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.

light verse judge

Jeff Worley is the judge for our Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award. He sent this poem to share:

Playing Possum

Something was gnawing at my dream
and, awake now, I hear one of our cats
loudly crunching at his bowl in the kitchen.
But here in bed I make out the shapes
of all three cats, a triumvirate
around my wife and me. I leap up
through the question of Something wrong,
Honey? And stumble toward the mad
chewing. I flick on the light. There,
in the corner, pink as a piglet, a baby
possum startles from the bowl of Kitten
Kaboodle, crumbs flaking around its tiny
gash of mouth. And here’s Linda,
fully awake now, too, with not only a broom
for her, but one for me. She flings me mine
like Ricky Nelson tossing John Wayne
his loop-handled carbine in Rio Bravo.
And we’re shutting doors behind us
and opening doors to the outside world,
which clearly terrifies this arboreal
rodent who’s little more than whiplash
tail and provisional hiss. He scampers
under the German Schrank. I take a couple
swipes underneath and tease out a dust-
covered catnip toy, a disposable Bic,
and half of what looks to be a slice
of Donato’s (pepperoni). The possum
folds into itself like a fist. But Linda
is choking up and waving her broom, ready,
so I thwack the thing broadside. It skids out
like a top-ended puck to my wife, who swings—
her breasts lovely in the sudden light
(did I mention we’re both bone naked?)—
and I’m skating toward the wide-open front door,
this 2 a.m. game of Possum Broomball
almost fun now, and whoosh the critter so hard
it cartwheels like a cartoon possum through
a racket of katydids and other night fiddlers
and lands like a wad of flubber on the lawn.
As it scampers off, Linda and I stand
on the front porch, victorious, holding
our brooms in the manner of American
Gothic. Our next-door neighbor, Jaime,
home from the late shift, turns her blue
Toyota into the drive, fixing us
with headlights. It’s scary how seriously
these Worleys take their housecleaning,
she may be saying to herself, at which point
there’s nothing left for us to do, but wave.

from Happy Hour at the Two Keys Tavern, 2006

Jeff is a Wichita, Kansas native and Kentucky’s current Poet Laureate. He has written six book-length poetry collections, including Happy Hour at Two Keys Tavern, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

He has generously chosen to answer all of the questions I posed.

Here’s what he remembers about the first poem he fell in love with:

In the first poetry writing class I ever took (1969), the anthology we used was Naked Poetry, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey. James Wright was one of the poets in this collection, and I absolutely loved (at first sight) his “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” I realized a poem could be made using conversational, plain speech imagery; the importance of clear observation; and the crucial importance of a surprising and apt ending line (“I have wasted my life”).

This is his ideal writing day:

Sitting on the back porch of our Cave Run Lake cabin 11 miles into the Daniel Boone National Forest. Reading & writing on and off all day. Perfect.

Of his most fulfilling achievement, he says:

Getting out of bed in the morning and realizing I’m not dead yet.

And his favorite poet:

Stephen Dunn, Pulitzer-Prize winner, for his 45 years of writing accessible and surprising poems, many of which seemed to speak directly to my interests and concerns.

Finally, how he refills his creativity well:

I follow William Stafford’s advice to “just start anywhere.” Get a line—anything—on the blank page (“As I type a response to Craig Kittner, I see a squirrel doing a high-wire act on the electric cable”), and see where it seems to want to take me. Follow that path until it no longer interests me, then move somewhere else (if a poem doesn’t move, how can we call it ‘moving’?)