North Carolina is one of 43 states in the United States that has an official poet laureate in 2020. Think about that for a second: In addition to our national poet laureate, 43 of 50 states value the power of the written and spoken word to create an official post honoring artists committed to poetry.
For many years prior to the creation of the post in 1935, NC had an unofficial poet laureate: John Charles McNeill. McNeill passed away in 1907, and engraved on his tombstone are lines from his poem “Sundown” as well as the designation “Poet Laureate of North Carolina.”
Though the poet laureate post was created in 1935, it remained unfilled until 1948 (the Depression and World War II were slightly more pressing concerns for the governor’s office than literature) when Arthur Talmadge Abernathy became the first official appointment. To be clear, the wording for the creation of the office was “to name and appoint some outstanding and distinguished man of letters as poet laureate for North Carolina.” I shouldn’t need to inform it excluded women and people of color; it was North Carolina in the first half of the 20th century, after all. Sigh.
In 2004 that was finally revisited and the gender stipulation dropped. Consequently, in 2005 Governor Easley appointed the first woman, Kathryn Stripling Byer, as North Carolina Poet Laureate. Fourteen years later, Governor Cooper appointed our current laureate, Jaki Shelton Green—and our first woman of color to hold the post.
The poet laureate position has changed and evolved in the last century. Though it began primarily as an honorary title, it has become a service and educational appointment. Beginning with Fred Chappell’s term (1997-2002), the poet laureate focuses on working with communities that lack access to literary engagement. On February 4, 2020, Green will headline the 3rd Annual Writers’ Night, hosted by Friends School of Wilmington (FSOW) at Bourgie Nights.
“We hosted our first Writers’ Night two years ago because we wanted to bring Wilmington an opportunity to share the power of the written word in an intimate and inspiring setting,” notes Jennifer Wilson-Mathis, director of advancement for Friends School of Wilmington. “Writers’ Night helps create a collective voice for change, relating to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.”
Since beginning in 1994, FSOW has grown tremendously. The school offers southeastern North Carolina’s only progressive pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade classes. They have been actively engaged in crafting the next phase of the school’s evolution as well.
“Our major infrastructure project is complete, clearing a path to unify our two campuses,” Wilson-Mathis says. “Our ‘Building Friends Campaign’ is turning toward construction of two lower school buildings on our main campus, with anticipated completion by December 2020.”
Currently, the lower school—or the program for 18 months to second grade—is housed on a separate campus from the upper school, third through eighth grade classes. It has taken a long time and a lot of work to bring the two campuses together, but the community and educational connection will be worth it.
Shelton Green is the perfect pick to help fundraise and celebrate FSOW’s values, which are rooted in the 330-year Quaker educational tradition. “I graduated high school from The George School, a Quaker boarding school in Bucks County Pennsylvania,” Shelton Green notes. “The Friends experience helped to shape my moral compass relative to human rights and social activism.”
Her arrival to to town was made possible when her Wilmington friend and New York Times best-selling author, Wiley Cash, called to ask if she would consider speaking at Writers’ Night. Shelton Green teaches documentary poetry at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies. Plus, she owns SistaWRITE and copartners with Dream Yourself Awake and Vertikal Creative Ventures, which provides writing retreats and travel excursions for women writers in Sedona, Arizona, Ocracoke, North Carolina, Agadir, Morocco, and Tullamore, Ireland.
She also serves the incarcerated, homeless, chronically and mentally ill, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, while also helping literacy programs, social justice nonprofits and community economic development. Shelton Green especially is excited to convene the Literary Changemakers Youth Symposium in Durham on April 25, 2020. The event will coincide with National Poetry Month.
“Youth from around the region will learn skills from each other and seasoned artists relative to poetry, spoken word, podcast, hip hop dance, beat-making, and defining their roles as cultural influencers and arts advocates,” she tells.
Shelton Green praises FSOW standards in academia, which allows students to strengthen their intellectual skills while also understanding the value of justice and peace through community service. FSOW fosters a collective voice for change, relating to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice. Wilson-Mathis observes that as a fundraising event, Writers’ Night is a perfect match for those values.
“We are fortunate to have a number of published authors in our parent community,” she says. “It’s not a coincidence that these families chose Friends School because every student in our school is considered a writer with a story to tell.”
Shelton Green has written eight collections of poetry, and has been published more than 80 times in anthologies and magazines worldwide. Aside from her readings at the FSOW Writers’ Night, the evening will be hosted by Wiley Cash, who authored “The Last Ballad,” “This Dark Road to Mercy” and “A Land More Kind Than Home.” As well Friends School parent and local professor and North Carolina author and musican Clyde Edgerton will perform with local performers LaRaisha and Christian Dionne.
Though it promises to be an evening of fellowship and entertainment, Wilson-Mathis wants the audience to take away a greater sense of collective purpose—not just about FSOW, but also it’s role in creating positive change. If education isn’t a key component to long-term societal change, then what is?
In so many ways, Jaki Shelton Green’s appointment as North Carolina Poet Laureate is a powerful signal our state is prepared to hear and embrace diverse voices. Her work during her appointment has reinforced that message. Writers’ Night is an opportunity for our community to celebrate the power of the written word to educate, enlighten and strengthen community bonds.