Jaki Shelton Green

A Conversation With Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s 9th Poet Laureate

Author: Kyesha Jennings

In 2018, Jaki Shelton Green made history as North Carolina’s first African American poet laureate. The North Carolina poet laureate is an ambassador of the power of poetry and the written word to illuminate, educate, entertain, and transform the minds and hearts of people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Green has conducted hundreds of public poetry workshops, lectures, and readings across the state. In 2019, the American Academy of Poet Laureates awarded Green a $75,000 fellowship in recognition of her literary merit and public service. She used the award to launch “Literary ChangeMakers,” an initiative that supports young poets in North Carolina who are engaged artistically in civic and community activism, social justice, and youth leadership.

In May 2021, Governor Roy Cooper announced that he would reappoint Green. “Jaki Shelton Green has a remarkable ability to connect with people from all walks of life through the literary arts. I’m proud to reappoint Jaki and look forward to seeing her in this role inspire more young poets and artists," he said.

A native of Efland, North Carolina, Green has taught poetry and creative writing at public libraries, universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, and community nonprofits nationwide. She is teaching a course on documentary poetry at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies this year, and was named the 2021 Frank B. Hanes Writer in Residence at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Most recently, the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) welcomed her as its inaugural poet in residence. Green will host workshops, readings, and other events at NCMA through 2023.

Green continues to focus on youth programming in her efforts to support literacy and civic engagement in North Carolina through poetry and the literary arts. As part of those efforts, she partnered with Kelly Jones, an arts education coordinator with Columbus County Schools, to develop a pilot program that installs young poets laureate at Columbus County’s four high schools. Students interested in being named to the post participated in several poetry workshops that Green led, submitted their applications, and received cocurricular and extracurricular support from teachers and staff at their respective schools. A panel comprising community and school leaders made their decisions and on March 19, 2022, Green appointed four young poets laureate at a countywide Celebration of the Arts. Green intends to continue this initiative beyond her tenure as North Carolina poet laureate.

In honor of National Poetry Month, we caught up with Green to learn more about her initiative in Columbus County, her creative partnership with the flute duo Flutronix, and her thoughts about her service as the state’s poet laureate.

Because of your commitment to engaging youth through the arts, specifically poetry, can you tell me what’s the value of a youth laureateship?

Being a youth laureate teaches students collaboration skills. It teaches them how to work with different people. It expands their public speaking skills. It teaches them to advocate for poetry and uplift the peer voices in their school. It teaches students how to be vulnerable, and how to take advice from others. It teaches them that writing and listening to others help you to understand better what good poetry is. It also teaches students about accountability to the community that they are writing within, and overall requires that they think about the role in a serious manner.

Years ago, you advocated changing the structure of North Carolina’s poet laureateship. Can you tell me about the specific efforts that were employed?

The North Carolina laureateship used to be a lifetime appointment. And when James Hunt was the governor of North Carolina, a group of poets wrote to him and expressed the fact that North Carolina has many diverse voices that will never be heard if the laureateship remains a lifetime appointment. So, he said, “I think you're right.” He then charged us as a committee to rewrite the North Carolina laureate's mission statement, which was initially written in all-male pronouns. It was very archaic. . . We wrote to laureates all over the country and asked about their mission statements, bylaws, and the length of their tenure. And the responses we got were all very different. Poet laureates served anywhere from three to five years, one year, two to three years, and many today still fulfill lifetime appointments.

The Chicago Tribune listed Flutronix’s performance of Black Being as one of Chicago’s Top 10 moments in classical music, opera, and jazz that defined 2021. How did the creative partnership between you and Flutronix begin?

When Flutronix came to North Carolina in 2018 for their residency at Carolina Performing Arts, they were interviewing people for their research project Discourse. The project was based on first-account stories from people across the state who were a part of the civil rights movement. Carolina Performing Arts contacted me as a resource to help the musicians identify other people. When we met up for coffee, they shared that they had Googled me prior to our meeting and that they loved my work.

In 2019 they reached out and said, “We have a piece from one of your books that we want to set to music. We want to do a score.” So COVID happened, and they couldn't do the performance in person. I was going to go to New York to be in a conversation with them. Instead, they did an Airstream, and UCLA Performing Arts presented the performance. Later, their music director contacted me and said, “The girls [Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull] really want to meet you and ask you questions. . . This was the most challenging piece of work they've ever engaged with. They loved it and wanted to ask you about your process.” So, I spent a lovely evening with them.

After that, they wrote me and said, “Hey, the Chicago Art Club and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra want to commission you to write a new piece for us, called Black Being. So, I wrote I wrote this long poem for them and that's what they performed in January and October, and it will be performed in Cincinnati in April.

Is your writing process different when composing a commissioned piece than when you write from inspiration within?

it is different because, you know, when I am just writing for the sole purpose of writing, my antenna is open to everything to receive inspiration. I could be sitting here looking at a fly outside of my window and that might trigger a line. But whenever I'm doing a commissioned body of work, I try to get as much information as I can. I want to know what they're thinking, you know, like, what is the context for what you're asking me to do?

When I talked to Flutronix, they shared that Black Being is about Black women. So, immediately, the first thing that came into my spirit, I said to them, “I know what I don't want it to be.” I didn’t want it to be an ongoing, “Oh, woe is me, the Black woman.”  I said it will begin in a historical context, but it's really going to be celebratory. And it's going to be about strength, and it's going to be about we are the ones and we're here and this is how we're occupying this space. It's going to be about Black women’s agency.

I was trying to think of words that they could hear the musicality in or create musicality inside of that word—inside of the language. I have attended enough of their performances that I can hear them—like, I could hear these words coming from Flutronix.

It’s been four years since you were appointed poet laureate. Can you talk to me a bit about the importance of National Poetry Month?

Well, I am so happy that we have National Poetry Month. . .In other cultures, you know, the poet is as important as a president. And a lot of administrations actually have a poet in their cabinet. I remember the United Nations used to have the United Nations Day of Poetry. Every ambassador to the United Nations would introduce themselves through a poet from their country. And I've often thought about the importance of that--the significance of poetry. To me, I have always wanted to celebrate the ordinariness and everydayness of poetry. We don't have to go to a museum to experience art.

What has been the best thing about being appointed poet laureate twice?

The governor appointed me on June 19, 2018, which happens to be my birthday. Now, for me, it was really auspicious that he would call me on my birthday on Juneteenth. And he told me not to tell anybody. He said, “You can tell your families but don't tell anybody else—and tell them not to tell anybody.” He wanted to give the communications team enough time to put together a press release. Well, the very next morning, I flew to Morocco, and I'm sitting at the airport. . .we are sitting waiting for the next flight. And this woman traveling with me, she’s like “Oh my God, Oh my God.” I'm thinking, “Oh, my, what has happened?” You know, I'm panicking, because I'm thinking that she needs to go back home. I put my arms around her and I'm like, “Okay, calm down. Tell me what's going on with you.”  She looked at me and said, “You’re the poet laureate!”

Word had gotten out. It was all over social media. My phone was blowing up. TV stations were calling me. I was running around the airport trying to find a hotspot so I could talk to people. When we arrived at the village in Morocco, the children had written in Arabic on the wall of my house, “Welcome home, our poet laureate.”

I just remember I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. . .It was overwhelming in a good way. . . It was overwhelmingly joyous. I mean, this was my black joy. . .To know that my peers from diverse backgrounds had nominated me. . . was quite a reckoning for me. Inside of all the celebration, there was also the little me panicking, like, “I got to work. I don't get to be a queen over the corner. I got to go to work.” I embraced the work of the poet laureate seriously. I believe that if you have the word “ambassador” in your mission statement for the poet laureate, that word itself has the connotation of service. I've taken this pledge very seriously by being a good server traveling the state of North Carolina expanding North Carolinians’ appreciation of the literary arts. . .

I know what this means collectively. Coming from rural North Carolina, when I'm interacting with children, especially rural children, I always say something magical about me is I grew up just like you. I say, “I know where you live. I know dirt roads. I know that landscape. That's my world, too.” It's really wonderful to be celebrated by universities and get awards. All those things are very exciting. But it is the humility and understanding of the admonishment, “to the one that is given much, much is expected” that continues to excite me.






April 26: Poetry reading, Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte

April 27: Poetry reading, Harvey Gantt Museum, Charlotte

April 28: Host readings from Crossing the Rift: North Carolina Poets on 9/11 and Its Aftermath, NCMA, Raleigh

May 1: Facilitate “Inside the Container”—a conversation with Nnenna Freelon, NCMA, Raleigh

May 4–16: In Morocco to work with the Desert Poets project

May 18: Virtual presentation, Research Triangle High School

May 19: Keynote speaker, Cape Fear Literacy luncheon

May 21: Reader at a celebration of Collected Poems of Marty Silverthorne, Fountain

May 21: Greensboro Bound Literary Festival panelist, County of Terror: Alamance in the 19th Century, Greensboro History Museum

May 26–June 6: Writer in residence, Vertikal Alliance International Writers Retreat, Tullamore, Ireland

June 11: Poetry reading/workshop, Wayne County Public Library, Goldsboro

June 13–17: Guest artist in residence, Duke University Dance Program

June 19: Juneteenth celebration brunch keynote, Fayetteville

September 7–12: Ocracoke SistaWRITE retreat

September 17: Facilitating public ekphrastic workshop, NCMA, Raleigh

September 22: An Evening with the Poet Laureate, Jagged Path: the African Diaspora in Western North Carolina in Craft, Music, and Dance, Blowing Rock Art and History Museum

October 8: Ekphrastic workshop, SECCA, Winston-Salem

November 1–10: SistaWRITE retreat

November 12: Ekphrastic workshop, NCMA, Raleigh

December 10: Ekphrastic workshop, SECCA, Winston-Salem

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