Jaki Shelton Green, “Literary Citizenship”

Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate and she will select the winner of our Poet Laureate Award.

I am honored to present her thoughts on how the challenges of 2020 have impacted the role of the poet in our society:

When I think about the role of the poet in this challenging season of uncertainty, I am reminded of a comment from Joseph Polisi, former President of Julliard, who wrote in his book titled, The Artist as Citizen, “I have wanted to emphasize my belief that artists of the twenty-first century must re-dedicate themselves to a broader professional agenda that reaches beyond what has been expected of them in an earlier time. Specifically, the twenty-first artist will have to be an effective and active advocate for the arts in communities large and small around the globe. These artists must be not only communicative through their art, but also knowledgeable about the intricacies of their society— political, economically, socially— so that they can effectively work toward showing the power of the arts to nations and their people.”

This passage from his book ushers forth many questions for me in what I have deemed necessary personal requirements that guide and inform my role as NC Poet Laureate and literary citizen.  

Do we understand that witness is a generative act? How does how we witness change the world? How are we changed by what we witness as literary citizens? How close can we listen? How do we witness each other into being through our poetry? How does our poetry attend to the ways we authenticate our literary citizenship?

Over the past months, I’ve been actively engaged with a variety of regional, national, and international discussions and performances with poets, other artists, and cultural leaders reflecting on ideas and issues that shape our lives and challenge our times. At the core of these discussions, we are asking how do we develop new work that speaks to the great issues of our time? 

My question to my North Carolina poetry community is how do we use our poetry and work as literary citizens to create a healthy, supportive, respectful literary community with tenets of accountability, without gatekeepers, without power-plays, without meanness, that has a mission of eradicating bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, classism, and ageism wherever it continues to thrive and threaten?

As literary citizens, whose poems, whose stories are we discussing, exemplifying, and embodying? Audre Lorde wrote, “Without community, there is no liberation… but community does not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” 

During this multi-layered pandemic, I have witnessed poets reaching across and beyond boundaries reminding each other that WE ARE THE PEOPLE, and we are audience to each other, holding the qualities of civic-mindedness and social responsibility as we continually underscore the link between our practice as writers and its relation to the political and public sphere.

We are tremendously impacted by the challenges of 2020 as creative beings, but these unsettling times over and over again remind us that the act of writing is internal. It pulls out our relationships with experiences that become the vehicles that we are needing inside of this particular journey… for going deeper into the unknown landscapes of all the literature that is growing inside of us.

I believe that when poets imagine, we create, and when we create we realize that we can create a world that we prefer to live in, rather than a world that we are suffering in or in the words of Ben Okri, “Politics is the art of the possible; creativity is the art of the impossible.” 

Jaki has chosen to share this poem with us:

Christmas has a sound. It is crisp like green apples fresh celery or the first summer swim. The wind carries it like a newborn wrapped in cedar balsam spruce cinnamon cloves nutmeg. My daughter Imani loved Christmas. It was her favorite holiday. She became an earthly angel gathering us all up in her generosity of making merry. As a child I remember Christmas mornings backdoor visitors bearing smoked ham bacon fresh sausage the smell of sage permeated throughout our house. Clove studded oranges pear preserves sugar glazed apples yeast rolls makes the stomach recall other Christmases chess pies fruit cakes rum cakes German chocolate cake spiked eggnog caviar and deviled eggs shrimp rolls and cheese balls pound cake and pecan pies.

I sleep through the whispers of a holiday wind beckoning me to place my footprints in this new fallen snow and walk upright following the tracks of a deer fallen by a hunter. I am thinking of the dead deer my friend killed who will not return to his mate his children his clan. I am thinking of my friend who will not return to his wife his children his mother his sister his grandchildren his friends. In this moment I declare a new year for new dreams new purpose new beginnings.

In this moment breathing the breath of Christmas I declare that the halls bedecked that all the faithful embrace all the families torn apart at our borders. proclaim a silent night that slips joy into a world where babies are forced to sleep alone without mangers under cold stars without any shepherds watching where kings and men are not wise. Ring the miracle of the possibility of love and decency into the hearts of the heartless.

Hark the herald of nutcrackers, sugar cookies, tinsel, holly, and grandma ivory’s craved homemade cheese crackers.

Hark the herald of babies first Christmas trees and grocery lines spinning out of control. Make a joyful noise for the hope of families reunited. For the hope of self-Love spreading like a disease or the sprinkling of kindness over everything and everyone. Deck the halls with a peace we have yet to dream about. A tree decorated with patience, tolerance, forgiveness, benevolence. Wrap all the children in swaddling clothes and set them free in a world that sings joy and security into their hearts. Hark the herald for a multitude of wise women rising and leading us into a new world of rare and anointed possibilities. Let the holiness of silent nights crackle with the fires of friendships open tables and not the sounds of gunfire.

Let it snow let it snow let it snow but only if all creatures have a warm home and shelter. On the twelve days of Christmas may we greet twelve strangers with good will feed eleven hungry people gift ten loaves of nut bread to ten hungry people enjoy nine hours alone with our children bake eight dozen cookies from eight different recipes from eight different countries watch seven wimpy Christmas movies drink six glasses of eggnog while stuffing the Christmas duck turkey or tofu wrap five more gifts for fifty more children under the angel tree sleep four more hours than usual name the three wishes for your new year embrace just the two of you make this one day magical for someone who needs magic.

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Jaki Shelton Green, ninth Poet Laureate of North Carolina is the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate. She is a 2019 Academy of American Poet Laureate Fellow, 2014 NC Literary Hall of Fame Inductee, 2009 NC Piedmont Laureate appointment, 2003 recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature. Jaki Shelton Green teaches Documentary Poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies and has been named the 2021 Frank B. Hanes Writer in Residence at UNC Chapel Hill. Her publications include: Dead on Arrival, Masks, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Conjure Blues, singing a tree into dance, breath of the song, Feeding the Light, i want to undie you. On Juneteenth 2020, she released her first LP, poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst, produced by Soul City Sounds and Clearly Records. Jaki Shelton Green is the owner of SistaWRITE providing writing retreats for women writers in Sedona Arizona, Martha’s Vineyard, Ocracoke North Carolina, Northern Morocco, and Tullamore Ireland.

poet laureate preliminary judge

Our preliminary judge for the Poet Laureate Award is Michael Rothenberg, the Florida State University Libraries Poet in Residence. He is editor and publisher of the online literary magazine BigBridge.org, co-founder of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and and co-founder of Poets In Need, a non-profit 501(c)3, assisting poets in crisis. His most recent books of poetry include Drawing The Shade (Dos Madres Press), Wake Up and Dream (MadHat Press), and a bi-lingual edition of Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story (Varasek Ediciones, Madrid, Spain).

Asked who his favorite poet is, he answers:

I think of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, John Keats, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Anna Akmatova, Emily Dickinson, Paul Valéry, Appolinaire, Walt Whitman, Michael McClure, Tu Fu, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, William Blake, Garcia Lorca, Wang Wei, Allen Ginsberg, Antonio Machado, Mahmoud Darwish, Bob Kaufman, Marina Tsvetaeva, and the impossibility of choosing favorites. I hear a thousand voices, and each of them soothe, excite, and inspire me. They give me permission to find my own way.

He shares the following poem:

2019 poet laureate award winner

Maureen Sherbondy won the 2019 Poet Laureate Award with her poem Gretel. Maureen lives in Durham, NC. She teaches English at Alamance Community College. Her forthcoming book is Dancing with Dali (FutureCycle Press, 2020). Her work has been published in Prelude, Calyx, Feminist Studies, Southeast Review, and other places.

Asked about the first poem she ever loved, she says:

When I was young, my mother bought me a poetry anthology called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…And Other Modern Verse.

I memorized several of the poems in that book. My favorite poems in the collection were “Husbands and Wives” by Miriam Hershenson, “Ancient History” by Arthur Guiterman, “Rebecca” by Hilaire Belloc, and “Why Nobody Pets the Lion at the Zoo” by John Ciardi.

I really fell in love with all of these poems, but the one I repeated again and again was the the poem about lions by Ciardi. John Ciardi lived in my small town of Metuchen. I recall passing by his house on the way to school. Back then (and today) poets were my movie stars, so you can imagine how exciting it was for me to pass by the house of John Ciardi. The poem still delights me.

Maureen shares this poem, Published by Connotation Press in March, 2015:

Cousins I Never Met

Fire burns down the entire forest
but still one flower thrives. The moon’s
silhouette against the sky reminds me
yes, we are still alive. We ran and walked
through yesterday’s parade. You thought
the kite you ran with on the sand could
fly up to the night-imprisoned moon. My cousins, too,
(all gone too soon) watched this same light
in Germany as night-time, day-time prisoners in
rooms fit for two or three, not fifty.

Two years ago we let go of white balloons
at the newborn’s funeral. Five days
he lived. Son, nephew, brother. Five days. We looked up
until white globes blurred into white clouds.
Devoured. We throw rocks at death both now
and then. Still death stays with you and me hours,
months, through years of lingering. Remember

Painting the German Shepherd thick
with tomato juice to release the stink,
oh, that stink, it lingers. Oh, this scent
of death too. Stink of burning flesh
I have heard about it, read about it.
Lamp shade flesh they whisper in the halls.

Now walk with me inside
the burned down forest, take in the sweet
perfume of one flower reaching up
to the sun and moon. My relatives made it
through until the final hours and then
and then. Auschwitz, final hour. The end
when release could be tasted, sulphur burning
on His defeated tongue. Fuhrer fury. The end arrived
when release could be swallowed from the air
so close, and yet. Their blood, our blood waters
burnt soil. We plant new seeds. We march forward.