In the ’90s, Nike ran a series of commercials for Air Jordan sneakers that featured his Airness with Spike Lee as the character Mars Blackmon. The gist was that Jordan’s prowess came from his shoes. “It’s gotta be the shoes,” was Mars Blackmon’s refrain.
The first thing I noticed when Jaki Shelton Green sat down with me for her interview was her turquoise shoes with huge white daisy flowers on the toes. I was awestruck in that Forrest Gump kind of way, and I said out loud, “Magic shoes.”
My point is this: If you see a dredlocked black man walking around Durham’s Ninth Street area in some blue flowered shoes, do not be confused. He is merely a poet trying to understand the secrets of Jaki Shelton Green’s magic.
It is the joy of tomato sandwiches
The smell of jergens and jean nate
Or our love still for grandmothers aunts …
Maybe it is the value
We place on Duke’s mayonnaise
These lines from the poem “Paper Dolls” in her new book Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems give the reader a ride across one of the landscapes of Jaki’s childhood in rural Efland, N.C., where she began writing seriously as a teen and never stopped.
As my Pops would say, “Jaki done done some thangs.” Her first book Dead on Arrival debuted in 1983. Since then, Jaki has won the 2003 North Carolina Award for Literature, raised three children and published the widely acclaimed books Dead on Arrival, Masks, Swiss Times, Conjure Blues and Singing a Tree into Dance.
So how’d she do it? “As a young wife and mother, I would get up when the baby got up, feed him, stay up and write. When my children were school-age, I’d work a full-time job, come home, sleep from about 9 p.m. to midnight, get up, write until 6 or 7 the next morning and go to work. On the weekends, I’d come home from dancing say 1 or 2 in the morning and write maybe say until 2 that next afternoon. Every free moment I wrote. My process has always been intentional.”
This decisiveness shows in her work. Many poets waste words, but what readers will recognize in Jaki’s Breath of the Song is that like all her work that came before, no word, no line, no syntax is wasted. There is nothing that is simply decorative. Her work lures us in because its honesty reveals the real human being behind the words, and we care about that human being because she helps us to view our own life by sharing hers.
In the moving and courageous “Protocols,” Jaki talks about her husband preparing for cancer treatments.
Stare back from the elevator’s reflection
Weighing me to this new ground
Reminding me that cancer has its own messengers
Bearing their weapons openly
Some of her strongest work from Dead on Arrival, Conjure Blues and Singing a Tree into Dance are included in Breath of the Song. For those not familiar with Jaki’s work, this collection is a great place to begin. For those who have read Jaki’s work, the official release date is Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Regulator Bookshop–have your $15 ready.
I wanted to learn Jaki’s definition of poetry and what purpose she thought poetry should serve. “Poetry is about showing up and paying attention. Waking up in a field of wildflowers and saying, ‘I am the gatherer’.”
Her face lights up when she begins to talk about not only the delight of sharing her words, but the joy and responsibility of helping those who may be closed to their own creativity to open up, become empowered through language, and understand their own worth. She has created workshops to reach people who have been marginalized by society; as she puts it, “Folk who don’t go to poetry readings.”
Jaki says that poetry is a tool for people to create new life scripts, and she’s extremely serious about helping others find solace, freedom and power through words. She is very proud of the work she has done with victims of incest, people recovering from substance abuse, and those who are in prisons and homeless shelters.
In order to do this work, Jaki, like most grassroots artists, had to work all types of jobs to keep the lights on. She’s worked retail, directed a nonprofit organization, and been a paralegal, a YMCA program director and a bartender at a country club.
She writes about the writing life in the poem “Blistered Joy”:
To our outrageous stories
About hustling for the car payment
Praying up money
To get to a writer’s conference
Living on sardines bagels apples
For the sake
Of naming ourselves writers
Jaki told me that if there was one thing she could do differently with her life, it would be making the decision to take a risk on her own art 20 years ago. She recently decided to write full-time, and she thanks her family for their support in helping her make this life change.
It is a very exciting time for Jaki Shelton Green. Her plans include writing a historical fiction novel that begins during antebellum slavery and progresses to the 20th century. It is tremendous in scope, and it will allow Jaki to carve out yet another unique space for her talents. Jaki has given so much to the community and paid countless dues to the art. I asked her what she felt needed to be improved upon with regard to the arts in our state. She felt that there needed to be more intentional collaborative efforts among artists, stronger efforts by academia to merge their efforts with community artists, more visibility and support for emerging writers, and a balancing of the imbalance in the acknowledgement of all writers and artists of North Carolina.
By the time our conversation was done, I kinda felt like Neo from the Matrix after he had a talk with the Oracle. In our brief time together, Jaki had charged me up so much I felt like I needed to drop everything, go home and write 50 poems.
And like Jordan on the court, Jaki’s poetry is about much more than her blue flowered shoes. Still, I think she should let me borrow them. “Hey Jaki, can you hook a brother up–size 10? If not, do they come in Timberlands?”
Jaki Shelton Green will read at the Regulator Bookshop (720 Ninth St., Durham, 286-2700) on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m.