UK professor inaugurated as Kentucky poet laureate


Crystal Wilkinson sits in her office on UK’s campus in Lexington, Kentucky, on Feb. 3, 2020.

Hannah Stanley

Crystal Wilkinson, an English professor in UK’s College of Arts and Sciences, was inducted as the state’s poet laureate on April 24, 2021 as part of the Kentucky Writers Day celebration. The celebration took place virtually over the Kentucky Arts Council’s Facebook Page and YouTube channel.

Kentucky Writers’ Day is celebrated annually around, if not on April 24, the birthday of Kentucky native Robert Penn Warren, the first United States Poet Laureate in 1986 until his passing in 1989. What was previously a lifetime position, Gov. Andy Beshear now appoints a poet laureate to a two-year term, acting as Kentucky’s literary ambassador.

Wilkinson is a multiple award-winning novelist, educator and poet. She is the author of “Water Street”, “Blackberries, Blackberries”, and “The Birds of Opulence,” the winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. Just a few days before her inauguration as the state’s poet laurate, she was also announced to have won the O. Henry prize in short stories for her story “Endangered Species: Case 47401.”

“All I ever wanted to be was a writer, and books began that journey,” Wilkinson said.

Her journey began with laying in the arms of her grandmother while she read books to her, becoming a child who was enamored with books. She felt transported out of her house into anywhere that a story could take her.

The momentous step for Wilkinson’s career also stands with a momentous step for the state of Kentucky and many more in that she is the first Black woman to be appointed ever as the state’s poet laureate.

During her speech, she touched upon the topic of Breonna Taylor in which we are still fighting for justice within the situation, a trend of conquest and will that Wilkinson carries throughout many of her different pieces of writing.

Wilkinson said she cried when receiving the news about her success and the award of being Kentucky’s next poet laureate due to the overwhelming emotions of accomplishment.

Following her predecessors, Wilkinson realized after looking at the long list of poet laureates, she had been taught, introduced, or knew thirteen of them. Stating that among the thirteen, they were educators and mentors to her personally.

A story of when meeting award winning author James Steele was shared in that she had frozen in her steps when waiting in line to get her book signed at that year’s book fair in Frankfort, KY. She shared that she was so excited she could not go up to meet him, being starstruck of his presence.

She honored and thanked many of those thirteen, especially those whom she had been able to form personal relationships with. She also highlighted the women beside her who withhold such excellence, sharing in that she was inspired by some of the individuals.

With a goal to leave the same reactions to others, Wilkinson plans to continue her influence through her teachings and her newest fourth book coming out “Perfect Black” in August.

She shared that hope is in the spring air, and she asks that you reach out and share your story or ask her to share hers. She hopes to build community across the state and build the voices that make up Kentucky’s very own story.

The ceremony included readings and features of past poet laureates, Governor Andy Beshear, young poet and winner of the state finals of the Poetry Out Loud competition Emma Robison and Wilkinson’s induction ceremony along with a shared reading.