Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet
Kentucky Arts Council

  Kentucky Arts Council
Tom Musgrave


Lexington Writer Crystal Wilkinson Appointed
2021-22 Kentucky Poet Laureate

FRANKFORT, Ky. (March 26, 2021) — Multiple award-winning novelist Crystal Wilkinson of Lexington has been appointed 2021-22 Kentucky Poet Laureate by Gov. Andy Beshear.

Wilkinson will be inducted as the next state poet laureate as part of the Kentucky Writers’ Day celebration. The virtual ceremony will be held 10 a.m. Eastern April 23 on the Kentucky Arts Council’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Wilkinson is the first Black woman to be appointed as the state’s poet laureate. She has received an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council for her work in literary arts.

Born in Hamilton, Ohio, Wilkinson’s family moved to Kentucky when she was six weeks old. Growing up in Casey County, she cultivated a love of literature and reading from an early age. Her grandmother read to her every day. One book, “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls, was important to her love of reading and a gateway to a career in writing.

“I always come back to this book,” Wilkinson said. “At the time, there weren’t many African American books I was exposed to. Was first time I saw myself in a book. It was my first foray into imagination.”

Wilkinson is the award-winning author of “The Birds of Opulence,” winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence; “Water Street;” and “Blackberries, Blackberries.” Nominated for both the Orange Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and is a recipient of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing.

She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her short stories, poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including most recently in the Oxford American and Southern Cultures. Wilkinson has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Spalding University and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Eastern Kentucky University. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky.

“The Birds of Opulence” has been selected by Kentucky Humanities for its Kentucky Reads statewide book discussion program. Wilkinson’s next book, “Perfect Black,” will be released in August.

Wilkinson said she is proud to take on the position and the responsibility that comes with being Kentucky Poet Laureate and highlighted the legacy associated with the distinction.

“It feels glorious to be named Kentucky Poet Laureate. It feels like a validation of my life’s work,” she said. “I feel very proud as a woman of letters in the state. When I looked at the list, it’s wonderful to be a part of that legacy. Sena Naslund was a mentor for a number of years. James Baker Hall was an advocate for my work. George Ella [Lyon] also has advocated for my work. Certainly Frank [X Walker] and Gurney [Norman] are others I value.

“It feels like coming home to be part of the legacy of Kentucky letters.”

During her tenure as poet laureate, Wilkinson wants to hear the stories of her fellow Kentuckians from all walks of life.

“I hope to amplify the wondrous variety of Kentucky stories by going to libraries, either via Zoom or in-person,” she said. “I’m interested in stories from different cultures.”

She hopes to be an inspiration to young people with an eye toward a career in writing.

“One of the misfortunes of me coming up as a blossoming writer was that I didn’t see anyone who looks like me at all,” Wilkinson said. “I’m hoping that young girls can see they, too, can be writers, as well as all people of color.”

She also wants to connect with senior Kentuckians.

“There is wisdom in our elderly population. I’d like community centers and senior centers to put me in touch with those elders,” she said. “Their stories need to heard, preserved and told.”

Kentucky Writers’ Day is celebrated annually on or around April 24, the birthday of Guthrie, Kentucky, native Robert Penn Warren, the first United States Poet Laureate. In odd numbered years, the governor appoints a poet laureate to a two-year term. That person acts as Kentucky’s literary ambassador, leading the commonwealth in a variety of literary activities and events throughout their tenure.

This year’s Writers’ Day will feature readings by former poets laureate, as well as remarks and a reading by Wilkinson. Later that day at 6 p.m. Eastern, Paul Sawyier Public Library in Frankfort will host a virtual event on its Facebook page featuring readings by Wilkinson and former poets laureate.

As an ongoing celebration of Kentucky Writers’ Day, the Kentucky Arts Council will feature videos submitted by Kentucky writers reading their own works. Details about how to participate will be forthcoming on the arts council’s social media platforms.

For more information on the Kentucky Poet Laureate and Kentucky Writers’ Day, visit the arts council website or contact Tamara Coffey, organization support and individual artist director, at or 502-892-3121.

Follow us! Like us! View us! Join the conversation! Instagram Pinterest

The Kentucky Arts Council, the state arts agency, fosters environments for Kentuckians to value, participate in and benefit from the arts. Kentucky Arts Council funding is provided by the Kentucky General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts.