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Poets challenge notions of Appalachia

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

"Diverse" isn't likely to top the list of adjectives the term Appalachia brings to mind.

But a group of writers known as the Affrilachian Poets continues to challenge common perceptions of the region as completely rural, poverty-stricken and white.

"If we had a kind of motto, it would be to make the invisible visible, (to) give voice to people who are underrepresented in the Appalachian region," Affrilachian poet Bianca Spriggs said.

Spriggs will present a discussion of the history and legacy of Affrilachian poetry, titled "Redefining the Region: Pushing Poetry Through Cultural Space," at 7 p.m. Thursday at the McCracken County Library.

Spriggs said the group was founded in 1991 at the University of Kentucky. She considers herself a second-generation member, having come on board in 2004.  Frank X Walker, Kentucky's current poet laureate, coined the term to describe people of African descent who hail from the Appalachian region, according to affrilachianpoets.org.

"To be quite frank, a lot of people don't think there are black people in Appalachia. I don't know how many times I've gotten the question, 'Are there other black people there?'" Spriggs said.

She added that the idea of Appalachia as strictly rural is also inaccurate. The region stretches across 13 states, from northern Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to southern New York, and includes cities such as Chattanooga, Asheville and Pittsburgh.

Spriggs characterized the poets' work as having an accessible, storytelling quality that she sees as common to the Appalachian region.

"A lot of our material comes, content-wise, (from) a connection to the land, relationships to other people, family members and friends. But there is a true oral tradition that you can feel is present in the work," she said.

Spriggs was born in Milwaukee, but moved to Kentucky at the age of 10 and considers Appalachia her home. Although she has traveled extensively in Kentucky, this marks her first visit to Paducah.

"These kinds of opportunities are what I live for: being able to talk to people and reach people with literature. I just can't imagine another kind of life for myself," she said.

She is pursuing her doctorate degree at the University of Kentucky and has written two books, "Kaffir Lily" and "How Swallowtails Become Dragons." She's the creator of "The SwallowTale Project," a creative writing workshop designed for incarcerated women, and the managing editor for pluck!, a journal of Affrilachian art and culture. More information on the poet can be found at biancaspriggs.com.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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