There’s a fascinating program tonight at 5:30 at the Art Institute’s Morton Auditorium, as part of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (which is holding lots of great events, see below): a reading by members of the Affrilachian Poets collective.

A friend tipped me off to it, and as soon as I heard “Affrilachian” I knew I was familiar with them somewhere in the back of my brain. So I asked my mom to tell me a bit more about the Affrilachian poets and Frank X Walker, the poet and professor who coined the term, a portmanteau combining “African” and “Appalachian.” (She’s been involved in Appalachian Studies for most of her professional life.) Here’s what she wrote:

“Yes, I probably have brought him up. He is one of my favorites. His poetry is nice, and some is wonderful. His real contribution, I think, is in his pushing for the true acknowledgment of other Appalachian ethnic groups. He has been to Radford several times to teach and to do readings…. He came for an AASIS event when I was there (he was the first in his family to graduate from college); he read poetry and talked to about 200 high school and RU students who loved him and his work. Many of those kids bought his books that day. He has a quiet, self-assured way, he is funny and lovely, and he adds a unique perspective to Appalachian studies that was missing.

“His word, Affrilachian, which I love, is now in the dictionary. He said the term came about because someone at his college (I think) wrote about a group of writers as ‘Southern’ rather than Appalachian because a black writer was part of the group. He realized that blacks and other ethic groups were not called Appalachian, and, yet, his family had been in the area for a couple generations. He is not as old as I am, and, yet, he is in large part responsible for the recognition of other ethnic groups in Appalachia as Appalachians. It made me see again that we don’t often see prejudice unless we are directly impacted. He represents life in Kentucky, mainly, and his upbringing in the projects. His themes cover the black experience in Appalachia (every class has its own classes!); growing up in a minority culture that was itself a minority culture; hope for black children; the beauty and contributions of a silent minority; coal mining; family; and, as a real Appalachian, Place. He really believes that art can help to expose and solve social issues, and he helps others to see that. Our students were very receptive to that idea.

“My friend-colleague Theresa Burris did her dissertation on Affrilachian writing. I found her abstract just now:

“A voice of their own: The Affrilachian writers by Burriss, Theresa Lynne, Ph.D., Union Institute and University, 2005, 146 pages; AAT 3168555 Abstract (Summary)

‘A Voice of Their Own: The Affrilachian Writers,” is a literary and cultural analysis of three African American writers and their work. Frank X Walker, Nikky Finney, and Crystal Wilkinson have published poems and short stories that enable them to claim a space and a voice for themselves in a society that has traditionally attempted to make them invisible and silent. Walker’s naming of Affrilachia became a rallying point for these authors as they sought to make their place within both the African American and Appalachian literary canons, as they incorporated cultural traits from both traditions in their works. Various literary theories and methodologies, such as feminist, African American, postcolonial, and cultural, direct and inform the analysis and critique of the Affrilachians’ work. Moreover, historical reviews of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, along with their respective ideologies and aesthetics, illustrate the Affrilachians’ reliance on their artistic predecessors, whether for political or cultural cues. Appalachian characteristics, such as a reliance on family, dependence on land, importance of place, and self-sufficiency, also infuse their works. The historic tragedies of Appalachia, whether economic, psychological, or environmental, also make their way into the Affrilachians’ writing and thus situate the writers within an Appalachian tradition. Clearly, the Affrilachian Writers have melded several traditions to forge a new place for themselves in the literature of the twenty-first century.”

Unfortunately I don’t think Walker is participating, the only one of the Affrilachian poets I’ve read (currently reading Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, his poem cycle about York, the “body servant” of William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, and who was part of the expedition. Last year he published a sequel, When Winter Come, and he recently started the journal pluck!)

Like I said, there’s some great stuff at the AWP conference all over town. Here are a couple more of note:

* Featherproof Books reading, 2/13, with an all-star cast of local luminaries: Jonathan Messinger (Hiding Out), Todd Dills (Sons of the Rapture), Christian Tebordo (Better Ways of Being Dead), Patrick Somerville (The Cradle), Amelia Gray (AM/PM), Kyle Beachy (The Slide), Chris Bower, and Zach Plague (Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring)

* Polyphony H.S. fundraiser, 2/12, featuring Stuart Dybek, Alexander Hemon, and Gina Nahai

* Unfortunately I missed Jayne Anne Phillips, but she looks like a writer to get wise to.