Student News

The journey within: UK grad's poetic ode to Kentucky's soul

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 1, 2024) — The article below appeared in the Spring 2024 edition of Kentucky Alumni magazine, and tells the story or Deidra White, a University of Kentucky representative of the May Class of 2024.

White will graduate this Friday with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Collge of Arts and Sciences, and will also present a spoken word poem at each ceremony titled "Here in Kentucky."

Learn more about the May 2024 Commencement Ceremonies at


Gliding into a rickety wooden chair, Deidra White is eager to speak of words. Her words. The unvoiced words of ancestors lost to history. The words of those who have worked to keep her down and those who provide inspiration. A cascade of obsidian braids sways across White’s shoulder. Her creaseless face belies her years. Only her tresses’ errant silver strands betray her age.

She’s 45. Far from ancient, but hardly the age when most people veer from established career trajectories. She wears the number as a badge of honor for how far she has come despite enduring the maelstrom of circumstances that waylaid so much early promise.

“When I was younger, you couldn’t tell me I couldn’t be whatever I wanted, but through life, people try to beat you down, especially when you’re a confident Black woman,” White says. “Everybody is telling you that ‘you shouldn’t be this,’ ‘you shouldn’t be that’ — even other Black people.”

White explains how oppressive words, buttressed by the harsh realities of everyday life often encountered by a demoralized Black working-class single mother, cast a cloud of self-doubt that loomed large for years. Only now is she beginning to emerge from the bleak miasma and revel in the glow of her unveiled talent.

Still at the nascency of a writing career yet displaying a keen versatility in diverse composition styles, White is completing a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in the University of Kentucky’s selective creative writing program. The rising star has been lauded for her work. Rapt audiences respond to her public readings with thunderous applause. She has captured the attention of those she idolizes, literary luminaries like Crystal Wilkinson and DaMaris B. Hill. Frank X Walker — the acclaimed author and poet, 2013-14 Kentucky Poet Laureate and former UK creative writing MFA
chair — has christened White “a dynamo” and his “dream student, every mentor’s dream.”

Despite the adulation, however, White sometimes feels insecurity’s weighty burden.

“The one thing I’m still trying to rectify is the imposter syndrome, the self-doubt,” she says. “I used to be so audacious...”

In a moment of vulnerability, her words trail off as she ponders the profound metamorphosis that has recently unfolded in her life. Shimmering pools form in the corners of her chestnut eyes. She composes herself and smiles.

“…But I’m finding my way; I’m working on it,” she continues. “I’m getting all the external validation I could ever want. The hardest part was believing I had the right to even be in the rooms with some of the people I was in those rooms with.”

A life interrupted

White regards her life as an open book, one that she seems quite intent on writing in her own words, on her own terms, with unabashed candor.

The inquisitive daughter of accomplished parents — her father, now retired, was an attorney; her mother, a health care executive — White took the SATs as a ‘tween after being scouted to be part of Duke University’s prestigious Talent Identification Program. She then saw that promising scholarly journey capsized for more than two decades by a tsunami of obstacles. At 15, White stepped into the unenviable role as sole caretaker for her mother, who was slowly dying of liver and colon cancer. She lost her academic scholarship to Duke when her grades plummeted.

“My father was in Atlanta working on a big case, refusing to come home,” White explains. “I don’t think he understood how bad the cancer had gotten because she had been fighting it for so long. I was too young to know that if I’d contacted Duke, they probably would’ve given me some sort of deferral. I didn’t realize that, so I just chalked it up to, ‘I guess I won’t be going to college.’”

After her mother succumbed to the illness, White grew estranged from her father. She became pregnant with a son, Marcus, and navigated a period of homelessness.

“My sole responsibility on this planet at that point was to give my son the best life that I could offer him,” White says, “so I worked and worked and worked and never looked back.”

She crafted metal seat frames at a Scott County automotive supplier and established a cleaning service to help make ends meet, but she never lost sight of her collegiate aspirations. She vowed that when her son enrolled in school, she would do the same. Years passed. Marcus went off to Kentucky State University. Suffocating under the drudgery of years of backbreaking factory labor, White finally mustered the gumption and enrolled in community college at 37, more than twice the age of the typical college freshman.

Call it fate, providence or, as White does, “mysticism,” her path to successful businesswoman took a hard left with an off-the-cuff remark from an insightful instructor.

“It’s one of those otherworldly stories,” White shares. “I had a wonderful English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Tammy Ramsey. I was leaving her class one day, and she asked what I was majoring in. I was, like, ‘Oh, I’m a business major,’ and I told her my big plans about factory management and my big cleaning company ideas. And she said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. I thought you were an English major because your writing’s so good. Have you thought about becoming a writer?’”

White left the room replaying the conversation in her mind. She scoffed. She never wanted to be a writer…or had she?

“I was thinking, ‘this lady’s nuts!’” White laughs. “The minute I hit the corner, though, it was as if a Rolodex of images flipped through my mind; memories I’d suppressed just came back up. I saw myself with my white typewriter and my little binder full of stories that I would type up just for myself in my room. When it all came flooding back, leaving that classroom and walking down that hallway, it hit me hard,” White recalls. “I was like, ‘Soooooo…am I supposed to be a writer?”

'Bees to honey'

After graduating with an associate’s degree in business, she took a year and contemplated her next steps — whether to continue the business route or indulge her talent for storytelling.

White tested creative waters by attending free writing classes at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and participating in writing circles. By the summer of 2020, writing had evolved from mere pastime to potential profession. She jumped headlong and enrolled in the undergraduate English program at UK.

“For me, it was just like bees to honey,” she raves regarding her UK experience. “It became this beautiful journey of doors opening and people supporting me, uplifting me, encouraging me.”

Scholarships helped defray some of White’s college education costs at a time when she was “struggling bad,” but what meant the most to her was the assurance that she had chosen the correct path.

“More than just the funding, there was the confidence of standing on that stage with people saying to me, ‘you’re a distinguished writer,’ just something that acknowledges that ‘you’ve got the right stuff, kiddo. You’ve got it.’” says White, who received the coveted Patricia and William Stacy Fellowship/Scholarship during her senior year. “It helped me in so many ways, but especially with my confidence.”

She balanced factory work, cleaning and her studies, seldom leaving much time to eat, let alone sleep. Right before graduation, the routine took its toll, and she was hospitalized from exhaustion’s debilitating effects.

“I was working at the factory from 4:30 in the afternoon until 4:30 in the morning,” she remembers. “I’d get off, drive to Frankfort and clean buildings until 6 or 7 o’clock. I’d go home, throw something in the microwave, shower while it cooked, eat, lie down for an hour, get up and go to class by 9:30. I’d get out of class at noon, maybe 1:30, depending on the day, go home, sleep two more hours, and start over again. I did that for two years, so I felt like my body could keep doing it, but it finally caught up with me.”

She chuckles that she slept during the commencement ceremony, asking the person next to her to nudge and awaken her when her name was called.

Accepting neither the role of victim nor martyr, White drew inspiration from her struggles. She says the fire ignited by the work-a-day life of a Black woman in America fueled her creativity allowing her to release long-carried resentments and repair fractured relationships.

“When I first began writing poetry, it was writing from a place of pain,” the burgeoning author reveals. “That’s what people gravitated to because it was so raw and so emotional, so visceral. But I’m happier now — happier than I’ve ever been in my life — so I find myself writing about other things, usually whatever’s on my heart at the moment, the thoughts that cross my mind. I just have to put it all on the table.”

The voracious lexophile devoured the words of James Baldwin and Zora Neal Hurston, Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni —authors who continue to inspire her. She segued beyond writing poetry and began exploring the nuance of fiction and nonfiction. Today, she indiscriminately draws inspiration from the mundane —something as innocuous as the pattern on a stranger’s shirt — to the extraordinary splendor of the Commonwealth.

“One of the best things about living in Kentucky is along I-64 and I-75 — the Horse Park and the horse farms!” White enthuses. “You can see horses running in this beautiful landscape. Who gets to see that every day? There’s so much beauty here!”

Deep roots in the soil

White’s love affair with the Bluegrass State has increased her interest in the art and literature known as Affrilachia. Its name coined by Walker in the 1990s, Affrilachia focuses on the historic and contemporary cultural legacy of Black and African-American artists, writers and musicians in the Appalachian diaspora.

“When people think of Appalachia, they often think of Kentucky and especially Eastern Kentucky,” White explains. “They think ‘white people’. But there are Black people in those mountains. Our history is just as much a part of those mountains as any other resident in this state. We want it to be acknowledged that Kentucky’s not just white people. We have something to say about this land, about this space, about this beautiful state.”

She finds Affrilachian literature cathartic and has begun to delve deeper into her family’s rich history to tell untold stories from Eastern Kentucky’s hills and hollows, especially those of the matriarchs that came before her.

“I want to know where their blood resides in mine,” the wordsmith says.

One such female elder was Sallie White — “Maw Maw to people she terrorized” — the irascible four-foot-eleven-inch dowager who ran a Prohibition-era moonshine empire with an iron fist. There was also her great, great, great, great, great grandmother, who, according to many family members and newspapers, lived to be 125.

“Hannah Maguire is what they named her after they dragged her off the beaches of Equatorial Guinea,” White explains. “They brought her here in the late 1700s, and she lived in Beattyville. She was born free, enslaved and then died free because she lived to be 125 years old. It’s the craziest story. Articles have been written about her. When she died, she left each of her children $25, which was a lot of money in the late 1800s. She left them the land as well.”

That fertile Eastern Kentucky land is where generations of her family lived — esoteric ancestors who punctuate so much of White’s work and offer insight into her own identity.

“I’m tied to the soil just as much as if I was born and raised up there,” she reasons.

“I see Deidra as firmly rooted in the legacy of those Kentucky writers who came before her — especially Black writers whose aims were both artistic and in search of justice,” says Shauna Morgan, associate professor of creative writing and Africana literature at UK. “One of the most distinctive features of her literary art is the way its language and imagery draw the reader into the intimacy of the world of the poem so much that we can feel what the speaker is showing and sharing. It brings us close to the environment — whether that is the natural or manmade world — and it allows us to see its subjects.”

A beautiful life

The demons that dogged White for so long followed her throughout her undergraduate career despite establishing herself as an ascendant voice with a distinctive point of view. Mired by self-doubt and exhaustion, she nearly missed the MFA application deadline and was uncertain if she would even be accepted.

“I first heard her at an outdoor reading celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month,” Walker recounts of White’s electrifying public performance of her poem, “Meihua,” and its resonating theme of sacrificing one’s identity for the sake of fitting into society. Walker hugged her after the recital, saying, “I’ll see you in the fall.”

She received an acceptance letter mere days after the performance.

“Witnessing her arrival with a mountain of talent but less than a handful of confidence in her craft and her voice and watching her grow and blossom during our MFA program inside and outside the classroom fills me with pride and more than a little satisfaction,” Walker gushes.

Although much of her evocative work looks to the past, White imagines where life will lead as she turns the page on the next chapter of her life after she graduates. She has contemplated settling down on a Costa Rican beach and teaching English as a second language. She may stay put in Central Kentucky and look for a teaching position at a university or community college. Working as a teaching assistant for Walker, she discovered a penchant for sharing her love of words with students. For White, words equate joy.

“This is what I’ve wanted so much that if I have any free time, I’m writing,” she says without a trace of earlier insecurity. “If I have any free time, I’m down at the Carnegie Center. If I have any free time, I’m at the Lexington Writer’s Room. The things I do outside of school are writing and the literary arts, and I’ve never been happier.”

Although her road has not necessarily been the smoothest, White harbors no regrets for the bumps and turns along the way. She believes everything works together for the greater good, and every hardship is an opportunity to grow and become better.

“The passion that thrives in my stories and poetry comes from my hardships,” she says. “I couldn’t write the way I do without those experiences.”

“I’ll never stop writing,” she adds resolutely. “This is my life now. And it’s so much more beautiful than anything I could have imagined.”


As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.