“Two for a penny oat milk cookies.
Converse PF Flyers.
Ten pieces of Mary Janes.
Saw a white boy run from a black man.”
SILER CITY — That’s the first poem that Jaki Shelton Green, a celebrated writer and North Carolina’s current poet laureate, remembers writing. She supposes she was in fifth grade at the time.
Since then, Green never stopped writing. She has released eight print poetry collections, was inducted into the N.C. Literary Hall of Fame in 2014, and now teaches at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies. But she says that being named North Carolina’s poet laureate — an honor bestowed upon her by Gov. Cooper earlier this year — is her proudest accomplishment.
On Oct. 12, Chatham residents will have a chance to hear Green discuss “Celebrating the Power of Our Stories” at Chatham Literacy Council’s 3rd annual fall fundraising luncheon.
Chatham Literacy Council pairs adult learners throughout the county with volunteer tutors, who help teach reading and writing skills and encourage career success. All proceeds from the fall luncheon, which will be held at the Western Chatham Senior Center in Siler City, will directly fund that work.
Vicki Newell, the executive director of Chatham Literacy Council, is excited for the perspective Green will bring to the event. Newell says Green is her own personal “(s)hero” and a “dynamic individual.”
“She’s going to stand up for what she believes in, and she’s not going to be pushed around,” Newell says. “... I think that comes through in her poetry.”
Though Green says she hasn’t spent a lot of time in Chatham, she has long been a “huge supporter and champion of literacy” in both Orange and Chatham counties and across the state, even serving on the Orange County literacy board. A longtime advocate for equality, she describes art as a “sort of bridge” between people.
“I have always considered myself a cultural social political activist,” Green says, “because I truly believe that the arts should be accessible to every citizen, regardless of any demographic: any racial, any ethnic, any income or community demographic.”
Between daily rhythms of music, laughter and sharing food, Green travels around the state sharing about community and literacy. In fact, the two of us found some time to talk between her recent Charlotte visit with the National Institute for the Humanities and a writing festival in Burnsville.
Still, her experience as a poet laureate hasn’t shielded her from injustice. It may, in fact, have made it more evident.
“The book that I really should write at the end of the residency is ‘Poet Laureate-ing While Black,’” Green says. “I’m having fabulous, wonderful experiences. And yet, I continually also experience racism, classism, ageism and gender bias. Because it’s a real world I live in. If these things are happening to me as Jaki Shelton Green, why would they not happen to me as Jaki Shelton Green, poet laureate? My color didn’t change. My age didn’t change, my gender didn’t change. My race didn’t change.”
Green’s own writing heroes include Mary Oliver, Carolyn Forché and Toni Morrison. But she’s served as a literary hero to others, as well. She even completed a writing residency with first grade students at the same elementary school she attended while growing up.
“It’s been very heartfelt for me to experience the excitement … when I show up in their communities,” she says. “And when I tell young people, ‘Oh, I grew up just like you, just a rural little country girl who has some dreams. And there’s nothing magical about what I do. You can do this too.’”
Both Newell and Larry Hicks, treasurer and vice chairman of the board for Chatham Literacy, hope that Green will include some Siler City flavor in her future writing.
“I hope that [during] Jaki’s visit to Siler City,” Hicks says, “she can see the diversity that’s in this community and the culture that’s in this community.”
Green also has high hopes for the event.
“I would want the newly literate constituents who might be there to ... really think about how they might celebrate and expand their appreciation of their own stories and value them very differently,” she says.
Newell, too, hopes the luncheon will be an “awesome cultural mix of people.” She encourages those interested in attending the event to consider purchasing two tickets: one for themselves and one as a donation to help someone else attend. She thinks the gathering may even serve to inspire future volunteer tutors.
“I think at first, tutors think, ‘Oh, I’m coming in to help somebody,’” Newell says. “But that person helps them just as much, because … they form this bond and relationship that I don’t think anybody ever anticipated. It really is cool.”
Green has had her own experiences leading others to love literacy, and her own journey toward that end. For instance, she says she “never liked rhyming poems as a kid.” In fact, she “hated” them.
But she says of her fifth-grade masterpiece, “I still like that poem.”
Chatham Literacy Council’s Fall Luncheon will take place Oct. 12 at the Western Chatham Senior Center in Siler City. Tickets are $60 per person ($45 of which is tax deductible), and raffle tickets for a “mountain cabin giveaway” will be available. Learn more at www.chathamliteracy.org.