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Crystal Wilkinson is Kentucky’s new poet laureate, the first Black woman to have this title in the state.
Wilkinson grew up in Indian Creek in Casey County. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, and over her career she has focused a lot of her writing on Black women and their experiences in Appalachia.
She recently spoke with Inside Appalachia’s co-host Caitlin Tan. Wilkinson began by reading a poem that is an ode to tobacco and her grandfather. The poem is featured in her soon-to-be-released collection of poems, ‘Perfect Black.’
**The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
Crystal Wilkinson: ‘Oh, tobacco. You are the warm burnt sienna of my grandfather’s skin. Soft like ripe leather. I cannot see you any other way but as a farmer’s finest crop.
You are a Kentucky tiller’s livelihood. You were school closed in August, the turkey at Thanksgiving, Christmas with all the trimmings.
I close my eyes, see you tall, stately green, lined up in rows, see sweat seeping through granddaddy’s shirt as he fathered you first. You were protected by him, sometimes even more than any other thing that rooted in our Earth.
Just like family, you were coddled, cuddled, coaxed into making him proud. Spread out for miles you were the only pretty thing he knew. When I think of you at the edge of winter, I see you brown wrinkled just like granddaddy’s skin.
A 10-year-old me plays in the shadows of the stripping room. The wood stove burns. calloused hands twist through the length of your leaves. Granddaddy smiles, nods at me when he thinks I’m not looking.
And you. You are pretty and braided, lined up in rows, like a roomful of brown girls with skirts hooped out for dancing.’
Caitlin Tan: Crystal, that’s beautiful. The imagery that that provokes is incredible. Did you write most of these poems in the past year? Or has it been accumulation of over many years?
Wilkinson: Some of them are fairly new poems. In most ways, this is a book of collected poems, some of them going back for a decade or more. But when I looked at the themes, I realized that the same themes that haunt me now are themes that have haunted my writing for a while.
Tan: When you say things that haunt you now, can you expand on that?
Wilkinson: Well, you know, issues of girlhood, particularly black girlhood, racism, political awareness and how you gain those things, as a young girl growing up in a rural area. How those sort of socio-political issues affect a rural person, and how they affect an Appalachian person perhaps differently than they would an urban person.
Tan: It’s been a really crazy past year. Obviously, we’ve had the pandemic and quite the presidential election, but our country has had almost this reckoning with social justice issues — everything from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, but then also, more recently, Asian American hate crimes. I’m wondering, what have been your reflections from this past year?
Wilkinson: I think it’s been a difficult year. But, I like to dwell on hope. I see a rising Asian movement that is parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement, and I hope that they become the same movement — that collectively we can make change. I feel like our collective backs are against the wall, and it has to end in change.
Tan: That’s interesting how you’re saying that it becomes a “collective movement” — kind of almost one.
Wilkinson: I can almost start crying when I’m talking about it. But, this sort of injustice that we’re seeing, and the lives that are continuing to be lost, and people being beat up on the streets just for being of Asian descent — this all has to stop in some way. We all have to be a part of stopping it and speaking out.
I see that as marching in the streets and holding the government accountable, holding the people who are doing this violence accountable, but also holding our individual selves accountable and our family members. Even when no one’s watching — stopping people in their tracks when they say something disparaging about another race or ethnicity is the way that we have to combat it. I think it has to both happen on a national level and it also has to be simultaneously happening on an individual level to be able to evoke change.
Tan: I want to rewind quickly. Can you tell me a little more about your granddaddy? I just love the imagery that came from that poem.
Wilkinson: I think as a rural man, regardless of race, my grandfather, his love was quiet. He was really concerned about providing for his family. We all knew that he loved us, but his main thing was the crops and making sure that his daily chores were done. I think I do remember him saying that he loved me, but not without provocation. Not without me saying, “I love you, granddaddy.” And then he would say, “I love you” sort of sternly, but I think that was the generation that he came from.
I remember being sort of taken aback as a child when I would go with him out into the fields — how tenderly he treated and doted on his crops. As an early writer, I made these sorts of observations and that was one that stuck with me, that he really loves this land. And I remember thinking, “Does he love me the same way?” And so then I began to look for signs that weren’t verbal, or that weren’t necessarily physical signs of affection toward me. And so I think those thoughts stayed with me, all of these years, and particularly, these early poems in the first section are sort of an ode to my grandparents.
I was raised by my grandparents, and I was reminded of all of that during this pandemic. Living in the city now, being a professor and being sort of tied to Zoom, I got a little stir crazy. One of the ways that these poems began to bubble up was I started ordering seed last year, and I got out there and dug around in the dirt and planted tomatoes and peppers and sort of gave myself an everyday routine in that way when we were sort of on lockdown. Of course, it took me right back to my childhood and remembering those things that I did when I lived back back home in the hills and the work that my grandparents did daily. I remembered how important it is and was, to have your hands in the dirt — for solace, for nutrition and all those other things, too. But there’s sort of a spiritual connection, I think, that I was able to return to.
Tan: Do you think you will have a garden again this year?
Wilkinson: Yes. I feel my ancestors would be ashamed of me because I was so bad at it. Like I went out there with an attitude, like, “I know how to do this. This is part of my upbringing, part of my muscle memory. Of course I know how to plant tomatoes. This will be great.” And my tomatoes were horrible, and my squash died — it was just a mess.
I’m gonna do it again. Hopefully, redeem myself as a woman of the hills. Hopefully, I haven’t gotten outside my raisin’ and remember I can do better this time.
Tan: Can you tell me a little bit about the title of the collection of poems, ‘Perfect Black’?
Wilkinson: Well, it’s part of one of the poems. There’s a poem called ‘Fat and Black and Perfect.’ So that’s about body positivity. But I started thinking about this idea of blackness. So it became a part of the book as well, as far as an overall theme.
In a way, this book is sort of dispelling these sorts of stereotypes about blackness. I think many people think of blackness as being a rural phenomenon. So I think that so many of us who are from the mountains from Appalachia are sort of dismissed or sort of invisible to mainstream society — others don’t really think that we’re here. So the title also sort of leans into that idea that a rural blackness and an Appalachian blackness can also be a perfect blackness. There is no one way to be black in America.
Tan: I think it’s very important. And another thing that you mentioned was the poem about body positivity. I think that’s such an important topic, and it’s something that a lot of people, especially young people, really struggle with. I think that’s really cool that you touched on that. Is there any chance you’d be willing to read one of the body positivity poems?
Wilkinson: I’ll read this one called, ‘Black Body.’
‘My black body is a boulder, a stop sign. Sometimes I think my body is graceful, a song of freedom. Sometimes I think it is something that every eye casts away. I must concentrate if I want to fit into small spaces, slip into the eye of America’s needle.
Twice last week, I went without eating, filling up on self loathing and discontent, only to give in to a slice of pound cake and a bowl of ice cream. To stay awake, I drink a glass of tea and watch the flawed reality of television housewives.
Before bed, I stretch myself out along the couch and place my feet in my husband’s lap. I can’t stop thinking about the little black girl in the back of Lando Castillo’s car. “Mommy please stop screaming so they won’t shoot at you.” At four years old, she saw her mother’s unarmed boyfriend shot, bleeding, dead on the front seat — “I can keep you safe,” she tells her mother.
My body embarrasses the famous white woman at the writing conference, as if my fat will rub off on her if she gets too close. When I’m sick I want buttered, sweet rice and a tender hand moving in circles on my back.
Yesterday I ate meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans at the Cracker Barrel in Tennessee. The white waitress called me, “baby doll.” Once, I remember feeling the quickening of babies in my womb. Four tiny hands pressing against my navel, four tiny feet pressing against my ribs.’
Tan: Wow. Crystal, the way you’re able to touch on your childhood memories and then your current day experiences and then the Black Lives Matter movement. I didn’t expect you to be able to touch on all of those and within one body positivity poem. Remarkable.
Anything else you want to share or that you’re looking forward to this summer?
Wilkinson: I just had my second shot. So, I’m looking forward to hugging my children. I’m looking forward to getting out of the house a little bit more and having at least some normalcy to my life. That’s what I sort of hope for, for everybody else to be able to get to that. And maybe we can get some distance from this pandemic. So I’m definitely looking forward to that.
Tan: And better tomatoes.
Wilkinson: Yes, please. I’ll call on my ancestors and hopefully they’ll remind me of who I really am.
Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s new poet laureate, has a new book of poems called ‘Perfect Black,’ available this August.