Kentucky celebrates its literary community, including a high school poetry recitation champ
Lupita Diaz was a bit blown away to stand alongside some of Kentucky’s literary titans Tuesday at the state Capitol in Frankfort.
“It felt very powerful,” Diaz, who is a freshman at Beechwood High School in Fort Mitchell, Ky., told WFPL News. “I could hear their voices, and I could hear the way they expressed their poems.”
Diaz was at the Capitol for Kentucky Writers’ Day, on the same program as the state poet laureate Crystal Wilkinson, and former poets laureate including Richard Taylor, Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, George Ella Lyon and Jeff Worley.
Established by the Kentucky General Assembly in 1990, the day is intended to honor the state’s literary figures. It’s celebrated every year on or near April 24, the birthday of Kentucky-born writer Robert Penn Warren, who won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and was named the first U.S. poet laureate in 1986.
The Kentucky Arts Council organized the celebration, and Tuesday’s event marked the first one in-person since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Diaz, 15, received an invitation to attend and perform in the ceremony after being named the state champion in a nationwide poetry recitation competition. This weekend, she’ll represent Kentucky in the Poetry Out Loud national semifinals. If she advances to the finals, she’ll compete for tens of thousands of dollars in cash prizes. The annual contest is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation, and state and regional arts agencies. It aims to foster interest in poetry.
Diaz said she only recently got interested in poetry, but connected with it.
“You can just show your emotions to people and resonate with other people, like relate with them, just like the poem I recited today,” she said of the art form.
She felt she was able to show her voice through “Spanglish,” adding that it “felt amazing and comforting” to read those words out loud.
Gov. Andy Beshear acknowledged Diaz with a medal during the Kentucky Writers’ Day celebration event for winning the state-level Poetry Out Loud competition.
“I'm convinced she’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met,” he said.
He also said Kentucky is “incredibly blessed to be home to so many writers of tremendous talent, skill and diversity.”
“Kentucky’s tradition in writing and literature is every bit as deep and rich as our traditions in bourbon, or basketball, or even horse racing,” Beshear said. “But what I love is we don’t just create incredible works, but Kentucky writers have something to say and their voices resonate across the Commonwealth and beyond.”
Kentucky poet laureate Crystal Wilkinson’s voice has been recognized in Kentucky and beyond.
Earlier this year, she won a NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry” for her latest book “Perfect Black.”
“I’m so proud to be a part of Kentucky’s literary legacy,” Wilkinson said during Tuesday’s event.
She then took several minutes to remember two late celebrated writers from the state: novelist and essayist Ed McClanahan and writer and activist bell hooks.
“I am proud to have called both of them my friends,” she said. “They’ll certainly be missed and we’ll keep them alive in their work.”
As the state’s poet laureate, she’s said her priorities have included building community and “amplify[ing] the voices of all Kentucky writers.”
“I think it’s important for our young people to know that you can be from Kentucky, any part of Kentucky, and be a successful writer,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said she wants to pilot a program of naming high school poet laureates across the state this year.
She also announced a new podcast she developed in partnership with Louisville Public Media. WFPL is part of LPM. “Words for the People” will highlight the works and lives of established and emerging Kentucky writers.
The first episode came out Tuesday, and features former poet laureate Frank X Walker and Zakia Holland, who is much earlier in her career.
Lupita Diaz hasn’t yet tried writing her own poetry. But she’s feeling inspired to maybe give it a go, and she wants to encourage others to learn more about poetry recitation.
“Like helping people get that voice, get that confidence.”
Diaz will compete in the Poetry Out Loud national semifinals Sunday. Her group will begin at 3 p.m. Eastern Time, and the event will be broadcasted on the NEA’s website.