Frank X Walker visited The Academy Wednesday morning to brainwash a class of about 20 students. But what Kentucky’s poet laureate described as brainwashing was really a creative exercise to show the students that poetry is connected to the brain. Walker drew a rectangle with a circle in the middle of it on the whiteboard and asked the students to tell him what they saw.
“A cat playhouse.” “A hole in the ground.” “A Campbell’s soup can.” “A caution light.”
Walker asked if the students could see the moon through a window — they could.
“I want you to pay attention to how quickly your brain tells you that’s what it is,” he said. “You can’t not see it, it’s your brain forcing it on you.”
That’s what poetry does, Walker said. It makes people feel what the author feels and see what the author sees.
“If a poem can do that, that’s a good poem.”
He explained to the class the exercise is influenced by the people who participate. Jail inmates once told him the same rectangle and circle was like looking down the barrel of a 45 or a shotgun blast through the front door.
“Even though I had never looked down the barrel of a gun, when I turned around, that’s exactly what I saw,” he said. “I was trying to appreciate, one, how much power our brains have to see those things and how much power our brains have to make you see those things.”
Principal Melissa Rogers, who, like Walker, grew up in Danville, made some calls to invite the poet to speak. She wanted to show students at the alternative school what is possible for their futures.
“I want our students to see that we have a state poet laureate who, by his own words, came from a dysfunctional family and is hugely successful,” she said. “He was able to bring it home to our students that reading and literacy can get you places.”
Some students attend The Academy for the Day Treatment Program, which provides services for mental health and behavioral issues. Walker told the class poetry can serve as a way to cope with internal problems; it’s a way to release steam.
“Just living in the world, sometimes I’m pissed off,” Walker said, explaining what inspires him to write.
One student understood that.
“I feel that, I’m pissed off all the time,” the student said.
Walker answered questions about his background, which included living in poverty and being a first-generation college student.
“They could see someone who may have been in similar circumstances as they are, and they can overcome it,” Rogers said. “We are all about overcoming here, and getting through and seeing beyond. They need to see that people can be successful with a similar background.”
Walker was formally inducted as poet laureate April 24 in the Capitol Rotunda and has since been promoting the arts and poetry throughout the state and country. He has two published anthologies, six collections of poetry and other published work.
At the presentation at The Academy, however, he let the students lead the discussion. Students asked him about his childhood, the scars on his arm and hand, how old he was and what the ‘X’ stands for in his middle name.
And he didn’t hold back. He told the class about growing up in a family of 10 children in poverty and about a fight between his sister and mother. He told the class how three of his siblings have served a combined 37 years in the penitentiary, and two of them are addicted to drugs.
“The ‘X’ stands for the unknown, like in mathematics,” he said. “It stands for, ‘I don’t know what my African name is yet.’”
He explained the Muslim tradition of tracing the family tree to find traditional African names after records are lost, particularly because of slavery.
Growing up wasn’t easy for Walker, but through poetry and football he found outlets to allow himself to excel.
“Part of being human is you feel stuff,” he said. “Part of the challenge is what you do with that stuff.”