A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Meet Kentucky’s newest Poet Laureate, Casey County native Crystal Wilkinson

“Porch sittin'” meant nothing to me until I moved to Kentucky and began to learn the value of a getting-to-know-you spell before getting down to business. The phrase came to mind the other day as I watched the induction of Kentucky’s new Poet Laureate, Crystal Wilkinson. I kept thinking how much I’d love to sit with her, listen to her talking about writing and poetry and life, with the easy sway of a porch rocker.

Despite the formality of the proceedings, Wilkinson appeared to be at home in every way. Against a landscape of books, she was graceful and dignified. A mist of light from an unseen source seemed to spill onto her left shoulder, as if an angel were on the verge of materializing right there.

If it were a heavenly being, I assumed it was her grandmother, who read to Crystal from the time she was a small child. They enjoyed every type of reading, including comic books. “We went anywhere the story dared to take us,” Crystal explained.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

At fourteen, she self-published her first book, using her grandma’s sewing machine to stitch the binding. “My Dream Come True” was the title, and there was only one copy. Writing continued to be her passion, an outlet so natural she often found herself in “a scribbling fury.”

In 1994 when her grandmother died, Crystal discovered the handmade book tucked in with her belongings. “She still gives me permission to write,” Crystal remarked.

Upon hearing she had been chosen Kentucky’s 2021-22 Poet Laureate, and the first African American woman to be tapped, she admitted, “I cried when I got the news.”

When she took a look at the impressive listing of Poets Laureate throughout Kentucky’s history, she was further humbled and also heartened. She knew thirteen of the past Poets Laureate, as both mentors and teachers. One by one, she recounted how she met them.

In 1995 at the Kentucky Book Fair, she was so star-struck at the prospect of meeting James Still, she hung back in awe. At a reading, she gave some years ago in Lexington, James Baker Hall and his wife Mary Ann Taylor-Hall stayed afterward to praise her work and encourage her writing. Thinking back on that time, Crystal confessed, “I didn’t know they were great writers. I just thought they were nice people.”

She called Gurney Norman, “The Johnny Appleseed of Kentucky writers, and when she mentioned past Poets Laureate Jane Gentry, Maureen Morehead, and George Ella Lyon, Crystal Wilkinson smiled with delight.

“Oh, the women,” she sighed. “They are all brilliant, all my word sisters.”

“George Ella and I talked about mothering,” she said, adding that they both had teenage sons at the same time. Since then, the boys grew to men and the poets’ connection endured. “We’ve had tea and talked about how the world should be,” Crystal declared.

Frank X Walker who, like Wilkinson is an Affrilachian poet, is family. “Our first cousins are married to each other,” Crystal explained.

According to Kentucky’s new Poet Laureate, “Once upon a time, far up a holler in the hills of Kentucky, there was a cinnamon skinned daughter with hair as black as starlings’ wings. A writer is all she ever wanted to be.”

And indeed Crystal Wilkinson is Kentucky’s writer extraordinaire.

The induction, available on Youtube and the Kentucky Arts Council website, also featured short readings by seven former Poets Laureate. The ceremony ended with a glimpse of Crystal Wilkinson’s own work with, “Meditation on Grief: Things We Carry. Things We Remember.”

The poem chronicled the tragic drowning of a boy “facing the house of the girl he loved.”

Wilkinson wove her own experience into the narrative: “I almost drowned once,” she said, but her grandmother, her “jon boat,” saved her.

As she officially assumed her role as Poet Laureate, Crystal Wilkinson vowed to “amplify the voices of all Kentucky writers.”

I am looking forward to her visits to our region, virtual and in person. Whatever form they take, there is bound to be some memorable and inspiring porch sittin’ with Kentucky’s literary ambassador.

The proceedings of Wilkinson’s induction as Poet Laureate, including brief readings by her and seven former inductees – Richard Taylor, Joe Survant, Sena Jeter Naslund, Maureen Morehead, Frank X Walker, George Ella Lyon, and Frederick Smock – is available on Youtube.

A more detailed biography of Crystal Wilkinson is available at the Kentucky Arts Council website.

The poem Ms. Wilkinson read at her induction was recently published in the Kenyon Review and is available online at kenyonreview.org.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment