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Jaki Shelton Green: Words from the Poet Laureate

Jaki Shelton Green: Words from the Poet Laureate

Jaki Shelton Green is the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate. Green is a highly esteemed figure in the world of poetry. Born and raised in North Carolina, Green has dedicated her life to the art of writing and spoken word. Her work explores themes of identity, history, and the experiences of African Americans. Green brings a deep appreciation of our state’s diverse communities to her role as an ambassador of North Carolina literature.

Green has published numerous collections of poetry, which have garnered critical acclaim and accolades. She is known for her powerful performances that blend poetry, storytelling, and music, captivating audiences with her compelling presence.

In addition to her literary achievements, Green is a passionate advocate for social justice and community engagement. She has used her role as Poet Laureate to promote poetry as a means of healing and empowerment, leading workshops and mentoring aspiring writers across the state.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist? 

Well, I really didn’t know I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be a scientist growing up. Growing up, I wanted to be an oceanographer. I was obsessed with the ocean, even though I had never been to the ocean. I’d never seen the ocean, but I had watched enough Jacque Cousteau on Saturday afternoons, and I knew that I wanted to be a marine biologist or an oceanographer. I wanted to get to the bottom of the ocean. And it was really my grandmother who sort of nudged me into writing. I was a very nosy child and I’ve come to learn that being inquisitive is necessary. As a creative maker. We really need to be nosy. All of us, musicians, poets, dancers, filmmakers, sculptors, we need to be nosy. We need to be, we need to want to know what makes that tick. What makes that move, what makes yellow, yellow, and I was that child. In church, I loved going to church, but it was too long as a child. So you know, 15 minutes probably felt like three hours to me. But my grandmother would give me little notebooks to write in. And I would sit there and you know, in my little pea brain mind, I was making little stories about what was going on around me. All of the nuance of growing up in the South, growing up in a rural community in the South has informed my writing. 

What does it mean to be a Poet Laureate? 

Well, I serve as the ninth Poet Laureate of the state. I’m only the third woman and I’m the first African American. When I was appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate in 2018, by Governor Cooper I’ll never forget it. Governor Cooper called me on my birthday—my cell phone rings, and it was a Raleigh number, so I answer it. And he said, “this is Roy Cooper calling for Jackie Shelton Green,” and I said in a very snippy voice, “Yeah, right. Like my Governor Roy Cooper.” And he said “Yeah, that’s right, like our Governor Roy Cooper.” I went, oh how can I help you? And he said, “Well, I’m calling to inform you that I just appointed you as the ninth Poet Laureate for North Carolina. And I screamed in his ear. Embarrassingly, I was screaming, laughing and crying all at the same time. When I am anywhere standing at a podium or speaking, in that role as Poet Laureate, I know I’m not standing there alone, I know that standing around me are generations of ancestors who have been nudging me for all my life, encouraging me to go into these spaces where we have not been invited, where we have been disallowed to be in. I also know that I stand there with unborn generations, as the model of we can do anything we want to do. So it’s very meaningful to me, I take it very seriously. I’m the ambassador of literary arts for the state of North Carolina. My mission is to advance, enhance and expand appreciation of literature across the state. I do that by traveling across the state, inviting people to write, to tell their stories, and I help them understand the value of their stories. It’s not just about my stories, but their stories are what help fuel the arts. 

NC Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green reflects on her work during an interview with Substantial.  

How does one use the arts for the purpose of healing, to create movements and inspire others to change?

Well for 40 plus years I have been using writing as therapy and as a form of healing. I’ve had residencies in prisons were I worked with incarcerated writers and writers on death row. I’ve worked with young people who are in detention centers. I’ve worked with people who are survivors of domestic violence, who are survivors of incest and other traumas. I’ve worked with writers living in homeless shelters and people living on the street. In all of these spaces I have witnessed over and over again the power of how the arts have and can save lives. I’ve learned more from those audiences, perhaps, than they’ve learned from me, because as I said it’s not just about my stories, it’s about their stories and their experiences. 

What advice would you give an aspiring writer? 

As I said earlier in our conversation creatives most be inquisitive. I would tell them to take classes and learn their craft. I would tell them to expose themselves to other writers, there are some brillant minds right here in our state. North Carolina is full of very gracious, generous writers. We’ve got poet laureates in cities and counties. We’re here, reach out to us, get involved. As a young writer you should go to readings. I’m always fascinated when someone tells me this is their first poetry reading or this is the first time I’ve ever written and read my work out loud. As a creative you have to take those chances. The best way to sum it up is to say don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Be yourself. Don’t try and be the next Maya Angelou or Nikki Giovanni. Be the first and only you. You have to have a relationship to your work, to your art. What is your relationship to your poetry, short stories, whatever you’re writing? It may sound strange when I say this but how are you treating your work? Are you spending time with it, do you love it? As writers and creatives we have to pay attention to the things that pop up around us and write them down. 

Of all your amazing work, do you have a favorite? 

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Well, out of my nine collections of work, there’s a piece that I wrote about my daughter. My oldest daughter died in 2009, at the age of 38. I really wanted to write about her. It was not until 2017 that I was actually able to write about her and I have a publication that’s entitled, “I Want to Undie You.” It’s one long poem. It’s not a collection of poetry. I hate to use the word favorite, but it’s perhaps the most significant body of work for me. It was important for me to be able to honor her life, her legacy, her legacy of humanity, her legacy of service. It was also significant for me because it modeled how we use creativity as medicine, and it was the medicine that I needed at that time. Creativity and the arts, I do believe that creativity is medicine, writing dancing, painting, photography, sculpting, singing as we said earlier it heals. 

What’s on the horizon for Jaki Shelton Green?

Oh, my I have so many things going on. A lot of artistic collaborations in the works. I met the other day with somebody who wants to make another dance film video with me. Since with the first one we did was so successful. I have a lot of work and projects in Morocco that is lining up, so I’m just staying busy. I have not published anything in a while, so I’m definitely dedicated and committed to bringing out a book or two by the end of the year. So stay tuned because a lot is happening. 

Visit:   |   IG: @greenjaki

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