Arts and Culture

Crystal Wilkinson burst into tears when she learned that she would be Kentucky’s next poet laureate.

“It was a very moving moment because it was a total surprise, no setup whatsoever,” Wilkinson said. “So I was very surprised and moved to tears because I was so honored.”

Wilkinson, who is an award-winning fiction writer, poet and an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky’s MFA Creative Writing Program, was inducted Friday during a ceremony that was streamed over Kentucky Arts Council’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.  

One of the first things she’d like to do during her two-year term as poet laureate is launch a podcast to elevate the members of Kentucky’s robust literary community, both already established and published writers, and those who haven’t been published yet. As a writer who grew up in Kentucky, she didn’t have many platforms or opportunities to have her work showcased. 

“So I want to try to provide that opportunity for as many as I can during these two years,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson is the state’s first Black female poet laureate since the General Assembly established the role in 1926.

“That’s not necessarily going to be a banner that I’m sort of carrying around,” she said. “But it’s a fact. Right?…  It’s a strange fact, I think, that it’s taken this long.”

Below are excerpts from Wilkinson’s conversation with WFPL:

On working with people of all ages in this role, even those who might not consider themselves writers:

“There’s no stopping and starting point with writing, or with reading, or with becoming something that you want to be. I really believe that with every death of an elder person, there goes 80 years worth of stories, 90 years worth of stories, or 70 years worth of stories… So I think while you’re reaching forward to get the youth that you have to reach back and get the elderly, too.”

On elevating Kentucky’s diverse and robust literary community:

“Not everybody writes, the way that I do… I write about Kentucky, but there’s lots of Kentucky writers who write science fiction, or they write Afrofuturism, or they write political work, or they write work about the LGBTQ community or Latinx community. And so I think that a lot of those kinds of writers are writers that I also want to put on the forefront.”

On the influence of her grandparents, particularly her grandmother, during her childhood in a small rural town in Casey County:

“My grandfather had went through the third grade, and my grandmother had an eighth-grade education, but she wanted to be a teacher, even though her parents wouldn’t allow her to become a teacher and wouldn’t allow her to leave home to get further education. So I think in some ways, I was her first student… books were everywhere. And she read books to me, and… I knew how to read before I went to school because of her love for books. She was also a lover of writing. She wrote songs and poems on the backs of envelopes and in her notebooks. And I think that was very inspiring for my first teacher.”

On her forthcoming book “Perfect Black,” her fourth book, but her first published collection of poetry: 

“It’s divided up into three sections. The first section is sort of girlhood poems. They speak about my growing up, or the speaker of the poem is very close to me, if it’s not me. The second section is about sort of maturation, becoming a woman. And then the third section is sort of about political consciousness or a woman’s consciousness.”

“Writing poetry frightens me. I’ve been a fiction writer. But I’ve also always written poetry. And so it sort of frightens me because I think there’s a certain vulnerability that comes out in a poem that you can sort of mask with fiction, you can sort of cover it up in fiction. So I feel very excited about these poems being in the world.”

On how being a Kentuckian, growing up in rural Kentucky, has influenced her as a writer:

“One of my favorite writers is Ernest Gaines, and he always said that his literary imagination would always live in Louisiana, where he grew up. I feel the same way. I write broadly, in some ways, especially my fiction. But Kentucky’s always the starting point. If I am writing and describing a tree, I’m going to think about a tree from my childhood first… So the kernel of the idea always starts with home. It starts with a Kentucky landscape. It starts with someone who has a Kentucky accent. It starts with someone who’s an amalgam of people that I grew up with… My imagination always begins there.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.