Celebrating Our Culture 

Discovering the Voice 
of Rural Black Women

An Interview with Author Crystal E. Wilkinson

by Joyce Dixon

Crystal E. Wilkinson is in many ways the spark that flames creativity in beginning and seasoned writers.  As assistant director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky, Wilkinson teaches creative writing and works with literary programs at the Center.

She is a charter member of the Affrilachian Poets, an organization that celebrates the black voices of Appalachia.  Wilkinson serves as chair of the creative writing department for the Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts and takes an active role in the Roots and Heritage Festival.  

Crystal E. Wilkinson grew up in rural Kentucky and uses that rich heritage in her book Blackberries, Blackberries.  Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and journals.

 

What is the most gratifying experience of being assistant director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning?  

Definitely working with someone who is leery of writing and then seeing them blossom...That is such a rewarding experience as a teacher to see someone who goes from not thinking they can write as well as their peers to embracing their own uniqueness self and to stand tall at a reading and speak their written words aloud.  

You teach several creative writing workshops at the Carnegie Center. What do you hope for your students to take away from the experience?  

Again, I think the most important thing any writer can reach for is to go within themselves and discover their voice...their own unique place in the world of words...I tell students that when they write they bring everything that has every happened to them to the page...parents or lack of parents, grandparents, siblings, their only-child self, likes/dislikes, heritage, upbringing, region, language, favorite foods, passions, loves, anger, ancestors, music, and VOICE...and when they sit with pen or pencil in hand the beauty of it all is that no other person in the entire world has experienced the things they bring to the table in the exact manner that they have...So nobody else can write what they write, the way they write it.  The greatest compliment that a writer can have is that if they dropped a piece of their writing and it doesn't have their name on it...if someone can pick it up and read it and know who it belongs to then they are on their way to establishing themselves as a writer. Getting comfortable, nestled in your own style, your own voice that other people can see is one of the most important things a writer can do. 

What is the mission of the Affrilachian Poets and how can other poets become involved? 

The mission of the group as Frank X Walker our founder put it is to present "edu-taining" readings, workshops and classes to promote literacy and to preserve and celebrate the unique culture of Affrilachia. Frank coined that phrase so that black writers from the area would cease to be invisible so that we could be recognized contributors to the rich culture of this area. And it goes deeper than that we are more than just a writing group we are family. We have witnessed each others lives over the years and celebrated together--births of both babies and books, weddings, and grieved loss of loved ones, relationships, job changes--everything--we are indeed a family. We are a core group of about 12 members and three of us (Nikky Finney, Frank Walker and myself) have books that have been published and there are so many more of our members who are sure to have books out soon.  We will be featured in a PBS documentary called Affrilachian Poets: Coal Black Voices. We have started something that is bigger than any of us individually and it keeps growing and growing with or without our individual help.  Right now official members are accepted by invitation only and must have demonstrated a commitment to writing; in reading and performance; a high level of quality and talent in writing; and improvement of their writing through workshopping.  Workshops are currently held in Louisville with workshops starting back up in Lexington in the spring. 

Coming from a rural Appalachia background, what influences your poetry and prose that may be different from those in urban settings? 

Well entire upbringing effects my poetry and prose.  I have a tendency to always keep at least a kernel of what I know in my work and what I know is green grass, hickory nut trees, fried apple pies, milking the cows, wading in the creek, being grandparent raised on a farm--all those types of things that connect with my countryness.  I spent so many years trying to suppress my rural roots and the country twang in my voice that I talk about it and write about it so much now that folks probably get tired of me talking about it but the fact is that when I was growing up in an Appalachian community as only one of three blacks in the entire school system, I had some really tough times. So once I got away from that and went to college I really wanted to forget about the beginning of my life.  What I didn't know then that I know now is that you can never get away from the beginning of your life that the first twelve years of your life molds you and you will always be influenced and effected by what happened in those years and yes they were some painful years in some ways.  But in many, many more ways they were WONDERFUL carefree years.   Because I was there everyday and wanted to just get off that hill, I didn't appreciate the beauty of the countryside, the warmth and love from my grandparents, home-cooked meals, carefree days, the sun, the values of a small town--none of that.  Now my writing takes me back there and I physically return home as much as I can.  The country is such a magical place for me. 

Blackberries, Blackberries is an emotional gathering of character sketches.  You show a variety of life experiences for black women.  How did your background in poetry aid the power of your words about these women?  

I don't think I could ever get away from the fact that I am a poet no matter what I'm writing.  I have been writing some essays lately and folks are telling me that some of them sound like poetry too.  But the reality of it all is that I was a fiction writer first.  When I was a little girl up on the creek, I was an only child and reading and writing became my playmates. I would take a pen or pencil and go down by the creek or at the edge of the yard for hours making up stories.  It was later that I got into poetry and returning to fiction just completes the circle. 

The female images are so strong in Blackberries, Blackberries.  What do you wish the reader to take away from these women?  

Collectively these stories are a praise song to the varied experiences of the country, black woman. It is my hope that they paint a clear picture of the black woman as varied in her circumstances as any other woman. I want it to be clear that all black women in the United States aren't urban women living in cities and large towns. 

There are black women all over the South up gravel roads, along creek banks and in small towns and in nice homes at the end of unnamed streets who are just living every day lives or living extraordinary lives.  Also the women are black women but I hope their southern and Appalachian culture shines through. It has been amazing to me that an equal number of white women and men have said that they could relate to various stories in the book.  I got a letter from an 84 year old white woman in Ohio who said she could relate to the stories.  So that makes me believe that the humanity that I hope I have portrayed in them is universal.   

Do you believe in “writer’s block” or “waiting for the muse to strike”?   

NO..absolutely not!!!! (smile)  

I get on my students all the time about that.  There is no such thing as writer's block.  I think that writing is 64 percent a talent that you are born with, 11 percent learned from outside influences and that the most important part is that other 25 percent, which is hard work and practice. 

 

I try to write everyday and expect my students to do the same.  If you are working on a piece and you get stuck on it that just means that you need to be working on something else.  I tell them to set an egg timer on 15 minutes as a start and just write about anything and everything.  Just like you have to practice to be a good musician, dancer, ball player or whatever...you must write to be a writer and writer's block is just a cop out.   

Why is creative writing important for young people? 

I think the majority of your childhood is spent being told what to do.  Do this! Do that!  Even in school you HAVE to write about this or you have to write about that. I think that it is important for young people to learn that writing can be a tool for self-expression that is something just for them or something to share with a larger audience.  A whole world is opened up if you can learn to process your thoughts --your angry thoughts, your happy thoughts, your sad thoughts.  Then you can move on to other things.  As a child there is always something that you are feeling that you don't know how to express verbally. 

Writing opens up all those channels and gives young people an outlet that they can be in control of. 

Could you tell our readers about the Roots & Heritage Festival held in Kentucky each September.  

The Roots and Heritage Festival, which I have been involved in since 1990, is a very popular cultural event which draws thousands of people to Lexington every year.  It is an award-winning festival for its cultural and educational programs such as art exhibits, literary readings, golf tournament, film presentations, health fair, a ball, comedy night, a parade, and the two-day outdoor festival.  The two-day festival culminates the event with the African Marketplace, children's programming, and two stages of entertainment.  The festival will celebrate 13 years in September of 2001. For more information about the festival call Catherine Warner at 859-533-7688 or 859-254-9339 or any engine search for "roots and heritage festival" will lead you to the websites that have all the information. 

What is your next release (poetry and prose)?  

Well I am always working and I am currently working on several projects--another short story collection, a novel, and I have a completed body of poetry tentatively titled Ain't Nothin Homemade No More that is awaiting a publisher.


Blackberries, Blackberries
by Crystal E. Wilkinson
Toby Press, 2000
ISBN: 1-902881-34-6
 
"These stories come from the ordinary and the extraordinary.  From black, country women with curious lives.  From struggle, from fear, from love, from life, from the gut, from the heart.  Black and juicy, just like a blackberry."
        
 -- from the introduction of Blackberries, Blackberries

Southern Scribe Review


Upcoming Events

The Works of Linda  Scott DeRosier, Crystal E. Wilkinson, and Kelly Norman Ellis
Thursday, January 11, 2001  7pm
The Carnegie Center

Sponsored by the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.  Free and open to the public.  For more information about the Book Discussion groups, please phone the Carnegie Center at 859-254-41750.

Writing Workout (Fiction & Poetry)
Instructor: Crystal E. Wilkinson
Saturday, January 20, 2001 10:30 am to 2 pm
Fee: $60
The Carnegie Center

We have three-and-a-half hours to get started on the greatest poem or short story you have ever written.  The pressure to write is often intimidating, but sitting for hours with your fist under your chin in thinker mode or talking about the fabulous piece that is floating through your head is not writing.  Instead, of waiting for the muse to come, we will jump right in and write.  Spend three-and-a-half hours translating memories into fiction and poetry, experimenting with image, and writing 'til you sweat.  Together we will read and discuss the results of these exercises:  what is the piece becoming?  which directions might s/he go? what is most intriguing about the piece? what are the potential strengths and weaknesses?  Perhaps you will come up with a completely new work a character or image that completes a poem or story in progress.  Come away with enough seedlings for stories and poems to keep you busy until the fall.


© 2001 Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved