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“Voices from Affrilachia” highlights the poetry of African American Appalachian artists

By Staff | Jul 20, 2018

Left to right, Ricardo Nazario-Colon, Asha French and Frank X Walker discuss their poetry during the question and answer time during the Voices from Affralachia event. Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN – The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Summer Institute for Teachers hosted “Voices from Affrilachia” at the Robert C. Byrd Center Monday evening.

The public event drew attention to the Affrilachian Poets, a grassroots group of about 30 African American artists from Appalachia, whose experiences in Appalachia influence their work and focus audience. Three Affrilachian poets — Frank X Walker, Ricardo Nazario-Colon and Asha French — spoke about and read some of their works during the poetry reading.

“I think the Affrilachian Poets are the best poets around right now,” said Shepherd English professor and Appalachian Studies Coordinator Sylvia Shurbutt at the beginning of the event. “I’ve had many high school students who have said, ‘I don’t read poetry, but I read Frank X Walker.’ That is the way the world ought to be, where the poets are the rock stars.”

Shurbutt said she first realized the Affrilachian Poets needed to be included in Appalachian literature programs after she met Walker and read his poetry, and began to follow the Affrilachian Poets more closely.

Each poet read and spoke for about 20 minutes, before the evening ended with a question and answer session.

“We write a lot of personal stuff. Between the three of us, I think we cover a lot of ideas, people, places and the fight for survival,” said Walker, an African American and Africana Studies professor at the University of Kentucky.

Walker’s poetry, which is known as thoughtful and reserved, contrasted extremely with that of his self-proclaimed favorite Affrilachian poet, Nazario-Colon.

“I think life is poetry; every moment is a poem. I’m an exposed nerve ending, exposed to life’s different sensations,” said Western Carolina University Chief Diversity Officer Nazario-Colon.

His experiences heavily influence his poetry and is often written in a mixture of Spanish and English.

Nazario-Colon didn’t start writing poetry regularly until he entered United States Marine Corps Recruit Training at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Walker and French, on the other hand, both grew up reading and writing poetry which, according to Kentucky State University Professor French, began in her life at a young age.

“I’ve been writing since I was six. I think I was born poeting, and my first fights with my brothers were poems, in a sense. I don’t remember a time in my life without poetry,” said French, whose intense poetry often discusses social issues like domestic violence. “I’m always processing what I hear being said, and also thinking about how it could be turned into real art.”