Building Community Through Poetry: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green

by Lauren K. Alleyne 

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There is an incantatory feeling to the work of Jaki Shelton Green. The poems thrum with an aliveness that comes from a marriage of technique—repetition, alliteration, anaphora—with the sensory, and that results in the reader being pulled in to the movement/moment of the poem. Consider her prose poem “mothers,” which utilizes the title as the first line and continues:

become shroud dirty rags of a holy book that supposedly forgot to stand vigil over our children ransomed to sun beneath each month’s moon hidden or full the daughters of other mothers themselves likely near death send us prayer shawls send us poems send us slabs of crystals a mother opens her mouth it is always wailing blood metallic bullets ride the mucous in her throat tease the pregnant ball of fire brewing inside her head we open our mouths to allow the blood to speak through light that does not choke the blood speaks through light that out races breath…

Here the reader hits the poem running: the first word, “become” reading as imperative and engine, as the reader slides in to the internal world of the titular “mothers.” The tactile image of “dirty rags” cushions the reader’s headlong fall in to the poem’s anguish, over “our children” who are “ransomed.” The third line’s repeated “send us,” sends us (pun intended) into a desperate ecstasy which is formally shored up by the poem’s lack of punctuation; the lack of periods or comas wrest breath and thought from the reader, creating a whirlwind that leaves us grasping at anything—shawls, poems, crystals. The poem’s slippage between the third person (“a mother opens her mouth”) and first-person plural (“we open our mouths”) makes the poem a dynamic experience in which the reader moves between subject and witness—both critical roles the poem needs us to inhabit as we both see and experience the world of these “mothers.”

Women’s bodies, women’s stories, women’s interior lives are also major themes in Shelton Green’s work. As in “mothers,” what it means to bear and lose life as a mother, is a concern in her poems, particularly in her collection i want to undie you, which mourns the untimely death of her daughter. Matrilineage and the ancestral stories of women also play a large part in her work, and her collections, conjure blues and Dead on Arrival, are dedicated to her grandmother, who appears in several poems. As importantly, women’s desire and empowerment through desire courses through the poetry, and claiming this sensuality of the body in language is one of the hallmarks of Shelton Green’s work.

In the spring of 2019, Jaki Shelton Green gave a riveting reading at James Madison University. During her visit, we sat in studio and chatted about poetry, travel, and her work as the ninth poet laureate of North Carolina, and as a facilitator of women’s poetry retreats. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is transcribed below.

Welcome to Furious Flower, welcome to James Madison, welcome to Harrisonburg. We are so excited to have you.
Thank you so much.

I want to start off with finding out about your journey to poetry. I’ve researched you diligently, and so I know you’ve been writing ever since you were a child, and have all those notebooks… But what was the thing that moved you to do that, to find that art form?

Well, it was actually my grandmother, I would say, who directed me, I would say, to write. So, as a child growing up in the rural South… I’m a girl raised in the South, I’m grits… [Laughs.] I grew up in the country, but not on a farm. Very rural community where the two churches in the community were actually the anchors, the cultural, political, social anchors of the community. And I was fascinated by story, and the story of the stories of the people around me. The story of the stories that only a rural South can call their own. So, to document, to tell, to utter, were kind of instructions from my grandmother. And, of course, she didn’t use that language to me as a little girl, but she said, “You must tell the stories.” So, I started writing as a little girl in church. I was bored, I was fidgety, I was nosy. You know, I wanted to see. And I would write down, I would make up stories. Before I even knew how to write, I thought I was writing. And I would write stories about the women’s hats. I would write stories about the sermon. You know, I would look around church, and… I grew up in a community that had a lot of nicknames. And every nickname had a story. So, I was fascinated with these characters around me. And poetry became that voice for me. Surprisingly, I never wanted to be a poet, I wanted to be an oceanographer. I was very interested in science, I was fascinated with science, and I really thought I was gonna be an oceanographer. Until one day my father took my outside around sixth grade and he asked me the questions. “Do you see an ocean?” “No.” “Do you know where the ocean lives?” “No.” “Have we ever been to the ocean?” “No.” It was my father who said, “We might want to rethink this.” [Laughs.] I come from a family of teachers, and reading and writing was like sacrament in my family. I was fascinated with books and I wanted to write books. Fascinated with the construction of how books are made. How poems are made. How we make a poem.

 

What are some of those early books you can recall that were impactful at that time?Oh, I read everything. You know, I read all the classics, Little Women. I remember in eighth grade I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, this big book about Michelangelo. And then I had already read a lot of African American poetry. My grandmother turned me on to Phyllis Wheatley when I was very little. And Georgia Douglas. And then Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright in high school. Malcolm X– The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Everything by James Baldwin. I’d read Franz Fanon by the time I was in the tenth grade. You know, when you’re growing up in the rural South, books become your friends. I was bored. I appreciated life around me, but I knew that there was another world out there, and the only way at that time in my life that I could encroach on that world was through books, through stories.

I’m interested in the role of place. Because you say, “I’m from the rural South,” and I know that you take your women’s group to a certain place. Talk to me about place in the aesthetic of the poem—how do they play together?

Well, places always mattered in my work. I think about the biology of objects, the biology of what we keep. I do a workshop called “What We Keep Keeps Us.” So think about the artifacts, the idioms, the colloquialisms, the recipes, all of the things are idiomatic just of where you come from. You know, where do you come from? And usually most of us talk about where we come from in terms of geography, the landscape, so I’m from red clay. You know, I’m from red clay and dusty roads, and you know, paved roads, rural roads, that burn your feet in the summer if you’re bold enough to try and cross them without shoes. And I come from lots of vegetation, what that land bears for people. And how that land sustains generation after generation. Of coming up in a community where the hog killings were communal. When the men went deer hunting, you know, several went. Those deer served the whole community, fed the whole community. When my family went fishing, and when the neighbors went fishing, everybody in the neighborhood had fish. There was a huge fish fry. And gardens coming in. But that land also spoke to me. Because it also carries the stories of who walked there before my immediate ancestors walked there. You know, the slaves that inhabited that land. The farms and plantations, what happened in those forests. All of that continues to speak to me.

That’s wonderful. And one of my questions was about that, I think you just starting gesturing towards it. I feel as though your poems inhabit personal and public history almost seamlessly, simultaneously. Is that intentional? And how is that something you try to work with within the poems?

It happens organically for me, that seamlessness you talk about. It’s very difficult for me to talk about being a woman form the South, an African American woman from the South, without thinking about what it was like being a rural, young, Black girl during segregation in the South. The politics, the Black body politic, what it means to occupy space as a person of color in certain geographies. And knowing your place inside of those geographies. So, even as a young person writing, my work… I was really writing in my teen years. And I had gone away to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to a Quaker boarding school, where geography changed. The personification of my voice changed a bit, but not really. It was me in a different place. And I think that’s something that we don’t talk abut a lot… Who is the “me,” when the “me” just moves over here. And some people move over here intentionally to lose the “me,” and some of us work really, really hard to be in a multitude of places. We want to go across the globe. We want to experience as much as we can in a lifetime through the physicality of journeying, and yet how does that impact the “me” that is the essence of me, that red clay? The essence of me are the whispers of those ancestral old Black and white people who whispered in my ears as a child. I don’t wanna be so far away that I can’t hear them. So it doesn’t matter where I go in the world, and who I be in the world, as long as I know who I am. And the “I am” is fed, for me, through understanding the landscape of who we are. There’s the landscape and the portrait. The portrait of me sits inside of the landscape. The portrait of me can change a thousand times. But how does my landscape continue to support me, continue to feed me, so I can go play?

That’s amazing. You’re talking so richly about landscape and the physicality of journey; I love that phrase. And just hearing you speak, one of the things I notice and really admired and reveled in in the poetry was the sensuality— your poems tend to the body, tend to the senses. Talk to me about that. It’s just so lush up in there!

Yeah, well, I am intentionally woman. I remember many years ago someone came into my home and they said, “You’re not married, right?” And I said, “I’m divorced.” And it was like, “How long have you been divorced?” And I said, “A long time.” And they said, “Yeah, there’s no male energy in your home.” And I thought, “Hmm… That’s interesting.” And my son didn’t live there anymore. He was grown then. I was like, “No male energy… What does that mean?” And then I started looking at my writing and realized, it is a decidedly female voice that enters spaces. An intentional female voice. And with that has been my audacity, my willingness to be available to my own makeup of who I am, viscerally. When I talk about the South, I smell the South. I taste her. She has a taste. She has a smell. She has a rhythm that’s very uniquely how I experience her, and not just myself, but when I’m in other places I inhabited as a home away from home, like Morocco now, Morocco has a taste for me. It has its own sensualities and built-in sensualities, taboos, and all of that to me is just rich fodder. To dig into as the writer is to want to be inside of these deep wounds that just keep giving us lushness. And I want lush language.

Is there tension, ever, with the body? ‘Cause the way you talk about is with a sort of seamless habitation, but I’m curious about that idea of the body, not just as an anchor, but also maybe a tension.

Oh, yeah. And I cultivate that tension. I think we all should. Because that’s where, I think our stories reside. And inside of me, my poems are nuggets inside of stories. So, all of my poems come out of some sensibility of story. The body, for me, holds story. You know, my DNA holds story. So yeah, a lot of tension. And sometimes a lot of pushback because you know, I think about… I wrote a poem about communion. And it’s a very sexual poem in a way, but it’s about… This is a horrible… But I wrote this poem in church after taking communion, and I was taking communion, and I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” I mean, you know, I was kneeling at the altar, and thinking Lightning’s gonna strike me. And I sat down at the pew, and I wrote that poem. Because I think that there is this tension and this communion of some visceral thing that’s happening in our spiritual spaces, however we define those, whatever they are for us. And it’s taboo. We don’t talk about it. I have a poem that I’ll read later today that’s called “The Communion of White Dresses” and the taboo of being what the white dress represents, the taboo of the white dress, the white dress as an icon that’s been smeared. And I have a recent collection to be published soon that’s entitled The Mammy Museum is Closed. And one of the poems in it is a letter from the other daughter of the Confederacy. And it pushes back against just what we were talking about, how I show up as the other daughter of the Confederacy beside those who’ve named themselves Daughters of the Confederacy. But only because they have decided they have birthrights. But who really has birthrights? Since my blood is as white, as diluted… So when do the other daughters of the Confederacy speak? If that makes sense. Like what spaces… Where are my spaces?

Absolutely, absolutely. And so speaking of daughters, tell us a little bit about SistaWRITE.

Yeah, so… in 2011 I became deathly ill. Long story short, undiagnosed chronic illness. I was in a wheelchair for about three years. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk. My brain wasn’t working. After a year, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. I was given four months to live. I lived. I lived because I was led to a holistic doctor who intervened, diagnosed me with Lyme disease, and treated me holistically, and here I am. I, inside of that wheelchair, was realizing that the literary community, the literary world, my literary world as I knew it, was passing me by. I’m 65 now, and I realized that new gatekeepers, codes had changed. And I kept thinking, “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do when I’m out of this wheelchair?” And I started thinking about things that I’d always wanted to do. And one of those things was I’d always wanted to facilitate writing retreats for women. I’d always wanted to create these magical, nurturing, non-judgmental safe spaces where women writers… You don’t even have to be a writer to hang out with us. Women who want to delve into their creativity, whatever that creativity is. So, I host two retreats annually at Ocracoke, which is in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We rent a wonderful old bed and breakfast. It sleeps seven, so there are eight of us at any given time. I cook the whole time I’m there, I love to cook, so I provide really wonderful, organic, healthy-but-yummy meals and we write. But it’s not workshop-y. It’s not conference-y. It’s really a retreat. So built into our itinerary from a Thursday through a Monday is this balance of creativity salons that I might be facilitating, or the writer in residence might facilitate. And there’s built in, what I call “open space.” Where that’s your time. You have a manuscript you need to work on, or you just need to retreat. You need to sleep for a day. Or two, granted. It’s whatever you define that retreat needs to be for you. So it’s a balance of facilitation and getting feedback and conversation and just being in community with other writers. And now I do that in Morocco. Last year, we were at my house in the mountains, which is deeply embedded in the sus, in the south. But, we’re going further south this year, because it got very hot. One hundred and fourteen degrees. And it’s in the mountains, but it’s in the sus, it’s in a valley, so there’s no air. So now, this summer, we’ll be on the beach, we’ll be on the coast, and we’ll be in Essaouira on the coast. And in May[2019] I will do my first SistaWRITE retreat in Ireland. In Tullamore.

Why women?

 Because I kept getting… For years, women would say to me… I’d meet women at conferences and they would just say, “Do you ever do retreats?” Or maybe I’d be invited to facilitate at someone’s retreat. And after many years of paying money that I really couldn’t afford to go to retreats, or writing conferences, I would come back and I would realize, “I spent all this money, but I didn’t really do anything.” I drank a lot of wine and I talked all night about writing, but I didn’t really write. Or I would take my vacation and go to a writing symposium or something, and it was so intense and so academic that I would come back home and my brain hurt. But I didn’t write. So I really wanted this space where people could just empty themselves if they needed to. So it’s very, very different. I don’t vet people, so people come at different levels. I’ve had people who work with textiles, quiltmakers come. I’ve had sculptors come, I’ve had musicians come, I’ve had painters come, because they’re looking for that narrative in that form, that medium. And they write. And then there are women who come who say, “I just need to be in the mix. I just need to be in a sisterhood where creative women are holding space for each other.” I have a friend who comes to all of the SistaWRITE events I have, and she says, “I never write here. But when I go home, I’m just fed. I’m nurtured.”

So, back to the question of “why women,” that seems to be a core part of it—the sisterhood of nurturing and creative holding of space …

Yeah, I just feel like, most of the women I know are professional, all of us are overworked. Some of my younger friends are raising young families, they’re working, they have a multitude of responsibilities. And they’re not writing because they can’t give themselves permission to make that space.

Talk about being Poet Laureate: what’s that experience been like?

It’s been magical and wonderful. In 2009, I was appointed the Piedmont Laureate of North Carolina by a consortium of art councils in this region. And, you know, the mission of that was to expand the literary arts and build community through writing. Working with other writers, working in underserved communities, interfacing with different publics. And now, as the Poet Laureate of the state, it’s just a bigger scope. I am all over the state… I mean… daily. Not weekly, not monthly. But it’s daily. Working with public audiences, with universities. I’m getting ready to do a residency at the elementary school that I attended; in April, I will have this five-week residency for first graders. So it’s been wonderful—working with non-traditional audiences, people in prisons, students who are on the fringe in public schools, people living with Alzheimer’s— the gamut for me has been just amazing. And I’m having a lot of fun. I’m using my craft as a documentary poet to work with community organizations to think about how they tell their stories, how they document their life stories, their personal, individual, and collective stories through documents. What are the recipes you’re keeping? Show me the photographs, show me the letters that your great-grandfather sent home from the Spanish-American War. What are we holding, what are we keeping that talks about who we are as citizens of North Carolina?

You feel very rooted in this place and now you’re getting this sort of wide-angle view. What’s been exciting or surprising?

Well, I guess no surprises. What has been wonderfully different is that I really get to see how poetry, the literary arts, all the arts for me really do create this bridge, erect this amazing bridge, where if we’re willing, we can come on this bridge in all of our differences. And I’ll give you an example. When I became the Poet Laureate, the Governor of North Carolina appointed me on my birthday, Juneteenth, June 19th. I officially started when I came back from Morocco, I spent the summer in Morocco, I started my official duties in August. There were two dates for appointment to get me installed that didn’t happen. So I was just installed, February 19 I was installed. So, Biscuitville, I don’t know if you guys know Biscuitville. So, Biscuitville is a conglomerate, is a business that serves amazing biscuits. And they’re kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they do biscuits. Sausage biscuits. And they’re only in Virginia and North Carolina. They sent me an email. And they said, “Hi, congratulations! We’re so happy you’re the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. We do an annual Black History Month bookmark, and we would love for you to be on our bookmark. As a matter of fact, we’ve already made it, we just want your permission that it’s okay.” So, they rolled out this amazing bookmark, and there’s a picture of me and a biographical sketch. Nina Simone is on the other side. They said, “For years we’ve been doing outstanding historical figures, mostly dead, but we really wanted you because you’re alive and accessible.” So, they did this huge PR thing. The bookmark itself is a coupon for a free sausage biscuit. So, they had me rolling around to Biscuitvilles at nine o’clock in the morning doing poetry readings. And people came out. But what was even more beautiful for me, was here are the guys with the red caps that say, “Make America Great Again” getting out of their Confederate flag trucks, and here are the Black kids from North Carolina State University. And it’s just like a mix of who we are as citizens in this state. The red cap guys are coming over, “Congratulations! Hey! Thank you for the free biscuit.” They sat and listened. And I’m thinking, “This is where it’s at.” Now, I teach at Duke University; you’re here [at James Madison University]. But at how many poetry readings are you gonna have a full house at nine o’clock in the morning. People were not forced to come because the teacher made them come, but citizens who are just doing their lives…

I believe that for me as a writer my art has to be functional. Like, what is the function of this poem? When the 95-year-old old white man in my neighborhood walks up to me in my grocery store and says, “Are you the poetry girl?” And I say, “Yeah, that’s probably me.” He said, “I just wanted to tell you. I just love your grandma poems.” Now, I’m clear that our worlds are like this [gestures with hands far apart]. For him to come up to me is like a comet coming across the sky. My mom is 101, so, I know they were not colleagues; they were not peers. If they knew each other at all, my mom would have been in a place of servitude. She would have been a domestic in his home, she would’ve been taking care of his children, washing his clothes, cleaning his house. They would not have been pallsy-wallsy. So, for him to make that leap… But it’s about the grandma poems. He said, “Every time I hear you on the TV or radio, talking about your grandma poems I think about my grandma and all of those old women that I knew.” So, there is the common… So, the good old boys in the red caps were saying, “Oh, my God, I should think about…” I said, “You should keep a journal.” These are the guys with the red caps.

Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Okay. But, we just made something happen here. We built community through poetry. We crossed some boundaries. So that’s how I want art to function in the world. That it creates these safe spaces for us to come in all of our “otherness,” all of our differences, and be as naked, as exposed, as vulnerable as we can afford to be in the name of our stories.

I wanted to ask about different art forms in relation to poetry, because you’ve mentioned it with SistaWRITE, and also I know that your poems have been choreographed. How do you engage in other art forms? What is it like to see the poem manifest in these other ways? How do those other art forms inform your own practice?

So, for many, many years, many of my poems have been choreographed by different dance companies. Miami City Ballet, the Naropa dance department in Colorado, the Naropa Institute, Chuck Davis, an African American dance company, just several others. I have a dance background that goes way back. If I had not majored in Education I would have majored in Dance, but I had a mother who said, “You do know, when you’re 75 you’re probably not still gonna be on a stage teaching dance or dancing.” Well, now we know that I could’ve still been doing that. But I love dance, and I think that my dance background has always impacted [my poetry], instructed the movement, the color. I feel a poem and hear a poem before I see it, if that makes sense. And I know the rhythm in it, I know the dance of it. Sometimes when I’m reading some of my poetry, I see it moving, I see the choreography inside of it. I didn’t write for a while when my oldest daughter died in 2009, and I didn’t write from 2009 until about, to be honest with you about 2015, maybe 2016. So, I turned to paint. I just needed to throw paint on a canvas. I love music, but I don’t sing. But all of the art forms, you know, I can go to an art museum and sit all day and just write. And I don’t necessarily need to be focused on a particular painting or sculpture, but just an energy of the museum, what it’s holding.

What do you say, in all of your travels, in meeting with people, I’m sure you’ve encountered a few of them who say they don’t “get poetry.” What do you say, what do you offer to someone who has that feeling?

I try to get them to think about poetry on their terms. Because I think what happens when people… When you mention the word “poetry,” people think of a very stylized, very formal, sometimes inaccessible language. I remember my godfather who is an artist, my first book I was holding my breath because I wanted him to tell me what he thought. And finally I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He said, “But it sounds good. It feels good.” And I thought, “Well, that’s all that matters. It felt good.” So for me, I think that people have to see themselves and be able to find themselves inside the lines. If I write… If I’m standing doing a poetry reading and if I’ve written a poem, and if only the Black women in the room get it, I feel that I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only Southern people in the room get it, I think I’ve failed. If I write a poem and if only short girls with curly hair get it, I still fail. So what is the hook? What is the humanness of the poem? Where is the human code that it doesn’t matter that this person is Russian and our cultures are totally apart, but they get it? Or when I read in Morocco, in a room full of elderly Amazigh men who don’t speak English, but they’re talking to the professor sitting next to them, and they’re like, “What is she saying?” And they’re crying. They’re like, “Why am I crying? What is she saying? What is she saying? Someone tell us. Translate, translate, translate.” Because they say, “We felt you. We have no idea what you were saying, but we were weeping.” Well, that’s the biggest contribution… I mean, it’s sort of like, me as a vegetarian… One time I was at a hog killing and I told the guys that this barbecue is driving me nuts. It smells so freaking good and I’m a vegetarian. Well, he said, “That’s the highest compliment, lady, I could’ve gotten today.” It’s that language that is no language. That language that is all about the senses. And it made people see poetry differently. Like, do you hear poetry in the rain? Do you hear a story, do you hear the poem in it? When you’re baking, can you hear the poem in it? When you’re making a cake, can you hear the poem in it? So, we have to help people think about how they want to define poetry. Like I break all the rules. I just break all the rules. My students at Duke, I tell them, “I could care less about your degree. I really could. I want you to have an experience. And that experience is something that you can hold and it might hold you down the road. You might be in China negotiating a contract since you’re going into international banking. But let there be something said today that might be still holding you, because we use language for everything. Whether you’re a banker, or a doctor, or an astronaut, it’s language. And how do we build the containers for all the different ways to make language powerful and make it be of service? Some of my best writers are the women who are cleaning up hospital rooms at Duke Hospital. They got stories. And I’m encouraging them to write them.

That’s wonderful. Thank you so much.


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

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