This spring, Jaki Shelton Green learned that she was one of just thirteen poets across the country to be named an Academy of American Poets Laureate. The distinction came with a $75,000 grant, part of an award funded by an unprecedented $2.2 million donation from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

North Carolina poetry, it seems, is having a moment. Another honoree was Fred Joiner, the poet laureate of Carrboro, who received $50,000, which he plans to use to revitalize the West End Poetry Festival.

The Academy recognized Green for her work as North Carolina’s State Poet Laureate, an appointment she has held since last summer—the first African American to hold the role in the state. 

The grant, Green says, will help support her work, which takes her all over the state. Poetry, after all, is hardly a lucrative endeavor. Even the poet laureate of the U.S. receives just a $35,000 yearly stipend. As state poet laureate, Green receives $10,000 a year. 

And Green has gotten to know North Carolina pretty well as she’s traveled from Brunswick County to Jefferson County and through the farthest reaches of Eastern and Western North Carolina. Between August 2018 (shortly after her appointment was announced) and June 2019, she delivered 188 public presentations.

Some laureates have used the position to write or seek high-paying speaking engagements. Green sees it as public stewardship.  

“I meet people where they are,” she says. “I have intentionally tried to be in those communities where people look at me and go, ‘You’re what? What’s that, I’ve never heard of that?’” 

Born in Mebane in 1953, Green is nothing if not a populist. She’s the author of eight collections of poetry and has won major awards, including being inducted into the NC Literary Hall of Fame. But her vision for North Carolina poetry, long before these recognitions, has been to expand it beyond homogenous journals and MFA programs and make it accessible to marginalized communities and young people. 

As Green tells it, during her time touring the state—leading workshops and delivering readings and lectures—she began to notice a gap: There weren’t any young people. 

“I go to all of these festivals or conferences, but there’s nothing there for teenagers,” she says. “And yet when I meet young people in school settings, they’re very active in their communities. In some parts of North Carolina, even, we have high school poet laureates at the schools, but they’re pretty invisible. So I wanted to create a platform where their voices would be in the mix.” 

Literary ChangeMakers, Shelton’s new initiative, is geared toward supporting emerging teenage poets who are engaged in “civic and community activism” in all one-hundred N.C. counties. The project officially launched in August and is partnering with the filmmaker Saleem J. Reshamwala and the organization Blackspace Durham, as well as with Asheville’s Word on the Street. A symposium for the project is planned for April 2020. 

“James Baldwin says the role of the artist is to agitate, and I take that very seriously,” Green says. “I believe that writing does free us to tell our truths. I’ve seen poetry save lives.”

A classroom visit that Green made earlier this fall illustrates this point. She’d gone to Asheville to give a reading and ended up instructing a classroom of high schoolers at an alternative school in Sylva. At first, she wasn’t sure how receptive the class would be. 

“About eleven or twelve strapping white mountain boys walked in, all in a row. And I’m thinking, how is this gonna go?” she says. “But the magic that happened in that room—the stories they told, [these] kids who are hanging on by a string.” 

She began with the exercise she likes to use in workshops: Choose an object that’s significant to you and introduce yourself from the perspective of that object. It’s a simple enough prompt, but the invitation to shift perspective and look at your life not just with new empathy, but as a thing worthy of poetry tends to get students to open up. 

One student wrote from the perspective of a shirt that belonged to his nephew, who had been killed. Another student introduced himself from the perspective of his journals, which he said helped him process the deaths of several friends that year. He found a corner to write in every night, he told the class, and opened up his backpack to show that it was crammed with journals. 

“I fill up about one of these at night,” he said. “And they keep me alive.” 

Poetry is often perceived as a fusty luxury, an outdated art form maintained by industry gatekeepers. Green and Joiner’s recognitions shine a spotlight on the work that North Carolina poets are doing to change that on a regional level, by making it real to people’s actual experiences. 

This year, Shelton will continue her work, which includes running the organization SistaWRITE, teaching a documentary poetry class at Duke University, and getting Literary ChangeMakers off the ground. 

It’s an exhausting pace. But while these national recognitions are an honor and the award money helps defray costs associated with the work, her boots-on-the-ground approach to poetry isn’t new. 

“All the things that I’m doing as poet laureate, I’ve been doing for over forty years,” she says.

Correction: The location of the Literary ChangeMakers event will be announced at a later date; it is not at Student U. More details will be announced here


Contact associate arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at sedwards@indyweek.com.

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