- Grant Merritt
‘Creativity is medicine’ – State Poet Laureate visits Columbus
Fulfilling her duty to hold conversations on crossing boundaries, love and stewardship as North Carolina Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green celebrated her one-year anniversary in her honorary role with a visit to Columbus County where she spoke to children, teens and adults. Tuesday’s schedule involved interacting with high school students and teachers at the Columbus County Arts Center. That night, she led a public recitation and lecture in the Southeastern Community College auditorium.
“Creativity is medicine,” Green said. “We can re-imagine a different kind of world through the arts. That’s been the most poignant thing about being here – just being here with good people.”
Green’s visit to Columbus County was coordinated by the Reuben Brown House Preservation Society, which sponsors the annual A.R. Ammons Poetry Contest. She spoke to students at the DREAM Center and Central Middle School on Monday about special objects in a person’s life having a story.
Gov. Roy Cooper selected Green in June 2019 to become the first African American woman North Carolina Poet Laureate. Due to a hurricane and ice storm, she was not installed until Feb. 18, 2019. She told the audience Tuesday night that it felt good to be starting her second year as the poet laureate.
Growing up in rural North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s, Green said she attended segregated schools and was raised in a nurturing and compassionate family that provided her with childhood stories she could write about. Education was at the center of her childhood, and she “never questioned if I was going to college but where I was going to college,” she said.
Even though Green loves teaching documentary poetry at Duke University, she said her most powerful experiences come from working with marginalized writers – people on death row, the incarcerated, homeless, and abused women who have found the power of their voices. Being a documentary poet, Green uses primary and secondary resources to re-frame or retell a historical, current or personal event through a particular person’s voice.
“It is the role of the artist, the poet, to agitate or bring forth the possibilities of a re-imagination of a safer world, a kinder world, a more compassionate world, a more just world for all us, the unborn and the generations. That’s my job,” Green said as she introduced herself to the audience Tuesday night. “And I have accepted it, and I know what I have to do.”
Green explained that as the N.C. Poet Laureate, she travels the state to create safe spaces for people to hold conversations. She said that truth-telling is dangerous, but someone has to do it. She discovered that the more people tell stories to each other, the more people find themselves inside each other’s stories – that there are things in our humanity that connect and divide us.
North Carolina Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green
meets with students at the Dream Center in Whiteville.
Green’s favorite experience in her honorary role was a visit to a Biscuitville restaurant where four men wearing Make America Great Again hats wanted to hug her and take a selfie photo with her after discovering she was the Poet Laureate. Even though she differed with the men politically, she could sense their sincerity in the interaction. She said it has been her most important moment as poet laureate – to be in that space and let them cross whatever boundaries, real or imagined in their minds – to just address another human being.
“Their hats are not my business,” Green said. “How I respond to their humanity is my business. So we can get rid of our symbols and tags and badges and just meet people in their humanness. And that’s the beauty of art, and that happened because I am the poet laureate.”
Pat Ray, co-chair of the literacy committee of the RBHPS, extended a special thanks to the Columbus County Arts Council and Executive Director Sally Mann for funding and providing space for Green to speak to high school students. Ray described Green’s visit and love of poetry as a “unifying bridge” for communities. In turn, Green said she thoroughly enjoyed her visit to Whiteville and applauded Ray’s organization and transparency with keeping her up to date on her duties and expectations.
This project was funded by The North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and The North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, a state agency.