Some years ago, Jaki Shelton Green accidentally spilled a bottle of dark ink on a fresh white blouse. Her initial reaction was dismay. But that feeling quickly gave way to her natural, more poetic tendencies.
“I remember being terribly disturbed until I saw the narrative in it,” Green said in an interview. “The way the ink moved into contours and folds, not a singular stain — it traveled and created its own spiraling narrative, so I see that and think: What is the language it’s speaking?”
Green was just getting started.
“I hear and see poetry in just about anything,” she continued. “Inside a bird’s nest, the bottom of a teacup, a bowl of salad I’m making. I’ll find conversations in the woods, on tree limbs, in my garden. Water creates landscapes on the ground after the rain, gathering sticks and rocks and debris. A whole narrative on the ground you can see.”
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There is certainly poetry in Green’s ascension this year to North Carolina Poet Laureate — the state’s first African-American to hold the role. Gov. Roy Cooper called Green to tell her June 19, (also known as Juneteenth), and the news on her 65th birthday made her laugh until she cried.
Green, 65, is a finalist for The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year, which recognizes North Carolina residents who have made lasting and significant contributions in the state and beyond. For the first time, four finalists will be honored. The Tar Heel of the Year will be announced later this week.
She’s a self-described “nerdy overachiever with an over-active imagination who wrote on any surface that did not move.” She has conducted countless writing workshops and readings through SistaWRITE, a group she founded, reaching out to diverse, under-represented communities to find the poetry there.
If Green has made a career out of standing up for the outcast, it’s partly because she says she’s been one herself.
“I’ve been ‘othered,’” she said. “Left out, not included, labeled an ‘angry black woman.’ So (being Poet Laureate) means a lot for so many who see themselves on the other side of certain margins, especially people of color. I honor their stories and voices and I want to create spaces where those voices are amplified. Because I’m foolish enough to believe transformation can happen, one poem at a time.”
A family of storytellers
Green, North Carolina’s ninth poet laureate, succeeds Shelby Stephenson of Benson. The state’s poetry community is acclaimed but small, and most of the poets know each other. Stephenson and Green have been friends for close to four decades.
“Man, I tell ya, she’s ready,” Stephenson said in an interview. “She will be in communities that need her to be there, and she has both a quiet spirituality and flamboyance. She was and is very sensitive to all the history, knows all about ‘separate but equal,’ which was always wrong. Jaki makes her points about this, knows all our history. She’s a humanist, a lovely person.”
Green grew up in a family of storytellers and started writing poems as a child, sealing them in jars and burying them in her grandmother’s yard. Years later, she tried to dig them up and never could find them. The ground had shifted.
“I like that,” she said. “The thought that those poems are still in the shifting ground I grew up on.”
Green has not had an easy life. In 2011, she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, which limits her movements and use of hands.
But the biggest blow came in 2009, when one of her three children, Imani, died from cancer at age 38. Her daughter’s death inspired Green’s 2017 book, “I Want to Undie You.”
“Her absence is a powerful presence, but we have made room for that presence,” Green said. “Her spirit was large in life and we still have visitations. I still allow myself days when I’m overwhelmed with the absence of Imani, days I really miss her. And there are days when I’m just grateful she chose me to be her vessel. I don’t know anything else to do.”
Before being named poet laureate, Green already was among the most acclaimed writers in North Carolina history. She was the first Piedmont Laureate in 2009, which represents the Triangle, and was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2014.
Nevertheless, she did not actually call herself a poet until the last decade or so, even though she always identified as one.
“It took that long for it to become the sensibility of who I am, not just what I do,” Green said. “I didn’t feel the step into wholeness of marrying activity to the presence of my being a poet then, and there was a lot of trepidation. I know the power of naming, and I needed my own validation.”
‘I will write them alive’
As poet laureate, Green will work to bring poetry to marginalized communities. But she also expects to spend her tenure doing some highly personal work. Green has been studying her roots, traveling to the site of former Alamance County plantations where her ancestors labored and lived and died in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Last month, she wrote about this in a Facebook post in which she said she could feel “the ground screaming through the soles of my feet.” She vowed, “I will write them alive.” She calls the project “Phantom Limb,” because it’s about parts of her family tree that remain a mystery.
“It feels like my ancestors have invited me on a serious journey,” she said. “I want to be able to commit myself to it. I like knowing where I came from, and I want the story and ownership of it.”
That should dovetail nicely with her larger mission as Poet Laureate. As Green knows better than most, you can’t heal anyone else until you heal yourself first.
“I want to create models that exemplify what writing can do,” she said. “The ordinary everyday purposes it can serve beyond being literary art of the canon. What these stories bear witness to, how we preserve them for future generations.
“There’s an African proverb: ‘Where you stand in your youth will determine where you sit as an elder.’ I think about that often, try to be intentional and compassionate about listening to people. I try to be a steward of how we teach arts and build community.”
Jaki Shelton Green
Family: Kenneth Fisher Jr., three children
Education: Associate’s degree in early childhood education, Greater Hartford Community College, 1974; Graduate Certification, community economic development, University of Maryland’s Development Training Institute, 1993.
Accomplishments: North Carolina Poet Laureate, 2018; North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, 2014; Piedmont Laureate, 2009; Sam Ragan Award, 2007; North Carolina Award in literature, 2003.
Tar Heel of the Year
This year, there are four finalists, revealed in alphabetical order, with the Tar Heel of the Year to be announced Saturday at newsobserver.com. Here is who has been announced so far:
▪ Richard Brunson: The executive director of NC Baptists on Mission since 1992 has made the organization’s volunteers a critical component of disaster response in North Carolina and around the country, including hurricanes and earthquakes.
▪ Rhiannon Giddens: The musician is one of the most acclaimed to come out of North Carolina. Her accolades include a Grammy Award and a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellowship. She focuses on the under-represented, under-sung contributions of African-Americans to the cultural canon.
More from the series
The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year
The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.