Update: Jaki Shelton Green's induction ceremony, previously scheduled for Sep. 19, has been delayed. A new date will eventually be announced at www.ncarts.org.
On September 19 at the state capitol, North Carolina native Jaki Shelton Green will officially become the state's ninth poet laureate—only the third woman to hold the post, and she is the first African American. Her contributions to local literature are substantial: Green has published eight books of poetry and a play, and she has co-edited two anthologies. In 2014, she was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame after being named the first Piedmont Laureate in 2009. She teaches writing at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, and she is the founder of SistaWRITE, which brings "women and spaces together for writing, community, sisterhood, and shared experience."
In addition to teaching, mentoring, and collaborating with diverse communities of writers in North Carolina, Green facilitates writing courses throughout the country and as far as Brazil, France, and Morocco. She is an awe-inspiring woman: Even her speaking voice is poetic; it soothes and enthralls, and her propensity for storytelling is arresting.
As we talked for two hours on a hot, humid summer day in Hillsborough, Green guided me through threads of stories that led back to my initial questions and left me both satisfied and hungry for more. She is a fierce, passionate advocate for the arts, dedicated to holding space for others to share their words, and she especially encourages people who have been silenced to tell their stories through creative writing. We talked about a wealth of subjects, laughing and wiping sweat from our faces, and listening to each other with attention and intention. These are some of the highlights.
INDY: You are the first black poet laureate of North Carolina and the third woman. What does that mean to you?
JAKI SHELTON GREEN: It means a lot. Obviously, it's overwhelming in a very joyous way. I am used to being overwhelmed with sorrow, and I am used to being overwhelmed with the challenges of living in this culture. But this, I feel like I'm holding it not just for myself, but for many generations before me. I am holding it from the ancestral perspective that this is what my ancestors were preparing me for. This is the "make us proud" message that my grandmother was giving me as a little girl.
It's not just the pride and joy that my family is holding with me. I've had black women, Asian women, Native women, and other women of color—women from all over North Carolina—write me, call me, and say "You don't know me, and I don't really know you, but when I saw you on TV, when I heard this, I cried. I wailed with joy."
With that comes a lot of responsibility. I can be bold enough to say, I know what Obama felt. For me, it's that big in this state, given what I know about North Carolina, our history, our shared past. What's happening right now is a divided Southern legacy. This crisis in Southern amnesia that some of us are allowing ourselves to get caught up in—this joy has transcended that. Friends of mine have said, "You know, we're on social media, and it's one scary story after another. One sad story, one intrusive story about the brutality against us, and here's a story we can celebrate. Here's something that makes us smile. Here's something that we can be joyous about, that we can hold, and it's a live thing."
So that is a kind of buoyance, because I do feel like I'm being lifted by people I don't even know. I was in Winston-Salem, and I had to speak to the North Carolina Arts Council Board of Directors, and I remember that some of the women in the room came up to me and said, "You have no idea what this means to me." I do have an idea, because I know, if it weren't me, how I'd feel for any of us to be in that space.
To be a black woman in this culture, we have to have so many masks, and we have to be able to spin so many veils. There are the veils that we hide behind; they are the veils for our protection. And then there are the veils that we are lifting all the time, to show people who we really are. I think we are probably the only people on the planet that have had this task of renaming ourselves over and over again. I always tell my students that if you are going to be an artist, you need to have a museum full of interchangeable masks you can reach for and say, "Oh, I need this one for tonight and this one for the morning," and yet [you should] know who you are at your core and not get lost. It's not about becoming the mask but understanding how utilitarian it is for us to know the masks that we need. I always think of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "We Wear the Mask." And we're still wearing the mask.
And that's a beautiful thing, the way we come together and support each other.
Right, it's about how we invest in legacy and how we construct legacy. I tell my students at Duke, "I can care less about what you learned about poetics—if there's nothing else, you will know that in this class, you learn self-respect, compassionate listening, and how to be in community with folk." And they sit there, and they get it—they have to get it.
[As poet laureate], I want to make sure that I am opening spaces where those muted voices and those silent voices, and those in small communities, can be heard. In promoting, expanding, and celebrating literacy and literature, I want to make sure that I'm just not lecturing to people who are going to always show up at writers' conferences or The Regulator, but also people who've never thought of themselves as writers. Where are these voices in North Carolina? They're everywhere, and I want to help dig them out. As a sociocultural activist, that's part of my work. One poem, one story at a time—it's liberating.
In several interviews, you say that you did not intend to become a writer. Rather, you dreamed of becoming an oceanographer. What does the ocean represent to you—now, as adult, and then, as a child who'd never seen the ocean? When I think about the ocean, I can't help but think about the Middle Passage, and the depth of memory and history that's held in that space. There's this longing for something you've never seen, but you know exists, and you feel connected to it in some way.
Good question. So, as a child, I had never seen the ocean. I was obsessed with the Jacques Cousteau stories that came on TV all the time about him exploring the bottom of the ocean, and the ocean represented this whole other universe. And there was a pull to that. It was like there was some kindred-ness with this foreign space that I felt like I was supposed to go and explore. I felt like some piece of me was there that I didn't know about, some knowledge that would inform more of the life that I was leading as a child or was meant to live.
Of course, now, as an adult, the ocean is a part of my DNA. I understand the historical ramifications of why I identify so much with water and all that is there. The ocean is such a sacred space for me. In all of my times of trouble, sorrow, pain, despair, I run to the ocean; I run to the ocean. Because those bones in the Atlantic do speak to me. They do raise up when I come, and it doesn't matter whether I'm at the ocean in Brazil, in Ocracoke, or Carolina Beach, or this summer in Morocco—it's the same Atlantic. For me, it's another home. It fertilizes my creativity. I go there to be renewed, resurged, cleansed, healed, to make communion. It's a form of benediction, and it's a place of grace for me.
EDITOR'S PICKS: FIVE FALL READINGS
By Brian Howe
Blackburn Festival: The Mackey Sessions Y'all know one of the country's most distinguished contemporary poets is at Duke, right? Presented by the university's English department, this three-day festival explores myth and music in the poetry of Nathaniel Mackey with workshops, readings, and live jazz. Sep. 20–22, The Durham Hotel/The Rubenstein Arts Center, Durham, www.thedurham.com
Sally Bliumis-Dunn with Howard Craft Sally Bliumis-Dunn's poetry resides "where the best poetry resides, between the thing and the emotion, the swan and the grief," according to bona fide Famous Poet Billy Collins. In Durham, Bliumis-Dunn will discuss her acclaimed book Echolocation with a local literary light, playwright and poet Howard Craft. Oct. 2, The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, www.regulatorbookshop.com
Pete Souza White House photographer Pete Souza was all earnest reverence in Obama: An Intimate Portrait, but his new book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, tartly juxtaposes the dignity of his Obama images with the disgrace of Trumpian tweets and headlines. Shots fired. Oct. 26, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, www.flyleafbooks.com
Nell Painter After retiring from a distinguished career at Princeton, historian Nell Painter (known for bestseller The History of White People) enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design to earn two degrees in painting. Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over is the characteristically scholarly but lively and accessible result. Nov. 8, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, www.quailridgebooks.com
David Grann The best narrative nonfiction journalists draw long historical lines out of intimate human stories in plain prose that relies on structure, not hard-sell rhetoric, for emotion and suspense. Nobody does it like David Grann (The Lost City of Z; Killers of the Flower Moon), who returns with The White Darkness, another deeply reported tale of obsession—this time, with Antarctic exploration. Nov. 15, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, www.quailridgebooks.com