A conversation with two Kentucky Poet Laureates
By KEVIN NANCE
Friends for 30 years, George Ella Lyon and Crystal Wilkinson have much in common. Both are writers with roots in rural Kentucky who’ve lived most of their adult lives in Lexington. Both write in multiple genres, including poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; Lyon is well known for her poem “Where I’m From,” Wilkinson for her award-winning 2016 novel The Birds of Opulence. Lyon’s new volume of poems, Back to the Light, is just out from the University Press of Kentucky, which will also publish Wilkinson’s poetry collection, Perfect Black (with artwork by her partner, Ronald W. Davis), in August.
Now they have a new connection. On April 23, Wilkinson was inducted as the new Kentucky Poet Laureate, the same post Lyon held in 2015-16. In a conversation in my living room a few days before the ceremony, the two women talked about the position, which requires the writer to travel the state giving readings.
Ace: George Ella, how did being Kentucky Poet Laureate affect you?
Lyon: It changed my life a lot at the time, because I was on the road so much. That first year I think I drove 11,000 miles, giving readings, doing workshops, visiting classes. I drove three hubcaps off the car — I don’t always make turns quite right. (Laughs.) But I had some amazing experiences. My absolute highlight was talking to a third grade class and they asked me how long I’d been writing poetry. I said I wrote my first poem when I was nine, and told them how old I was then and told them, “You do the math.” And this one child said, “You’ve been writing poems for 57 years.” And they burst into applause! (Laughs.)
Ace: Is that what the Poet Laureate does, mainly? Promote poetry?
Wilkinson: To be an ambassador, yes, although various Poet Laureates have interpreted that in different ways. Each person has come up with their own mission.
Ace: Going back centuries to the Poet Laureates of England, the job involved writing poems for special occasions, or poems that addressed current events and contemporary themes. Would you consider that part of this job now?
Wilkinson: Yes, but I think I already do that. I don’t think I’ll write any differently. But already when I select pieces, I’m a little bit more aware of the immediate public. I think I’ll probably read more poems instead of stories and pieces of novels, in part because I have a book of poems coming out. And I’m enjoying who I’m becoming in that sense. (Laughs.)
Ace: George Ella, is there something about having grown up in rural Kentucky — although you and Crystal have both lived in Lexington for many years — that informed what you did as Poet Laureate?
Lyon: Sure. I used my “Where I’m From” poem as the centerpiece of my time as Poet Laureate and invited people all over the state to write their own “Where I’m From” poems. We did an interactive map on the Kentucky Arts Council website. People sent in their poems and you could click on a county and the poems would come up. I think there were 700-and-some poems from 83 counties.
Ace: In one of your recent Facebook posts, Crystal —
Wilkinson: Oh god (laughs) —
Ace: You described yourself as very much an introvert. Some days you wouldn’t leave your house if you didn’t have to — words to that effect. How will that affect you as Poet Laureate, a job that requires you to be out meeting people all the time?
Wilkinson: I think I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ll be comfortable. It’s one thing to travel across the state and be with my own people here in Kentucky, but it’s something else to have to catch a plane and do all that when I travel farther away. So I’m kind of looking forward to it.
Ace: George Ella, are you more outgoing?
Lyon: No, I’m ingoing. (Laughs.) For me, there’s a certain kind of shock when you go home from trips and you have to kind of come back to the person that you actually are, and let the persona go, because there’s a gap between you and the public person.
Wilkinson: And Zoom has complicated all that. I’ll say to Ron, “Be quiet, I’ve gotta go be Crystal Wilkinson here in a minute.” (Laughs.)
Lyon: And when you’re driving or flying someplace, you have some time to ease into that other place. But when you go into another room, you’ve got to do it right then. And then you have to do it when you go back downstairs. My husband will say, “Why are you looking like that? Your voice sounds funny.” (Laughs.)
Ace: Crystal, are you the first black woman to serve as Kentucky Poet Laureate?
Wilkinson: Yes, Frank [X Walker] was the first black man and I’m the first black woman.
Ace: Is there a sense of extra burden or mission in that for you?
Wilkinson: Not in any kind of overt way. But I was a little black girl in Casey County, in a town where the only black people I knew were my family members until I went away to college, and so you’re always a role model, whether you want to be or not. I think there will be young girls, brown girls and black girls, who will say, “Oh! The first black woman Poet Laureate. I can do that.” And they may not have felt they could, before, because they didn’t see themselves represented. So I take that very seriously. I won’t be waving a banner, but I’ll be there.
Lyon: It’s a huge thing.
Wilkinson: It feels big, yeah. It makes me proud to be the first, but as long as we’re still having these firsts, it means we have more work to do.
Ace: Having done the job, George Ella, do you have any advice for Crystal?
Lyon: I would say, Crystal, take good care of yourself. And be sure to say no when you need to. It’s a simple word, but it’s really hard to say.
This article also appears on page 10 of the May 2021 print edition of ace magazine.
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