Jaki Shelton Green

Celebrating N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green

Author: North Carolina Arts Council

Jaki Shelton Green is the first African American and third woman poet to be appointed as North Carolina Poet Laureate. As Jaki closes out her final year as our state’s poet-in-chief, we are celebrating a few of the highlights of her tenure.

When he chose her for this honor in 2018, Governor Roy Cooper said, “I am so fortunate that Jaki Shelton Green agreed to be the Poet Laureate in North Carolina. She has become a national, and international, figure with her amazing talents.” He also applauded Jaki’s “deep appreciation for our state’s diverse communities,” which has been front and center for work. During her two terms as N.C. Poet Laureate, Jaki has visited hundreds of schools and community-based arts programs across our state to share the transformative and healing powers of poetry and the arts. 

North Carolina people are special. We really are homegrown, like the good tomatoes that we all crave. I love every little crook and cranny of North Carolina. – Jaki Shelton Green

Perhaps her most personal achievement has been launching an initiative whose goal is to one day have a Youth Poet Laureate in every high school. In talking about why she created the program, Jaki said, “Teenagers are hungry. For many of them, writing is like their link to a sane world that they are trying to create for themselves in the middle of so much chaos that’s coming at them. I wanted this work to be my working with community organizations, my working in school systems, to help people uncover their own stories.”

In 2022, Governor Cooper and First Lady Kristin Cooper welcomed Jaki Shelton Green and several young poets laureate to the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.
In 2022, Governor Cooper and First Lady Kristin Cooper welcomed Jaki Shelton Green and several young poets laureate to the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.

Kelly Jones, Arts Education Coordinator of Columbus County Schools, applauded Jaki’s creation of the Youth Poet Laureate program. “Poetry enriches every single part of our lives because it makes us look inward and then also makes us look outward at the same time. What better gift, what better skill to be able to look at things from a different perspective. The poet laureate program is creating changers, people who can change their world, and that’s exciting to me,” he said.

Two of those “world changers” are Justin Wellons, Youth Poet Laureate at East Columbus High School, and Allyena Roberts, Youth Poet Laureate at West Columbus High School.

“[The youth poet laureate program has] allowed me to get my work published on multiple different occasions, and it actually allowed me to start teaching and mentoring other students,” said Justin. “It just gave me a platform, if you would, to start publicly speaking, to start putting myself out there and give good back into the community.”

“[Jaki’s] an absolute inspiration,” said Allyena. “I hope to be one day like her. When I first got into poetry, I did not know that I’d be right here today…it’s an absolute blessing to be here.”

In addition to her work with schools, Jaki has crisscrossed our state speaking at community centers, museums, local fairs, colleges and universities, and libraries. She teaches Documentary Poetry at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies. She released a critically acclaimed poetry album, “The River Speaks of Thirst” on Juneteenth in 2020. That album went on to be the subject of a collaboration with Grammy Nominees Nnenna Freelon and Pierce Freelon, and Paperhand Puppet Intervention in 2023.

In 2023, Jaki also served as Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center in Charlotte. During her residency, Jaki partnered with visual artist Monique Luck to create an interactive installation based on one of her poems, “The Communion of White Dresses”

Jaki Shelton Green may be closing out her illustrious tenure as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate this year, but she’s committed to continuing her life’s mission of bringing communities, especially their youth, the healing and transformative power of poetry.

“There’s one hundred counties in North Carolina. I’ll be doing this for a long time, far past my laureateship days. It doesn’t matter that you live in a small town without a stoplight. It’s doing the work. It’s about hard work, falling in love with something that you know how to love.” 

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