Frank X Walker
A Conversation with CX Dillhunt and Drew Dillhunt

DD: You’ve described poetry as an act of “conjuring.” Reading your work, it’s also clear that giving voice to historical figures—especially those who haven’t been fully or fairly represented in official histories—requires the painstaking work of a historian.

How do you think about the interplay between your work as an objective historian and a visionary poet? Is there a place where research ends and conjuring begins?  

FXW: I’m always honored when schools and colleges use my Historical Poetry as supplemental textbooks when studying history or when looking for texts that can be used across multiple disciplines, but I have no illusions about the fictitious nature of my work. No matter how effective the speaking voice or individual poem may come across, it is its roots and references to actual history that give these kind of poems legitimacy. And at the same time, it is the poetry that gives it its emotional strength. In my opinion it is only successful if together they provide for the reader a sense of authenticity. Once the historical poem hits the page, its history and poetry must live in the same place at the same time and communicate in a credible way.

There is absolutely a place where the research ends and the conjuring begins. The research always comes first. The poet/researcher must first exhaust themself with the details. They must become an expert on their subject before sitting down to write the poem. They must discover and know more about their subject than they ever plan to share in the overall narrative.

My students have come to trust my formula of Memory, Research and Imagination when conjuring their own historical poems.

Real Costs
        York's slave wife

Somewhere out dere
he learnt t'touch me
like I'm a woman
an not just some woman.

In our marriage bed
he seem as interested
in pleasing me as he be
in spillin' hisself.

I knew he come back
when new words
fall out his mouf like
love an freedom
an manhood.

An dere come a look
in his eye
like he own all three
free an clear
an don't need no papers
t'prove it.

But it scare me
'cause I seent dat look
in many a black eye
b'fo white hammas
nailed it shut
o' left it frozen open
an swingin'
t'teach da rest
what anything dat smell
like courage cost.

I have no doubt
he give his life t'stay
wit me
so I don't tell 'im dat Massa
takin' me back
down south.

I just kiss him soft t'sleep
an stare at him long enough
t'call up his face
when I gets old an thankful
he still be breathing
when winta come.

© Frank X Walker, When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, The University of Kentucky Press, 2008

DD: Your persona poems impart a depth of history impossible to achieve through non-fiction alone.

What about poetry makes it such an effective form for historical narratives? Where have you encountered the most resistance to the idea of conjuring history through poetry?

FXW: I think the overall narrative would also succeed if staged or filmed. But I think poetry is particularly effective because a good poet, especially if she is a capable reader, can summon the power of the stage and the screen onto the page. I think its absolutely more effective than traditional history because it humanizes the subjects by allowing the speakers to emote, making it easier for the reader to empathize with the subjects. 

The most resistance to the idea seems to always come from those who have not experienced Historical Poetry. There seems to be a certain resistance born out of a possible perceived contradiction in terms. The biggest advocates are often those who become captivated after hearing it or reading it for the first time. History buffs become new fans of poetry, and readers who love poetry express their delight and surprise at an historical narrative holding their attention.

Queer Behavior

Lewis went into a terrible depression. In courting
a wife, his advances were rejected. Jefferson
appointed him Governor of Upper Louisiana, but he
proved utterly unsuited to politics....His decline
eventually ended in suicide.
                                          —Stephen E. Ambrose,
                       Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery

Why a fancy, educated man, who worked directly
with the president, traveled without harm to the ochian
returned as a hero, made chief a all the new territory
be given to such deep dark sadness, I can't say.

But something give Capt. Lewis cause to question alla
his success, something bigger than all them books
something heavy as a mountain burrowed deep inside
him like a groundhog an emptied out all his joy.

After watching how careful he conduct himself
'round the men an learning how much he frown
on lying with Indian women, I starts to think
'bout the things the men whispered 'round the fire.

I thinks not on if it true, but on how hard it must be
to live life like it not, to walk 'round under a mask
to ignore your own nature, to smile an laugh an dance
for the pleasure a others while crying all on the inside.

Maybe his sorrow was born from fear a his feelings
or maybe he be even more afraid a what others
might think or say. I knows well how a thing like death
seem welcome when you can't hold the ones you love.

Ol' York say, if ain't nothing in the barn but roosters
won't be no eggs for breakfast. But I ain't signifying
I"m just speculating on what ignorance an whiskey say
when they see how he carry hisself an how clean

an orderly he like his things. An it stand to reason
to ask if blue blood an education an manners can explain
all his odd ways or if he just seem a lil' less manly
standing next to a rugged man like Capt. Clark.

All I can rightfully say is he was rich an white an a man
in a land where them three things mean nothing but power.
Why else would he take his own life, unless one a those
things wasn't true, unless he too      was a slave.

© Frank X Walker, When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, The University of Kentucky Press, 2008

CXD: You add a choir of supporting voices to the existing historical record—York’s hunting shirt and knife, the waters of the Columbia, and the bullet that ended Medgar Evers’ life. This seems to be an essential part of what you’ve described as “reaffirming the power of literacy and the role of mythology and storytelling in the exploration of the truth.”

Where do these voices come from? How do they work to help fill gaps in accepted historical narratives?

FXW: The idea of using multiple points of view to relate the story is old hat in fiction. When I began reading from the first York book and opened the floor for Q&A, I found that readers were already very interested in the voices that weren’t included. They wanted to know what his wife thought and they wanted a closer look at Sacagawea. When I sat down to write the York sequel, I sat down looking for all the missing voices I could imagine. Voices I believed I wanted to hear from and that I believed would enhance the narrative. Readers seem to enjoy the human voices, but they really love the personification of objects that were already present in the story, i.e., York’s hatchet and his knife. It’s a slight deviation from the proverbial fly on the wall.  Now I simply apply my mother’s saying that there are two sides to every story and then there’s the truth. I am finding that if I increase the sides to the story in a credible way, readers feel like it's even closer to the truth.

DD: What is it that draws you to the particular historical figures you’ve chosen to conjure? How do experiences in your own life inform these choices? How important is it for a voice to come to you at a particular point in your life?

FXW: Now we’re getting deeper into conjuring, because I really feel like it’s a lot like dating in as much as the historical figures have to also choose. One of us could choose the other, but if we both choose each other you get something really special. I also think the poet has to be truly invested in the subject at an emotional level to really do it justice. I developed a personal stake in telling the York story because I was embarrassed that I had multiple degrees, considered myself well versed in Kentucky’s African American history, found out York had lived in the same city I lived in, and yet I had never heard of him. Part of my personal motivation was to eliminate my own ignorance and deal with that embarrassment.

I believe that because I was raised by women, have been blessed with six sisters, and survived multiple failed relationships, I actually lived the research material I needed to create most of the authentic sounding female voices in my historical poetry. I know that spending real time outdoors in the northwest and along the Lewis and Clark trail allowed me finish the book when it was clear something was still missing. That missing element was the landscape. I say all of this to say that the journey that is the combination of the research and teasing out the poems and building them into a whole narrative is not something that only exists on the page. A poet’s real life will intersect with her work somewhere on the page and off the page in both unexpected and expected ways. The inner journey from the York narrative resulted in a buffalo tattoo and a chance to share the Nez Perce world with my teenage son and ultimately create a rite of passage for him. The Isaac Murphy inner journey resulted in a bicycle club called the Isaac Murphy Bicycle Club that rewards inner city kids who complete classes on bike safety, healthy eating, history with free bikes, helmets, locks and organized opportunities to ride the local bike trail. I don’t know what Medgar Evers has in store for me but given that 2013 is the 50th anniversary of his assassination and JFK’s as well as the March on Washington. I’ve got a feeling the activist in me is going to need an extra pair of shoes. 

CXD: How does this historical conjuring compare to the writing process you employ when working from personal experience—as you do in Black Box and Affrilachia?

FXW: Historical conjuring takes longer than writing from personal experience. Given that there is no requirement that the next poem have a relationship with the previous one, I have a lot more freedom when writing from personal experience. The personal poems are often born out of inspiration and contact with other people and the real world. I don’t have to stop writing one to work on the other. When I finished the Medgar Collection, I also had completed another manuscript of poems that will continue the Black Box and Affrilachia experience.

CXD: How have your persona poems influenced the poetry you write about your own experiences, and your family? Are you always yourself, or do find yourself conjuring different versions of yourself?

FXW: I haven’t really thought about how the persona poems have influenced the poetry about my own experiences. I still write primarily from my point of view. I think there have always been multiple selves; especially the distinctly dichotomous voices of young innocent Frank and old jaded Frank X. I know I have focused more on forms in my historical poetry to make sure there is another level of activity happening that helps earn the work the title of poetry. I’m especially drawn to new contemporary forms like the contrapuntal, hinge, and dictionary forms, all of which make an appearance in Turn Me Loose alongside extended haiku, persona, list, and a few generic sonnets. So as a result there are more form poems showing up in my other work.

CXD: And when you’re conjuring the voice of a historical figure such as York, or later with Isaac Murphy and the many voices in your forthcoming book Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, where does your own voice enter into the poetry? How do you decide how much of your own voice to allow in?

FXW: I try really hard to stay out of the way and not let my voice, politics, prejudices, or values surface when I’m writing Historical Poetry, but I think its probably impossible to not enter in some way, especially when something as simple as selecting the epigraph or titling the work can reveal all of those things about the writer and more.

Sorority Meeting

Myrlie Evers speaks to Willie and Thelma de la Beckwith

My faith urges me to love you.
My stomach begs me to not.
All I know is that day
made us sisters, somehow. After long
nervous nights and trials on end
we are bound together

in this unholy sorority of misery.
I think about you every time I run
my hands across the echoes
in the hollows of my sheets.
They seem loudest just before I wake.
I open my eyes every morning

half expecting Medgar to be there,
then I think about you
and your eyes always snatch me back.
Your eyes won’t let me forget.

We are sorority sisters now
with a gut wrenching country ballad
for a sweetheart song, tired funeral
and courtroom clothes for colors
and secrets we will take to our graves.

I was forced to sleep night after night
after night with a ghost.
You chose to sleep        with a killer.

We all pledged our love,
crossed our hearts and swallowed oaths
before being initiated        with a bullet.

© Frank X Walker, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, University of Georgia Press, forthcoming May 2013

DD: You’ve described Byron de la Beckwith—Medgar Evers’ assassin—as the hardest voice you’ve ever tried on. How was it possible for you to inhabit de la Beckwith? What can you tell us about that process?

FXW: It was the hardest for me, because I’d like to believe we were really far a part especially when you consider our values. I really wanted to get inside his head and understand what fueled his passion, why he hated who he hated as well as why he loved what he loved. Unfortunately and fortunately there is no limit of research material on hate speech, the KKK, white supremacy, and so many images and so much material available that provided his own words. One of the devices I used to get into that space was to type in hate speech on YouTube and listen to as much of it as I could stand.

After Birth

“Killing that nigger gave me no more inner
discomfort than our wives endure when they
give birth to our children.”

-Byron de la Beckwith

Like them, a man can conceive
an idea, an event, a moment so clearly
he can name it even before it breathes.

We both can carry a thing around inside
for only so long and no matter how small
it starts out, it can swell and get so heavy

our backs hurt and we can’t find comfort
enough to sleep at night. All we can think
about is the relief that waits, at the end.

When it was finally time, it was painless.
It was the most natural thing I’d ever done.
I just closed my eyes and squeezed

then opened them and there he was,
just laying there still covered with blood,
(laughs) but already trying to crawl.

I must admit, like any proud parent
I was afraid at first, afraid he’d live,
afraid he’d die too soon.

Funny how life ‘n death
is a whole lot of pushing and pulling,
holding and seeking breath;

a whole world turned upside down
until some body screams.

© Frank X Walker, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, University of Georgia Press, forthcoming May 2013

CXD: What about de la Beckwith makes him an important figure to give voice to? Why was it important for Medgar Evers’ own voice to remain largely silent in the book?

FXW: I think Beckwith provides an unexpected point of view and voice and like many of today’s villains in popular culture seemed to really grab and hold people’s attention when I read from the work early on. By the same token I felt like there was so much available in Medgar’s own voice that having him speak might result in something almost too predictable. And his absence extends the metaphor of him as ghost and sets up the vehicle, which allows his unghosting.

CXD: You coined the term Affrilachia, now an official entry in the OED. At the end of your poem Affrilachia, in the book of the same title, you write, “if you think / makin’ ’shine from corn / is as hard as kentucky coal / imagine being / an Affrilachian / poet.”

Here it is more than a decade since your collection Affrilachia was published. What’s changed? What hasn’t?

FXW: In the twelve years since Affrilachia I would say more people recognize, claim and use the word. I’ve lost count of how many colleges now consistently use the book in their Appalachian Studies courses, but because so many places and scholars are still discovering the word and slowly recognizing the need to speak about the region’s true diversity, it is still the best seller of all my books. What hasn’t changed is the need to continue working against the pervasive negative stereotypes and caricatures associated with the region or the need to educate people about important Affrilachians like Nina Simone, August Wilson, Bill Withers, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, James Brown and many others.


(for Gurney & Anne)

thoroughbred racing
and hee haw
are burdensome images
for Kentucky sons
venturing beyond the mason-dixon

anywhere in appalachia
is about as far
as you could get
from our house
in the projects
a mutual appreciation
for fresh greens
and cornbread
an almost heroic notion
of family
and porches
makes us kinfolk
but having never ridden
or sidesaddle
and being inexperienced
at cutting
or chewing tobacco
yet still feeling
complete and proud to say
that some of the bluegrass
is black
enough to know
that being “colored” and all
is generally lost
somewhere between
the dukes of hazard
and the beverly hillbillies
if you think
makin’ ’shine from corn
is as hard as kentucky coal
imagine being
an Affrilachian

© Frank X Walker, Affrilachia, Old Cove Press, 2000

DD:  More recently, you’ve observed, “Our biggest problem is convincing people that the idea of Affrilachia doesn't have geographic boundaries."

How do you respond when someone asks about Affrilachia? How do you ensure this word you’ve brought into the world is filled up with the meaning you intended for it?

FXW: I used to think that the only insurance I had was the OED definition and the ongoing work and activity of the members of the Affrilachian Poets, but I recently became a board member of the Appalachian Studies Association. I hope to use the opportunity to further promote our ideas about inclusiveness in the region. I have answered the Affrilachia boundary questions so often that I actually enjoy dispelling myths about the region and teaching people how important out migrants from the region are and how their presence has influenced the cities they’ve settled in.

DD: You were recognized by Oxford American as one of the most creative teachers in the South. How does teaching inform your work as an artist?

FXW: Teaching is my most favorite work. Working with young writers keeps me and my language fresh and up to date. Part of my motivation to write Historical Poetry is because so many of those students come to my classrooms with such incomplete educations. I hope Turn Me Loose will help educate a whole generation of students who have no idea who Medgar Evers is.

CXD: What’s next? Writing? Teaching? Pluck!?

FXW: Next? I’m currently editing my first novel, which I completed this summer. I hope to spend the rest of this year polishing it up and to send it out early next year before the new book takes over my life and schedule when not in the classroom. I’m currently on loan to African American & Africana Studies as the Program Director, but next year I’ll return to the English department full-time and help launch a new MFA program. Pluck! [Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture] is still going strong. I imagine we’ll be moving in the direction of many other journals and developing a larger web presence, but hopefully earning enough subscribers to continue printing and distributing a hard copy. That’s the plan but we all know how plans go. Whatever happens, I hope it includes writing, teaching, traveling, biking and golf.