New state poet laureate Frank X Walker hears voices in the sounds of silence

Because his creative process sometimes involves golf, Frank X Walker keeps a putter in his home office. He'll be inducted Wednesday as the state's poet laureate.
Because his creative process sometimes involves golf, Frank X Walker keeps a putter in his home office. He'll be inducted Wednesday as the state's poet laureate. Lexington Herald-Leader

Writer Frank X Walker is driving to Alabama with a trunk full of books.

The eight-hour trip is not out of the ordinary for Walker, who is promoting his latest collection of poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (University of Georgia Press, $16.95).

Another job that will take him on the road starts this week: He will be installed as the 2013-14 Kentucky poet laureate, the first black writer and the youngest person to hold the post, in a ceremony as part of Kentucky Writers' Day on Wednesday in Frankfort. As poet laureate, Walker, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky department of English, will promote the literary arts through readings at meetings, seminars and conferences across the state during the next year.

Walker, 51, welcomes the solace of the open road. Whether driving or biking, one of his pastimes, the long stretches of silence are conducive to his creative process.

So is the meditative quality of golf.

"A lot of my writing process is just about sort of teasing things out," he says by phone from the road.

"I golf to kind of clear my head and work things out," the Danville native says. "I try not to take my cellphone with me. It gives me free space to think, to tease those things out, to think about a new poem or new idea or new structure."

When Walker's poetic subject was a slave's role in the epic expansion of the American West, he logged thousands of miles in the car.

He and his son spent summers driving across the country, following the trail of early 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark while Walker was working on Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, his 2003 collection of poems written in the voice of Clark's personal slave, York, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their historic journey.

"We made all of the stops at those historical sites," Walker says of the trip out West. "I needed as much authenticity as possible.

"Once I was in that space where the expedition happened, I realized I had left out a main character, and that was the landscape."

Walker included the landscape in the poems and added a map that was a more accurate representation of York's journey, which began in Louisville.

"And now York, finally, has a voice," acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni wrote of Buffalo Dance.

Giving a voice to the voiceless, or to those whom established history has largely overlooked, is a major component of Walker's artistic work.

Walker frequently has written persona poems, a technique in which the poet writes from a character or subject's point of view. Buffalo Dance, for instance, was written predominantly in what Walker imagined to be York's voice.

Turn Me Loose gets its name from the last words reportedly spoken by Evers, a black civil rights activist who worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi. He was assassinated by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith on June 12, 1963. At his first two trials, in 1964, all-white, all-male juries failed to reach verdicts. It wasn't until 1994 that De La Beckwith was convicted of murder for killing Evers; he died in prison in 2001.

The book is unique because, except for the title and an epigraph, readers never hear the voice of Evers. Walker instead paints Evers as a ghostlike figure haunting the pages and the lives of those around him, including his wife, Myrlie, and his brother Charles, a theme punctuated by the book's subtitle, The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.

"Even though he doesn't speak, he's very present," Walker says.

"I thought if you put the collection of voices around him, you might get a more accurate story," says Walker, who adds that branching out to include more and more voices seems like a natural artistic progression.

Turn Me Loose also includes poems written in the voice of De La Beckwith and his two wives.

Walker is not the first artist to focus on Evers. Musicians Bob Dylan and Nina Simone wrote songs about the injustices of the era, and the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, based on a book by Maryanne Vollers, centered on De La Beckwith's eventual conviction.

But Walker is the first writer to devote a full collection of poems to Evers' life and legacy.

"I would like to think that I don't consciously choose my subjects," he says. "I like to think that they choose me or something happens that makes it seem like an obvious choice, and in the case of Medgar Evers, it was actually a poem by Lucille Clifton."

The poem by the acclaimed poet, herself a poet laureate of Maryland, talks about how De La Beckwith would have the opportunity to become an old man, but Evers, dead at 37, would not.

"There was something about that poem that stuck with me," Walker says. "A week later I was still wondering about it and trying to dig deeper into it."

Soon Walker realized he was fully immersed in research, and "It was too late to turn back."


Kentucky Writers' Day Ceremony and Poet Laureate Induction

What: The Kentucky Arts Council's celebration will include the induction of Frank X Walker as the 2013-14 Kentucky poet laureate and readings by Walker and past poets laureate Maureen Morehead, Gurney Norman, Jane Gentry Vance, Sena Jeter Naslund, Joe Survant and Richard Taylor.

When: 10 a.m. April 24

Where: Kentucky State Capitol Rotunda, Frankfort

Admission: Free

Learn more:

Reception: 11 a.m., after ceremony, in the Capitol mezzanine.


'Sorority Meeting' from 'Turn Me Loose' by Frank X Walker

Myrlie Evers, wife of assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers, speaks to Willie and Thelma De La Beckwith, assassin Byron De La Beckwith's first and second wives.

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.