Jaki Shelton Green’s home in Mebane is unassuming on the outside, but inside, it transports you to another place. The space is full of artifacts from her travels to Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and beyond. It’s warm and welcoming, with family photos and heirlooms. It feels lived in and exudes creative, nurturing energy.

“You can have it all. You really can,” says Green, North Carolina’s ninth poet laureate—the third woman and first African American to be appointed to the role. Since her appointment in June, she’s had a full calendar, traveling nonstop for poetry readings, lectures, and other speaking engagements throughout the state.

But this is business as usual for Green, who has the sort of calendar that people glance at and instantaneously feel anxious. While she visits many communities of color, she is also often “going into spaces where people don’t expect for [her] to go.” She says she feels welcome in those spaces but is also aware of what her presence means to people. At a recent reading in New Bern, Green says people of color brought their children to meet her because it was history. 

“That’s the energy that has been feeding me,” Green says. “These people who see themselves in me—that, yes, I represent the people of North Carolina.”

Even as she carries the role of poet laureate, Green is teaching a documentary poetry course at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. She’s coordinating schedules with her family and friends and, of course, carving out time to write poetry. She is also the founder of SistaWRITE, which brings “women and spaces together for writing, community, sisterhood, and shared experience,” and has dedicated her life to serving and teaching others in North Carolina. In fact, Green has taught people all over the world. Writer and filmmaker Wesley Broome traveled with her on a writing retreat to Morocco that she says was “transformational for my creative writing.”

“I have been blessed to have a very supportive family and tribe of writers, women, elders, mentors, and mentees who are totally invested, as I am in them, in making sure that I can have it all,” Green says. “And I think that’s what we have to do for each other. We have to keep showing up and we have to be intentional.”

Born in 1953, Green grew up in Efland and has been writing since childhood. She attended a segregated elementary school where she received public speaking instruction that helped lay the foundation for a life in front of audiences. Then she received a scholarship to the George School, a private Quaker school in Pennsylvania. Green says it was during these years that she blossomed as a writer, and many of her poems were published in the school’s literary magazine. In 1977, she published her first collection, Dead on Arrival. Over the next forty years, seven more collections and a play, Blue Opal, have followed.

Although she came home to write full-time in 2004, for most of her career, Green has been a “working-class poet” and public servant. She has worked in diverse sectors, from the N.C. Department of Agriculture to literacy programs and legal services. But throughout these professional changes, she has “never not done the work” of teaching, writing, and advocating for the literary arts, serving on boards from the N.C. Arts Council to Poetry Out Loud. In 2009, she was named Piedmont Laureate, and in 2014, she was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Green’s accolades reveal one part of her writing life, but, just as important, she has inspired and mentored countless other writers. Kynita Stringer-Stanback, a SistaWRITE attendee whose grandmother taught Green in school, describes her as a “great friend, mentor, and advisor, and legend” who leads with “love and intellectually robust discussions” as writers grapple with “the hard, difficult, painful, and many times triumphant truth.”

Stringer-Stanback says Green taught her that “talking back and directly to those who seek to destroy and oppress us is not only necessary [but] fundamental to the pursuit of freedom.”

Now, Green is embracing her role as an advocate for literary arts for all of North Carolina. As poet laureate, she can create self-initiated projects and envisions extending what she has started with SistaWRITE and her teaching through regional poetry salons and poetry symposiums celebrating poets who “aren’t the usual suspects.”

“I really want to be out there with people,” she says. “It’s exciting! At heart, I have all citizens in mind, and that’s the beauty of this laureateship for me. But I am concerned with communities that are underserved and isolated. For example, communities in rural Western North Carolina—where there aren’t a lot of people of color, in a region whose story has been vernacularized—I wonder, what are their truths, and who’s recording them, and who’s helping them create spaces for the telling of their poetry, their ballads?”

Poetry is always at risk of being an elite enterprise, but Green is a poet for the people, which makes her an ideal poet laureate.

“I’m definitely interested in the ordinariness, the everydayness, of the arts, and in accessibility to all of our citizens, and especially in taking poetics out of the canon,” she says. “[Many people] think of poetry as Victorian poetry, or poetry that they studied in school years ago, which did not include an array of voices, did not include what our continent looks like. I am very mindful of wanting to make spaces for the poetry of the nontraditional writer, the poetry of the nonacademic writer, and helping with the validation process for those voices.”

In a way, the role is just an official recognition of what Green has been doing all her life, as Ed Southern, the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s executive director, notes: “Jaki’s been doing the work of poet laureate for years, using poetry to connect people—or, maybe more accurately, to make people see how they’ve been connected all along.”