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April's Book
Affrilachia
by Frank X Walker
Bill:
Poet Frank X Walker has reached far down in his soul and pulled at the very roots of his being in his collection of poems entitled Affrilachia. Drawing from a lifetime of deep feelings of family, of things funny and sad, Walker shares his poem-stories in a deeply personal and honest gathering of words. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
And I noticed all of you recognized our new surroundings: our remodeled and spruced-up coffee shop and new table and all of that.

Lynda:
It’s nice.

Bill:
Isn’t it nice? I’m often asked what’s next or what’s coming up and that sort of thing, and I think with Frank X Walker’s work, it’s going to be a real surprise to people—and a pleasant surprise, don’t you think?

Wilma:
You mean the book itself?

Bill:
The book itself.

Wilma:
Uh ...

Bill:
The poetry.

Wilma:
Yeah, the poetry. I mean, that’s what I meant. You know, it will be a surprise, except that he has gotten a great deal of positive press. And I admire him a great deal, not only for his poetry—I think it’s just excellent—but also he has started a movement. I mean, he has pulled together a great number of really good authors in Central Kentucky, and I guess all of Kentucky, and he’s coined the word “Affrilachia,” and I really admire him for that. So I think if it’s a surprise, people haven’t been reading the newspaper, and they haven’t been aware of what’s been going on in writing in Kentucky.

Bill:
He has gotten a lot of press. The book has been out a couple of years, I guess ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... and there have been readings. The University of Kentucky has put it on stage, which I think would be a marvelous presentation of some of the work. And I guess ... What do you call someone who coins or invents; what’s the proper term from a linguist’s standpoint? This is his word, I understand.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
It hasn’t been used before. And does it relate to the, to the poem by the same title in the book? Do you see some of that there? Or is it in other poems, Affrilachia?

Wilma:
Well, certainly I like to look at the overall organization of a book, especially poetry and short stories. This does definitely have an organization from the first poem, which has to do with Frank X Walker and his father and how they were estranged for so many years, and then came back together. Then it moves him in a kind of a progression of his own life and the times. It moves him into a time of the civil rights movement. And he’s not saying this chronologically, but you see the anger, from his standpoint, having to do with the civil rights movement. And then he goes into something broader when, I think, he has traveled and maybe grown and had children of his own, and the poetry has a broader sense of life. And then, of course, he brings it all back to the idea of Affrilachia: that he’s not just black but he also is Kentucky. He brings it back home that way and then rounds it out by visiting the homeplace again as an adult. So I thought this was an excellent way to set up a book.

Gabrielle:
Not only has he tackled historical issues but African-American traditional families. And the poetry was almost like mini-stories for me. They leapt off the page, and I could really visualize a lot of the stuff that I was reading.

Dava:
Yeah, his poetry is both a reflection and a concern. I mean, you can, you can see his life through many of the poems, but then you also see what’s on his mind, what things concern him, how it upsets him to think about the state of youth today in America—just society as ... [the] passivity that society has come under. Nobody is proactive, and that’s a problem. So you really sense what a strong character Frank X Walker has. I mean, he’s a mammoth person, you know.

Bill:
Lynda, what about some of the other themes that you discovered?

Lynda:
I’m still wrestling with the idea that this is a surprise. Frankly, I am still mulling that over. Frank has been so active in the African-American communities in Louisville and Lexington and across the state and between, and there are so many facets to his personality. So it doesn’t surprise me that he’s a poet extraordinaire. He does everything so well. But within this book, within this fairly slim book, there is such a range of feeling. There are sweet poems; there are warm, loving poems; there are angry, raging poems; and there’s at least one poem that’s sexy and evocative. So that’s the big surprise to me: that within this fairly slim work he covers so many bases and gets a whole range of emotions.

Bill:
In an effort to explain myself ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
No, I truly meant that it is a surprise to people, maybe outside of a geographic area, that don’t know his work. Of course, he has been a teacher, and he has been an activist, and he is now working with the Governor’s School for the Arts and all of those things. A surprise to people who might learn of the book through the bookclub@ket—another Kentucky author poet that we are reading—and be delighted by what, what they find. But I do agree that it does cover that full range of emotions and goes through all of that.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the title. Let’s talk about the cover of the book, too. If you picked up the cover, there is a red hand there.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
What does that mean to you? Of course, there is a poem entitled “Red-Handed.”

Lynda:
Yeah, I was delighted to come across that poem ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
... because it explains the picture so well. And when I first read the book, I kept flipping back and forth between the front and the back to see now who’s on the cover. And Frank is in this picture somewhere. And then to read the poem—it’s just adorable. It’s really cute.

Bill:
Do you think that it’s sort of his way of expressing himself as sort of withdrawn at childhood, shy? He’s not in the picture, but the red hand is a way of putting himself out there ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... as he grows and ...

Wilma:
Lynda, I’m sure, knows him well. I hardly know him at all. You know, I’m name-dropping. I saw him read poetry once, and I went up and shook his hand afterwards.

Bill:
I’ve done the same thing.

Wilma:
He was such a nice quiet, gentle person and such a, such a gentleman, and such an interesting person. Then you read some of the anger in the poems, and you think, whew, there is something hiding there. But I did like the “Red-Handed” poem myself, because it did talk about his ... Well, I am going to read it.

Lynda:
Are you? Well, let me.

Wilma:
Go ahead. You go ahead with whatever.

Lynda:
You read it; you read it. But before you read, I just want to say that I loved the way he gives the hands almost a separate life.

Dava:
Exactly.

Lynda:
I thought that was so ... Go ahead; go ahead.

Wilma:
No, you.

[Everyone talks at once]

Wilma:
It’s “Red-Handed,” and I even like the idea of red-handed—you know, “is caught red-handed.”

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
There is a red hand.

Lynda:
He plays on words so well.

Wilma:
Oh he does, doesn’t he?

[reads]

“Red-Handed

even then
when I was knee high
to monochromatic parents
these hands were too big and loud
for small quiet me
they jutted out
from my mamma’s skirt
demanding attention
pretending to be my eyes
trying to be my smile
they were solar powered
with curiosity
they could smell
and taste
and hear
they were my antennae
my personal digital
communications system
miniature satellite dishes

they swallowed books
whole
wrestled with pencils and crayons
danced in the air like kites
with answers
before teachers could finish the questions

they set fire
to my sister’s hair
were deathly afraid
of soap and water
they recreated
science lab experiments
at home on the kitchen table
collected fossils, comics, moon rocks
junebugs and mexican jumping beans
they pointed out
shooting stars
and constellations
removed my glasses
after I fell asleep reading
and prayed for me at night

they grabbed those diplomas
and a map
and set off to see the world
fell in love
with the caribbean
reached out and touched
niagara falls and
never forgot the way back home
to danville

these hands aspire to be as
strong and comforting
as granddaddy’s
when we grow up

they have always been
too big and loud
and now they’ve taken to
writing poems
and twisting my arm
to read them
aloud”

I like that.

[Everyone laughs]

Gabrielle:
That’s so good.

Wilma:
It’s really neat. So don’t you think that shows his inner person? That through the poetry he’s somehow been catapulted into a more public life than he ever thought he could be?

Bill:
And I think there’s a bit of growth there, too, from childhood—from being curious, from wanting to learn and grow into adulthood. So it’s sort of a growth poem.

Lynda:
And also the feeling that sometimes your hands are doing things that you can’t quite explain, or you wake up in the morning and your glasses are off your eyes, and [laughs] your hands did it sometime during the night. I just like the thought that within, you have almost a separate operating system.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
And folks, know that there is not a lot of rehearsal in our bookclub@ket program that we do, and at least three of us ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
... have chosen “Red-Handed” and marked it up and written little things, which maybe we are not supposed to do in our books.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
But if “Red-Handed” sort of demonstrates a lighter side, let’s go to maybe the darker side of Frank X Walker in his writing. You mentioned some of the emotions of anger and going through a lifetime of these emotions that I think are really brought up from deep, deep inside of Mr. Walker and how he did that. Does anybody have an example of one of those or want to talk about some of that? I think he mentioned divorce.

Lynda:
Well, I’ll read one while you guys are looking up other ones.

Bill:
Yeah.

Lynda:
What I liked so much about these poems is that they come from all of his experiences, the mundane to the deeply affected. In this one, “Taking the Stairs”—again a play on words, as you find out later, but it comes from his experience, his early years in poverty and now in his relative wealth and in his career and his professional life and how he reconciles that change within himself with the stares he gets when he walks within the African-American community. And I’ll just read the very last part. It says:

“today
my office is on the top floor
but I avoid the elevator
that welcome pain in my calves
and the fire in my lungs
has become the bass line
and the melody
for the jazz prayer
I speak between the stares
I am praying for strength
for strength to always be black and blessed
black and blessed
... but never ever poor
again”

And what I didn’t read is the section that says:

“then a brother I pass on the street
yells
‘sold out Uncle Tom ass nigga’
at me
with a sneer
with his eyes
as he recognizes
his distaste for my image
and spits it out on the concrete
towards a bottomless
metal grate”

And that feeling of having to explain yourself but not having time. You can’t. So to live with that ...

Bill:
On the bottom of page 43, in “Taking the Stairs”—and once again, Lynda, that’s also one of the poems that I chose:

“the enemy would never
see me coming”

What did that mean to you?

Lynda:
It means that he is so integrated into the corporate structure, he blends in now—at least he has the accoutrements of that world—that he could pass invisibly within that.

Bill:
He’s sort of assimilated with today’s culture and today’s business world. I looked at that one and read it almost as a self-portrait to a degree. Although I think he says that these poems are not supposed to be autobiographical, when you draw from so much personal, they do become somewhat like that. So I think this is sort of again, in a different way, a growth poem, but it’s a self-portrait of becoming successful and having to deal with that success.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
What are some of the others, Dava?

Dava:
Well, there seem to be at least three poems where he talks about the issues that young people have to deal with today, especially young African Americans growing up in what I guess could be termed as projects now. “Death by Basketball” is one of them.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
You know, we even have the movie Hoop Dreams all about it—people’s real talent being robbed away by this pipe dream. And then we also have “Little Kings,” where he talks about, what if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been the Dr. King we know, hadn’t been an activist, hadn’t been an activist for change in a peaceful way, but what if he’d just been like the gangsta rappers today?

Bill:
He is really saying that—and that’s an amazing thought in itself ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... that Dr. King probably was never thought of in that light before, and he brings it to the attention of the reader in a real explosive way.

Lynda:
Well, it also grabbed me.

Bill:
Thought-provoking.

Lynda:
As I tell my children, turn that stuff off! [laughs], I know that there are messages within some of those songs that can be as much of a call to arms for them as Dr. King’s messages were for me at the time I heard them.

Bill:
Hmmm ...

Lynda:
So it reminded me not to categorically look at rap music in a ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
... you know ...

Bill:
Not to, not to automatically be critical of it and dismiss it, but to try to ...

Lynda:
Well ...

Bill:
... try to understand it, maybe.

Lynda:
Well, yeah. I know there are messages within rap music.

Bill:
Sure.

Lynda:
I know there are!

Bill:
Yeah. Dava, you said three poems—what was the third?

Dava:
The third one was “Violins or Violen...ce.”

Bill:
That’s one I had, yeah.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
In some ways that’s one of the best poems in the book.

Dava:
Right.

Lynda:
Why do you say that?

Wilma:
I don’t know ... Because it brought together so much having to do with, do we teach our young people violins or violence—that type of thing—and it was one of the longer poems in the book, and I thought it was very, very good. It had a great deal in it.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
I didn’t necessarily mark it as my favorite. I just thought it spoke to the young people and how we can structure their lives by what we ...

Lynda:
There are so many cultural references ...

Wilma:
Yes, I think that was part of it.

Lynda:
... references within the ...

Wilma:
Yes, there were so many. I mean, he mentioned so many people, and I thought that was so good.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Dava:
I mean, he really emphasizes that we can all be solutions. They keep using the word solutions.

Wilma:
Right, and I marked the ending of that ...

Dava:
Right.

Wilma:
... because I thought that was particularly good. We were talking about the anger in his poetry.

Bill:
You may read.

Wilma:
Thank you.

[Everyone talks at once]

Wilma:
We were talking about the anger, and it’s always amazed me. I mean, I grew up angry, and I’m white, so [laughs] I can’t imagine if I’d been black. I would have been like that Mother Margaret he talked about who was angry at everybody all the time. But I always—and he’s younger than I am, but he certainly was growing up right at the time of the civil rights movement—and so it’s always interested me how there was so much discrimination against black people and how many things they couldn’t do, and I don’t know how I would be able to grow up without being angry. And I like the poem “Cease Fire.” I don’t know how autobiographical it is, and it doesn’t matter, but in it he says:

[reads]

“Cease Fire

there were no mirrors
at our house
browns stared into greens
kinky pondered straight
burnt brass fingers fondled
locks of gold

they say people
fall in love
with their own reflections
that daughters
look for someone
like their fathers
but my yoruba-faced sisters
all married white boys
my brothers and nephews
do not discriminate
collecting ebony and ivory
prom pictures
like trophies
believing all of the words
to the preamble
consecrating their mtv choices
with white chocolate babies
with hair
their mothers
can’t comb
birthing human treaties
in a domestic race war
and I am caught in the middle
at the peace conference
bullet holes in my memories
bayonet around my neck
negotiating cease fires
with families
whose maiden names
are
enemy”

And I just thought, ooh, that’s, you know, that was really good, because it does show the anger in a changing world from someone who hasn’t forgotten how it’s like to be in the past.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
I think one of my favorites was “Kentucke.”

Dava:
Oh, yeah.

Gabrielle:
And I’m not from Kentucky, so ...

[Someone laughs]

Gabrielle:
... to see this perspective ... And I relate to it, but I think that last part of it on page 97 ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
... where he talks about:

[reads]

“we are the amen
in church hill downs
the mint
in the julep
we put the heat
in the hotbrown
and
gave it color
indeed
some of the bluegrass
is black”

I just loved the rhythm of the poem. It’s jazzy, and the words really come to life for me.

Bill:
Well, I think that is an excellent ...

Wilma:
One of the best.

Bill:
... portrayal. I think it is, too. And some of the poems are dedicated to, I’m sure, mentors, heroes of Frank X Walker’s. This one to James Still—who I know he has a great deal of respect for and thinks that Mr. Still is one of our great Kentucky writers—

Wilma:
Some of the images in “Kentucke” ... I loved this. I had never heard anybody say this, but we all know it:

[reads]

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

I mean, which is actually so true. And then he plays on words: “you co-Rupped basketball.”

Lynda:
Yeah.

Bill:
Adolph Rupp—R-u-p-p-e-d.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
Co-Rupped basketball.

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:

[reads]

“your cash crop causes cancer
& the run for the roses
is only two minutes long”

Wilma:
Two minutes long.

Lynda:
Well, that’s everything we believe in.

[Everyone agrees]

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
But there is reference to that, and of course there are some references to Harlan and Maysville and old Dunbar, to Central; so in that one poem, there is so much feeling, and he does a good job there. But back to ... did you have something else on that one?

Wilma:
No, that’s OK.

Bill:
I was just going to say, back to “Violins or Violen...ce”: That is probably one of the more sorrowful or sad poems, I think, in the book. Is that something where he is looking at youth—or at African-American culture today—and not just feeling sorry for the state, but trying to advise and to guide them in a way that might bring them up to where he thinks they want to be? That’s page 37, by the way.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
If we want to switch back to that very quickly ...

Dava:
I think he sees so much potential there that ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Dava:
... that the people themselves just don’t even realize how much they could do. You know, they don’t credit themselves with all the talents they have and instead [adopt] this living for the day.

Lynda:
It’s almost as if we have, as African Americans ... It’s a lament to the fact that so often we buy into contemporary culture or become, become part of the culture that at the same time is putting us down or limiting our own achievements, and it’s the fact that we can’t see past that. And I don’t want to use this term, but I don’t see anything else—but the “false consciousness,” I suppose, that we accept, and it is sad.

Bill:
It is sad. And is it not a cry from the poet to say, especially to youth, “We can do better than this.”

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
And Dava, you started to mention something else in another poem. Did you have one?

Dava:
No, really this was my favorite also. It just says a whole lot in just—what, six pages or something.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
It’s just wonderful. And everything is so true.

Bill:
I think there are aspects of that too, Gabrielle, in “Neapolitan.” Do you remember that one? Did anybody have that one marked? That’s page 27. I think that, to me, is one which shows maybe a little bit more hopefulness. Again, I think he does such a good job of couching the terminology—and Lynda is smiling now ...

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
... of sort of bringing people into this, if you will. But saying that “I’ve done some work here in this life, and you can, too.” Is that what it says to you?

Gabrielle:
And it also is a way to share with our younger generation as far as some of the challenges. When I shared this with some of the children that I work with and they read it, they completely related to this and could pick it up. So I found he’s found a way to immediately connect with them. And yet there is a a message within.

Lynda:
You can tell that he works with young people, can’t you?

Gabrielle:
Yes, yes. They love the poetry, and ...

Lynda:
He stays connected.

Gabrielle:
... that is a way to give it.

Lynda:
Yeah.

Bill:
Isn’t that marvelous?

Lynda:
It is a rare and beautiful thing.

Bill:
It is. I don’t want to make too much of even saying it’s a miracle, but can you imagine someone who’s not been well read or not read a lot of poetry in this state of ours ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... be you black or white ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... and to read something like this and be touched by it and understand it immediately.

Gabrielle:
Right.

[Everyone agrees]

Lynda:
Well, this poem strikes me as, again, a comment on contemporary culture and how quickly everything changes and moves, and how one minute, you know, something is in, and the next minute it’s out again.

Wilma:
Because the ending ... I like the ending.

Lynda:
[laughs] Yeah. And it says we will be brand-new before I finish this poem.

Bill:
Well, I think, too, that in that he points out that there are so many marvelous things that are going on in life today, and I think he is saying to young people, “Get involved in this.” But at the same time he’s pointing out that already these things are going on:

[reads]

“challenging
universal laws
quantifying spontaneity
changing matter
bending light
illustrating perpetual motion
and thought
and action
damn!
reinvent the will
and you’ll be jockin’
solar-powered
stained glass pyramids”

I mean, I think he is saying that you can be a great architect or ...

Lynda:
Right.

Bill:
... or you can be building or a great ...

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
... musician—and you said the young people are picking up on that.

Gabrielle:
Yeah. And it’s funny: We both interpreted it, or both got different types of messages from the same poem.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Gabrielle:
Bill may have focused in on one area, and I’m reading it in another perspective.

Bill:
Uh huh. Very good.

Wilma:
We haven’t talked too much about his poetry itself, and it’s really very, very good. I’ve never tried to write poetry, but to know the cadence—to know how to move the poem along and then to just halt you in your tracks when reading it ... There are so many times that he uses one-syllable words one after another to slow you down and make you think about the thought.

Lynda:
Breaks a word, breaks a word ...

Wilma:
Or breaks a word into ...

Lynda:
... into syllables so that you can ...

Wilma:
... so that you have to say it that way.

Lynda:
Right, and you savor each syllable and get the meaning or the twist in the meaning that he is trying to convey.

Wilma:
And every poem has a payoff. You know, the ending of every poem in here is like, “Whoa, I hadn’t thought about that!”

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
Or you know ... So it’s very, very well done. And he does, as all good poetry does, evoke sorrow and anger and joy and beauty.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
So it has a great deal in here.

Lynda:
I wanted to just read a quick piece from “Affrilachia,” the title of the book, [about] how African Americans from Eastern Kentucky have something in common with white Americans from Eastern Kentucky. And this is a quick passage:

[reads]

“a mutual appreciation
for fresh greens
and cornbread
an almost heroic notion
of family
and porches
makes us kinfolk
somehow
but having never ridden
bareback
or sidesaddle
and being inexperienced
at cutting
hanging
or chewing tobacco
yet still feeling
complete and proud to say
that some of the bluegrass
is black”

Narrator:
bookclub@ket
is always online at ket.org. Listen to interviews with the authors and learn more from in-depth articles about this book and every bookclub selection. You can join the club anytime; the address is ket.org.

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