I didn’t read Frank X Walker’s poetry before hearing him speak today at Mount Mercy University, and I wish I had. And I wish I had taken notes as he spoke, so this post is based on rather faulty memory. But I like what I remember and I do want to recall more.
Memory, it seems to me, is partly what he is about—using poetry to fill in missing voices from the past.
Many of his poems concern the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
For some reason, however, what caught my attention most was York. York was an African-American slave who was on the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806. He was a key member of the expedition—his presence sometimes soothing the interaction between Native Americans and the white-skinned leaders of the party at key moments. His hunting skills kept the explorers from hunger as they trudged across the road-less American prairie and then over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
I was enchanted as Walker asked us to imagine what that was like. York and many other members of the party had lived their whole lives inside landlocked American territory, and what a wonder that first sight of limitless ocean would have been.
But York was illiterate, so the meticulously kept notes of the Lewis and ClarK Expedition do not include his voice.
Enter Walker. As he noted, whether poet or whatever, a writer often finds an opening by looking for what’s missing in a familiar narrative.
I liked listening to Walker—he is an engaging speaker. And he is a professor, too. As he noted at the end of his speech, some of his material was a bit challenging for a largely white Iowa audience, and he could tell by body language that a few of his listeners had a level of discomfort in what they were hearing.
And he noted what most professors notice—the body language of the disengaged. Students, when you slump in class or check or cell phone and otherwise visibly check out, what you’re doing is not really much of a mystery.
Anyway, I was not able to make it to Walker’s evening reading, which I wish I had been to. I was meeting grandkids off campus for a parade, and then attended a memorial service on campus for a student who died recently in a car accident—too much to do. The question-and-answer in the afternoon was well worth my time, and I only wish I had squeezed in the evening program, too.
Still, I hope to pick up some of his writings soon. His subject matter sounds fascinating, and if his poetry is as good as his engaged, natural speaking style—well, it’s probably pretty good.