Frank X. Walker, the Kentucky Poet Laureate, spent this past week on Shepherd University’s campus as the 2013 Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence. Throughout the week, Walker participated in and led many events open to students and community members.
Walker granted The Picket the only print interview of his residency and discussed a multitude of topics from his writing style to social justice issues.
Walker, who coined the term “Affrilachia” in the early ‘90s, explained its meaning and significance to the region: “The term came from an effort to explain what African Americans and Appalachians have in common.” He further explains the term describes African Americans who live and/or work in the Appalachian region. Walker found the dictionary definition of “Appalachian” to include only whites when he first read it. He believes that blacks and whites living in the region are almost exactly alike with the one exception of skin color. Walker’s writing group began using the term, he used it as the title of one of his books and it now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary.
When asked to describe himself, Walker stated he is “a writer who currently lives and works in Kentucky—the Mountain South.” He also noted a “tradition of storytelling” and the “participation in music” as systemic within the lives of his neighbors, family and friends—Appalachians.
A specific topic covered in much of Walker’s writing is the personification of historical figures. He believes this is not a new phenomenon, but that it is getting increased attention. It’s a way to “make the invisible, visible,” he said. Walker considers himself to be an “artist activist” and believes one difference between artists and artist activists is the desire to highlight those who have been invisible or oppressed. “If anyone is oppressed then it affects all,” he said.
Social justice is a topic of great interest and continuing work for Walker. He expressed concern regarding what he sees as a great “apathy in young people.” He referenced great change movements that have been led by the young and the fact that there is not the same dynamic in today’s society. Walker also wants to see a shift from an “I” society to a “we” society, in which everyone looks out for everyone else, not just the individual.
Walker’s impetus for teaching is to change society, to bring the focus back to the collective and the community: This is “why I teach,” he said.
The Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence program is managed by Dr. Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt and funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council and the Shepherd University Foundation. Additional information about Walker and the program can be found on their website: www.shepherd.edu/ahwirweb/.