|41st Annual UND Writers Conference: "Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art"
Reading: Frank X. Walker
March 25, 2010
© 2010 Frank X. Walker and the University of North Dakota
Crystal Alberts: … appreciated, and without further ado, Dr. Kim Donehower.
Kim Donehower: Hi, everyone. Thanks for coming out tonight. I want to welcome you all. I also want to encourage you, when tonight’s reading is over, to pick up a copy of the North Dakota Humanities Council’s magazine, On Second Thought. It’s available right outside this exit on a table out there.
When America tells itself stories about its rural heritage, it tends to follow certain well-worn, stereotypical grooves. If the images aren’t from Deliverance, they’re from Davey Crockett, the intrepid, autonomous male pulling himself up by his own bootstraps and bending the landscape to his will. And the images are overwhelmingly white, particularly when it comes to Appalachia, which America has long wanted to see as the repository of its Anglo heritage.
How many of you have ever heard that Appalachian English is really Shakespearean English? Has anybody heard this? Yeah, that’s not true. [Audience laughter] And those Scottish ballads that were allegedly the native songs of the region? It turns out that many of them were actually taught to Appalachian people by folklorists who were dismayed by the earthy nature of the actual local tunes and wanted to replace them with something more "appropriate."
Now, academics, such as myself, have been pointing out the holes in the American rural mythology for a while now. But our words aren’t powerful enough to turn the tide. We need art, and that’s where Frank X. Walker comes in. He provides counter-images and counter-narratives that take us back into what we think are familiar landscapes to show us what others have written over, have written past.
Frank X. Walker is the author of four poetry collections: When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, Black Box, and Affrilachia. In 2005, he was awarded the Lannan Literary Fellowship in poetry, and he now serves as Writer-in-Residence and Lecturer of English at Northern Kentucky University. He is also editor and publisher of PLUCK! the (new) Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture. Please help me welcome Frank X. Walker.
Frank X Walker: Wow. Thank you guys for coming. I’m not sure what you expect. This is just gonna be poetry. Okay? But … I’ve been trying to decide since I’ve been here, exactly what I wanted to read this evening and, after a visit to the Siouxland Buffalo Ranch this morning, and having a chance to be in the middle of the … of … I guess a room … potential – a room full of potential steaks [Audience laugher] and burgers and being moved in two directions. The first direction was by the power of the strength of the animals and then, second, maybe a half hour later, being in the processing area and seeing a half of a buffalo hanging from a hook next to a buffalo tongue and a heart and a liver. So, I left that space really feeling some empathy for buffalo in general, and I thank my friend Art for making that trip happen … So, if you enjoy buffalo burgers, don’t let that ruin it for you. [Audience laughter] I’m just from Kentucky.
But, what I want to do is, I’m just gonna read some—some poems from the York series. First, from Buffalo Dance to introduce you to York, himself, at least, the York that I can hear in my head. And then an expanded set of poems that continue the story and tries to fill in some gaps that you alluded to earlier. And I’m gonna need your assistance to get it started.
The thing about persona poems is it’s somebody else’s voice and it really helps if, even for a second, that you could suspend what you believe to be true and buy in to the other voice. I’m gonna ask you to close your eyes, and you can open them at your leisure but, in the very beginning, if you’ll close your eyes with me – I’ll have mine open 'cause I’m reading. [Audience laughter] It’ll help you make it all the way back to 1803, which is where the story is gonna start … with York, if you can imagine, and a particular situation that challenges on many levels, as I imagine it.
You know, York is … they’ve been traveling for, you know, year and a half, and he’s about 35 years old and has been a slave his entire life. But the last year and a half, he’s experienced a level of, not just freedom, but respect from Native American tribes that he’s met for the first time. So, it’s all not just brand new, but he’s started to come into his own sense of self and sense of maturity and manhood. And then, he has the additional challenge of seeing things for the very first time. Imagine seeing the ocean for the very first time. Imagine seeing a waterfall and not knowing what to expect, but you can hear it for miles and miles and you finally climb a hill, and there it is. Imagine if the biggest fish you’ve ever seen is a catfish, maybe two foot long, and you see a whale for the first time. Just imagine how that would have opened your imagination.
But also imagine the challenge of being in a group of people, all of whom – most of whom – can write and tell their own story and watching them night after night record details of what’s happening and what they’re seeing: the plants, the animals, drawing sketches of … and maps and … all kinds of things that document the experience. But you can’t write. You’re not literate. And the best you could do is stare at everything extra hard, hoping that you can remember this and lock it in your head.
So, this first book opens with York at the ocean thinking about the last year and a half and reflecting back on what he might tell his wife, who’s waiting back home in Kentucky, about what he’s seeing, and what he hopes to see, and how he feels about it all. At the same time, he misses her dearly and he’s trying to make sense for … So, if you’ll just begin by closing your eyes. Keep 'em as closed as long as you dare.
If I could make my words
If I could send a letter home to my wife
I’d tell her 'bout Katonka
Today, we stood on the edge a all this
As I watch fish the size a cabins dance in the air
When we first left Kentucke
Massa Clark didn’t ask me to go on no expedition.
We start out on the Ohio an swing up the old man a rivers.
That spring when the rains come we cross the Mississippi
Now, I ain’t what you would call
And where else but God’s house can a body servant
The only book we 'lowed to know
I figures my respect for a good telling
I learned to 'preciate the power a single words
Them think all slaves dumb
"Sundays and Christmas"
I cares plenty for my wife
I suspect the deepest hurt in the world
But what else but love
It being night time an deep into winter
Working up stream against the current
If we don’t seem to notice that she be thicker
Capt. Lewis seems to think that if we puts up with her
Several mile up the river Capt. Clark
He spit on his fingers
Satisfied that I was not
After parading the uniformed men
Calling them "chil’ren"
Sometimes the Chiefs would laugh
Sometimes them say nothing.
Many tribes speak they piece
The words seem to be on they own expedition
Now I’m gonna skip a little bit to the very end of Buffalo Dance. I just wanted you to try to hear York’s voice and get a sense of his character, at least as I portray him. And move into the sequel, which features more voices and a rounder version of the story.
But, based on the research, one thing that was clear is that whatever the relationship was between York and his master, William Clark, once they returned from the expedition, everything changed. And if you read Dear Brother, letters that William Clark wrote to his brother, he goes into some detail about what the source of that conflict was, and that conflict had more to do with the fact that Clark was now stationed in Saint Louis. York’s wife was back in Kentucky, in Louisville. York wanted to be with his wife. The journal’s gonna detail and discuss York being jailed and beaten for his insolence and supposed drunkenness, and this new attitude really soured their relationship and changed what a lot of historians describe as a friendship, which … I challenge that. But, here’s a poem that hints at that, and then I’ll move to the follow-up book. It’s called "Revisionist History":
When we set foot back in old Saint Louie
After too many cups an tellers
The truth seemed to stretch so
Them twisted tales an leave out my parts in it
And I’ll close there, and then open with … York in a new frame of mind. I imagine that after the expedition, after his experience with Native Americans, that he had a different attitude, having a chance to see himself be respected for the same reason that, supposedly, qualified him to be a slave, you know. Native Americans responded to his "blackness," and his "Africanness," and his size in a way that, in some cases, had to feel like he was being worshipped. The generals talk about some tribes arranging for York to sleep with young maidens, hoping that that young woman would become pregnant so they could keep some of York’s power in the tribe. And they called him "Big Medicine,"
and, physically, you know, he resembled what we would think of as a NFL defensive lineman, and there’s a lot of discussion about how nimble he was and quick on his feet.
And he was a skilled hunter, and he carried a rifle, and a hatchet, and a knife, which is unusual for a slave, but it’s clear from the generals, he was instrumental in their survival. There were at least two incidences where it was decided that the Native Americans would have killed the entire party until they encountered York, and they second-guessed themselves on the strength of not knowing enough about York to take that risk. And so, he was responsible for part of the success of the journey.
But, the second book, you start to hear his sense of loyalty starting to waver a bit, and this is a poem that opens up. It’s called "The Melting." Oh, and I will mention "Old York;" Old York is young York’s father.
Ol' York say Mandingo, Ibo, Dogon
He say one a the tricks used
When I listens to the Sioux, the Hidatsa
Indian, red man, or chil’ren
So, that’s the "new" York, a little more defiant. And I want to introduce the first non-York voice that’s in this collection. It’s in the voice of the river.
"The River Speaks"
call me the ohio, the mississippi, or the missoura
i am the snow atop mt. adams
i am libation and baptismal pool
captain clark saw me
captain lewis was different
while i have at most been an open way
but the black one was the only one
my ocean floors are covered with his people’s resistance
when he is whole
And the second—I’m gonna skip ahead to the introduction of his Nez Perce wife. And the thing about his Nez Perce wife is that I have to imagine how different it was for York to be in union with a woman that he had a chance to choose for himself versus an arranged marriage in a plantation system. So this is him speaking, and it’s called "Like a Virgin."
Grown folk don’t walk 'round on the plantation
My Nez Perce gal was the first woman I choose
I find myself staring into her eyes an smiling, learning
Men in the party think it strange that I not brag
This way a being with a woman be so new an tender
And these next poems are in her voice. She’s responding to him.
"Like Raven from Head to Toe"
His hair and strength was not unlike
Some of my people thought
Others thought he had been painted
for warriors returning from the warpath
Two hard wet fingers did not remove
nor did the sweat from our naked turtle dance
The next, I think, two poems are the reason the book is on the banned book list for middle schools, at least.
"Art of Seduction"
(And this is the Nez Perce wife still speaking.)
I know a hungry man’s eyes can undress a woman
When I grew warm to his advances,
without ever opening my mouth. I looked away,
when my eyes returned to his,
like two drums in my chest.
between us was a way of looking into each other’s eyes
passers-by would swear we were already man and wife.
but when they were filled with me
intent on exploring every mound
After the redheaded one’s bed is made
my Tse-mook-tse-mook To-to-kean the slice of
Pretending not to rush back to me
After I track him down in the dark, jump on
we wander off laughing towards the horses
and looking for a private place to celebrate
We find a rock to hold all our clothes
but after our bodies kiss, we stop to weigh
And the last one in this series is "Midnight Ride":
After the fires die down, a moon full of shine
Urged on by the river
Straddled aboard him
I close my eyes and ride
in the deep winter snow.
our gallop becomes
for our breaths to catch up.
for warmth and we ride slow
to harness himself.
folded up in his arms like a child
both empty and full and sleep.
Now, I’m gonna skip ahead 'cause I think the … to at least find a inner arc or a narrative to close this with. I want to present the voices of both of his wives. That was a Nez Perce wife.
And I’ll close this part of the reading with his enslaved wife and what she might have to say. And the thing about this situation, as romantic as it may have sounded to you, nobody can argue that it was infidelity. And I have to believe that when two people are in love that, if you’ve committed some kind of crime that challenges your commitment, that you could walk in, and your loved one could look you right in the eye and know immediately that something was different. So, I imagine that that happened with them.
But, before I read that particular poem, I want to introduce the enslaved wife that comes out of this idea that when the first book was being shared around the country, people would ask me the question: "What was his wife’s name?" "What do you know about her?" And all we know is that after the expedition, York had a chance to visit her at least once, maybe a couple times, but the family that owned her moved out of Kentucky, and he never saw her again.
So I don’t know her name, and so, this is my response for those people that need to know that. This is called "Say My Name."
York’s enslaved wife
Folks round here wanna call me Auntie,
Dem don’t know how hard it be t’put aside
Dem don’t know what it like to stand in the dark
When he come home, I don’t need him to say he love me
And I try to imagine what it might have been like for them after three years. You know? Imagine you haven’t seen your loved one for three years, and you come back, you meet at the end of the day. Do you talk about the trip first? Do you express something intimate? Do you just hold each other and cry?
I’m gonna read a poem from the first book called "A Love Supreme." That’s actually the shortest poem in the first collection, and, I guess, a tribute to all of you who are jazz fans. But, this is me imagining what that first night for them together was like.
On that first night back
We out last the candle an the moon
Salty an sticky an wet.
And in the new book, this is the reality of the situation:
I don’t think York knowed
He didn’t say nothin’ bout hur
Now, I ain’t one t’sass. His growl help me
Afta dat, no matta how much he talk
It gets so crowded in our lil’ place
Now, she just can’t take him to divorce court, you know? But she is not without means. This is called "The Sunflower Seed Oil Conjure":
First, I gets some fresh well wada
Den I sets him down 'tween my knees
Den I fills up my wash tub wit
When his body is clean I starts back in t’work
Afta I rinses alla forest out
an they follows each otha from da stiff tree limbs
I pours da extra oil inta my hans an rub
I works slow an hard an afta a while
Yeah. That might fix it.
So, I’m gonna close this part with two poems: one in her voice, and then one in his. And both of these poems give the book its title. And it—you know, imagine this is both of their responses to the challenges of trying to sustain a healthy relationship inside the institution of slavery.
This is York.
"To Have and To Hold"
It do more harm than good
Being another man’s property
If ever I have to choose between
Even if Massa sell me down
I will only think on what we had
I aims to see you ev’ry Sunday an Christmas
untie the ribbons from that broom we jump
And then York’s response … That was York. This is his enslaved wife.
Somewhere out dere
In our marriage bed
I knew he come back
An dere come a look
But it scare me
I have no doubt
I just kiss him soft t’sleep.
I’m gonna close with a sample of some new poems from a new manuscript about the death of Medgar Evers. And, in the same way that the previous poems were persona pieces, these are also in the voice of other individuals, with the extra challenge of being in the voice of people that … were hard for me to wear their skin.
I think what’s really interesting about Medgar Evers’ story is that most people separate him, or leave him out all together, when they think about the part of the civil rights that includes multiple assassinations, but he should be part of that conversation. And, as much as people know the traditional story, the narrative, a lot of people don’t give the assassin that much time. So, the first poems in the manuscript are in the voice of Byron de la Beckwith, the assassin who shot Medgar Evers in the back while hiding in the bushes across the street. His family was in the house. He died in the hospital that same evening.
But, the thing that’s interesting about the story is that Beckwith bragged about killing Medgar Evers. And he was tried three times, and it took the third trial to find him guilty. But one of the things that made it possible for him to be found guilty was he had bragged openly at a Klan meeting that – and this is a quote from Beckwith, himself – he said that, "Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children."
So, this opens with Byron de la Beckwith making that comparison, and it’s called "After Birth."
Like them, a man can conceive
We both can carry a thing around inside
our backs hurt and we can’t find comfort
When it was finally time, it was painless.
then just opened them and there he was,
I must admit, like any proud parent
Funny how life 'n death
a whole world turned upside down
And this next piece – I’m just gonna pull, like, five representative poems from the collection – it’s still Byron talking, and he’s trying to make a broader comment about you know … Imagine, this time of the year, it’s about basketball, but in the south, football is really big. You’ve probably been to a pep rally. You’ve seen the kind of enthusiasm that can be whipped up against the other team. But, imagine that same pep rally, you know, a thousand people, excited and expressing their hatred for the color of the other team, but this predates football … that the sporting event is a lynching. Same kind of crowd. This is called "Homecoming," Byron de la Beckwith speaking:
Sometimes it starts with a bonfire
quickly graduating to cursing and
body as hard as you can
as entertainment for the crowd now
bodies, showering outstanding individual
All you need is some body wearing
some body threatening to take
and a little girl with her thighs exposed
And I’m gonna jump ahead to Byron’s wife, Thelma de la Beckwith and, as much as Byron is presented as a monster, most people would interpret him as, it was hard to figure out how to feel about Thelma, his wife. And I think, initially, I wanted her to be a monster, too, but I found out that she had divorced him and then left him a second time, which meant, for me, that there was a line that she wouldn’t cross, that there were things that she would not put up with. So, she became a little less like a monster but, at the same time, she remained loyal. She attended all the trials, and she stayed with him to the end of his life, and this is her speaking. It’s called "Fire Proof."
Thelma de la Beckwith
He would come home
I could never see nothing wrong
what gunpowder smelled like
and said, "Thelma, burn these clothes."
twix the crackle and calm as we danced.
I’d watch the embers glow like our bedroom did.
But if you ain’t never been licked
And the whole middle section of the manuscript deals with Thelma as a bridge between Byron and Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers. So, I’m gonna skip ahead just so you can hear these voices and read a poem in Myrlie Evers’s voice. And this imagines, after three trials, that Myrlie finally speaks to Thelma from across the courtroom:
My faith urges me to love you.
made us sisters, somehow. After long
in this unholy sorority of misery.
in the hollows of my sheets.
half expecting Medgar to be there,
Your eyes won’t let me forget.
for a sweetheart song, tired funeral
I was forced to sleep night after night
We both pledged our love,
And this next poem, it seemed appropriate to let the bullet have something to say. And the details of the bullet’s poem came from the actual transcripts of the court records from the third trial. It’s called "One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead": the bullet speaking.
Both of them were history, even before one
his family and a window glass, before I bounced
not the melon, not the man falling in slow motion,
as if the woman screaming in the dark or the children
And you can, hopefully, feel the tension in both of those voices and the story. You know, it’s – in the beginning it’s … it’s rough. It’s a thing that’s hard to work through, but my intent is to frame them all together so that by the time you get through Medg—through Myrlie’s part of it, you get a feel for what it takes to reach forgiveness and reconciliation.
And the manuscript’s been produced in association with Mississippi’s new Peace and Reconciliation Commission, where they’re trying to bring together victims of violence in the civil rights era and people who perpetrated the violence into the same space and have discussion and conversation to admit the things that happened, give voice to those crimes, and then move towards forgiveness.
Supposedly, that same thing happened in South Africa, and we’re trying to figure out how to make that same thing work in Mississippi, and it’s been hard 'cause when I go to Mississippi, Mississippians don’t want to talk about the past. But most people who are not from Mississippi, they’re married to those stories, to those ideas, and they want to believe that it’s gotten better, but they look for evidence of that. So, I’m hoping this book will try to contribute to that.
So, I’m gonna read some warmer poems in Myrlie’s voice that come from the part of the book that deals with the reconciliation. Then I’ll close with some personal poems, so that I’ll give you a break from all this heavy history.
One of the things that Myrlie talked about in her autobiography was that when Medgar would come home from a hard day running the NAACP, as the field secretary for Mississippi, that sometimes he didn’t want to talk, and they would lay in the dark together and listen to the radio and the power of music. And I thought about, you know, not just what that sounded like or felt like, I went online and figured out what the top 100 songs were six months before he died and six months afterwards and found the radio station they would have listened to, and put together a playlist and bought all the songs on iTunes, and then I laid in the dark for about a week listening to the same music I imagined them listening to for a week. And I think those, that exercise has contributed to this particular poem called "Listening to Music" and this is Myrlie Evers speaking.
The right song floating through the air
Smoky Robinson and the Miracles crooned
But more often than not, it was Sam Cook
The right song was like a Polaroid of us cuddling
After dancing him out of his suit and tie,
The sound of my guys singing backup
And I’ll skip ahead a little bit more. One of the things that was interesting is that when they exhumed his body to do another autopsy for the third trial … his son was almost as old as he was when he was assassinated. And he was—his body was very well-preserved, and people talk about how remarkable that the condition of his face was. And I can imagine a situation where it made it easier for Myrlie to get past the pain because her son was turning into her husband. You know, he’d laugh like him. He walked like him. He talked like him. That had to be a source of comfort for Myrlie. This is called "A Gift of Time."
When I was able to see beauty
When I watched a son
And the last one that I’ll read from this section is called "Heavy Wait," and it’s spelled W-A-I-T: "Heavy Wait for Mississippi."
If Mississippi is to love her elephant self,
If she forgets, she need only reach back,
For Mississippi to love her elephant self,
For Mississippi to love her elephant self,
I’m gonna read one last poem … that, I guess, is in honor of basketball. Some of you know, I’m from Kentucky, and you know what’s happening this evening on television somewhere. But the thing about growing up in a state that’s so basketball crazy is that, for a lot of people and a lot of families, sports becomes a religion, and people bleed blue or bleed Cardinal red in Kentucky. And, unfortunately, a lot of communities that worship sports, you know, they don’t develop the whole child. If you have a young person, as early as the third grade, who might be taller or faster or stronger, a lot of people are complicit in developing that kid as an athlete, and they forget about his intellectual development. So, this is just a comment on that, and I’ll close with this poem and … hope that it will honor any basketball friends that you may be feeling. It’s called "Death by Basketball."
Before and after school
a third grader
he was out there
[Transcribed by Kaitlin Ring; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts, November 14, 2010. N.B.: Some poems have not yet been published, line breaks and punctuation for "Heavy Wait for Mississippi," "A Gift of Time," and "Listening to Music" need to be verified against the published version. Also, check the published edition for line spacings for various poems.]