Crystal Wilkinson, A Voice to be Heard
“I see myself as a role model, or at least a symbol for young women across the state, particularly young women of color in thinking about what they want to do in terms of writing but also anything they want to do. I hope there’ll be some young women motivated by that,” says Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s Poet laureate.
When in April of this year multiple award-winning novelist Crystal Wilkinson was named Kentucky’s newest Poet laureate — making history as the first Black woman selected — it was not much of a surprise to the Arts Insider, after having read the last two of Wilkinson’s novels and an advance copy of her upcoming first published volume of poetry (Perfect Black).
Quite simply, she possesses the ability to convey every single one of the five human senses (sight/hearing/touch/smell/taste) seemingly effortlessly on the printed page. “One of the things I teach when teaching writing, is that ‘a writer should engage the senses,’” says Wilkinson, who teaches Creative Writing, Appalachian Literature, and African American Literature at the University of Kentucky. “It’s something that I’ve done so long, that I can’t even say that I stop and say, ‘Hmmm, let me put in ….’ She pauses a moment and then adds, “Actually, I do! Sense of smell is the only one. It’s the most underrated sense for writers. So sometimes I have to go back and put smell in,” she admits. “The other senses seem to come to me in my imagination when I put a character in a scene,” she explains.
Is Wilkinson a fiction writer first, and a poet second?
“Well, I wouldn’t rank them anymore, having just won an O. Henry Prize [for one of the best short stories of 2021],” she replies. “But my primary accolades and primary publications have been in fiction. I also write non-fiction,” she continues, “and have always written poetry…sort of secretly,” she says.
As to whether Wilkinson ‘the Professor’ is the harshest critic for Wilkinson ‘the writer’ during the composition period, she laughs, before admitting, “I used to do that. But I don’t so much censor myself anymore. It’s like I have an outpouring process where I’m just being creative…like to think of it as all the arts, like a painter who gets started, then adds layers. For me, the beginning process is sort of ‘play,’ whereas in the revision process I guess Professor Wilkinson is present there.”
In her writing process, do her stories and characters make themselves known without much struggle, or is a blank page a blank page?
“I think it comes in both ways, and depends on if I’m working on a deadline,” Wilkinson says. “Working on a project, I’m usually pretty focused. If it’s a blank page or sometimes a new chapter or new turn in a novel, I can be stuck. Like I have a gap in a new novel I’m currently working on that I need to bridge,” she continues. “When I get over that hump I know where I’m going after that, because the novel is already done. It’s just unusual for this to happen. I have the beginning, I have the end. It’s just the middle (that) I need to work on.”
Wilkinson, who was born in Hamilton, Ohio, but relocated at six weeks old with her family to the south central foothills of Casey County, Kentucky, says: “I think my literary imagination will always begin where I grew up. Especially when writing fiction, then layering on possibilities and ideas on top of that. But if a character is sitting under a tree I think of a tree from my childhood first. When I think of a character walking down the road or anywhere out in nature… It all starts with memory,” she muses. “And imagination is pressed on top of that.”
“Country is as part of me as my full lips, my wide hips, my dreadlocks, my wide cheekbones.
The way the words roll off my tongue is the voice of my people.”
— from Perfect Black by Crystal Wilkinson