Showcasing the Arts

Crystal Wilkinson
Kentucky Poet Laureate

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

Kentucky Poet Laureate activities

To request a reading or other activity, email the poet laureate at Include "Poet Laureate Request" in the subject line.

Credit: Stacie Pottinger, Rogue Studios

Crystal Wilkinson is from Indian Creek, Casey County, Kentucky, and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poet movement. She is a 2020 United States Artists Fellow and teaches at the University of Kentucky. Her work primarily involves the stories of Black women and communities in the Appalachian and rural Southern literary canon.

Born in Hamilton, Ohio, Wilkinson grew up with her grandparents on their farm about three miles east of Middleburg, Ky., from the time she was six weeks old. The Wilkinson and Patton families were among the few African American families in the area. Like many farmers in Appalachia, Wilkinson’s grandfather Silas grew cash crops of tobacco and corn and produced sorghum molasses; and her grandmother, Christine Wilkinson, cleaned and cooked in the homes of the local schoolteachers of Casey County. Wilkinson wrote that she “lived an enchanted childhood” and that her grandparents “gave me the freedom to explore the countryside and to write, to dream, to discover.” She wrote about her childhood and her upbringing in the introduction to her award-winning book of fiction, “Blackberries, Blackberries.”

After graduating from Casey County High School, Wilkinson attended Eastern Kentucky University in nearby Richmond and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism in 1985. In 2003, she earned her Master of Fine Art in creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville.

Upon graduation, Wilkinson worked at the Lexington Herald-Leader as a news assistant and a market research assistant. From 1989 to 1995, she worked as a public information officer and community relations manager for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, editing their quarterly environmental newsletter and handling media relations for special projects. She also began volunteering her time to public service in Lexington, most notably the Roots and Heritage Festival, helping with publicity and coordinating the literary readings.

During this time, Wilkinson joined other Kentucky African-American writers (including Kelly Norman Ellis, Ricardo Nazario y Colon, Mitchell L. H. Douglas, and Daundra Scisney-Givens) at the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center at the University of Kentucky where Frank X Walker was the assistant director. The group, later called The Affrilachian Poets, was mentored by the poet Nikky Finney who was then teaching at the University of Kentucky.

In 1997, Wilkinson became the assistant director for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, in Lexington, where she taught writing and implemented a variety of programs and activities for Kentucky's literary arts scene and education efforts, including School After School tutoring for elementary students, Young Women Writers Project and New Books by Great Writers, which is now called the Kentucky Great Writers Series. From 1997 to 2001 and again in 2008, she taught high school juniors and seniors juried into the creative writing discipline for the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts.

In the spring of 2004, she served as the writer-in-residence for the Appalachian College Association, conducting advanced creative writing classes and one-on-one instruction for undergraduate writing students at Cumberland College, Lindsey Wilson College and Berea College. She has taught creative writing and literature at Eastern Kentucky University, Indiana University-Bloomington, Morehead State University and Berea College.

As of 2020, Wilkinson is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Kentucky, the Program in African American and Africana Studies. She also works with the UK Appalachian Center and the Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky.

She and her partner, the artist Ronald Davis, were the founders and editors of the briefly published Mythium: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, a journal that celebrated writers of color and other cultural voices, and were co-owners of Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington.

Wilkinson has given readings and presented many workshops and has been featured in several television shows and documentaries including "Coal Black Voices" (2001); "GED Connections," Kentucky Educational Television (2001); "James Still's Legacy," Kentucky Educational Television (2003); "Crystal Wilkinson, Poet," Connections with Renee Shaw, Kentucky Educational Television (2009).

Her published books include fiction: The Birds of Opulence (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky); Water Street (Toby Press, London); and Blackberries, Blackberries (Toby Press, London). Her first collection of poetry “Perfect Black” will be published by University Press of Kentucky in August.

Wilkinson is the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including the 2016 Ernest Gaines Fellowship for Literary Excellence, the Kentucky Arts Council’s Al Smith Fellowship, The Judy Gaines Prize, Appalachian Book of the Year, the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, the Hobson Prize, the Appalachian Heritage Award and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women for the promotion of activism and feminist artist expression. Her second book Water Street was a 2003 long list finalist for The Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize) and a short list finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.

Her stories, poems and nonfiction work have appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines including Kenyon Review, Agni, Southern Cultures, African Voices, Indiana Review, Oxford American, Emergence, Calyx and many others.