Poet Frank X Walker was forced to invent a word to name himself. During a 1991 gathering of Appalachian poets in Kentucky, Walker, in the audience, thought about where he and other poets of color born in mountainous regions of Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee would fit in the dictionary's narrow definition of "Appalachian."
Walker, 44, transported his old Kentucky home from horses, bourbon and basketball and reinforced its ties to black Africa and its slave descendents by dropping the pp's and substituting ff's. An English teacher at Eastern Kentucky University and interim director of its African American Studies Department, he also started a literary movement, laying the foundation for a nationally known artistic collective scattered across the U.S.
"When I wrote the poem 'Affrilachia' almost 15 years ago, I was only trying to explain something to myself, not trying to start a movement," Walker explains via e-mail from Lexington. "I had no idea that the word would end up in the Oxford American Dictionary in 2006. I had no idea that what started out as simply a support group of people committed to developing as writers would yield such a rich assortment of gifted teachers of creative writing and prize-winning books.
"When I look at the careers of Nikki Finney, Crystal Wilkinson, Kelly Norman Ellis and Paul Taylor, I swell with pride and laugh at how far we've come and how much we've grown as individuals and as artists."
In Coal Black Voices, a 2001 documentary film about the Affrilachian poets, Taylor calls self-naming a political act.
"I love Paul's comment about the word having political power," writes Walker. "To name one's self is a powerfully liberating action.
The act immediately releases you from the restriction of someone else's definition."
In mid-November, Walker visited an English class at the School for Creative and Performing Arts here. He talked to the class about identity and its relation to geography.
"The thing about Cincinnati that I love — and what Cincinnatians don't realize — is that misplaced Affrilachians live here," he said. "Understand how your identity is tied to place."
The author of three volumes of poetry, he's using this same equation in his first novel, set partly in Cincinnati. Borrowing from the concept of the "Word on the Street" program at InkTank wherein indigent people document their lives, Walker recast his Kentucky and West Virginia homeless men in a church. The main characters, living in Over-the-Rhine, fabricate episodes just to get the cash.
"But they run out of lies, so they have to start telling the truth," Walker told the SCPA class.
The recent recipient of a prestigious $75,000 Literary Writing Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation, Walker told the class the award "allows me to buy some time back" to finish his own work.
Last year Walker won the Lillian Smith Book Award for Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (University Press of Kentucky, 2003). The book is a cycle of poems calling forth the imagined voice of the slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition.
Walker would fall asleep watching videos of the Old West and reading Lewis and Clark's journals. In the mornings, he'd transcribe his dreams, making them real by crafting York's voice in the ex-slave's own language.
It's yet another search for identity and another type of documentation.
"I don't know that I feel I have a sense of responsibility to documentation," he writes later by e-mail, "but I do feel responsible for contributing to an effort or to erase the negative and false stereotypes of Kentucky, this region and of African-American men. Mass media's assessment of the space I call home doesn't include people of color."
Then there is Walker's own name, his own representation of himself. After he played Malcolm X onstage in college, people started calling him "X" for short and then "Frank X," so he kept it as the mathematical equivalent to the unknown variable in himself.
Some of Black Box (Old Cove Press), his latest book of poetry, offers further explorations on identity, dating back a decade. They're tightly woven and lyrical, written in plain English "to convert folks who believe they hate poetry," Walker writes. "It's more important that my audience gets it ... that they connect with the emotional currency in each piece."
Frank X Walker will read from and sign Black Box at 8 p.m. Friday at InkTank in Over-the-Rhine and at 1 p.m. Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.