On a bright and blustery fall day that might have brought a smile to the likes of Robert Frost himself, wordsmiths and enthusiasts from all across the state gathered in Carrboro, last weekend, for the annual West End Poetry Festival.

At the start of a day filled with nothing less than whole-hearted admiration for poetry, Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils opened the floor sharing his own reflections on this year’s theme, Music in Poetry.

“Early in the morning, the tigers started roaming, fighting like a wile every half mile,” he began, reciting the lyrics to what had once been the fight song for Chapel Hill’s Lincoln High School, a historically segregated Black high school.

After desegregation, the high school became Lincoln Center and began housing administrative offices for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District. Just earlier that day, Lincoln Center had been the kick-off location for a march and rally attended by Mayor Seil, which saw participants walk and bike to historic Black landmarks in Chapel Hill as part of the local NAACP’s 75th Diamond Anniversary Freedom Journey.

As recent book poets Joan Barasovska, Alana Dagenhart, Cedric Tillman, and Jacinta White each took the floor following Mayor Seil, the poems shared in the early hours at this year’s festival, touched on topics like racial injustice and family memories, spanning tones from grief to joy. 

Carrboro’s current poet laureate, Fred Joiner, read next. In one such poem, “Song for Anacostia”, he paid homage to a once predominantly Black neighborhood where he had once lived in southeast Washington D.C.

“The 94 hums / up the rough side / of Stanton,” Joiner’s poem began. “These are the sounds / gathered in blood, / shed for remission of / silence and sadness.” 

Joiner, an Academy of American Poets laureate fellow, has been the Carrboro poet laureate since 2019, filling the role an atypical four years due to the pandemic. Joiner serves as the board chair of the Orange County Arts Commission and is prolific in his advocacy for not just Carrboro’s artistic community, but North Carolina as a whole artistic entity.

One of his many missions, alongside affordable intergeneration artistic housing, is to “break down the provincial thinking” of the Triangle area, to bring together the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill communities along with those of the foothills and the sandhills, and to “reimagine what an arts community could mean, and what that means for space.”

Joiner’s passion for bringing diverse artistic communities together appeared to be shared by the festival’s attendees and was seen most prominently in practice with the festival’s annual Poetry in the Round, a time allotted each year for anyone and everyone, both published or amateur, to share their own and other’s stories through poetry in open mic fashion.

In the festival’s remaining hours, the floor was again held by more of this year’s featured poets, which included Nickole Brown, Jessica Jacobs, Alan Shapiro, and culminated with incoming 2023-2024 Carrboro poet laureate, Liza Wolff-Francis

Wolff-Francis, who considers herself an “eco-poet,” read poems that touched both on climate change and the ongoing crisis at the Mexico-U.S. border, which she had lived in proximity to for many years prior to her move to North Carolina.

As part of her own introduction, Wolff-Francis shared her own history of travel and migration.

“The reason I’m telling you this,” she explained, “is because I want us to think about beings that migrate, and how I recognize my privilege in being able to go to all of these places and to be in all of these places for a little while, I also recognize that [travel and migration] is such a thing that people and animals do—even the seeds migrate. I just want to acknowledge that piece when we look at people who migrate for different reasons.”

Environmental crises and migration are both topics frequent in Wolff-Francis’s work. Her book Language of Crossing —poems about the Mexico-U.S. border—was published in 2015.

In her upcoming tenure as poet laureate, Wolff-Francis hopes to actively bring together poets in the local Carrboro community on a more frequent basis, as well as others in the region, whether virtually or in person. “The more voices, the merrier,” she said, echoing Joiner’s hopes of giving every poet permission to share the story unique to them.

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