While some people found the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic disorienting and unproductive, University of Kentucky English Professor and former state Poet Laureate Frank X Walker found himself enjoying some newfound mental space to immerse himself in work.
“All that extra time that I saved not driving kids to school, not going out shopping, not going out for entertainment, suddenly I had six extra hours in a day,” he says. “Using that to be creative was such a gift for me.”
In the months that followed, Walker completed “Masked Man Black,” a new volume of poetry about life during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. He updated his acclaimed 2004 collection “Buffalo Dance” about the Lewis and Clark expedition as experienced by York, who was enslaved to Clark. He also used the time to complete two firsts for him: his first novel and his first children’s book.
“A is for Affrilachia” is an alphabetical review of important people, places, and events of the African American experience. Affrilachia is word Walker has used for 30 years to describe individuals of color who hail from the Appalachian Mountains.
“When a lot of people think about the region, they don’t see it in color,” he says. “I’m always trying to force that redefinition of the entire region, all 13 states from northern New York to Mississippi.”
Although marketed for children, “A is for Affrilachia” is for anyone who wants to learn more about the rich and varied history of Black individuals who are connected to the region. The book is lavishly illustrated by Ronald Davis, a Lexington artist who goes by the pseudonym upfromsumdirt. (Davis is also the partner of Crystal Wilkinson, another Affrilachian poet and former poet laureate for the commonwealth.)
“When I see his images, I think how brilliant they are, how easily and quickly they communicate,” says Walker. “It’s almost like they take a shortcut to your brain somehow and are communicating at another level.”
Along with the illustrations, Walker says each page reveals important stories about diversity, the challenges faced by communities of color, and those who have tried to overcome them. He says the uglier parts of history shouldn’t be hidden, but rather serve to foster important conversations.
“What I hope people get from this is the beauty and power of the images,” he says. “Even if you can’t read, I hope you can flip from page to page and feel like there’s food there for you.”
Walker admits part of his inspiration to create a children’s book was to have something to be able to read to his four-year-old son. The child was impressed to see his father’s name on the cover of the book, but Walker says he’s still more interested in playing with toy trucks than in reading.
“I’m trying to give him room to express himself,” he says, “and I hope that the truck thing is just a phase, that he’ll say, ‘You know what, I’ve had enough trucks. Let me write some poetry.’”
Writing Poetry Versus Fiction
Walker says his yet-to-be-published novel explores the relationship between a father and son who are both writers, but who came to the craft from different angles: one from academia, one from serving in prison. He says the two men don’t actually meet until the son is 20 years old.
“They argue about words and build a relationship,” says Walker, “and hopefully make it out the other side as two men who are more like brothers than father and son by the end of the story.”
Verse comes easily to Walker, who says he can craft a poem in the time it takes to drive between Lexington and Louisville, and with a few revisions have it ready for publication.
“There’s something about travel and moving that really is meditative and helps bring the words down for me,” he says. “So when I’m driving, I do a lot of good work.”
But he says novel-writing takes much more time and a different kind of focus.
“For fiction, I need four or five hours uninterrupted,” Walker says. “I actually have to move emotionally and intellectually into that space and live there to understand those characters and the setting in such a way that when I write about it, it feels very organic and natural.”
That’s where the pandemic comes in. He says without the shutdowns and sheltering at home, he would’ve never finished the story.
“I started [the novel] almost 10 years ago,” says Walker. “Had there not been that interruption in the world, it would still be a work in progress.”
A Lifelong Love of Language, the Printed Word, and Comic Books
Walker continues his academic duties at the University of Kentucky where he is the director of the College of Arts and Science’s MFA program. He says teaching keeps him young, and his students help keep him current on language and slang. He says he feels successful if he can get young people interested in the history of words and how they are used. And while some people bemoan the impact of social media on language and attention spans, Walker takes a more optimistic view.
“I want to think about it as a different kind of reading and writing,” he says. “I think because of that technology, more people are reading and writing than before the internet.”
Although he has Facebook and Twitter accounts, and his daughter is urging him to go on Instagram, Walker says he is still most comfortable with old-fashioned pencil and paper.
“I just love having that page in front of you – there’s something about the sound of turning it and touching it, that whole tactile experience,” he says. “I don’t think the new generation understands what they’re missing.”
That devotion to the printed word extends back to his childhood in Danville. Walker says he loved flipping through the second-hand magazines his mother would bring home from her housekeeping jobs. As he grew older, he immersed himself in the Childcraft Encyclopedia set his mother purchased, and in the volumes at the Boyle County Public Library.
“I know the power of books,” says Walker. “It made school easier, it made communicating more possible, and it just made everything less intimidating.”
He also developed a fascination with comic books, which continues to this day. An exhibit of some of Walker’s superhero memorabilia is on display at Lexington’s Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center through the end of February.