by Frank X Walker
KETs 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 thats usable, particularly if you are interested in the emotional content. I think that a lot of my work is emotionally charged, and its important to me that I try to verbalize what that content is, what the emotional temperatures of each of those pieces are. I dont 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 Im feeling. So when I use family and personal experiences, its not that Im not interested in anything else; its 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 its about my familys divorce, everybody who has experienced divorce will still make a connection to it. I think thats 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 thats 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 As, 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 whats happening in todays 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 dont think we talk about the opportunity costs of being basketball-crazy. We dont talk about trying to make whole children. And as a parent, Im very interested in trying to produce kids that can survive as adults, who have some kind of balance in their lives and who arent 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 fathersnot 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 didnt 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 familys 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 healingor at least create a dialogue, and the dialogue could provide some healing. And I think thats 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 dont 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 its over. I think that thats 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 didnt offer any solutions. I dont think poetry can solve world problems, but we can certainly point them out and underline them and draw peoples attention to them. Maybe that was unfair criticismI dont knowbut 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 dont write ashamed of Kentucky. You write, in many ways, very connected. I dont 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 Im proud to be a Kentucky artist and to help promote positive thingsnot just positive but the honest things about Kentuckybecause 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 theres really not enough here of anything to come or to keep people from leaving. And I dont believe any of that. Ive 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 theyve experienced and how other people see us and where those images come from: that we dont have plumbing, that we all have tobacco fields and horses, and we dont wear shoes and we cant read books. We didnt make that stuff up. So I think its part of our responsibility to offer a different image, to show that its 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. Its in the back. I will let you find ityou 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
for native tongues
apologetically eliminating buffalo
not sport or profit
un common wealth
who discovered black lung
was as indiscriminate
you remain north & south
blessing yourself with
64 and I-75
you have derbied
and dribbled yourself
a place in a world
that will not let you forget
your cash crop causes cancer
& the run for the roses
is only two minutes long
i too am of these hills
have corn rowed
worshipped & whiskied
from Harlan to Maysville
old Dunbar to Central
our whitney youngs
and mae street kidds
cut their teeth
on bourbon balls
from millionaires row
we have isaac murphied
down the back stretch
our names in cement
we are the amen
in church hill downs
in the julep
we put the heat
in the hotbrown
gave it color
some of the bluegrass
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 dont talk about, and I think if you are outside those traditions, theyre more obvious. And Im 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, its important to me to write about. And I think theres a whole section, even though they are not in chapters, that deals with religious themes. I know the one poem called Amazin GraceI had a chance to read that in the mens 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 thats the way thats supposed to be shared, and I didnt know that until we experienced it in that particular setting. But you know, its important; its part of those concentric circles; you couldnt 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 churchI mean the level of feeling and emotion that they connected with. They say they havent felt like that since they were in a church setting, and to me thats a compliment. I think that means that somewhere in there Im 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 its hard to read a novel out loud and have people enjoy it because you can take slices of stuff and its 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 dont 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 its 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 itlike the preacher was talking to me today. I needed to hear that, and I feel better now. Its that emotional stuff that makes that work, and I think that when people make the connections or compare the, at least poetrys 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 couldnt 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 peoples 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 dont buy books and they dont read poetrythey dont even like poetrybut 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 its going to be this mysterious, rhythmic thing that they wont understand. There is this intellectual difference that comes up as soon as people know its poetry, and they go, Oh, OK, Im not going to like this; Im 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 doesnt happen with everybodys work. There have been readings that I just wanted to walk out of because it wasnt 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 dont have a choir [laughs], but ...
If you sing, then we could pull this off.
No, I dont know about that.
You know, Ive 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 arrogantthe fact that my voice is so bad [laughs]. So she said, Now please never sing in public; dont even pretend to sing. So I wont. 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 oclock 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 its 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 isnt negro
but it is spiritual
it do speak to the power
to power period
to found creating sight
where there was none
but what sound could be
so powerfully sweet
to turn a wretched
into englands 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
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
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 newtons 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
Thats Amazin Grace.
Thank you. Thank you, Frank X Walker, for talking to us today.
Thank you. Wish Id had a choir with me today.