Crystal Wilkinson on Her Personal Evolution, Food, and Writing Exercises

The women that make me a woman
whisper Good Morning in my ears sometimes.
They been long done past over yonder
but I see them just the same.
All these women that make me a woman
kiss sense into my head sometimes.
They are churning butter
baking fresh bread
peering over wire-rimmed glasses.
Girl you can do it, come on now, I hear them say

—from “Heritage”

I read this, and I’m sent back in time to my own grandmother’s kitchen on a North Carolina summer day on the tobacco farm, the smell of corn bread frying in the cast-iron skillet, her cotton dress soaked in sweat, and the heat seemingly never less than 100 degrees.

Crystal Wilkinson’s first poetry collection, and fourth book, Perfect Black, does this to readers. As Wilkinson says “I hope people see themselves in this book and, if they’re open to it, possibly learn something about an area and a people they are not familiar with. And maybe learn something about themselves, as well.”

I think this memoir in verse accomplishes that vision, because while I felt deeply connected to these poems, I did not know about the Black experience in rural Appalachia and had much to learn as a white person.

Crystal was raised on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, and food is one of many elements on her “clothesline of storylines.” She explores her own “coming of age, awakening, and adulthood,” and along the way reveals the realities of religion, racism, sexual abuse, mother/grandparent relationships, and mental illness.

I had the great fortune to speak with Kentucky’s newly appointed Poet Laureate in June.

In an interview with Galleyway, you spoke of the lack of rural Black voices in contemporary writing, and of your own attempt to escape your upbringing by training the Southern accent out of your voice. As this book attests, you’ve found your way back to where you came from in your writing. Can you speak a bit about this personal evolution?

I do an exercise in my creative writing class where I tell the students to draw a dog. As a child you are really certain it looks like a dog and you present it to your parents and they say, “Oh, honey, what’s that?” and you tell them confidently it’s a dog. But later on, there’s this questioning, because my dog doesn’t look like Sally’s. The same thing happened with identity. I was confident with who I was and my place with my grandparents there in that isolated world and then I remember cousins coming and making fun of my accent, even before I went to school, so that was the beginning of it. Everyone else around me speaks like this, and then when I went to college, I’d never thought of the way I speak attached to whiteness or even to any sort of particular area. But once at college, it was, “Where are you from and why are you talking like that? You sound white.”

It became something I began to reckon with. It also came up in my studies, because I was a journalism major, particularly when I was taking radio and television classes, this was a huge problem. And I remember that feeling of “this needs to be gotten rid of, I need to erase this.” You want to be known for whatever you want to be known for, and you get tired of talking about your accent all the time. I was determined to overcome this accent, so I took speech classes early on and did a very good job of becoming a chameleon and learning to code-switch. But then something happened when I began to go home. One of my grandparents became sick and I realized I’d never thought they’d pass away. I wanted to collect all their stories. I started really to become entrenched in my heritage and their stories. We had a graveyard on our property and I wanted to know everything about it. So, at some point some of it turned into writing and through the process there was also something that just sort of opened up in me to embrace who I was and where I was from. A big part of that was also embracing my original tongue.

Perfect Black is your first poetry collection. Was your focus, process, or approach any different in writing poetry versus fiction?

I’ve kind of gone back and forth about this question. One thing is, I’ve always written and loved poetry, probably even more than prose, so there was this sort of protection of poetry and not wanting to reveal it as much to people. There’s always been this kind of coveting of the small wonders that are poetry, more so than prose. I think part of what we all do as writers is stand before the world naked in some way, and there is a certain vulnerability. But when you are a fiction writer you can put the bones and meat down and there’s a thread of truth, and it’s kind of fun because no one knows how deep or wide the thread of truth is. You can do that in poetry, but when I write poems I think that those vulnerabilities are on the surface more. Even if there was a speaker, the truth was always right underneath it, instead of buried deep down. So that awareness of vulnerability was much different for me in this book than my other books because it is not as hidden. Before I would sprinkle a bit of myself or familial truth into my character, but it just stands there in a poem, like these stalks of truth.

You play with a range of form, from two-line stanzas to longer prose poems. I’m curious if you came to the page for poetry with specific ideas of form in mind? And then, how did organizing the collection come together?

I think I did when I was writing the individual pieces, and then another process had to happen when the book began to come together. As some poems and lyrics fell by the wayside and I began to look at them as a collective, and start thinking about them thematically, then it became even more frightening in some ways because I said, “Whoa, there’s a big truth there. Oh my gosh, here this is.” When I’m writing fiction, I always think of these storylines sort of like clotheslines, like this is a through line, now what scenes are going to hang on this? Like if there is a through line of a mother-daughter relationship, what scenes am I then going to put in the novel that I’ve already written, or that I need to write, that will solidify that storyline, or the mental illness thread, or whatever themes there are in the book. In some ways the same thing happened with this. I hadn’t really planned on writing a memoir in verse, but a lot of the poems that were heavily threaded with topics that were more away from me or in styles that were more away from my truth began to thin out.

A good poet friend, Rebecca Gayle Howell, looked at the poems for another project and said, “I think you have a collection” and I said, “No, no, that’s not what I do.” So, we began to look at it together, at some of the sections and what they were doing. In some ways it is almost like a contrapuntal. And I mean that in the loosest of ways. If we look at it as a memoir in verse, the first section is coming of age, the second an awakening, third, sort of grown woman poems, so it can be read that way. But also, you can look at the grandmother poems by themselves, or the grandfather poems, or look at the poems that look at women’s bodies that tie in about sexual abuse. There’s a variety of ways to look at them. These clotheslines can be read backwards and forwards.

Do you have a particular poem or poems that you feel embodies the book more than others?

There are two versions of the same poem in the book that I keep going back to for form and content. “A Meditation on Grief: Things We Carry, Things We Remember” and “The Creek.” I wanted to play with form, but I also wanted to play with what prose, poetry, and a particular story has to offer. It’s interesting already how people have read them. It’s been called a story, a prose poem, a poem, and someone contacted me recently and wants to use it in an anthology as an example of flash nonfiction. I embrace all of that because I think it does that, and it was my intention when I wrote it. There is fiction here in that there is a speaker telling the story, and it relies on language and repetition to do its work, and then sort of embedded in the middle of it is a truth. The almost-drowning is a very real truth and became almost a haunt in a lot of my work because it actually happened to me. It is sort of an emotional landscape touchstone that I come back to often. It is an abiding image that I carry throughout all my work of this almost drowning and my grandmother wading in to save me with her dress billowing out. That’s a perfect example of poetry meeting nonfiction, of me no longer being a sort of bifurcated writer, a fiction self and a poet self. I have a tendency now to allow them all in and to claim the same space.

Food takes center stage in many of these poems, particularly in one of my favorites, “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” and to me, takes on a much larger and far-reaching meaning than just recipes handed down. Can you talk about that?

One of the things I said in another interview is I think that food and the foodways, the way it’s grown and prepared, are as much a part of the culture as the accents. It has to do with that sort of ancestral nature and the heritage we pass on, and how much of that is saved. Talking about myself, I wonder how much of it I can do and continue because I’m a city woman now. There’s a lot in this examination of food about trying to reach back, and how much is there, how much can I really grab onto and bring forward. Even though my children have all had “pandemic gardens,” I don’t see that as farming. But even that little bit had been really spiritual for me, and they’ve asked me lots of questions, many of which I’ve lost the capacity to answer because I’ve lost so much from the previous generation. I think that’s part of the heritage, preparing the food, knowing where it comes from, the way it is served. We’re preserving both food and memories.

I’m always interested in a writer’s process, and you’ve mentioned in interviews that some of the writing exercises you give to your students you use yourself. Tell me about that.

I do give myself a lot of exercises for writing. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I just believe maybe it’s not time for that piece, or that you haven’t dug deeply enough to sort of pull out the piece. I do spend a lot of my writing time designing exercises for myself to sort of excavate and unearth. So much of it is like an archaeological dig. I’m like, “Where is it? I’ve got to find it.” I’ve got to find ways to get it out of me, so I dive back into my cache of exercises I give my beginning writers, graduate students, and community writers. I don’t give them any exercises I haven’t done myself.

A memoir can certainly feel like the most personal of excavations. Did you have any surprising discoveries or epiphanies on the inner dig of this book?

When I write fiction, it feels personal, but I’m the only one that knows why. I think with these poems it happened in a much more profound way. The epiphany was “there I am on the page in ways I’ve never been before,” all in one small volume. It’s like things you’ve held close, that I may have hidden in fiction, are distilled down to their essence in this book in a particular way.

I’d like to thank you for your generosity of self and time. What a pleasure it has been to spend time with you.

Perfect Black is available now, and be on the look-out for Crystal Wilkinson’s next book, a culinary memoir called Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghost.

Perfect Black
By Crystal Wilkinson
University Press of Kentucky
Published August 3, 2021