N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green will speak at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Concord branch of the Cabarrus County Public Library. Her visit is sponsored by the Concord Friends of the Library.
An acclaimed poet and teacher, Green is currently teaching documentary poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.
Green is only the third woman to be named N.C. Poet Laureate, and is the first African American poet to hold the honor.
But her poetry reflects more than a black and white world. Green said she strives to give each of her poems a utilitarian purpose that can be accessed by anyone.
And that is particularly true for the poems she is often commissioned to write for people to commemorate special events. She was working on such a poem last week when she took time out to speak to the Independent Tribune.
The poem was for a person to be honored for a special achievement. But it was a poem commemorating the birth of a friend’s child she used as an example when explaining how she likes her poems to “serve a purpose.”
The baby in the poem was named Isabella, and when Green learned her name, she started saying the name over and over in her head, and a poem emerged from the litany of the child’s repeated name.
Isabella’s family recited the poem on each of her milestones — her baptism, her birthdays, and her recent high school graduation.
Each time the poem was spoken it marked a high point in the young woman’s life. It became a vessel that contained the joy that Isabella brought to her family.
Shelton said her poems become vessels. They sometimes hold joy, sometimes grief, but they hold something.
“Those are functioning poems. They are standing up in a purpose. I like to think all my poems do that. They reach across our differences and say, ‘Hey you!’”
And after hearing ‘hey you,’ a reader can realize she’s talking to them, no matter the differences between herself and her audience.
That’s not to say her poetry doesn’t reflect her particular life circumstances, her own family, her heritage and upbringing.
Art, any form of art, has the ability to transcend our differences. Green likened it to music.
When you’re dancing, you’re not looking at the people around you and wonder what their politics are. You’re just dancing, she said. When you’re lost in the beauty of a symphony playing, you don’t care who the trombone player voted for, she said.
“I don’t WANT to know who he voted for,” she said with a laugh.
Green was born in Efland, North Carolina. Most people only know that town by driving past exit 160 on Interstate 85, she said. She grew up in Alamance County. As a high school junior she accepted a scholarship to a Quaker boarding school called The George School in Buck’s County, Pennyslvania.
It was the 1960s and it wasn’t a good time for a young black woman growing up in the South.
“The desegregation plan was not necessarily the most thought-out. It was a really horrible and challenging time and my family wanted me out.”
Green said it was a cultural shock arriving at the school in the height of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cambodia Conflict.
“It was an interesting and powerful time in U.S. history, and in my little life, these were things that affected me.”
Green’s family were strong civil rights advocates and activists, and she said she was taught to treat people compassionately and kindly with the expectation that people would treat you the same way.
“But it was not true, and it’s still not true today,” she said. “It was a tough time for me as a young person, dealing with the identity of what it means to be Southern, being a brown girl in the South, witnessing and being a part of history as it was happening, witnessing the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King — and I have a vague recollection of the death of Malcolm X.”
Everything was different in Pennsylvania, she said. It was an international school and the backgrounds and cultures of all the other students influenced her world view.
She said it was a lesson in itself to be with people from all over the world, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and other faiths.
“To interface with so my cultures and to understand what it means to have relationships and friendships with people from different backgrounds, … It instructed and directed how I embrace other people that are not like me.”
Green said she forged friendships with students there that have last her lifetime.
She started writing as a child. She was fidgety, she said, and her grandmother handed her a writing pad to give her something to do.
“Before I left North Carolina (for The George School) I had written journals, diaries, and a lot of poetry. I had amazing English teachers who encouraged me to write. And at The George School I had the opportunity to go to the next level.”
She had classes with and mentors who were published and she was in a community where the creative arts were celebrated, she said.
“Had I stayed in North Carolina, I believe I would have continued to write, but I’m not sure the texture of my writing would be the same if I had not played on a global landscape,” and experienced all the sharing of stories, foods, cultures, backgrounds, she said.
She said she stole a line from one of her students who once said, “‘I’m from every place I’ve ever been.’ I’ve claimed all of those experiences because I made home in all those experiences. I can create home, I can create community wherever I go.”
Green said that’s her mission and intention in representing North Carolina as Poet Laureate.
“It is my desire and hope that people will hear their own stories over and over again when they hear me read.”
Green’s list of accolades, awards, and distinctions is extensive, but a few highlights include the 2019 American Academy of Poets Laureate Fellowship, a Certification of Teacher Excellence presented by the Kingdom of Morocco’s Ministry of National Education, as well as having been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.
She has published eight collections of poetry, and copies of her books will be available for purchase and signing at Saturday’s event. The Concord library is located at 27 Union Street North.