“I believe that poets are the unacknowledged historians of the world,” North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green said as she began a recent workshop.
“Or,” she continued, “maybe historians are the unacknowledged poets of the world. History looks different when it’s understood as a creative act.”
Green, a native of Efland, stood before Durham Tech students on Thursday, Feb. 28, her round red glasses almost matching the natural boldness of her halo of curls. She introduced the concept of documentary poetry lyrically, like speaking in an swaying and elegant rhythm was innate.
“I endure sleepless nights and I have migrations agonizing over images, motions and poems that need to be plucked out of the many stories that I carry,” she said. “Stories and poems that are rattling my bones, waiting to be born.”
Green was named North Carolina’s first African-American and third female poet laureate in July 2018 and was recently inducted by Governor Roy Cooper on Feb. 18.
Just 10 days after, Durham Tech students scribbled poems evoked from videos and stories Green told. The workshop was sponsored by the Viva the Arts committee at Durham Tech and was co-presented with the North Carolina Arts Council.
Since Green was a teenger, she has been a social activist, learning how to walk by “holding onto the coattails” of the people in her family who were on the forefront of the civil rights movement. Those people were demonstrating in sit-ins, walks – “all in the name of desegregation and equal justice.”
For Green, poetry is her “struggle” to tell her truths.
These truths are told through the reclaiming of old stories through different perspectives. For instance, Green is exploring histories of lynchings in the South, she said. But to tell those stories, she asks the tree what it felt, the ground about the life it absorbed, and the people what they saw, as so many of those stories have gone undocumented.
Though Green has over 40 years of storytelling experience, she reminded students that they already have everything they need to begin writing.
“We are doing documentary poetry all the time,” she said. “We just don’t call it documentary poetry all the time. How many of you have been requested in classes to write a story about a current event, an historical event, to write a report, write a book report?
“We’ve all done this, right?” Green posited. “We’ve all become documentarians at some time in our lives.”
Green informed students they would not be leaving the workshop without a writing exercise.
Before presenting a short film, Alexa Meade’s “Color of Reality,” featuring Jon Boogz and Lil Buck, Green asked students to pay attention to the texture of sounds in the video, and to seek the invisible words, discover what serves as the page, and to find the relationship between documents and memories.
“I have an impulse to always preserve, record, and disseminate the stories and the visuals and collectivities,” Green said. “What becomes my motivation for writing a poem that includes history?” She asked herself, but she asked the audience.
The video began, settling in on an impressionist painting of two African-American men. The painting came to life, and the men smothered with vibrancy sat on a couch as a TV blared a numbing static of newsreels. The men, without words, began to move, their bodies in a jerked dance, as to not mess up the beauty of the painting. As they moved out of their original positions, the painting evolved, a chaos of color. Eventually, the men made their way out of the painting of their home.
Walking down sidewalks, beginning to dance more freely, the men stopped in the middle of a alleyway. Red paint spilled from their chests.
An aerial view showed the painted men against asphalt, and the video ended. The room was silent, and Green gave a few instructions: give these men a name, a new identity, and puzzle over the role of their shadows.
Students put pen to paper. After a few minutes, students volunteered to read their poems out loud. Each one defined personal stories, drawing on experience, newspaper articles, or historical events. They retold perspectives of the the video, giving new life to that story and their own.
“I want to write, and I have a hard time with it actually coming out,” Christine Link, a student at Durham Tech said in a news release. “It’s a huge, intimidating idea, sometimes, to write something, especially for myself, so [Green] did a great job of breaking it down into pieces to work on it a little bit more simply.”
Before Thursday’s event, Link hadn’t heard of Green. She attended the event because she wanted to work on her writing skills.
“A lot of what I want to write are stories of my own travel experiences, so I have documents that I need to go back to,” she said. “Just that idea to use your own resources. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that we need to remember to go back to stop making things so complex.”
Green is a longtime master of poetry that documents the human experience in a simple and cathartic cadence. She’s is the author of eight poetry books and one play, and has co-edited two poetry anthologies.
In November 2009, Green was named the first Piedmont Laureate, selected by a collection of Triangle-area arts councils. In addition, she was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame and received the North Carolina Award for Literature.
Green teaches documentary poetry at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.