Interview with Jaki Shelton Green NC Poet Laureate



today we're joined with Jackie Shelton green North Carolina's poet laureate we're so glad you joined us and Jackie what led you to poetry oh my first of all they thank you for this invitation to be with you this morning my journey to portrait actually began when I was very young and it probably began as a very restless precocious a child growing up in rural Orange County I was fidgety I was inquisitive and it was really my grandmother who led me to writing she would gift me these tiny little notebooks that I would write my stories in I was very young and that practice continued but writing was not really what I wanted to be when I grew up as a child I always aspired to be an oceanographer or a scientist well that's quite a journey from from oceanographer to poet laureate I'm just curious did you ever expect that how did you find out you'd been named the poet laureate were you waiting anxiously I've never waited anxiously on my journey to literature to the literary arts has always been about my own obsession with writing obsession with telling story and finding the poetry that lives inside a story but on this journey of being published and I'm a teaching writer I never thought I had any insight that one day would be the North Carolina poet laureate that was not on my radar I'm esteemed happy that it happened the governor called me on June 19th which happens to be my birthday and he said this is Rory Cooper calling for Jackie Shelton green my response was Roy Cooper as in my governor Roy Cooper and he said yes this is your governor Roy Cooper and I said and how may I help you his response was I'm calling to inform you that I pointed us to poet laureate of North Carolina and that was an extremely emotional funny gracious moment for me well it's not new fee to be honored I think you in North Carolina's literary Hall of Fame and I think you've won the North Carolina award for literature you just keep stacking them up well and I'm very humbled and gracious that my peers and the people of North Carolina and the powers that be have deemed these honors on me but the poet laureate is something else the poet laureate is really an ambassadorship and to know that I'm the first African American person only the third woman to be in this post is is a very prestigious honor and one that I take very very seriously and at the same time I'm having a lot of fun with it what does a grants of this post to have an african-american or a woman in it I think right now culturally in our society it's very important for children of all colors of all different backgrounds and diversity to see that someone who looks like them someone who comes from where they come from that this is possible and at my ongoing conversation with young people is there's nothing magical about how I've arrived at this place it's called working hard it's called having determination about what you want and really knowing who you are so I know that in this role as the first woman of color to be a port Lord of North Carolina comes much responsibility and paying homage to those who've opened doors for me before me I know that my wings are being lifted and guided by some serious ancestors and also I always tell myself the children are always watching and because they're always watching we should be at our best we should try to do our best end that's what it means tremendous responsibility and tremendous humility in the service of what this means also you reference ancestors do you feel that you are honoring them or do you even feel that presence as you learned this work I must certainly feel their presence my ancestor is always with me my deceased daughter is always with me guiding me so yes and I forget what was your other piece of the question how do you feel that presence how do I feel their presence oh that's that's an interesting question and I'm not even sure I can articulate but they show up they show up so just what is the job of a poet we hear about poets all the time but and we hear about words but what do they do what do they mean what do poets do we tell and as a documentary poet I use primary and secondary sources to retail historical or current events or personal narratives so I can only talk about my role as a poet and my role as a poet has been to use poetry as a vehicle to help public audiences find their voices and find themselves or over and over again their stories their dreams or inspirations their sorrows inside the container of language inside the container of the stories that we all carry well certainly your students look to you whether any writers or poets did you look to for inspiration or guidance it's so to be honest I admire a range of writers but I did not have that writing mentor necessarily I've been gifted to have many many writers who have nurtured me and my adulthood as a writer but my mentors were non writers and what impressed me is reading everything and I don't only read poetry but I read novels so when I think about Rumi when I think about how fees when I think about as a teenager I was obsessed with Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and and Hughes and Soren little person and Alice Walker Toni Morrison Shakespeare the classics so not only have writers been a beacon guiding me it's been the everydayness of people in their stories growing up in the rural South paying attention to the nuance you know to the codes to the silences to all of the cultural idioms that inform who we are as southern people well certainly North Carolina has a long strong literary tradition is that a good thing or does that help well I think that's a fabulous thing and I think it's fabulous because the arts are missing in our communities the arts are missing especially the literary arts I shouldn't say the arts but the literary arts are very much suppressed not very visible in the greater communities the fact that we have so many writers I think North Carolina citizens have been extremely blessed we live in our communities we play in our communities we interface with our libraries our public schools writers in North Carolina are writers who contribute greatly to the landscape of this great state historically we've done this and we continue to do this so I think it's a very good thing I love running into a languor gayness at Walmart's in the garden section or running it to Lee Smith at the grocery store you know any number of people who are great in their own you know who they are but it's everydayness of who they are as human beings and their humanity that they allow to extend to the greater community I think it was Lee Smith and you reminded me of a something I heard us say once like in North Carolina you couldn't swing a dead cat without getting a writer this is true I love that so they also teaches I'm wondering if is it really necessary to have academic training to go into literature well I don't believe that I'm not an academic writer that's not been my background actually economic development legal services being a paralegal being a consultant for nonprofits um so no I don't buy into you have to be inside of the Canon I also don't buy into all great writers have to have an MFA in creative writing it's never been a passion of mine to teach an academia I love academia but I've always been a community-based writer I've always been what I consider the people's poet because I believe that writers should be accessible and so many writers because we are in academics it's a very busy demanding career and the availability of the time to be inside of community is not necessarily always available to us so I have been fortunate to be able to straddle both to be the community writer and also to to teach to be a teaching writer well there are people who still think of poetry as those Shakespearean sonnets so that abb a rhyme scheme is no contemporary poetry more accessible I think it's all accessible it depends on our frame of reference from once we enter I'm amazed when I'm working with young rappers who are reframing Shakespeare or taking a Tennyson poem and turning it and to spoken word so I think it's from whence we enter it's how we understand how we have the craft how we have the permission to manipulate language to play with language so I'm always telling my students you have to know the classics you should read everything you should read everybody so you can be a discerning reader and also when you become a discerning reader it's easier to become a discerning writer it's easier to become your own best critic an appraiser of your own work so you see hip-hop and spoken word as on the continuum of poetry I think they're very necessary I think they um they played vital roles and sometimes when I'm debating this with my colleagues who consider it totally outside of the room I remind them that we don't pack audiences of three to four hundred on a Monday night and a spoken-word open mic and I'm impressed I'm impressed by the notion of community building that the spoken word community that the young people have the audacity and have the ability to to bring together and create community there's so much nurturance there's so much camaraderie there's so much support and even in the competitions there's still this community of camaraderie and there's a really bad spoken word poetry but there is some there's some amazing young writers who've emerged through a spoken word so maybe I could get you those disel spoken word and read a poem for us and we'll I don't do spoken word that way you requested that I read this poem that I wrote when I was very very young I wrote in my my twenties very elemental purpose I am new poem I am new woman writing poems about life about thunder and about fading dreams I am new poem real new poem fragments of black jew-jew tales fragments of seaweed and dust I am new Point skipping and flying giving life leaving no marks thank you so now I'm going to go back a little bit and talk about the whole process of writing I used to try to do little writing and they always would say write about what you know about and to me that seems a really difficult to be so self revealing in that's how do people get beyond that and can you actually not write from your life oh of course I mean I encourage people to resource to research so I also tell people to use their journals as bank accounts and our bank accounts were continually making deposits and withdrawals so my process because I'm extremely busy his poetry comes to me at all different types of times when I'm peeling potatoes or when I'm asleep but I keep journals where I'm depositing those few lines they come and I can tell this story in the context of I went to Central America to a writing retreat in a rain forest in 2006 2005 or 2006 I took 13 journals with me I did not know what was in those journals but I had been making deposits making deposits all over the place in those journals but I got there open those journals and I came back with a manuscript and that manuscript was this book ruffled the saw so we were always writing inscribing even when I can't get to the writing so that's one process and then making the time I think that we're very very busy this culture has us all manipulated and trained you know to be to say in these boxes of rush rush rush do do do produce produce to produce and it's about quantity and that quality and my process is to create those spaces so I can do the work and not only do I create those spaces for me but I recently created a sister right which is a business that allows women to travel with me to amazing places we just returned from Morocco for a month where we create those spaces and give ourselves to permission to be on a journey of writing for two weeks or a week or a month and I think we have to be very very intentional and mindful of how we have to craft that space according to ourselves I've had friends who have friends who said through our writing slot every day well that's never worked for me because I have life to do something gets in the way sometimes I can do that sometimes I can't do that but I think that we have to be careful about how we try to formulate a process that's not our process so I think people have to find their unique space for how they show up in their writing process I know people who write every morning they get up they write for an hour before they start third day I write at the end of the day but I'm constantly remembering to remember and my cell phone has become a very useful depository I have a recent book that I wrote for my daughter my deceased daughter who died nine years ago and that entire poem it's a one poem book was composed on my cell phone tell us about this book and how you were able to actually write about the death of your daughter Imani died in 2009 in June of 2009 and I really wanted to write about her um but I couldn't I was paralyzed I was really held hostage by that grief and I did not write until perhaps 2016 and it started because I was in my study and a bookshelf fell on my foot and I picked up the bookshelf I picked up the book I'm sorry from the floor and it was actually a journal that I had forgotten that I started keeping on the day she was diagnosed with cancer and I wrote in that journal every day until the day she died and then I stopped and I never wrote again and then I had her journal because he money also journaled that journey with cancer and I started reading the two journals and I I'd forgotten a lot of those passages but apparently they were evoking this narrative inside of my psyche and my spirit because in the wee hours of the night the lines I went to undying kept coming and I ended up with this book I went to and I you it was not a conscious poem in that I sat down to write it but as I often tell people sometimes poems find us and this poem really found me and allowed me to be the conduit for it and yeah so I'm really happy that I could capture that and I also think that's another one of those ancestral moments when imani spirit was guiding me and saying it's time you can do this now now you also a gravely ill at one point I remember seeing you me yes actually I'm a little afraid yeah were you able to write through that I haven't written about that I haven't written about that it was shortly after emani's death I was diagnosed with Lyme disease but an entire year had gone by without a diagnosis so I was in and out of intensive care many hospitalizations I was in a wheelchair I did not walk I didn't I couldn't talk I couldn't process information I could not certainly be sitting here having this conversation with you so it was when you saw me it was it was very frightening ah but medicine is amazing I would agree it was frightening now this is your a poem that will take us away from this place yes so I'm going to read a poem about my grandmother and outside of working in academia I have worked for many years working with people who are incarcerated people who are homeless this particular poem comes out of a series of a one-year residency I did with women on death row Wake County prison for women and for one year I only allowed the women to write about the subject of hands and because I learned what I teach and I always accept the assignments that I offer people this is one of the poems from that series I know the grandmother one had hands I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always in bowls folding pinching rolling the dough making the bread I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always under water sifting rice bluing clothes starching lives I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always in the earth planting seeds removing weeds growing knives burying Suns I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always under the cloth pushing it a lawn helping it birth into skirt dress curtains to lock out night I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always inside the hair party platy twisting it into rainbows I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always inside pockets holding the nuts counting the twisted veins holding on to herself less her hands disappear into sky I know the grandmother one had hands but they were always inside the clouds poking holes for the rain to fall that's gorgeous I love that um you've touched on something that I want to get back so you mentioned you travel to the rain forest and I know recently you were in Morocco do these travels teach you things so they come back and show up in your work almost definitely um I have a another one-point book that was written on a train from Paris to Switzerland so the journey informs us and there's always the anatomy of that journey and the voice of the journey itself and how we find ourselves over and over again in different places so this is gonna perhaps sound a little unfamiliar but it is only when I am a way that I can really write about personal narratives especially about my family in certain contexts so the book that I wrote in Switzerland costs whist time it was a book about my father's death that I always wanted to write about and I had not been able to revisit carving out a space where I could do that work and it just came it was so organic for me to write it there so yes I think anytime we step into other worlds we step into other customs we are able to witness other norms and other cultural habits it does it directs it influences the texture of that experience the language different languages I am especially excited about the aesthetic of incorporating different languages into my writing be it Arabic or I'm a Z which is a berber language or a French or or whatever so yes most definitely travel visitations I always say that tenderness unto the unknown is tenderness unto oneself so if we can show up in these spaces without any judgments any preconceived notions or any you know any expectations but for me it's to show up it's to show up and when I show up in these place as stories are revealed narratives are reveal poems find me and tell me to write them I'm a little curious about when you are teaching women's prison what did you expect and how were you received um so I've been doing this since the 70s it was the first and only time to work with women on death row the reception varied we're talking about women who've been incarcerated many of them for many many years and I wanted to focus on this concentration of hands because the power of their hands is what landed them there and for them to think about that power so we did a lot of visualization exercises where I asked them to close their eyes and allow their hands to remember the last time they touched their daughters here or brushed their daughter's hair and for some of them remember woman said my daughter is 15 the last time I saw her was 3 and I did brush her hair when she was here and she wrote about that or to ask them to write about the last time they touched their mother or grandmother's hands and many of them had mothers a grandmothers that had died while they were incarcerated and they had not seen those women for over 10 or 15 years so allowing the the visceral experience of what it means you know to be in touch because the body has memory the body has memory hands remember I also wanted that exercise to be redemptive for them if I can use that word for them to also allow themselves to practice self forgiveness to think about what forgiveness means through their hands and for a lot of women who did not like to be touched or who did not want to be touched who are afraid to be touched because physicality and a lot of them were women who had been raped or sexually assaulted or abused by spouses or partners to see at the end of that the hugging the holding of hands the healing that came through that I know that poetry saves lives I know that poetry offers so much for people in a space of healing so it was you know it was very different and not very different because these were women who had incredible stories that needed to be told and as the poet laureate it's the silence voices it's those voices on the edge the I want to be in the peripheral communities as much as I enjoy the speaking engagements as much as I enjoy being invited to universities I also am intentional about making sure that I am in those non-traditional and not not internalize a non-traditional but yes I want to interface with non-traditional writers but I also want to to be in those communities that are underserved those communities where there might not be any poets at least any who have named themselves poets but I know they're there and I want those stories so how is it different with that audience versus at the center of a documentary studies at Duke where you have this whole other realm of experiences there is no difference no difference there is no difference I teach the same I teach I teach the same the same curriculum and what about the way that students approach it they love documentary poetry it's a bit of a strange animal to them it's a strange animal to many people because we don't talk about documentary it's all explain that so documentary poetry is using primary and secondary resources incorporated intertwined with poetics and I'll give you an example Natasha Trethewey when she was the boy Lord of the United States travelled to New Orleans with a film crew and went through all the different wards retelling the stories of the people poetically with poetry film crew poetry documentary but not a a journalist so my students really really lean into that and we talk a lot about what it means to be a documentarian period and were the permissions that we need from our subject matters how do we not show up intrusive you know how do we show up as a facilitator and not a director so the amazement for them is when they do the research with different assignments and we look at everything from a Magna Carter to sales documents of the sale of human beings Hurricane Hugo Beyonce's lemonade we deconstruct and we start off doing a a face EA they face a face what do you call it a selfie I'm sorry we started out doing a selfie poem but they can't make a visual selfie so the selfie poem has to be a debt has to be a selfie that's with primary resources or secondary resources for their documenting themselves so it's it's a fun class it's a lot of fun but a lot of the exercises also use why do residences with elementary school children which is fascinating to them when I tell fifth graders oh we did this yesterday at Duke you know like really we're doing what they did it's accessible so what's next but Jackie sell some green oh my I'm working on a collection of poetry I'm always working on poems and there's a novel that I've been writing for I'm embarrassed to say almost 20 years and I have no idea when that novel will ever manifest it's really up to the characters it's with they decide we're done so I'm still working I'm still working and still doing residency he's still traveling my sister rate business is very dear to me I truly enjoy the opportunity to facilitate these spaces where women can come and I facilitate creativity salons and workshops and one day pop-up salons for for women writers well I think I've exhausted my questions is there anything you would like to add all that we should know I think I think we covered a lot grateful to the state of North Carolina to the governor for this appointment and I look I look forward to unearthing some of the many many stories that I know our citizens have that we all should hear thank you well I would like to thank you for taking this time to be with us and I would like to let people know that queer rich books in Raleigh will honor you and you can hear readings on Jackie on Sunday August 26th at 2 p.m. at Quail Ridge books if you want even more and I thank you for the wonderful work you've done for the state of North Carolina thank you you

3 thoughts on “Interview with Jaki Shelton Green NC Poet Laureate

  1. I have known, loved and respected this woman my WHOLE life. I am so grateful that the world is being introduced to this NC treasure💘💞💗

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