by Katy Yocom
Before they broke barriers as Kentucky’s first openly gay Poet Laureate, first Black Poet Laureate, and first Black woman Poet Laureate, respectively, Silas House, Frank X Walker, and Crystal Wilkinson were classmates in Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program.
Silas House, who now serves on the faculty of Spalding’s MFA in Writing program, was inducted as Poet Laureate for 2023-24 by Gov. Andy Beshear on April 24. House took over the role from his classmate, Wilkinson. Also in the audience was Walker, their mutual Spalding MFA classmate and former state poet laureate. All three now have illustrious careers as award-winning authors and accomplished educators.
Even in their early days as Spalding MFA students, it was clear big things lay ahead for the three.
Back in 2001, Wilkinson and Walker entered Spalding as members of its charter MFA class. Both came with published books already to their credit; Walker was also known as the founder of the Affrilachian Poets. The next spring, House joined the young program as a fiction student. Like Wilkinson and Walker, he entered the program as a published author. The three shared meals in the Spalding cafeteria and sat in the same lecture hall to hear talks on the craft of writing. Their book publications qualified the three to “accelerate,” or graduate a semester early. Walker and Wilkinson did so in May 2003, part of a tiny class of four early-graduating students. That October, House caught up with the rest of the charter class for a big, pomp-and-circumstance graduation ceremony at Louisville’s historic Seelbach Hotel.
Fast forward ten years and Frank X Walker, whose output of poetry collections had steadily grown since graduating with his MFA, was inducted as Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2013-14, the first Black person ever to hold that role. He has since published a total eleven collections of poetry and has won the NAACP Image Award for Poetry, a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry, and many other awards. He frequently writes historical persona poetry about Black figures including Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and 19th-century jockey Isaac Murphy. He directs the MFA program at University of Kentucky, where he is English professor and also serves as Professor of African American and Africana Studies.
Next of the three classmates, Crystal Wilkinson was named Poet Laureate for 2021-22, serving her term as the pandemic played out. Her numerous awards include a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Poetry, and the Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. She is author of three acclaimed works of fiction and a collection of poems, Perfect Black. Her collection Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts: Recipes and Stories from Five Generations of Black Mountain Cooks is due out in 2024. She writes often about Black characters in the rural mountain South. Like Walker, she serves as Professor of English and of African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky.
Following immediately in Wilkinson’s footsteps, House was inducted as Poet Laureate for 2023-24. In the twenty years since he graduated from Spalding, his literary career has taken off. He is the New York Times best-selling author of seven novels, most recently Lark Ascending. He has contributed essays to The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other national publications. He has several produced plays and works of nonfiction, and he publishes widely as a music journalist. His frequently writes—and speaks—on topics of social justice. In addition to teaching on the MFA faculty at Spalding’s Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, he also serves as the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair at Berea College.
During the induction ceremony, House spoke about identity. His paternal grandfather was a coal miner; his family’s roots run deep in the Appalachian soil. House was taught that his rural Kentucky identity was something to be proud of, despite pervasive negative stereotypes. “When you’re from a place, or a culture, or a way of being that is constantly negated, belittled, or erased, you love it harder,” he said. “But I have learned this: The more people try to erase us, the more pride we have. The more they try to dull us, the brighter we will shine.” House continued, “I am the first openly gay person to serve as Kentucky’s poet laureate.” But, he said, “like most people, I have many identities. To quote Walt Whitman . . . ‘I contain multitudes.’”
The position of Poet Laureate was established in Kentucky in 1926 to promote the literary arts in the state. According to the Kentucky Arts Council’s website, nominees must “reside in Kentucky, have a long association with the Commonwealth, and have a critically acclaimed published body of work that is informed by living in Kentucky. The word ‘poet’ in the position's title is interpreted in its broadest sense to include writers whose accomplishments are in any literary form.” The new poet laureate is traditionally inducted on Kentucky Writers’ Day, April 24, celebrating the birthday of Robert Penn Warren, a Kentuckian and the first poet laureate of the United States.
The Spalding low-residency MFA program was founded in 2001 by Sena Jeter Naslund and Karen Mann and is now the flagship creative writing program in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.