Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kentucky Poets Week: Frank X Walker

I love Frank X Walker. I'm a little sad I didn't get to know him better while I was in Kentucky, but I did hear him read and I did run into him on the street one evening and I did shake his hand to congratulate him on winning the Lannan Literary Fellowship. He was the judge for a MUCH smaller writing award I won the same year, so I felt special shaking his hand in the middle of the road like that.

Frank X Walker has the best eyes. You probably think there are more important things about him than that, but if you ask me, it all starts with and comes from the eyes.

But okay, there is also the fact that he co-founded the revolutionary Affrilachian Poets and, in fact, coined the term "Affrilachian" in response to a dictionary entry that defined Appalachians as "white residents of the region of Appalachia." In his words here, "I believe it is my responsibility to say as loudly and often as possible that people and artists of color are part of the past and present of the multi-state Appalachian region extending from northern Mississippi to southern New York." The Affrilachian Poets collective now includes 25+ poets of color writing and living in Appalachia.

Frank X Walker also wrote my absolute favorite collection of persona poems: Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, written in the voice of York, the slave from Virginia who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to the Pacific and back; the poems follow the narrative arch of the journey through York's eyes. I cannot say enough about how profound and beautiful and sensual and thought-provoking and moving that book is. Nor, sadly, can I share any of its poems with you because - as with all of my most treasured books - I have lent it out to a good friend and, two years later, have yet to get it back.  But I will be buying it again today, along with its sequel, When Winter Come: The Ascension of York.  And so should you.

So instead (as a bonus nod to Obama's visit to my hometown of Iowa City today!) I'm snatching a poem from The Charleston Gazette, posted on Election Day 2008 and in turn snatched from Jeff Biggers' blog on The Huffington Post the day before.

by Frank X. Walker
To the seasoned black women in line behind me when I went to early vote

we move as if chained together, we move like we are
pacing out the complex steps to the new line dance

thank you for taking off work today, for standing
outside in the cold on sore feet for so long
bundled in winter scarves, long skirts, leather coats,
faux fur, bandanas, fatigues, sweats and jeans
clutching designer purses, book bags and paper sacks

to the right, to the right, to the right, to the right

thank you for clearing your throat
when anybody forgot to move the line

thank you for leaning on your canes
for looking over your reading glasses

to the left, to the left, to the left, to the left

for casting a watchful eye at the poll workers
and at me and at everybody within squinting distance

for wearing my mother's nose on your faces, for wearing
her shoes, for standing with your hands on your hips too

now kick, now kick, now kick, now kick

now move as if chained together, now move like we are
pacing out the complex steps to the new line dance

now walk it by yourself, now walk it by yourself


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