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Poetry in Community: Jaki Shelton Green from 2016

Friday from the Archives: “The Deep Shovel: A Conversation with Jaki Shelton Green” by Amber Flora Thomas from NCLR Issue 25 (2016)

I want to help people return to the everydayness,
the ordinariness of poetry,
instead of having poetry be
unattainable as this lofty classical art form
that’s only accessible to certain people.

~Jaki Shelton Green

It’s almost April, which means it is about time for our annual Applewhite Poetry competition and also for the very first Jaki Shelton Green Performance Poetry Contest, co-sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society. We couldn’t be more excited to witness the incredible amount of spoken word happening across North Carolina.

Acclaimed poet Jaki Shelton Green has appeared in NCLR pages numerous times, including 2015, 2019, and 2020. Since this 2016 interview by Amber Flora Thomas, Green was appointed the state’s Poet Laureate and was the 2021 Frank B. Hanes Writer in Residence at UNC Chapel Hill, among many other responsibilities and accolades. Her poetry album The River Speaks of Truth was released to much acclaim in 2021.

Thomas queries Green on many intersections of poetry and life: parenting, publishing, academia, community. Green is lauded for both her written and her performance work, both of which are influenced by her passion for dance. Here are a few of the performance-related questions and answers.

AFT: How much of your process involves an awareness of the poem as performance?

“In the Conjure Blues collection, particularly, I hear myself, when the words are coming out. I hear what they’re supposed to sound like when I’m standing, reading. And I can’t say that about all of the poems in Breath of the Song and hardly any in Feeding the Light. I hear the voice for the poem; the rhythm is there when I’m writing. It’s like choreography. It’s like I’m watching, I’m hearing myself and I’m seeing myself performing it. I don’t mean stage performance, but I hear myself. I hear the reader in the voice, while it’s coming out.”

Does your job as a poet extend beyond the poem?

“Oh yes. Wow. It most definitely extends beyond the poem. I want girls and boys who look like me and who don’t look like me to know that there’s nothing magical about being a poet, that we all are poets. It’s just giving yourself permission and finding the right shovel, the right inspiration that gets us going.”

…The richness of a literary community is on the street, not in academia so much?

“I definitely believe that. I tell people, “Go find poetry in your community.” Sometimes they don’t know what I mean, so I give them examples: Do kids in your street do hopscotch, play jump rope? That’s poetry. You go to church, you go to some faith-based something? Prayer is poetry.”

Read the whole interview in the 2016 issue “Celebrating 25 Years of NCLR,” available on ProQuest. You can order the issue for your collection.