. So I will read “Amazin’ Grace”:

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see ...

It isn’t negro
but it is spiritual
it do speak to the power
of redemption
to power period
converting lost
to found creating sight
where there was none
but what sound could be
so powerfully sweet
sweet enough
to turn a wretched
slave-ship captain
into england’s most outspoken
abolitionist and songwriter

was it the splash of bodies
dragged kicking and screaming
jettisoned off decks
of ocean coral
was it the crack of the whip
or the popping sound bloody flesh makes
when a sizzling branding iron
breaks the skin

the sound of fear and confusion
below deck
muffled by the sound of rape up above

the sound of 609 beating hearts
sardined into a space for 300

amazing is to be lost and blind
and still the captain
a willing participant
in crimes against humanity

but what was that sound
that liberating release
granting pardons
for penitence undone?
what does forgiveness sound like?

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come ...

now every time you hear amazing grace
listen for john newton’s apology
his silent sobs seeking salvation
listen and hear
what healing sounds like

’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home

That’s “Amazin’ Grace.”

Thank you. Thank you, Frank X Walker, for talking to us today.

Thank you. Wish I’d had a choir with me today.

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