Interview with Crystal Wilkinson

photo: Anastasia Pottinger, Rogue Studios

Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s newly-appointed Poet Laureate, is a multi-genre, award-winning writer. Her novel, The Birds of Opulence won the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence as well as several other book awards, and was chosen by the Kentucky Humanities Council for their 2021 Kentucky Reads project, a book-in-common for the Commonwealth. Crystal’s other works of fiction are Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street.

Born in Hamilton, Ohio, Crystal came to Indian Creek in Casey County, Kentucky when she was an infant and was raised by her grandparents on a tobacco farm. She was educated at Eastern Kentucky University and Spalding University and has served as a teacher of writing at several Kentucky institutions. Currently she teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Kentucky. 

She is the recipient of a 2021 O. Henry Prize and a 2020 USA Artists Fellowship. Nominated for the John Dos Passos Award, the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and others. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently in The Kenyon Review, STORY, Agni, Emergence, and Oxford American.

Her newest work is a collection of poems and essays: Perfect Black, forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in August 2021. The book has already received the Thomas D. Clark Medallion, an annual award given by the Thomas D. Clark Foundation to writers whose literary achievements highlight Kentucky history and culture. 

We talked to Crystal about her new book of poems, Perfect Black, her plans as Kentucky Poet Laureate, Black foodways, memory, and kitchen ghosts. 

Still: The Journal:  Well, Crystal, when we made arrangements for this interview, you had not yet been appointed Kentucky’s Poet Laureate—the first Black woman ever to hold this prestigious appointment in Kentucky. We offer congratulations and our joy for you, so let’s start there before we talk more exclusively about your forthcoming book of poems, Perfect Black. What are some of your plans for Kentucky as its newest literary representative?

Crystal Wilkinson:  First, let me say how excited and honored I am to be Kentucky Poet Laureate! As an ambassador of arts and letters for the state, I want to highlight the work of Kentucky writers of all genres and highlight writers that we don't often hear about. We are so fortunate to have such talented writers in Kentucky and I hope that over the course of the next two years that I can help shine a spotlight on them. 
            I also want to feature older writers across the state. There are so many senior citizens who are writing. Some of them are published but there are pockets of people who have been writing in silence and writing well for so long who have never gotten attention beyond their close circles. This idea is sparked in part by people like my Aunt Lovester who lives in Stanford, who self-published a book about her growing up in Lincoln County. It's a small book and just copied on a copy machine but it's so rich in culture and history. This idea is also inspired by a dear friend of mine, Mexie Cottle, who always wanted to be a writer and worked as a telephone operator for GE for years, then when she retired she started taking classes at the Carnegie Center and published her first book. She was in her 70s when she published it and received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. There are so many paths to becoming a writer. I hope hearing these stories will encourage someone. And on the other end of that are Kentucky's youth writers. I hope to meet them too and to encourage them and highlight the work they are doing. 

Still: As well as being Kentucky’s newest poet laureate, your novel, The Birds of Opulence, was chosen by the Kentucky Humanities Council as their 2021 Kentucky Reads Selection. The Humanities Council is encouraging and supporting book club discussions all around the Commonwealth. What does this selection mean for you as a writer? Are you hearing reports on those discussions or are book clubs reaching out to you?
CW:  Wow. It's incredible. This has been a highlight of my career so far, especially as far as the state is concerned. There is nothing like recognition from home. I'm a Kentuckian through and through, and all of my writing stems from my heritage and ancestry that is rooted here in the Bluegrass, so this means so much. And yes, I'm hearing from some book clubs before they meet, but sometimes the conversation about the book happens and then I receive a warm note from the book club participants via email or social media or snail mail, and I just feel a wellspring of gratitude. Gratitude for my work receiving this recognition and gratitude that Kentucky readers are responding to the book so mightily. 
            So many of these conversations end up being about more than the book which I think is important. So many people are talking about the diversity of our state and since much of the book centers around mental illness, I've been told that many people are finding those sections of the book applicable to their lives and their families and mental wellness is being discussed which makes me very happy. I didn't write the book with the intent that it would be a tool for unpacking these silences, but I'm certainly pleased that it is being used to do this very necessary work of speaking about what silences us around discussions of mental wellness.

Still:  So far we’ve mentioned two Kentucky institutions that foster the arts, so let’s bring in a third: your publisher, University Press of Kentucky. They’ll be bringing out your first published book of poems, Perfect Black, in August, 2021. In the introduction to Perfect Black, Nikky Finney writes: “Crystal Wilkinson’s writing life has always included poetry even though her book publishing life has not. As long as I’ve known her, she has held close the short-lined explosive form of expression.” What is it like for you, known primarily as a writer of short stories and novels, to be in the limelight as a poet?

CW:  It's frightening. I love fiction. I love reading it and writing it, but, my love for poetry has always been strong, deep, and wide.  And I've always written poetry, but outside a few poems that have been published, I've never had my own volume of poetry. I guess on some level I feel vulnerable. Even though a writer can do some exciting things with all the great things that the craft of poetry affords, there is really nowhere to hide. I take that back.  There are lots of places to hide depending on where the poet stands in relation to their subject, but the hiding places are different than they are in fiction. In fiction, there are so many ways to bury a thread of truth, but in poetry the truth is there blazing in the light. And even if a reader doesn't know where the personal truth lies, because of the brevity of the form and the truth bearing of the form, it feels like a particular kind of exposure that I am not accustomed to. And I'm an open book, yet it feels different in my body. Not just confessional, because there's that too, but a kind of unlayering that I'm not used to. 

Still:  One of the concepts we have heard you talk about before is the notion of “ancestral memory,” sometimes called “genetic memory.” The phrase “ancestral memory” actually appears in “Terrain,” the first poem of the collection, and it’s evident in other poems, such as “Wet Nurse.” We also see the concept visually articulated, particularly in the appearances of the Sankofa. Could you explain “ancestral memory” in light of your work as writer, and specifically to your poetry?

CW:  The writer A.J. Verdelle emphasizes that writers have things that haunt us—recurring thoughts, refrains, anxieties, situations, worries, etcetera. And sometimes writers will spend a lifetime walking about the same subjects and sometimes we write about a subject long enough that we sort of naturally let it go. The concept that I am more like my ancestors than I'm different from them, came to me at least 15 years ago and it's been a haunt since. I'm sort of obsessed with what we carry forward from earlier generations and what we leave behind—the things we can control, things we can't control.  
            When I look at a photograph of an ancestor and see my granddaughter, I'm flabbergasted at how genes work and how not just her smile was passed through DNA, but what mannerisms, what pathologies, what convictions are passed. Or are they passed? Are they learned? Are they passed through the blood? All of these things are poured into Perfect Black in some way, but this concept also informs my fiction and the nonfiction book that I just sold. I don't know if I will hold on to this concept for a while longer or if it will let me go. But we are headed toward twenty years and I'm still fascinated, not only in my work, but how it appears in the work of others. I think it adds a kind of emotional landscape or foundation to almost everything I do. 

 . . . it was the first time I had gotten close to reconciling the beauty and innocence of memory with the weight and burden of my mother's mental illness, my grandmother's silence around it, and how the brutal realities of farm life nested against those silences.

Still: The Journal:   Let’s talk about memory some more. One of the most gripping poems in this collection is “Asking About My Mother.” We get these really sweet images of a girl playing paper dolls and dress up, but those are cut to the quick by the overpowering imagery of the hog’s head being prepared for cooking. The speaker says:
My grandmother fills the tub with water.
I hate that she always reminds me of all she’s done for love.
Remember. Remember. Hair. Face. Knife.
Could you talk about that brutal imagery and how that relates to the grandmother’s silence in this poem?
Crystal Wilkinson: This was a hard poem to write because it lived in my body so long until I spent a week with the poet Aaron Smith at Lincoln Memorial University. He was teaching a poetry boot camp class. He gave us a prompt and there the poem was almost in its entirety. And I felt it rush through me like a swoosh. Of course, I had to work on it longer after that, but it was the first time I had gotten close to reconciling the beauty and innocence of memory with the weight and burden of my mother's mental illness, my grandmother's silence around it, and how the brutal realities of farm life nested against those silences. When you think about it, there is a lot of blood and guts in everyday life on the farm. Of course it's survival. I know this, but from my vantage point now, as a city woman, I can go back and examine the feelings of my country girl self and try to turn that very lived experience into art. 

Still:  The trilogy of “Water Witch” poems is quite compelling. Tell us how that character came to be invented for this collection.

CW:  My grandfather was a water witch so this character is very much based on him. I love to kind of mine my own work for future work, so the water witch poems, are part of a larger collection of poems that I've been writing about my grandfather as a dowsing spirit for years. That collection is a long way off, but I borrowed the poems for this collection because I feel like they add to the layers of the notion of the Black pastoral which appears as a thread in the collection. 
Still:  So many memorable image systems work their ways through your poems: creek water, tobacco, the Black body, blood, knives. But we have to talk about food and kitchens, symbols and themes which have always marked your oeuvre in one way or another. But in this collection, as you say, “There was always something dead in the kitchen,” or “Sometimes the dead appear in my kitchen.” Could you talk about the significance of food and kitchens and dead things occupying the same spaces in so much of your work?
CW: Ah yes. Again farm life is beautiful and brutal. You have to work for your food. It's a necessity. You become accustomed to it when you live in it, but we are spoiled as city dwellers. Food arrives already slaughtered and packaged. Rural life is a constant reminder that food doesn't just appear in the air, it's worked for. We rarely think about where our food comes from, but there is a lot of labor that goes into the nourishment of our bodies. And both the live and dead exist simultaneously, and it's both figurative and literal. Right? An animal loses its life in order for us to receive food. The vegetables are dirty. You have to get your hands dirty to have a meal. Country life is a reminder that life is cyclic and something or someone is always being born, living, dying. It's what we creatures do. And the kitchens of rural women are where these scenes take place or at least where they are talked about. The kitchen is the epicenter of a country woman's existence. And again that concept of the ancestors come in because it's not just about those of us that are standing in the kitchens, or eating from the kitchen now, that throughline is just that, a throughline, always reaching back, always reaching forward. We'd not exist if it wasn't for the kitchen ghosts as guides.

Kitchen Ghosts
Sometimes the dead appear in my kitchen. I feel
my grandmother’s hand patting mine when i make cake.
Her head shakes No when i don’t add enough eggs or
too much butter. Sometimes she laughs & claps when
the yeast rolls rise. She cuts her eyes & sucks her teeth
when my dress is too short. Sometimes the dead just stand
in my office when the emails glare, when the boss needs one more
report, when the words i write won’t come.

"Kitchen Ghosts” from Perfect Black by Crystal Wilkinson is reprinted with permission from the University Press of Kentucky.

Still:  The last third of Perfect Black include some beautiful love poems to your partner, Ron Davis. Ron’s drawings and collages appear throughout this collection, and his work is one of the hallmarks that makes your collection so unique. Again, Nikky Finney writes in her introduction that Ron’s work is “not here to help Crystal tell her story” but to “create another set of windows from which the reader may observe all the goings-on.” Tell us how you and Ron collaborated on coordinating the artwork for this collection.

CW:  Ron and I have always wanted to work together on a project, and he's my partner but I love his work and I love the way he thinks about art and poetry. So, we had a conversation, several conversations really, and on some levels we have a hard time creating together because I talk a lot when I'm collaborating with someone, and Ron works in silence. He already had a few pieces that he had drawn for me, long before this particular idea took shape, and others we talked about and made decisions where they should go. A lot of it was less about what we had to say to each other about the poem or the art and about how the artwork and the poems or the prose was in conversation. I really do think that the book almost operates as a contrapuntal in that way. The words tell a story. The artwork tells a story. And then the combination of the two tells another story. And I find this aspect of the book so very interesting. Sometimes when we were putting these pieces together, we didn't even realize some of the echoes that move through other pieces. I loved it in the end and I hope that we can do it again. 
Still:  In addition to the distinctiveness of adding artwork to your collection, you’ve also included several prose pieces in this collection. Tell us why you included them in a book of poems. What purposes and functions do these essays serve for readers?

CW:  Again, I think all of the pieces work independently, but they also work interdependently with one another. I am a huge fan of short story cycles and how each piece can stand alone but how the collections work in unison as a larger unit as well. I think the prose pieces work to complicate, to highlight, to deepen the poems.

Still:  Beyond your work as Kentucky Poet Laureate for the next two years, what writing projects are you working on? Will we be hearing more from your ancestor Aggy? 

CW:  I have so many projects that I'm working on, but what has moved forward is a culinary memoir based on PraiseSong for the Kitchen Ghost which first appeared in Emergence, and also appears in Perfect Black. Again, I am haunted by the kitchen ghosts, and I've spent so much time trying to find information on Aggy. She's my fourth great grandmother who was an enslaved child in Virginia and then brought to Kentucky, where she later married my white ancestor Tarleton. And so I'm writing about her. She's haunted me for some time. She is how we began, but of course there is not much information on her. There are a few things here and there and then when Tarleton Wilkinson dies around 1850, there are a few exchanges of property where her name appears and then she disappears, so I've dedicated this book to her that examines Black Appalachian foodways. I'm very excited about this book. I'm also editing a collection of work of Black Voices of Appalachia for the University of Kentucky. And I've been working on my next novel Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal for a number of years, and that book is nearly finished. So I've got my work cut out for me for the next few years.


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