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Frank X Walker named Kentucky Poet Laureate

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Governor Steve Beshear has appointed Lexington poet, author and teacher Frank X Walker as Kentucky poet laureate for 2013-14, the Kentucky Arts Council announced today. Walker, a native of Danville, will be formally inducted during a ceremony on Kentucky Writers’ Day, April 24, at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort.

Walker is the author of five collections of poetry and is an established playwright. He currently serves as associate professor in the University of Kentucky Department of English and as director of the African American and Africana Studies program. Walker is the state’s first African-American poet laureate, and the youngest Kentuckian to be given the honor.

“I hope I will have opportunities to be visible, to serve as a role model for kids who come from humble beginnings like I did,” said Walker, 51. “I want to remind them that books are important, developing and using their creativity is important. Everybody is creative, they just need the tools to harness and control their creativity. I grew up in the projects so I want to tell them ‘your circumstance is not an excuse.’ If you commit to something, if you work hard and have discipline, you can accomplish anything.”

The Kentucky poet laureate promotes the literary arts in Kentucky through readings of his work at meetings, seminars and conferences across the state. Since 1995, the position has been appointed by the governor and is coordinated by the state arts agency. Walker succeeds outgoing poet laureate Maureen Morehead.

“Frank X Walker’s deep roots in the Kentucky writing community and his contributions to the state’s rich literary history led to a new movement in the arts – one that defined and gave voice to a specific population of Appalachian residents,” said Gov. Beshear. “Our state and region are better for it. The Commonwealth is fortunate to have a writer like Frank X Walker living and teaching within our borders, and I am proud to name him the Commonwealth’s next poet laureate.”

Walker is known internationally for his unique approach to teaching and numerous literary accomplishments. Most famous among them is his creation of the word “Affrilachia,” a term that unifies Appalachian identity and the region’s African-American culture and history. The word Affrilachia is now included in the Oxford American Dictionary. Walker is a leader of the Affrilachian Poets literary movement that prides itself in giving voice to previously muted and silenced voices and promotes excellence in teaching, writing, art and activism.

“In time, Kentuckians will be able to look back on the work of Frank X Walker and see how it opened doors for the people of the Commonwealth to actively participate in the arts,” said Lori Meadows, arts council executive director. “I congratulate Frank and look forward to seeing how his work as poet laureate will further inspire the next generation of Kentucky’s creative minds.”

A Lannan Poetry Fellowship Award recipient, Walker has degrees from the University of Kentucky and Spalding University, as well as honorary doctorates from UK and Transylvania University.

He has lectured, conducted workshops, read poetry and exhibited at more than 300 national conferences and universities including the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry, Northern Ireland. He has taught in Santiago, Cuba; at the University of California at Berkeley; Notre Dame; Appalachian State University and other institutions.

Walker has served as founder and executive director of the Bluegrass Black Arts Consortium and as the program coordinator of the University of Kentucky’s King Cultural Center.

He is the recipient of the 2006 Thomas D. Clark Literary Award for Excellence and an Actors Theatre of Louisville Keeper of the Chronicle Award. He has held board positions for the Kentucky Humanities Council, Appalshop and the Kentucky Writers Coalition, as well as a government appointment to the former Cabinet for Education, Arts and Humanities and the Committee on Gifted Education. He has served as vice president of the Kentucky Center for the Arts and the executive director of Kentucky’s Governor’s School for the Arts. He is a past recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.

Walker’s sixth full collection of poetry, “Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers,” is due in the spring from the University of Georgia Press.

For more information about Frank X Walker, visit http://artscouncil.ky.gov/KentuckyArt/Poet.htm.

The Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency, creates opportunities for Kentuckians to value, participate in and benefit from the arts. Kentucky Arts Council funding is provided by the Kentucky General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Power of Theater and Storytelling

Is Coming to Powell County

 By Janice Lee Odom

                 On the last day of January, on a cold and snowy morning at 4:00am, two car loads of people from Powell County, Kentucky, pulled out of the Powell County High School parking lot headed for a small town in Georgia. The reason? Colquitt, GA, is a model community for how to use the arts to build economic development.

                Each year Berea College hosts the Brushy Fork Annual Institute, a conference designed to give leadership training to Appalachian counties. In addition, the Appalachian Regional Commission offers Flex-E grant opportunities of up to $10,000 to distressed counties in order to build community capacity. In order to be eligible for the grants, a team of at least three people from a community must attend Brushy Fork and submit a grant proposal.

                A team from Powell County went to Brushy Fork, and while there, they were privileged to see a performance by Swamp Gravy, Colquitt, Georgia’s Folklife Play. Joy Jinks and Karen Gimbrel were on hand to discuss the huge economic impact that arts have had on their small community over the last 20 years.

                They explained, “Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Folklife Play, is based on true stories, professionally directed, designed, and choreographed, and performed by a volunteer cast of 70 to 125 local and regional citizens. The play gleans the comedy and tragedy of every day, ordinary, and extraordinary people’s lives and turns these stories into unforgettable theater.”

                Swamp Gravy began in 1990 when community leader Joy Jinks met Richard Gere, a Chicago theater director who was pursuing his doctorate in performance studies, at a conference in upstate New York. Gere’s theory was that if a community collected and retold their own stories, powerful things would happen: people would be empowered, the community would bond, and boundaries such as race, social class, age, and gender would be erased.

                Jinks and other leaders in Colquitt, Georgia, were looking for a way to revitalize their community and to celebrate their regional heritage. Gere was looking for a community that was willing to try out his theory. And with this fortuitous meeting, Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Folklife Play was conceived and the year 2007 marked its 15th anniversary.

                Each year local citizens collect true stories from the community; these stories are transcribed and archived, then sent to a playwright to adopt these stories into an original play. Swamp Gravy is performed 32 times each year with 16 in March and 16 in October.

                In 2004, the Center for creative community development in North Adams, Massachusetts, conducted an economic impact study and determined that Swamp Gravy alone generates an annual $2.1 million economic impact to Colquitt and Miller County.

                The first one hour production, Swamp Gravy Sketches, was presented on October 12, 1992, at the local elementary school auditorium. Significant milestones occurring since that time are as follows:

 

Proclaimed as Georgia’s Folklife Play, March 1994 by the Georgia General Assembly

  • 140,000 people have seen Swamp Gravy since 1992
  • 75% to 80% of Swamp Gravy patrons are out-of-town visitors who inject new dollars into the local economy
  • A cultural Olympiad award winner of the 1996 Atlantic Olympics with two performances in Atlanta’s Centennial Park
  • Performed at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC November 23, 1996
  • A new play has been produced each year and presented 32 times in October and March; 14 plays and four books have been published using stories collected for the play and recordings of the music of Swamp Gravy Volume 1 and Volume 2 have been produced
  • Budget has gone from $2,000 in 1989 to $2.2 million
  • Assets have grown from zero to $4.5 million
  • Now has 20 full-time and 40 part-time employees
  • It is the fifth largest employer in Miller County
  • Five historic buildings have been renovated: Newhall, the home of Swamp Gravy, Arts and Education building, Interact building, Market on the Square and the Learning Center
  • Averaged $14 million in actual cash over the past 14 years through earned income grants and donations
  • Swamp Gravy cast and other volunteers have logged approximately 140,000 volunteer hours averaging 10,000 hours per year

                “Because of the success Swamp Gravy, the Colquitt – Miller Arts Council has been able to attract grants and donations to develop a cultural tourism industry that draws 50,000 visitors each year to this town of 2,000 residents.” –excerpt from Benchmarks of Progress.

                Eight Powell County citizens attended the Building Creative Communities Conference in Colquitt, Georgia: Janice Lee Odom, Barbara Taulbee, Angela Roberts, Mary Moore, Joe Bowen, Ann Gray, Elihue Shepherd, and Chelsea Nolan.

                Three stories from Powell County were chosen to be featured at the conference including Joe Bowen’s, Elihue Shepherd’s, and Janice Lee Odom’s. Music between acts was performed by Chelsea Nolan. Original music by Janice Lee Odom was a central theme of the play presented. Many of the team members participated, either as narrators, actors, or directors. The Powell County team was such a success that when they were acknowledged many people stood in ovation.

                The legendary Jean Houston, one of the founders of the Human Potential movement and good friend to such amazing people as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and the late Margaret Mead, was on hand to teach the social artistry portion of the training.

                “In all, six community teams from Clay, Letcher, Lewis, Monroe, Owsley, and Powell Counties attended the Building Creative Communities Conference with the aid of Flex-E Grant funding. Participants will now build upon this experience and put those stores to use as they begin the process of mining their local oral histories to collect stories and develop stage performances from them.” – Excerpt from the Brushy Fork Watershed Newsletter.

                The early stages of production planning have already begun in Powell County. If you would like to be a part of the Powell County Council for the Arts, contact Janice Lee Odom at 606.481.9431 or at FOCUS Magazine 606.663.1011.

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