Frank X Walker: ‘Organize, be informed, resist! And vote with your wallet’

Feb 1, 2017 at 12:25 pm
Frank X Walker
Frank X Walker Photo by Patrick J. Mitchell

You meet Frank X Walker in his Lexington home office, situated across the street from the campus of Transylvania University. In a conversation to come, the teacher/writer/activist will speak a lot about spaces. Here is a little about his:

The elegance of the old rooms shares spirited proof that the bookworm and “nerd” descriptions he has assigned to his younger self are on display as survivors into 55-year-old adulthood: A glass case containing “Star Wars” and African-American action figurines that anchors a wall of books is topped by large pictures of historical heroes such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. Another wall is dotted with framed comic book covers — the Black Panther character is a favorite.

Real or not, many of the figures who keep Walker company in his personal space are rebels, revolutionaries and rectifiers, good company for the creator of the word, “Affrilachia,” and founding member of the Affrilachian Poets.

The group, around since 1991 when Walker coined the title term in a poem of the same name, made big news last year when it refused the 2016 Governor’s Award in the Arts for community arts because of Gov. Matt Bevin’s positions on a range of issues. In a statement, the group described those positions as “reprehensible” and “against the core of who we are as writers, educators and as artists committed to resisting oppression.”

Their resistance to a powerful political official with whom they had deep policy disagreements was a prescient stance, happening in advance of the Donald Trump presidency and the resulting talk and acts of resistance to it, his positions and him.

Not surprisingly, the rejection of the award was not a one-off for Walker.

“I claim this space,” Walker said of being an artist/activist, “not only for myself but for generations that come after me, for my students I invest in, for my kids and my grandkids. I want it to be better than it is now. If I don’t do what I feel like I’m here to do, I’ve lost my chance to help make that happen.”

His poem that coined the word “Affrilachian” was a piece of art-as-resistance, making visible the African-Americans of the region who were omitted from contemporary definitions of “Appalachian”:

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 yet 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 enough to know that being ‘colored’ and all is generally lost somewhere between the dukes of hazzard and the beverly hillbillies but if you think makin’ ‘shine from corn is as hard as kentucky coal imagine being an Affrilachian poet

The day after the conversation, Walker would revisit the theme of making the invisible, visible, by convening a meeting at his alma mater of Danville High School (Class of ’79), where artists and arts advocates would talk about organizing to gain more attention for the role — and contributions — of arts and artists in Kentucky. Published reports say about 100 people from throughout the state showed up for the first such gathering.

Walker very consciously held that organizing effort in his hometown. It underscored the need to talk about arts outside the bigger cities of Kentucky. And it was his way of paying tribute to the place in which he discovered a passion for the arts. Danville claims him right back: Signs leading into town announce it as the home of Frank X Walker, Kentucky poet laureate, he noted. He earned that designation in 2013.

In addition to being a former poet laureate, Walker is a professor at the University of Kentucky (his college alma mater), former director of the Governor’s School for the Arts, author of eight books of poetry, editor, visual artist, filmmaker, father and recipient of numerous awards. But before he was any of that, he was a “well-raised” son and so he prepared chamomile tea as this conversation began. Excerpts from a lengthier interview:

LEO: Why did the Affilachian Poets refuse the Governor’s Arts Award?

Frank X Walker: Most of the Affrilachian Poets write about social justice issues. So part of how we define ourselves is grounded in being a champion of working class and poor people, and people who live at the margins. The Affrilachian Poets have a motto, or an aesthetic, that says, “We make the invisible, visible,’ or try to give voice to the muted.

This particular governor was really clear about his party and his personal policies and positions on felony rights and health care and the environment. We knew those things were in stark contrast to why we even existed and what we did as artists. We agreed that it would seem hypocritical to accept an award in his name.

What reaction did you get?

I expected some pushback, but I didn’t expect as much as I got. Emails, a few terse messages, a lot of missives that really attacked me personally and the group as a whole...

...The other surprise I got was the amount of people who said, yes, or hell yes, or thank you. For a full month, almost daily there were congratulatory remarks...

...I get to test the response tomorrow [at the Danville arts meeting he would convene].

Tomorrow’s about trying to gauge what the level of interest and energy is in the artist community.

If it’s large enough, we could organize ourselves as an artists union, statewide. It could be a support agency, like Kentuckians for the Arts. The grandest idea could be a political party.

At the very least, it could be a networking opportunity. That may be all we need. I don’t feel comfortable making the decision. It’s up to artists to imagine the possibilities and consider what we deserve and don’t have and what we can do to get those things.

Is this an opposite and equal reaction to what the Affrilachian Poets did last year, or is this a little bit of a pushback against the policies and the talk of how people need to be useful?

For me, I like to think about it having nothing to do with the governor. My entire adult life has been about the arts — as a producer of the arts, administrator of the arts, advocate of the arts. Even now, my full-time job is teaching creative writing at UK. People think of me as a writer, but they probably don’t know that even before my first book came out, most people thought of me as a visual artist.

Has the governor, or his administration, done anything that would make you reconsider turning down the award?

I think our position might be even stronger now. What’s happening in Frankfort is almost a microcosm of what’s happening in Washington, D.C., with that kind of imbalance of power and not just the legislation being forced through but the kinds of legislation. I think I read that over 100 environmental regulations have been overturned in this administration, statewide, and that comes from a list of 300 that were targeted. That and removing the oversight for utility companies so that when the rate hikes kick in for everybody, who does that serve? Nobody but big business and the elite.

Do you think people would be surprised that a poet keeps up with the Public Service Commission and environmental regulations?

I hope not. I hope they understand that poetry is about words, which means we have to read. And if they’re familiar with my work and the work of the Affrilachian Poets they would not be surprised because we’re about social justice and we’re not ahead of the curve, we’re just standing there as it goes by. The traditional artist always reflected the society and made commentary on society. In some places it’s illegal. Journalists and poets are targeted because of the critique they have with the real world, particularly government. Some people, especially in fascist regimes, don’t allow critique. I’m happy to live in a country where I can write poetry and not go to jail for what I said.

There’s a lot of talk now about Hidden Figures. I think you didn’t know you were a hidden figure until you saw yourself left out of the definition of ‘Appalachian’ in the dictionary. And so there was resistance then, and that was quite a while ago.

I think resistance is just science. For every action there’s a reaction. I learned that from physics in high school. At the same time, I’ve been really cautious about being reactionary when it’s about the things I believe in. This artist thing tomorrow, as much as people want to frame it as a direct response to the Bevin administration, it’s really a continuation of the person who in high school excelled in creative writing and English and the arts, who got awards for that almost every year, but who was also these other people — the athlete...

So you were all those things.

I was all those things. The politician ... I was class president twice. And we’re talking about a space that is predominantly white. So coming to Lexington, coming to UK, living in Kentucky, this is kind of my norm. So when I visit places like Washington, D.C., and Atlanta and New York, spaces that are much more diverse, and people exclaim how they could not survive in Kentucky, it’s such a racist space, I can’t challenge that. At the same time I can’t see it the way they see it. There’s no way I could be afraid of being here and still live here and raise children.

It’s home.

It’s home. So my responsibility to this space is to make it better. That’s the advantage of being an artist. You can commit to a life that’s really about using your art to make as many things or people or spaces better. Other than great teachers, and I don’t think anything has a capacity to do that than art. What art can do in those spaces is something that money can never do. I’m proud of being a writer, an artist, a teacher and I’m a Kentucky boy, through and through.

The places you’re talking about are the places of the ‘misunderstood’ or ‘forgotten about’ and the ‘invisible’ Trump voters. How do you look at that?

It’s unfortunate how easy it is to manipulate poor people and uneducated people. I think that’s what happened.

I’m a registered independent. I’ve always done kind of a survey of the ads that come in the mailbox in election season. I know that in those same spaces — not just Kentucky but red states, particularly Southern red states — there is such a successful job denigrating certain politicians and positions. I remember when the word liberal became a bad word.

I witnessed what happened in Kentucky once Obama was presented as an enemy to coal, which meant he was an enemy to poor people whose livelihoods had come from coal, even though coal’s not coming back. To have that name, that face, responsible for your downfall, to convince people he’s the reason even though you’ve been in elective offices for 40 years and you’ve done nothing personally to improve the situation, being able to create an enemy for people and then to keep them so undereducated and uninformed that they believe everything you say because you have an audience now. There are the Rush Limbaughs, but even more sinister are the local, small-town conservative radio stations and hosts who do the same thing but in a more aggressive way. The radio and TV ads that convince people that Trump was a savior, Obama was the devil and coal was coming back if we get that guy in, we can have regular money, we can have good food, we can have better lives.

I really think that’s what it was about. I don’t want to believe it was pure racism because I don’t think that’s the case. I think racism exists in the space I live in, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Have you met Bevin?

I have. I met him at the NAACP gathering in Lexington, before he was elected. I spoke at the (event) and set up a table with books. He spoke. He had all his children with him, a very visible rainbow coalition.

He bought one of my books of poetry for his daughter, who he introduced as a writer. That was my first encounter, I thought, OK. Then I thought about the absence of his competition. I remember thinking that night, ‘This guy’s going to win.’

What would you say if you met U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell? Or do you have a poem you’d read to him?

I don’t give politics that much time or energy. I consider my poetry a healing force. I don’t use it as a sword or a weapon. If I had something to say to McConnell, it wouldn’t be a poem. It would be a short essay, a terse column. It would be full of questions.

Have you had any sense that the Affilachian Poets’ resistance to policies and language was a harbinger or example of what might be coming now among artists with Washington and Trump? Can people look at what you all did and learn from it?

Because of where we are as a country, I think artists are more important than ever, especially if the media and journalists are being removed from the equation. Who’s going to hold up the mirror? Who’s going to say the king has no clothes?

What did you do after Nov. 8? Did you process it? Did you turn to art?

I’m still processing, which is not to say I’m still in denial. I spent a lot of time as a therapist. Many of my friends were devastated. I wasn’t as shocked. I’m in a privileged position as an independent. It wasn’t just a theft to them, it was a crime. Everybody I knew was emotionally hungover, in disbelief, shock. I know people who didn’t get out of bed, they were so grief-stricken and numb they could not physically get themselves out of bed and accept the reality of those results.

What do you tell people like your friends about how to resist? How to get up and face the world as it is, fighting the good fight.

I’m an optimist. I’m claiming 2017 as the year of the arts activist. I think we will be important again because of what we have the capacity to provide to people needing something restorative. So we’re going to have a really good year. We’re going to be in demand. People are going to listen to us, we’re going to have an audience, a pulpit, people are going to buy our work, they’re going to come out to art shows and dance. Students are going to write more political work. I see it as nothing but possibilities. I’m not buying this idea of a fascist regime that prohibits artistic production.

I don’t say anything to them, I don’t lecture them. I try to put them in a space where art is happening. I give books away.

What I hear you saying to people who are having difficulty with the way the world is now, the way the world is presented to them, is to be creative and to express themselves.

To understand and appreciate the power of art. I don’t think you have a high quality of life unless there is art in it.

What would you advise for people who aren’t artists who want to resist prevailing political power? What action should they take?

Organize, be informed, resist! And vote with your wallet. •