The JSU Department of English, Foreign Languages, and Speech Communication hosted Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson for a poetry reading, book signing, and masterclass for her award-winning book ‘Perfect Black’ on Oct. 27.
The event, inspired by the newly developed creative writing program at JSU, was an opportunity for students and aspiring writers to be introduced to the world of creative writing as a profession.
“We want to expose as many of our students as possible to these folks who are successful and really contributing in all of these dynamic ways to the field of creative writing. We want to give them that access that they’re not only learning from us in the classroom but also from professionals of this art in real-time,” said Ebony Lumumba, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of the department of English, foreign languages, and speech communication.
Students and representatives from Jim Hill High School, Piney Woods School, and Jackson State University filled the rows of the theater inside the JSU Student Center to join in on a conversation amongst “grown folks.” Wilkinson shared stories from her childhood, often emphasizing her Blackness, the beauty of dishes passed down by ancestors, and the conversations usually for adult ears only throughout her writing.
“In this particular book, ‘Perfect Black,’ being able to speak about Black girlhood and being country, and growing up in a rural area, was important. I’ve been happy to see that people can relate to that too,” said Wilkinson, a 2022 NAACP Image Award winner for outstanding poetry.
‘Perfect Black’ is a collection of poems about ancestry, mental health in the Black community, and the evolution of Black girlhood. It is Wilkinson’s first set of published poems.
“I think that there’s always some thread of truth-telling and a way to pay homage to the ancestors in some way. That’s always a primary theme in my work,” she said.
JSU’s Creative Writing Program offers aspiring students the opportunity to embark on the world of writing and hone in on their creative gifts as a concentration for English majors or a minor, regardless of the student’s area of study. Students can explore becoming poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, screenwriters, or even songwriters, and more under the creative writing program.
“We are the only urban research university in the state of Mississippi with a creative writing program, and we know that one of the things our state is known for is literary arts,” said Lumumba. “So we understand Jackson State’s role in that, and we want our students and our community to be clear on Jackson State’s role in that and to contribute to it moving forward.”
Wilkinson, who credits herself as a “fiction writer who also writes poetry,” noted that JSU is the first HBCU where she has hosted a poetry reading for her book ‘Perfect Black.’
“I think that this was wonderful. It’s wonderful for me to be at an HBCU and to have a whole audience of Black students, primarily, because that’s rare for me and energized me today in ways that other places haven’t,” Wilkinson says. “Jackson and Jackson State have so much historical influence, and I’ve always wanted to be here. Being the poet laureate of Kentucky and being able to come, as the second Black poet laureate of Kentucky, to a university with so much Black significance is really important to me.”
JSU junior and creative writing major Kaitlin Taylor attended the poetry reading and masterclass, stating that, as a fiction and short-story writer, one day, hopefully, “I can do this.”
“I really enjoyed listening to her read her work because I read a little over half of her book last night, and I enjoyed hearing her put her energy into it. She spoke a lot about being from the country, so that part is something that I can connect with, in a way, because of my family,” said Taylor.
Victoria Washington, an English grad student at JSU, introduced Wilkinson as a speaker at the event. She also attended a masterclass led by the Kentucky poet that was offered to English students following the poetry reading.
Washington says that she was introduced to Wilkinson’s work through one of her recent classes and has been eager to meet the writer since.
“I read ‘The Birds of Opulence,’ and it conveyed things such as mental illness and depression in a way that I had never seen acknowledged in the Black community. I was moved, first, by the work in that novel and, then, when I read some of her poetry in ‘Perfect Black,’ I was moved to tears,” said Washington. “All of her work has moved me to tears. I was incredibly grateful to get the opportunity to spend time with her. It felt good to be seen by her, heard by her, and hear from her.”