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North Carolina Poet Laureate visits CCCC

Click to enlarge,  Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina's Poet Laureate, presented a program at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center on April 19.

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Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina's Poet Laureate, presented a program at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic ... (more)

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04.28.2023College & CommunityCollege GeneralSpecial Events

SANFORD - The air was still as Jaki Shelton Green sat on one end of the stage reading "The Communion of White Dresses," but not entirely silent.

As the North Carolina Poet Laureate animated her verse about growing up in a Southern landscape of formal white dresses -- a scene that appeared proper and innocent, but also reflected a deep-seated social hypocrisy -- her words were punctuated by spontaneous reactions from the audience. Staccato expressions of accord.

"Presenting an Evening with Jaki Shelton Green," held April 19 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic & Conference Center, was produced by Central Carolina Community College's Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series and the Lee County Arts Council. The one-hour poetry reading and conversation was designed to give college students and the broader community a deeper understanding of poetry and an opportunity to meet one of the nation's distinguished artists.

Green is the ninth Poet Laureate of North Carolina, the first African American and third woman to be appointed to the position. Her list of accomplishments is long. Among them, she is an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame and the author of many books.

Some of her more recent poems were set to music and recorded on an album, "The River Speaks of This," that includes "The Communion of White Dresses" and "No Poetry," two of the poems she read to the local audience. The evening also included an interactive conversation about a broad range of topics -- from her writing process to advice she would give to people whose voices may be pushed aside in civic debate.

When that latter question came from a member of the audience, Green passed along the advice she once received from poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde. "Do not let them shut you down," Green said. "You have to keep writing. You write through. You write over. You write under. You write around. But you write. They will come for you, but you write."

Ironically, Green's appearance came at a particularly opportune time. This event was originally scheduled three years ago, just days into the pandemic shutdown, and was abruptly cancelled. The new date, this particular Wednesday night, just happened to work with everyone's busy schedule but also coincided with National Poetry Month and a period during the spring semester when CCCC students in Ty Stumpf's creative writing classes were studying poetry.

Stumpf said that having an accomplished poet like Jaki Shelton Green reading in Sanford was a rare opportunity for students to understand poetry in more depth and hear how the artist interprets her own words. "There are poetry readings here and there, but they are attended by folks who are also writers," Stumpf said. "One of the nice things about Jaki Shelton Green is that part of her charge as Poet Laureate is to bring poetry to the people. Poetry is for everybody and this allows students to see poetry out in the real world."

The evening was not just about college students; this partnership between CCCC and the Lee County Arts Council was designed to bring people from across the community together and maybe even draw some of them into the nonprofit's ongoing work to elevate local arts.

Emilia Guerrero, the evening's moderator from the arts council, said building a sense of community was a focus from the start. "What Jaki touched on is finding kindness and empathy to work through all these hard times," Guerrero said after the evening concluded. "I think poetry is a great outlet for those voices."

After Green finished reading and walked down from the stage, the conversation continued with several members of the audience coming forward to meet the Poet Laureate, get a photo or dive a little deeper into issues and how to create positive change.

That seemed to be a particularly fitting conclusion; when asked what she hoped people would take with them from her presentation, Green focused on how poetry, and art more broadly, could help build a greater sense of unity in a badly fractured culture.

"A new way that they think about how they're showing up in the world," is how she answered the question. "And how they might think about intentionally reaching across all of the boundaries through art, through creativity to connect with someone who's different."