The Town of Chapel Hill is inducting its new poet laureate, Cortland Gilliam, this month following a unanimous vote by the Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture department that cited Gilliam’s powerful writing, performance skills, and commitment to the community.

Gilliam will serve in the role from 2023 to 2024 and will be Chapel Hill’s second-ever poet laureate, following the artist and activist, CJ Suitt, who filled the inaugural position in 2019.

“The first word that comes to mind is honor,” Gilliam told the INDY Week, in reference to his laureate appointment, “an honor to serve the town in a way that comes naturally to me, with both written and spoken word but also as someone who sees them as a connecter in the cultural sense, to help narrativize the town, and to celebrate overshadowed aspects of the town’s history while I stand in an incredibly privileged position.” 

Gilliam’s identity as a poet has grown, in part, out of his political activism and cultural organizing, with cultural space-making and space-taking being essential to his artistic and political practice and the ways he aims to cultivate community.

“Poetry is an active and political practice as much as it is a literary exercise,” Gilliam wrote in a press release issued by the Town of Chapel Hill. “It’s the parting of perspective, the sharing of knowledge, the transmission of feeling, the disruption of power, and the cultivation of community.”

Gilliam serves as the co-chair of the Board of Directors of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, and is a current doctoral candidate in the school of education at UNC with a focus on cultures of school discipline, political education, and histories of Black youth contributions to the political struggles and liberation movements of the late twentieth century.

As the new Chapel Hill poet laureate, and as an educator, Gillian hopes to initiate youth programming and activate a diverse range of voices.

In his tenure as laureate, Gillian says he also hopes to accomplish a sense of provocation through awareness.

“I want to continue to be in spaces where I can be a vessel and conduit for voices and legacies of the Black community in Chapel Hill,” he says, “whose stories and legacies and voices I feel accountable to, who have lifted me up.”

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