North Carolina Arts Council
For months, students from all across the country have been memorizing and reciting the words of poets such as Tracy K. Smith, Ilya Kaminsky, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, among others, all in the hopes of being named the 2022 Poetry Out Loud™ National Champion, which includes a grand prize of $20,000. The semifinals will be broadcast Sunday, May 1, 2022, at Arts.gov/Poetry-Out-Loud.
After participating in local and state competitions, one student from each of the 50 states, American Samoa, District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—55 total—are advancing to the Poetry Out Loud National Semifinals. From those semifinals, nine students will advance to the Poetry Out Loud National Finals, broadcast on Sunday, June 5, 2022, at Arts.gov/Poetry-Out-Loud. In total, $50,000 in awards and school stipends will be distributed as part of the national finals.
Poetry Out Loud is a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Foundation, and the state and jurisdictional arts agencies. This national program encourages the study of great poetry by offering free educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition for high school students, helping them to master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life. Read the NEA's complete press release here.
Congratulations to our 2022 NC State Champion Gabriella Burwell from Knightdale High School! Streaming May 1 on NEA's Poetry Out Loud page, Gabriella will be competing in the first round of the semifinals, beginning at 12 p.m.
North Carolina Arts Council
Writer, digital content creator, and spoken word poet
Since 2017, Ayanna has been a member of the Bull City Slam Team. She was crowned the Grand Slam Champion for three consecutive years. In 2020, after competing against 93 of the nation's top women slam poets, Ayanna was ranked the world’s second-best woman slam poet at the Women of the World Poetry Slam, in Dallas, Texas. In April 2021, Ayanna returned and was crowned the best woman slam poet in the world. She says she is passionate about “a(rt)dvocacy,” the merging of artistic storytelling and advocacy. Her work emphasizes social and economic justice, Black liberation and power, and women’s empowerment. Ayanna says her ultimate motto for her life’s work is this: “I don’t wish to be famous; I just want to be heard.”
I believe that poetry is a vehicle to take people on a creative storytelling journey. It's stylistic, it's metaphoric, it's articulation and expansion. Poetry, for me, has been a means to amplify voices and experiences, including my own—and that's important, because storytelling, in general, has always been about the bigger picture for me. What am I trying to say? What's the impact? So having a month that honors poetry is just a nod to the power it holds—a celebration of words and wit. And I appreciate it because it's an opportunity for folks nationwide to engage in this magical and meaningful art.
College Professor and former North Carolina poet laureate (2012–14)
Joseph Bathanti, former state poet laureate and recipient of the North Carolina Award in Literature, is the author of 19 books—most recently, a collection of poems, “Light at the Seam,” from LSU Press (2022). Bathanti is the McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education at Appalachian State University, in Boone. He was the 2016 writer-in-residence at the Charles George Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Asheville, and cofounded that center’s creative writing program. “The Act of Contrition & Other Stories,” winner of the EastOver Prize for Fiction, is forthcoming from EastOver Press in the fall of 2022.
Poetry is a conversation, a praise song, often a very private, intimate one, that begins within us, that we ultimately feel compelled to share with others to articulate how we really feel, what we really see, what we really know. Poetry empowers us to tell our stories in the language most immediate, most primary, most sacred to us. It allows a vulnerability that leads to illumination—not only for the poet but also for the reader. Poetry connects all of us in shared humanity—the common experience of lived lives; of witness, welcome, and love—and underscores the abiding fact that stories can save us. Providing children with poetry, and allowing the joy and liberation of it to infiltrate our schools across North Carolina, is utterly crucial.
Award-winning poet and performance artist, cultural organizer, educator, scholar, and emcee
Dasan Ahanu is an award-winning poet and performance artist, cultural organizer, educator, scholar, and emcee based in Durham. He was an Alumni Nasir Jones Fellow at Harvard University’s Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute, resident artist at the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation/Hayti Heritage Center, and visiting lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). He has performed across the country, appeared on national radio and television, published three books of poetry, been featured in various periodicals, and released numerous recordings. Dasan is the Rothwell Mellon Program Director of Creative Futures, a grant-funded initiative of Carolina Performing Arts, at UNC.
Poetry is such a valuable artistic expression because it allows writers to share their thoughts, observations, and ideas while affirming their self-determination in what they share. It is a catalyst for a conversation, it is the possibility of deeper understanding, and it is the opportunity to gain a new perspective. What National Poetry Month does is provide a time for folks to see how powerful the art form is, how close it is to them, and how many different ways it can show up in the world.
Story by 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
From the Office of Governor Roy Cooper:
Today, Governor Roy Cooper announced that he would reappoint poet, teacher, and community advocate Jaki Shelton Green as North Carolina’s poet laureate.
“Jaki Shelton Green has a remarkable ability to connect with people from all walks of life through the literary arts,” Governor Cooper said. “I’m proud to reappoint Jaki and look forward to seeing her inspire more young poets and artists in this role.”
Green was first appointed North Carolina Poet Laureate in 2018 and is the first African American, and the third woman, to serve as the state’s ambassador for poetry and the spoken word.
Green has conducted hundreds of public poetry workshops, lectures, and readings across North Carolina. 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 youth poets engaged artistically in civic and community activism, social justice and youth leadership across the state.
“Jaki Shelton Green has used her platform as poet laureate to champion North Carolina’s rich literary traditions in communities across the state,” said D. Reid Wilson, secretary, N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Her emphasis on working with diverse writers and youth has been especially profound and meaningful.”
Born and raised in Efland, North Carolina, Green has been active in our state’s literary and teaching community for more than 40 years. She’s written eight books of poetry and a play, co-edited two anthologies of poetry, and has been published in over 80 national and international anthologies.
Over the course of her career, Green has taught poetry and creative writing at public libraries, universities, community colleges, K-12 schools and community nonprofits across the U.S. She currently teaches Documentary Poetry at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and has been named the 2021 Frank B. Hanes Writer in Residence at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
“When I was appointed the N.C. Poet Laureate Juneteenth 2018, I dedicated myself to fulfilling the mission to promote and expand appreciation of the literary arts. My reappointment is a tremendous honor and will support my work plans across the state that were compromised by Covid-19,” said Green.
“I will continue to work with community-based organizations focused on the intersection of literature, cultural activism, advocacy, and transformation. New audience development, new delivery platforms, and new ways of increasing community engagement are at the core of my Laureateship.”
As a community arts advocate, Green has created and facilitated programs that serve diverse audiences across the state, including the incarcerated, homeless, chronically and mentally ill, victims of domestic violence, and immigrants. Throughout the pandemic, she has focused on teaching, facilitating workshops, collaborating with other artists, curating special programs, and keynoting conferences virtually.
“During her tenure as N.C. Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green has championed poetry’s potential to empower, build bridges, and heal,” said Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council. “The Poet Laureate is a symbol of our literary community’s contributions to North Carolina and our nation, and the integrity and vision Jaki brings to her role honor our state’s literary heritage.”
Green’s awards include a 2020 Shaw University Ella Baker Women Who Lead Award, a 2019 N.C. Humanities Council Caldwell Award, and a 2003 North Carolina Award for Literature. She was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 2014 and named the inaugural N.C. Piedmont Laureate in 2009.
Last year Green released her first-ever spoken word poetry album: The River Speaks of Thirst. The Justice Theater Project presented a multimedia film adaptation of the album following its release. Recently, an Italian publisher released a bilingual edition of her book length poem “I Want to Undie You.” North Carolina-based Soul City Sounds will release an audio recording of the poem next month.
Media inquiries should be directed to: Samuel Gerweck, Special Projects Coordinator, at email@example.com
Meziah Smith is a sophomore at Knightdale High School, in Wake County. She is a student, a reciter, and a poet, and will represent North Carolina in the national Poetry Out Loud semifinals, taking place on Sunday, May 2. She has been writing poetry since the seventh grade, and this is her second year participating in the Poetry Out Loud competition.
Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest is a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation that encourages students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. This program helps high-school students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about writers past and present. This year Triad Stage hosted the state finals, which took place virtually. Students statewide submitted recordings of their recitations of classic and contemporary poems.
We asked North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green to pose some questions for Meziah to answer, so you can get to know this student ahead of her trip to the Poetry Out Loud semifinals. Tune in to the virtual broadcast and cheer for Meziah on the National Endowment for the Arts website at noon EDT on Sunday, May 2.
Tell us about yourself: where you live, where you attend school, any other things about you or your family that you’d like to share.
I live in the Knightdale area, where I attend school, as well. I live with my mom, dad, younger sister, and our family dog, Zeus.
What’s your favorite subject in school? What are your plans or dreams after high school graduation?
My favorite subject in school has always been history, especially world history. After I graduate, I would love to attend Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.
What motivates or inspires you as a human being?
The people in my family have always been the biggest supporters of everything I do, and they encourage me to continue to do my best, because I know I have them in my corner.
What kinds of books do you read?
I absolutely love fantasy novels. I love seeing how authors create amazing worlds that seem so real.
Do you write poetry? Do you have favorite poets?
I have been writing poems since I was in the seventh grade, when I started trying to find ways to express my emotions. I find it hard to pick just one poet to call my favorite when they all seem so vastly unique in what they do.
What three writers or poets, living or dead, would you like to have lunch with? What would you ask them?
I would love to meet Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Phyllis Wheatley. The works that these women have written have been the foundation for my love of reading and writing. I would love to ask them how being a woman impacted how they write and how they saw writing during their time.
What motivated you to participate in Poetry Out Loud?
I competed in Poetry Out Loud last year, as a freshman, and I loved the energy and I loved how I felt, expressing myself. Unfortunately I did not make it into the finals for the state competition last year and I was determined to push myself this year.
What inspired you to select the poems you recited?
I loved how each of the poems I found was by a different, powerful African American woman, with her own story to tell. I wanted to show the different sides of being a black woman with my selection.
How did you prepare for the competition? Did you listen to any audio of the poets reading the poems in their own voices? Did your understanding of the poems instruct and guide your voice?
I spent my time preparing breathing in the poems, and I did research on the authors and their lives, to better understand the poems and the stories that the poems were telling. Understanding the poems and having a connection to the authors helped me get comfortable with the poems before I went on stage to perform them.
What was going through your mind while you were on stage? If you were nervous, you controlled it and it didn’t disrupt your presentation.
I love being on stage. However, even though I am used to performing, I get extremely nervous. It was easier to calm my nerves because my mom was there, and she has always been my role model and she keeps me at ease when I need her most.
What advice do you have for other Poetry Out Loud participants?
Have fun. Enjoying the stories that these authors tell is my favorite part of the experience, because performing the poems is like traveling to another world for just a brief moment. I say to other participants that basking in that moment is what makes the entire experience worthwhile, and good luck.
Please share with us what it means to you personally to represent the state of North Carolina at the national Poetry Out Loud competition or anything else you’d like to share.
I was born in Pennsylvania, but I have been here for almost 10 years. I call North Carolina home and being able to walk into this and represent the state that I love is such a crazy thing to even think about.
Jaki Shelton Green
When we think about how we love the world, we begin with poems of gratitude and hope.
Poetry lifts our sagging spirits.
Poetry demonstrates the wealth of the diversity of voices dwelling together and magnifying one another in all our differences; all our connections; all our good, bad, ugly; all of our beauty; and all of our tremendous humanity.
Poetry echoes our deepest experiences. Long before I was appointed the ninth Poet Laureate of
North Carolina, in 2018, I witnessed poetry transform Poetry Out Loud participants across our state.
I spent several years in the beginning of the North Carolina Poetry Out Loud program traveling the state—coaching students and providing training workshops for teachers, coaches, and judges. I was fortunate to witness strength emerge from fear as students stood up tall and proud in the spirit of honoring the words into which they were breathing life.
I closely watched shyness shift into confidence. I witnessed cockiness transition into compassionate listening for the mystery or the lesson inside the poet’s message.
From the mountains to the ocean, and all the counties in between, I am still witnessing the urgent and grand work of students who are becoming spoken-word powerhouses. Thank you for your writing genius and your love of poetry.
My message to you, as we near the close of National Poetry Month, is to continue to honor the weight of the stillness that sometimes complicates the meaning of a poem. Savor the confusion!
Honor the beautiful breath and breadth of your own commanding poetics!
Honor the emotions that poetry evokes inside of you!
Honor your brilliance and know that your recitations and love of poetry remind us over and over again that poetry springs from many unexpected convergences and infinite detail!
Happy National Poetry Month!
Jaki Shelton Green
North Carolina Poet Laureate