Politics and Poetry

Politics & Poetry Episode 5 ~ Part 1: Jaki Shelton Green

November 24, 2021 Lisa Campbell, Ron Campbell and Lexi Hunter Season 1 Episode 5
Politics & Poetry Episode 5 ~ Part 1: Jaki Shelton Green
Politics and Poetry
More Info
Politics and Poetry
Politics & Poetry Episode 5 ~ Part 1: Jaki Shelton Green
Nov 24, 2021 Season 1 Episode 5
Lisa Campbell, Ron Campbell and Lexi Hunter

We're excited to launch our fifth episode of Politics & Poetry.  In this month's episode, we are honored to interview Jaki Shelton Green, the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate.  Join in our conversation as Jaki shares her thoughts on the role of poetry as an art that "brings us joy and helps us to remember our tremendous connections to our humanity."

To learn more about Jaki Shelton Green visit: https://jakisheltongreen.com

References

Amen, John. June 18, 2020. "Jaki Shelton Green Blends Poetry And Protest On Timely ‘the River Speaks Of Thirst’" https://www.popmatters.com/jaki-shelton-green-river-speaks-thirst-2646199018.html

Arts Across NC. February 18, 2020. "Creativity is Medicine." https://soundcloud.com/user-213851310/creativity-is-medicine-a-conversation-with-nc-poet-laureate-jaki-shelton-green

Green, Jaki Shelton (2005). breath of the song. New and Selected Poems. Carolina Wren Press. https://www.blairpub.com/shop/breath-of-the-song

Green, Jaki Shelton (1996). conjure blues. Carolina Wren Press. https://www.blairpub.com/shop/conjure-blues

Green, Jaki Shelton. Spoken Word. 2021.  I want to undie you. Soul City Sounds. Apple Music. https://music.apple.com/us/album/i-want-to-undie-you/1572593440

Green, Jaki Shelton. Spoken Word. June 19, 2020. The River Speaks of Thirst. Soul City Sounds. Apple Music. https://music.apple.com/us/album/this-i-know-for-sure-feat-jennifer-evans/1512739647?i=1512739649

Kissane, Tamara. Oct 26, 2020. https://artistsoapbox.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/131-ASBX-Jaki-Shelton-Green-transcript.docx.pdf

Music Maker Relief Foundation. Jan 14, 2021. "Freeman Vines In Conversation with Jaki Shelton Green." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChpgREHKfRI

North Carolina Literary Review Online. Jan 25, 2019. East Carolina University, North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. https://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/2019-nclr_online-final

Phillips, Dylan. Mebane Enterprise. Sep 29, 2021. "Makers of Modern Mebane honored a year late."
https://www.mebaneenterprise.com/arts_and_entertainment/article_420b4de2-212d-11ec-897b-f3f23fdcef1f.html

Poet, J. July 28, 2020. Rock and Roll Globe. "Jaki Shelton Green: Poetry for the Pandemic." https://rockandrollglobe.com/jazz/jaki-shelton-green-poetry-for-the-pandemic/

Poets.org. Poet Laureate of North Carolina 2019. https://poets.org/poet/jaki-shelton-green#poet__work

UNC Libraries. Feb 3, 2020. Video: Two Minutes of Poetry with Jaki Shelton Green. https://library.unc.edu/2020/02/jaki-shelton-green-video/

Show Notes Transcript

We're excited to launch our fifth episode of Politics & Poetry.  In this month's episode, we are honored to interview Jaki Shelton Green, the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate.  Join in our conversation as Jaki shares her thoughts on the role of poetry as an art that "brings us joy and helps us to remember our tremendous connections to our humanity."

To learn more about Jaki Shelton Green visit: https://jakisheltongreen.com

References

Amen, John. June 18, 2020. "Jaki Shelton Green Blends Poetry And Protest On Timely ‘the River Speaks Of Thirst’" https://www.popmatters.com/jaki-shelton-green-river-speaks-thirst-2646199018.html

Arts Across NC. February 18, 2020. "Creativity is Medicine." https://soundcloud.com/user-213851310/creativity-is-medicine-a-conversation-with-nc-poet-laureate-jaki-shelton-green

Green, Jaki Shelton (2005). breath of the song. New and Selected Poems. Carolina Wren Press. https://www.blairpub.com/shop/breath-of-the-song

Green, Jaki Shelton (1996). conjure blues. Carolina Wren Press. https://www.blairpub.com/shop/conjure-blues

Green, Jaki Shelton. Spoken Word. 2021.  I want to undie you. Soul City Sounds. Apple Music. https://music.apple.com/us/album/i-want-to-undie-you/1572593440

Green, Jaki Shelton. Spoken Word. June 19, 2020. The River Speaks of Thirst. Soul City Sounds. Apple Music. https://music.apple.com/us/album/this-i-know-for-sure-feat-jennifer-evans/1512739647?i=1512739649

Kissane, Tamara. Oct 26, 2020. https://artistsoapbox.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/131-ASBX-Jaki-Shelton-Green-transcript.docx.pdf

Music Maker Relief Foundation. Jan 14, 2021. "Freeman Vines In Conversation with Jaki Shelton Green." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChpgREHKfRI

North Carolina Literary Review Online. Jan 25, 2019. East Carolina University, North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. https://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/2019-nclr_online-final

Phillips, Dylan. Mebane Enterprise. Sep 29, 2021. "Makers of Modern Mebane honored a year late."
https://www.mebaneenterprise.com/arts_and_entertainment/article_420b4de2-212d-11ec-897b-f3f23fdcef1f.html

Poet, J. July 28, 2020. Rock and Roll Globe. "Jaki Shelton Green: Poetry for the Pandemic." https://rockandrollglobe.com/jazz/jaki-shelton-green-poetry-for-the-pandemic/

Poets.org. Poet Laureate of North Carolina 2019. https://poets.org/poet/jaki-shelton-green#poet__work

UNC Libraries. Feb 3, 2020. Video: Two Minutes of Poetry with Jaki Shelton Green. https://library.unc.edu/2020/02/jaki-shelton-green-video/

Jaki Shelton Green  

Who will be the messenger of this land? 

who will be the messenger of this land

count its veins

speak through the veins

translate the language of water

navigate the heels of lineage

who will carry this land and parcels

paper linen, burlap

who will weep when it bleeds 

and hardens

forgets to birth itself? 

 

who will be the messenger of this land

wrapping its stories carefully

and patois of creole, irish

gullah twe tuscarora 

stripping its trees for tea 

and pleasure

who will help this land to

remember its birthdays, baptisms

weddings, funerals, its rituals

denials, disappointment

and sacrifices

 

sho will be the messengers of this land

harvesting its truths

bearing unleavened bread

burying mutilated crops beneath 

its breasts

 

who will remember 

to unbury the unborn seeds 

that arrived 

in captivity

shackled, folded,

bent, layered in its bowels

 

we are their messengers

with singing hoes 

and dancing plows

with fingers that snap 

beans, arms that 

raise corn, feet that 

cover the dew falling from 

okra, beans, tomatoes

 

we are these messengers 

whose tears alone choose 

which spices 

whose eyes alone name

basil, nutmeg, fennel, ginger, 

cardamom sassafrass,

whose tongues alone carry 

hemlock, blood root, valerian 

damiana, st. john's wort

these roots that contain 

its pleasures its languages its secrets

 

we are the messengers

new messengers 

arriving as mutations of ourselves

we are these messengers

blue breath

red hands

singing a tree into dance

From Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems (Carolina Wren Press, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Jaki Shelton Green. Used with the permission of the author.

 

Lisa Campbell 
Welcome to episode five of Politics & Poetry.  Today we're honored and we're overjoyed, and a little emotional hearing you read the poem, Jaki. 


Jaki Shelton Green
Thank you.

Lisa Campbell
We are joined today by Jaki Shelton Green, the first African American and third woman to be appointed as the North Carolina Poet Laureate. When he appointed her in 2018, Governor Cooper stated that, “Jaki Shelton Green brings a deep appreciation of our state's diverse communities to her role as an Ambassador of North Carolina literature. And her appointment is a wonderful new chapter in North Carolina's rich literary history.”  Jaki Shelton Green is the author of eight collections, most recently, I want to undie you, by Jacar Press. In 2019, Mrs. Shelton Green was named in the Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. She currently teaches documentary poetry at Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, and as a 2019 Academy of American Poet Laureate Fellows. She was named a 2014, North Carolina literary Hall of Fame inductee in 2009, the North Carolina Piedmont Laureate Appointment.  In 2003, the recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature. Additionally, she received the George School Outstanding Alumni Award in 2021. She has many publications, and they include,  Dead on Arrival, Masks, Dead on Arrival and New Poems, Conjure Blues, Singing a Tree Into Dance, Breath of the Song, published by Blair Publishers. Also, Feeding the Light, and I want to Undie You, both published by Jacar Press. Her poetry has been published in more than 80 national and international anthologies and featured in magazines such as Essence and MS.   


Lexi Hunter
On Juneteenth  2020, she released her first LP poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirstproduced 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.

Jaki Shelton Green is the recipient of two North Carolina Emerging Artists Grants, the African American Writers Collective Distinction Award, the North Carolina Writers Network Blumenthal Award, the 2002 Omega Iota Finer Womanhood Award (Zeta Phi Beta Sorority), and the Delta Arts Award (Delta Sigma Theta Sorority). Her List of awards spans almost two decades of achievements, honors and inductions.

 

Ron Campbell  

Jaki, we're so grateful, honored and privileged to be with you today. We appreciate you taking the time to visit with us. I spent a lot of time immersing myself in The River Speaks of Thirst. And in my research also, back in 2020, it's not been that long ago, but you'll remember I'm sure, the literary citizenship as you were part of the 2020 Pinesong Awards. And you address specifically literary citizenship, which is, I think so in tune with the civic responsibility and the theme that we're concerned about a nexus between politics and poetry.  I wondered if you might maybe take a moment and share with us some of your reflections about the importance of literary citizenship and the role of the poet and the Poet Laureate in that endeavor.

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

Certainly Ron and thank you so much again for hosting me. I am reminded that James Baldwin once said that, “the writer and the artists must write about the times that they live in and make art about the times that they live in.” And, we can look all over the world at different cultures who are holding their histories and their political triumphs. Their celebrations-their independences- in many, many different art forms.  Whether that's a beautiful sculpture of an artist in the middle of a square, or a poem that becomes, you know, the city's anthem of freedom, or justice.  I'm especially reminded during the Civil Rights Movement, how the Freedom Riders, the Freedom Riders, Choir you know, that traveled, the music of that era, the music of the Irish revolution. So we have seen how art and especially poetry, continues to hold up the very fabric that the people weave. Not so much what is given to us, but that art comes out of struggle. You know, there were the poets of, there was the Harlem Renaissance. And then there were the poets who came out of the Black Panther, I want to say the Black Panther Movement, yes, the Black Panther movement. And the, the Civil Rights movement, you know, thinking about people like Amiri Baraka and Jane Cortez and June Jordan, Dawn Lee, who's McKenna now.  All of these writers who, Sonia Sanchez, Mickey Giovanni, these were the writers in the 60s, as a young person, I was kind of cutting my teeth on, you know. Understanding the role of, of the writer to community building, and the role of the writer, as a part of the very sustenance of what holds people together in the middle of struggle, in the middle of, of injustice.

 

Lisa Campbell  

Well, you talked about just then, sort of the fabric of stories and the fabric that we weave together, metaphorically. You also, in many poems, talk about the texture of literal fabric, of quilts? That's a common theme, as you talk, you described your grandmother's, in, in a previous episode, we read one of your poems,for grandma. And we thought about that in our own lives of quilts, and ancestry and the threads of, you know, the three of us working each week together. And then the quilts that have been handed down to us that were cherished, made by our grandmothers and the stories woven literally into each one of those quilts. 

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

Yes.

 

Lisa Campbell  

And grandmothers are a theme in your poems. I would love to know as you think about leaders, leaders in our culture, maybe leaders in our politics even.  We are on the precipice of more women in our politics with our vice president, Kamala Harris and others. Do you see connections there? And we'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

Well, I do you know, and, and the grandmother theme for me, and that quilting. Just the act of being a creative maker. As a child, I witnessed my grandmother daily, she, she woke up, she did her daily chores, wherever they were, she didn’t have too many. But, she was doing her chores, she said. She'd have her conversation with God. And then she would go to her bedroom, which was his large bedroom that had a loveseat in the window. An old chaise, beautiful Victorian chaise in the window. She would never turn on. She would never use electricity. She would sit in that window in the light. And she would quilt, “by god’s light,” those were her words. When I'd say, “you're in the dark ,”and she's like, “no, I'm in God's light.  And this is all I need.  And if it becomes too dark, then I won't quilt today.”  But metaphorically, I would watch her hands, the connectedness to the fabric, and a lot of that fabric came from community factories that actually were the survival of the community, the men of the neighborhood who worked in those textile, you know, factories, would  bring her scraps. But there are also the scraps of when we were young, and our favorite pajamas disappeared when you were too little, my brother and I have pajama quilts of all of these quilts, I mean all of these pajamas. And they all have, like you said, they all have stories. And then all of the granddaughters have wedding quilts that are made out of our mother's old fancy dresses. You know, party dresses, chiffon, and you know, the scratchy, organza, just beautiful. So I say this because I, I connect that to I pay attention to women politicians especially who kind of dig below the surface. They really talk about, they're able to articulate the humanity of the people that they serve. I'm not saying that their male counterparts do not do this. But there is a nuance that only happens because they have experienced this, this under bedding, as women. As women coming through the fabric, you know, pushing through as the needle pushes through. So when we look at the women of your fair state, who were amazing, during our last election. 

So I think that a poet does not mean for me that you are the person that scribing and writing a book. But the poet is the one who speaks. The poet is the one who has the audacity to speak. And I'm reminded that in the 1600s, Haitian women slaves, women who were enslaved, were beaten more regularly and more frequently, and more severely meant to say, than their male counterparts. And they were beaten severely because they would not shut up! The only thing that they had to their avail was their tongue. And I, you know, I mean, look at Maxine, you know, she's to be reckoned with.  She is a tornado, and that strength, that power comes from a deep, I think, just a deep earthy, womb space. And I see them all as poets.  I see them all as, continuing to carry the language to give the language to masses of people who don't even know what the questions are. You know, sometimes we enter these battles, and we don't know what the questions are. We don't even know. And I remember that my mother used to tell me years ago, that having access to information is more important sometimes than money. You know, when you're denied access, and when you don't have the information, it matters, and it disenfranchises us. So I see these women on, you know, Shelley said the poets were the legislators of the world. And yeah, I hear them weaving through their speeches, the necessary medicine that the nation needs right now. I hope that answered that.

 

Lisa Campbell  

Well, we're with you in that!  In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, in particular gave a great rebuttal state of the nation and uses her voice so emphatically to serve and to help people.  This week her donation to the hundreds of thousands of Georgians and southerners who needed care, medical care. And so her voice literally speaks and then her voice comes through and her actions as well. 

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

Exactly, and that language. That language that she models.  That standing up in spaces where we have not been allowed to stand up in. To me that's what poetry should do, it should disrupt. It should disrupt. You know, disruption you know, when we say disrupt and agitate, people become very, very nervous. But I am always telling my students you know, what does your washing machine do when it cleans your clothes?  It agitates. So agitation is necessary in order that movement and inertia happens. You know, we have to move things, we have to shake things up, so they can breathe.

 

Lisa Campbell  

You also quoted, the words have been, I believe it's pronounced Ben Okri, he said, “politics is the art of the possible and creativity is the art of the impossible.” And that struck me as one of the motivators to run for office. I grew up in a world of great access to information, to love, to support, to so much to exposure to many artists. And that helped provide an opportunity for imagination. And as a young girl, you know, imagination was where we lived 24/7. We were constantly imagining playing, other lives, lives in a fairy land, lives in a prairie, life in New York City. You know, so far apart from, you know, the middle America, Georgia, or Texas where we lived. And this idea of dreaming of what could be, for me is a motivator in terms of what I believe many of our politicians can help us do. And this idea of poets working with us to shape that vision, to shape that voice, and many politicians I've learned, have poets, or some, Elizabeth Warren, in particular, had a poet on her staff. And that was the intention we understand is to help just rally their team but also help them think about this merging of change. To your point, how do we begin to describe change in lots of different ways in diverse communities so that people can connect with each other?

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

Well, I think change and transformation looks different for everybody. And I think the most important thing is facilitating those safe spaces where people can be the authors of their own change, their own revision. I think our role is to help people see themselves as whole, as worthy. We live in a culture where people don't feel worthy, and a culture that shames us for so much. That shames us, for how we look. That shames us for our sexual identities. That shames us for our weight, you know, that I mean, really! That that shames us for being poor, for shamed, that shames us for not being poor. So I think who owns that change? And that's, I feel like that's what this revolution that we're inside of right now is about. Is that masses of everyday ordinary people are creating their own change, are not looking at Washington,  are not looking, you know, to the powers that be. It's like, oh, that Constitution? Let us show you what a Constitution looks like. What of the people, with the people, for the people, really looks like. And this wellspring of voices, especially amongst young people. 

 

You know, I'm always struck by how young people have mastered technology and how I think about some of the police brutality and a lot of the political things that were happening.  Here in Little North Carolina, we would not have known about certain things for maybe three days. But young people, not only did they know about it, but they had, they massively organized around it, within hours. And with hours, there was a collective voice, speaking together all over the world, in the name of justice, in the name of equality, and in the name of goodness. So I think what we're really seeing is the people disrupting a system that doesn't work. You know, it's a coat that doesn't fit anymore. And what do you do? You weave a new coat. So that's, that's, I think, the correlation between it.  You see the artists tapping into it, you know.  I was so struck and moved by, you know, Hollywood and the rappers, and the singers who, during elections, they're there, they're present. They're not just these characters on the screen. 

 

So when we are raising humanity through the arts, when we're when we people are listening to their own poems. They're also listening to their own power. You know, when I meet with writers who say, I've never written a poem in my life, this is my first time, I am terrified, but I really want to do this.  And the confidence, I mean, the self confidence that the sense of affirmation of self-affirmation that happens afterwards is priceless. So that's why I take my role as a writer very, very seriously, as one who is facilitating processes for people to step into their golden moments.  not giving them something that I have, I don't have anything to give them, except goodness, and being a facilitator of generosity and compassionate listening. So that's how I would answer that question. 

 

Ron Campbell

You certainly helped me get it.  I think everyone get to, what I refer to as the “aha” moment. I finally see it, I finally get it. I understand just a little bit.

 

Jaki Shelton Green 

Thank you. 

 

Ron Campbell  

That's where I was, some years ago, in the mid 80s, I had the good opportunity to spend three weeks on a first trip abroad to South Africa. And the purpose of the trip was business, it was to study the private hospital system in South Africa. But during that time, I had the opportunity to visit all of the major cities. And by helicopter, we touched down and had dinner and lunch with various VIPs in the areas that had to do with health care. But we also had time for the theater. And I had time to get up on Table Mountain and view, Robben Island, where at the time, Nelson Mandela  was held prisoner. And for me, that whole trip was an eye opener of things that I'd heard about but seeing it firsthand as we flew into Johannesburg under a police guard and had to fly over the ocean instead of over Europe and Africa, because of the environment in South Africa. It was then that, you know, as a young man, I became sensitized to the extent to which those issues were not just here in America, they were worldwide, they were global, and they were so important. And we're still wrestling with that, worldwide, it is still so important. And it's just as much a problem as the pandemic has been. So the voices, the messengers are our only hope, I think, to help us have a hope of being able to create something in which we can survive. And certainly the young people are carrying the, you know, the message as well. It's, as you say, it's, how do we get back to community?

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

Exactly, and you're talking about the power of witness, and I think that's what poets do, you know, is, is we witness. And sometimes things are so hard to hold, because they're so heavy, and they're so inhumane. And I think all of us would just go to bed and never get out of bed if we, you know, like really just held all of the pain, the collective pain of our humanity. It's a lot to hold. And I think art, art helps us to navigate those, those rough places that we witness, you know. I'm, I'm reminded of Carolyn Forché’s poem about The Colonel, that I teach in my documentary poetry class, you know, about human ears that the “colonel”, you know, dropped from a paper bag in front of her to intimidate her as a journalist. And that poem is so, is very, very powerful. But it helps us hold the atrocities of what was going on in Central America. So, you know, witness is very, very powerful. And then there's appropriation. But, but, but the power to witness and I think the artist really translates that back to sort of what you're saying. You know, like the artist is able to, to lift up, and I'm going to be graphic right now the dead body of a baby that floats into a shore. But, you know, poetry doesn't forget the baby. The news forgets the baby. You know, the baby just goes away. We all, we all witness it on live TV, we read about it, but it's the poem that holds that baby forever. And that reminds us that we cannot forget. 

 

Ron Campbell  

So there, as you express so eloquently, as you mentioned in the last lines of, The River Speaks of Thirst.  When you said, I believe, “the silence that will not be quiet.”  You hear the silence that will not be quiet and you're able to be the messenger and to resurrect that, and to express that so that we can understand. And you know, you do that so well. 

 

Jaki Shelton Green 

Well, thank you and understand is the word, you know. I want to write a poem if I write a poem. And if the only people in the room who get it are southerners, then I've missed a point.  If the only people in the room who get it are black women, I've missed it. If the only people in the room who get it are women, I've missed it again. If the only people in the room who get it are short women with white hair, I've missed it again. So what is the hook? What is the human hook? You know, I want the white guy who works at Walmart, with all the tattoos and his Confederate t-shirt, I want him to get it too, even though he doesn't want to get it. You know, so it's how we use language and how I, I think about language.

 

And  I'll tell you a story. You know, there was an elderly man, elderly gentleman, white southern man, who and I know he's gone because I don't see him anymore. But he dressed, he was always dapper.  In the summer, he always had on a lovely seersucker suit with his bow ties, and his straw fedora. And in the winter, he always had on his cashmere coat and his wool hat. And he, he just hung out at the grocery store. And this was years ago, and he looked to be in his in his 90s then.  But he would always tip his hat to me. And one Saturday morning, this was a small community little store you would go to, it's the best butcher in town, you know, and they have the best fresh fish on Friday. So you get there pretty early on Saturday morning for the best meats. So one particular Saturday morning, I'm walking through the store. And  I noticed he's, I have the sense that he's following me. So I just stand still in an aisle and pretend to be looking at the shelf. And he walks right up to me. And he says, aren't you the poetry woman? And I laugh and I said, I guess so. He says, and he's shaking, he has a little cane, and he's just shaking. And he says, I just love your grandma poems. He said, every time I hear on the TV, or the radio, he said, I just love your grandma poems. And he said I get so I get so choked up. Sometimes that's a good thing. I live by myself because I'm sitting there just crying when you read about the grandmas. And I said thank you, sir. And he said, so you keep making us proud. We appreciate you. You're, you're our home-grown girl. And I said thank you. And he said, well, that's all I wanted to say, just walk away. By the time I got to my car, I was just weeping. And I realized that a man of his generation, a southern white man of his generation, if there were any black women at all in his life, or anyone who did not look like him. They were in servitude. They were cleaning or cooking or taking care of his children. They were not his buddies. They were not his colleagues. They were not his peers. Black women are not the friend he called up to say you want to come to a bridge party tonight. So I realized that for him to walk up to me, was like a comet going across the sky. And I sat there, and I thought, well, maybe I'm doing something right. Like for him to get it. You know, we are poets for him to get it. So that has always been my mark. 

 

And then when I was in Morocco once keynoting an international prose poetry symposium. I read, Oh My Brother, which is a very political poem about police brutality. And I saw a group of elderly Amazigh men in the very back with their long beards and their thobes and carrying their Korans and they were sitting in the very back and they were weeping when I was reading. The next day, sitting with them was a scholar who I knew who he was. He's a very renowned Amazigh scholar on like of that world. He is like, you know, he's amazing. He's the Shakespeare of that world. So I bumped, I literally bumped into him the next morning, we were going through doors, and he was walking too fast. And he bumped into me, and he said, Oh, my God, it's you. And I said, What do you mean, it's you? He said, You're the woman from last night who was reading the poetry? And I said, Yes. And he said, Oh, I was so happy. I'm so happy I get to talk to you. And I said, Well, it's an honor to talk to you. And he said, No, no, no, this is not about me. And he said, Did you see where I was sitting last night? I said, I did. He said, Did you see the men I was sitting with? I said, I did. He said, when you were reading the poem about police brutality, he said, they were all asking me, they were all asking him, why were they crying? They wanted to know, he kept like, why are we weeping? Like, we don't know what she's saying. We don't speak English, we don't understand. And why are we sitting here wet, crying. So when he told them what the poem was about, they were saying all kinds of things in Arabic, like Allah, and just, you know, blessings and, and he said, the power of the poem, translated beyond language. And he said, that is rare gift. When you are in a foreign place, and you're reading a poem in your language that no one, but maybe 100 people in the room, understand, the rest don't understand you, for them to be weeping. And he said, all of the men were just in awe, that they were weeping. And they did not know why they were weeping but they said, their hearts hurt. 

 

So again, that was a time when I really felt that I'm just an instrument. You know, I, you know, sometimes I don't even know where the poem comes from. But I am smart enough to know that this is not me. I'm smart enough to know that sometimes we are chosen as the messengers. And we are given the verbiage, we're given the language. And with that comes responsibility and respect for the language. Even when I'm being what some people would say, Ooh, I don't know if I would read that if I were you, even when I'm being  dangerous, because truth telling is dangerous. Truth telling is dangerous. And that's how I embrace, you know, kind of all of the embodiment of these questions that you're asking how that translates to a political movement, or the connection of politics and art.

 

Lexi Hunter  

I have a question to play off of that. I am currently in a writing class, I'm at the University of Denver studying writing. And the class that I'm in talks about children's literature, specifically, and how that impacts us, and how it's really important to monitor and think about the content and input that we're giving to our children, but also like how that impacts us as adults. And something that we're learning is quality criteria. So how to be more analytical about what we're thinking about and what we're learning about and teaching others. So my question for you is, you talk about things that are, it's good to read things that are disruptive, and it's good to read, things that are from people that care, and what quality criteria would you say, is important to look for as we look at what we're reading and digesting, whether that's what, whatever medium of art, that it is, what, what criteria there?

 

Jaki Shelton Green 

 I think that's a lovely, very important question, Lexi, because our children right now are bombarded with so many different sensory issues. You know, I, you know, what I'm finding is, they're not reading as much as we'd like for them to be reading. But it's very, very important to that, that, that schools and families are paying attention. I mean, there's so much misinformation, you know, that there's misinformation. And then there are beautiful books that are being misconstrued. I mean, I was fascinated by the woman who was like, who said, Beloved, you know, it was a dangerous book for her child.  Well, first of all, her child should not be reading Beloved,  if it's a child, you know.  So, age appropriate, I tell people all the time, when children walk into my poetry readings, I am very conscious of their presence.  And there are poems that I do not read.  There are poems that I do not read. Because they don't have the critical thinking to discern what I'm even talking about, and I don't want, but children hold images. You know, and I know that a lot of my metaphor is a very, they're graphic for, I know, if you know, me, the child would be sitting here, you know, trying to discern the red on the bullet you know, blood, blood storms. So I, you know, I'm very sensitive to, to working with children and how we work with children. 

 

The other side of that is we still have to tell children the truth about history, about our society, about why their best friend can't come to their house for the birthday party. You know, these are things that are happening in their real lives. Or when they see I mean, I've gone into classes where there's one child or two children who are not joining the rest of us. And I'll say, Well, why aren't they coming to do the writing with us? And the kids will say, Oh, they can't read. They can't talk. They don't read good. So the teacher just gives them a coloring book. They don't, they don't do stuff like this with us. So I know that this is not exactly your question. But I think it's how we see our children. And, you know, who are the children that get to be seen, and who are the children who are not seen and not heard.  As I work with troubled youth in public schools, and not public schools, and private schools, too, because there are troubled youth in private schools.  Their biggest concern is that they are not heard. That, that no one's really listening to them, and no one really sees them. And certainly, our educational system has to do a better job with our teaching practicums. So teachers are more compassionate, you know.  When you don't understand why certain children don't look at you directly in your eye. Because it's a cultural norm that that's disrespectful to look an adult in their face. Now, we, I grew up in a family where it was like, You better stop looking at me like you grown, and I’m talking to you. And then it's like, you better look at me when I’m talking to you, you know, we send these mixed messages to these mixed messages to children. But a lot of it, I think, you know, has to do is Who benefits from, from our children not receiving the correct information and the correct identifications, you know.  When an elementary school teacher is losing his job because he reads a beautiful story book about bullying, where the two little princes kiss at the end. And homophobia takes over. This is in my school district, is at the elementary school that I went to, the homophobia takes over it takes over. I mean, it was like, he goes to the principal and says I need a book about bullying. I have a little boy who's just being bullied really bad. And I think if I could read them stories.  So having stories that reflect about what children experiencing right now, and parents who are willing, to receive truth.  You know, it's really scary to, for me to encounter a 13-year-old, who sounds like a 49 year old, rabid segregationist racist. You know I’m like, child you haven't lived that long to, to have all that meanness inside of you. This is what you've heard, and this is what you've absorbed. 

 

So I think the question is very, very layered. You know, I think politics has a lot to do with it. You know, there are school systems who are rewriting the textbooks, they're taking slavery out, you know, slavery is, it's American history. Let's celebrate the Confederacy, there would not be a Confederate confederacy without 1619. And that Confederacy, belongs to many people. To many people. And if you know your history, you know that the Confederacy does not belong to one group of people. There's, there not too many things in the south, that as for people sitting here who look different, our histories as southerners connect us. I can't tell my story without yours connected to mine, and you can't tell yours. So this crisis in southern memory and this amnesia that people are collectively buying into and fostering, and you know, in institutionalizing, it is very intentional, and very frightening for generations to come. 

 

Ron Campbell  

Some of what you said, in response to Lexi's question, is all about respect of children, as a criteria as individuals, as young minds, as capable of people who have thoughts and feelings and needs the same as the adult, the same as the aging person.  But all too often children dismissed and not treated with respect as the individual people that they truly are.

 

Jaki Shelton Green  

This is so true. And a friend says, we were talking about moral conduct, and the ethics of, of how we, how we show up as citizens of our families and our communities. And he said, I live by one simple thing. He said, Every time I open my mouth, I remind myself, I tell myself, the children in the room. He said, Every time I get ready to say something, he said, I envision all of my grandchildren sitting around, and they call him Pepe. Looking at Pepe, what is Pepe going to say now. And we have a three-year-old granddaughter, and I'm very conscious, you know, of her presence, because she's absorbing. And to watch the absorption is amazing. She learned to walk watching my 105-year-old mom, on her walker. And you would see her little hands and feet, you know, like imitating.  She would get her little toys, and she would walk behind my mother. And this emulation, people forget the children are always in the room. And I think that's how we should live, that the children are always in the room. You know, there's in the Ashanti language and culture. I have forgotten the term that I can't say it. But the Ashanti warriors, whether they have children or not, they greet people with whatever this this language is, it's on the tip of my tongue, but anyway, it means and How are the children instead of Good morning, instead of how are you? It is? And how are the children? Because if the two children are well, then we are all well. And I the first time I heard that it just touched me in a really amazing way.  That if we all greeted each other, this way in our communities, and how are the children? You know, what do our reports say about their health, about their, about their abilities to have equitable learning experiences? What does it say about the quality of health care for our children, the decrease and, and, you know, infanticide, and all of these other things that plague us. And you do know that the United Nations used to have a world Poetry Day, where all of the representatives from across the world, they read poetry from their nation, they started their day, and there was poetry all day, of children's poetry, and that's fine, New York City, children would come in and read poetry and there would be music and dance from different cultures. But I, I thought, we need to bring that back. We need to bring that back.

 

Lisa Campbell 

Well, I mean, that's the perfect example of this coming together, of politics and poetry. And you recently read a series of letters and students had written to you last year during the pandemic about your poetry. And then you answered some of them. And one of the kids was talking about being an aspiring writer, and he gets so distracted, you know, he's writing one thing, and then suddenly a million other ideas, and he feels like he's not, you know, able to complete his thought or complete his poetry. And your response to that was to be open to those distractions, and to shift his mind around what they are, and to stay connected and to find the connections. And that really is so evident in this conversation today. And as we've been reading about poets and thinking about, well, you know, education connected to our civil discourse, you know, they are connected. 

 

And I think just this idea of sharing the stories, and, you know, recently, or in the last couple of years, the Obamas talked about what their legacy and foundational work would be around, and they said it was storytelling. And at first, I didn't exactly understand that, in the world of politics. But the more I thought about it, the more that it really seems like an absolutely transformational place and platform, to be able to as you are describing, you know, be a safe space for people to tell their stories and to find those connections about their grandmother's are about quilts or about, you know, gardening or about their struggles. And this idea of witness too, we see, sometimes, not always, but sometimes, you know, as our politicians are talking about something that seems very practical or even, you know, complicated a piece of legislation.  But then they go, and they tell a story about themselves, they become vulnerable. And I'm thinking of women's rights and access to abortion, and health care. And here in Georgia, Jen Jordan, who stood at the well and talked about her history and said, you know, this is something that has been very private to me, but I want to share in the hope that as you were describing, others can connect, and they can see the humanity and see the need, and others can hear themselves in the things that I'm saying. And it was so powerful. And I think she was able to connect with, to your point, many who are very different, who had never had that experience, men as an example, who physically had never had that experience, potentially, who might have been able to see it differently, through her words, through her openness, through her kindness and her trust. Like the vulnerability of exposing yourself through a poem. And that's a pretty, you know, courageous act, I think. 

 

Ron Campbell

You have reminded us, Jaki so eloquently, and I believe it's a quote, “we are all the poems.”

 

Lisa Campbell

We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green as much as we are did-exploring the ideas of connection across the political and cultural divides through poems, and the idea of creating spaces for people to evolve, grow and change individually and collectively as we work to lift up each other with respect and dignity.  Please join us for a Part Two of our conversation with Jaki Shelton Green where we’ll continue explore the dark spaces that are difficult to see in shared history, and the courage of walking and talking forward with others through poetry to engage more fully in our communities, politics and lives. 

We’ll end with another poem by Jaki Shelton Green:

Praise Song

you woman tree woman one

swaying to unheard of winds uninvented air streams

you woman sky with palms broad enough to hold eqypt

who taught me to walk

slow and deliberate

like i had somewhere to go

who taught me stories

that needed telling

to love men and women who needed

who taught me to fetch life

out of the depths of rivers

taught me the words

that the tree branches sang to wake

the sun and bring morning home

who taught me to love loving

with my eyes wide open

who taught me to dance and smile

in rhythm

to clap with an open heart

From Breath of the Song: New and Selected Poems (Carolina Wren Press, 2005). Copyright © 2005 by Jaki Shelton Green. Used with the permission of the author.