Wiles’ passion for poetry earns him top honors

Anthony Wiles Jr. just one of five ‘National Student Poets’ in the country

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

Sometimes, it can be a cruel, cruel world out there.

And when it is, poetry is Anthony Wiles Jr.’s outlet.

“I’ve found a home in poetry, that I can seek refuge in,” Wiles told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview.

The junior at Sewickley Academy also said poetry is “where I can find joy, solace and upliftment. When I write poetry, I feel unstoppable, I feel like I have a voice.”

Wiles, 16, has been writing since the fifth grade, but didn’t get into poetry until the eighth grade. And in just a few years, Wiles has become one of the best young poets in the country.

And that’s not hyperbole. Wiles was recently named a National Student Poet, the nation’s highest honor for youth poets presenting original work.

The National Student Poets Program is a partnership of the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which presents the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the most prestigious scholarship and recognition program for the country’s young artists and writers.

The National Student Poets were selected from students in grades 10-11 who submitted more than 20,000 works in the Scholastic Awards. There were 35 semi-finalists identified as the most gifted young poets across the country, and, out of the semi-finalists, five winners were chosen, characterized by region. Wiles is representing the Northeast region, Isabella Ramirez (Florida) represents the Southeast, Ethan Wang (Texas) represents the Southwest, Manasi Greg (California) represents the West, and Madelyn Dietz (Minnesota) represents the Midwest. The five winners collectively are the 2020 National Student Poets.

Throughout the year, the National Student Poets will serve as literary ambassadors and share their passion for poetry, literacy and the literacy arts with their communities and regions. This will be done via service projects, workshops and public readings. Each National Student Poet will also receive a $5,000 academic award.

For Wiles, poetry is personal.

“For too long, whether it be because I was Black, gay and everything in between, I had no voice, I was silenced,” he told the Courier. “In poetry, I found my voice. I was able to speak freely and be myself, free from harm. Now, I want to show others that they, too, have a home in poetry. I want to give voice to the voiceless.”

Among the poems Wiles submitted for the competition were: “We Went Home to Crystal,” “Know Not I, But of Appalachia,” “An Ode to Home” and “For My Fellow Christians.” Wiles said he wrote “For My Fellow Christians” as a “reflection piece.” Wiles said the poem expresses his frustration “with the way the LGBTQIA+ community is treated by many who call themselves Christians. I grew up in the Evangelical church, and am still a devout Christian, but I’ve seen many treat me and my fellow LGBTQIA+ community members in ways that defy the teachings of Christ, and do not uphold Christian values.”

And in his piece, “We Went Home to Crystal,” Wiles wrote it based off the first time he visited his maternal familial hometown—Crystal, West Virginia. Crystal is a small community located in Mercer County, near the southern edge of the state. Wiles said his family has lived there for 100 years.

Quite the deep thinker, Wiles told the Courier he identifies as “Affrilachian”—African American and Appalachian, because, during his research of his family’s roots, he knew some members of his family originated in the Appalachian regions of North Carolina and North Georgia. They also originated in Southwestern Virginia, “near the Cumberland Gap,” he said.

The term “Affrilachian” was started by another poet, Frank X. Walker, whom Wiles considers his “poet inspirateur.” Walker, who also is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Kentucky, founded the “Affrilachian Poets,” a collective of Black poets from the Appalachian regions, formed in the early ‘90s. Walker, who is from Danville, Ky., felt that “People from the Appalachians” only referred to White people from that region, which stretches through a number of Eastern and Southern states, including most of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and parts of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama. Since then, Walker has made it part of his mission to inspire future generations of Affrilachian poets. Wiles also identified Crystal Wilkinson and Crystal Good as inspirational poets in the Affrilachian category. Wiles considers himself an Affrilachian writer.

“Ever since ninth grade, I’ve been writing about the people, places and stories that compose my identity, my being,” he said.

And for Wiles, his poem, “Know Not I, But of Appalachia,” was the poem that propelled the Sewickley Academy high-schooler to national prominence as a National Student Poet: “I come not from Caribs and Tainos, Sugar-cane plantation African slaves and free West Indian Creoles, Dutch, French and British slavers, but from Sapponys and Cherokees, Tri-racial isolate groups, Melungeons, free and enslaved Africans, Scots-Irish farmers—both master and indentured,” part of the poem reads.

“Know not I of the islands of the Caribbean Sea,” the poem continues, “which jut from the water, with names like Tortola and Trinidad, but of the rugged emerald-mountains of Appalachia, crisscrossed by rivers and creeks that carve out, valleys like Shenandoah and Kanawha, where there are people just like me.”

Know Not I, But of Appalachia 

By Anthony Wiles Jr.

Know not I of the islands of the Caribbean Sea
Which jut from the water, with names like
Tortola and Trinidad
But of the rugged, emerald mountains of Appalachia
Crisscrossed by rivers and creeks
That carve out valleys such as the
Shenandoah and Kanawha
Know not I of the waterside towns of
Charlotte Amalie and Port of Spain
Where seas of tourists and locals fuse to form
Cosmopolitan enclaves
But of (nearly) abandoned holler towns like Crystal and McComas
Where gas stations and the occasional general store are the
Only people-bringers
I come not from Caribs and Tainos
Sugar-cane plantation African slaves and free West Indian Creoles
Dutch, French and British slavers,
But from Sapponys and Cherokees
Tri-racial isolate groups, Melungeons
Free and enslaved Africans
Scots-Irish farmers-both master and indentured
I listen not to Soca and Dancehall,
Calypso and Reggae
Where Shenseea, Kes, Koffee, Marley, and Machel are stars
But to Bluegrass and Country
Where Rhiannon and Dolly, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Valerie June reign supreme
Lily-white as they (some) may be
I eat not rice and peas,
Mangos and rum
Curry Goat
But beans and cornbread
Apricots and moonshine
Pig’s Feet
Yet somehow these people, places, things
I come from,
That I am of
Do not (supposedly) look like me
And thus, I sought refuge
In people, places, things
That (VAGUELY) resembled me,
Represented me
Where I did not see myself,
I fashioned anew
Yet always yearned to see myself in what I always knew
For Appalachia is home
But for all I knew,
It was the place I wasn’t meant to be
I saw myself in nothing I’d always embraced as my own
For Appalachia was fed to me
As not to be proud of,
To embrace as my own
A place of despair and disrepair
Where nothing of value and culture exists
Where people like me
Do not exist
So to the West Indies I went
Leaving my heart in Appalachia
My identity caught-up in
This jumble of geography
But alas I came home
To find a place where my heart was at peace
Where my identity could rest and be nurtured
Where I could be me
Know not I of the islands of the Caribbean Sea
Which jut from the water, with names like
Tortola and Trinidad
But of the rugged emerald-mountains of Appalachia
Crisscrossed by rivers and creeks that carve out
Valleys like Shenandoah and Kanawha
Where there are people just like me

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