It's past time to give Isaac Murphy your attention


I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with poetry since I first learned of that writing discipline in my early school days.

Then in college I found Nikki Giovanni and LeRoi Jones before he became Amiri Baraka. I loved poetry again.

But after college I left that genre behind, choosing short stories and novels as my means of escape.

Frank X Walker has shown me that was a big mistake.

Through persona poems — one written from the perspective of another person — the award-winning poet has combined my love of a straight read with a poet's ability to make me live in the moment.

Walker used that technique when he wrote about Buffalo Dance: the Journey of York, the personal slave of William Clark during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

His newest effort is Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride (Old Cove Press, $16), a collection of poems written from the perspective of Murphy, his wife Lucy, his mentor Eli Jordan, and his mother and father James and America Burns.

Murphy was the most celebrated jockey of his time, the first three-time Kentucky Derby winner.

Through those five voices, Walker uses his imagination and information gathered from research to tell a story of Murphy that has been overlooked by most of us in his hometown of Lexington and his home state of Kentucky.

Walker includes himself in that list. When the Lexington Children's Theatre approached him about writing a play about Murphy, Walker said, "I didn't think I knew enough."

After researching Murphy, finding the people who were important to him, and walking through African Cemetery No. 2, where Murphy once was buried and where Lucy's unmarked grave remains, Walker also went to Keeneland Race Course before dawn to take in the racing atmosphere and stables.

"Every little piece of research added another layer to the story," Walker said.

From that inspiration, Walker wrote both the book of poems as well as a play by the same name, which will run Sept. 26, Oct. 2 and Oct. 3 at the Lexington Children's Theatre. You can read Herald-Leader culture writer Rich Copley's story about the play at

In addition, Walker wants all schoolchildren to know what he didn't, that Murphy is one of the greatest athletes this city has produced. To do that, he and several regional teachers, in cooperation with the University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences, have launched the Isaac Murphy Everybody Reads Project. It is modeled after The Big Read, a national program designed to encourage reading.

Patsi Trollinger's children's book Perfect Timing (Viking, $15.99) and Walker's book, both about Murphy, will be used in the project.

Although Walker was aiming for the project to begin during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, some school districts are waiting until just before Derby or during the Keeneland meet to start.

Phyllis Schlich, an English teacher at Tates Creek High School, who has written several of the lesson plans that will be available for teachers, will incorporate the book during the spring.

"The way we envision it is that teachers will take the lessons and work them into their classrooms," Schlich said.

The publication of I Dedicate this Ride and the reading program are perfect, she said, adding that novels written in verse have become quite popular with young people.

After completing a few short activities, showing the various forms of poetry, students will be given the assignment to pick a historical figure or someone in their lives and write a persona poem about them, Schlich said.

Walker will visit the class and explain his technique to further encourage the children, she said. By that time, she hopes someone will have donated enough of the books to allow the students to each have one to study.

"I know it will be a big project for my creative writing class in the spring and for my seniors," Schlich said. "I saw this as a new way for students to tell a story."

That's fine, but Walker wants more.

An avid bicyclist, Walker wants to seize this time to also encourage more African-Americans to join him in a bike club to ride the Legacy Trail, the biking and walking trail that will run from the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at Third Street and Midland Avenue to the Kentucky Horse Park.

By this time next year, Walker wants the club to bike from the memorial garden to the Horse Park in honor of Murphy. If you want to join the club, contact Walker at

Reading about, writing about and honoring Murphy should be a family affair, Walker said.

"It will be a family event to connect all the parts of our soul," he said. "I think Isaac is a perfect vehicle to mount this multi-prong attack.

"He belongs to us," he said. "He is our Muhammad Ali."