Poetic Justice: Orange County judge finds sanctuary in verse

ablythe@newsobserver.comOctober 17, 2013 


Chapel Hill attorney and local poet Jay Bryan with a copy of the new “Carrboro's 100th Anniversary Poetry Anthology.” Bryan has four poems in the anthology, which he edited. Bryan is one of 24 local poets featured in the anthology.


  • The West End Poetry Festival

    • Friday’s opening reception features readings by Beth Copeland, Phillip Shabazz, Claudine Moreau, Michael Chitwood and Alan Shapiro.

    6:30-8:30 p.m. at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill

    • Saturday has panel sessions, a workshop, an open mic, a dinner and reception. Carrboro poet laureate Celisa Steele and Gabrielle Calvocoressi, the Walker Percy Fellow in Poetry at UNC-Chapel Hill, cap the event with readings.

    Noon-8:30 p.m. at Century Hall in the Carrboro Century Center, 100 N. Greensboro St., Carrboro

    The festival is free. Full schedule online at westendpoetsweekend.com

— In his black robe on the Orange County District Court bench, Judge Jay Bryan usually adheres to the dry, repetitive language of statute. “Whereas.” “In the event of …” “Shall be considered ...”

But beyond the courtroom, he tries to set language free.

He is a judge and a poet.

Ring Alleluia bells, call in sun’s light,

hang the moon in the hallway and dance in the night.

“The compressed nature of poetry makes you see things you might not otherwise see,” Bryan said about his verse and the lines in “To The Two & One of You,” a poem he wrote for his daughter and her husband on their wedding day. “It’s beneficial for a community and important for its lifeblood in a way that any of the fine arts or arts and music are.”

For nearly two decades, Bryan has tried to share his love of poetry with his community.

It’s because of him that Carrboro has its own poet laureate and a poet’s council. He also has had a vital role in the West End Poetry Festival, a two-day, town-sponsored event that begins Friday and is expected to draw hundreds of poetry devotees.

Bryan, rarely one to bask in the limelight, credits others with being instrumental in bringing together bards who use words to probe a community’s psyche or praise its virtues.

They, in turn, deflect the recognition back to him.

“Without Jay, it would not have happened,” said Susan Spalt, an organizer of this year’s event. “He has brought a lot of people along with him.”

A love of verse

Bryan has been a fan of poetry since his undergraduate days at Yale University, where Lawrence Ferlinghetti, e.e. cummings and prominent poets of the 1960s captured his fancy.

He wrote poetry for a while after getting his degree, but that soon waned with marriage, children and the private law practice he started with a degree from N.C. Central University.

While juggling those responsibilities, Bryan joined a group of people interested in creating a day to celebrate the former mill town’s heritage and growing reputation as a thriving arts community. While he was a Board of Aldermen member from 1987 to 1997, the elected officials created Carrboro Day, a celebratory event that always includes a poetry reading.

Then in 2002, at the suggestion of Bryan, the Carrboro Arts Committee put out a call for the town’s first poet laureate, an honor bestowed on Kate Lovelady, who held the title for a year.

The second poet laureate in Carrboro, Patrick Herron, used his title to try to make the small town a big player in the poetry world – and the first festival was born.

The poetry push

This weekend, some 20 poets of national, regional and local acclaim will read and lead discussions at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and the Carrboro Century Center.

Celisa Steele, the sixth Carrboro poet laureate, who took the reins this summer from Bryan, is on the schedule for Saturday. She has been writing poetry since childhood and appreciates the seeming contradiction of the controls the art form puts on her creativity with its specific rhythms and syllable counts.

“A blank page can be daunting,” Steele said. “For me, poetry kind of puts some constraints in place for how you write. Poetry kind of gives you some training wheels to help you.”

As Steele enjoys the many introductions to other poets and artists that come with her title, she gives a generous nod to her predecessor. His gentle, unassuming push to weave poetry through the fabric of the community has created a rich tapestry of arts.

“Carrboro has a clear commitment to the arts in general and it’s a good place for artists to live,” Steele said. “A lot of times, visual arts and music get more attention and funding.”

That poetry does not get short shrift puts Carrboro on the crest of a wave of towns and cities across the country trying to raise a new awareness to an old art form.

‘We need poetry’

The number of degree-conferring creative writing programs on campuses across the country has grown exponentially, with 852 noted by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in 2010 as compared to 79 in 1975.

Technology makes it easier for writers to self-publish and the number of journals and magazines that specialize in the art form, either in print or online, have proliferated.

“If you look at sheer quantity, there is probably more poetry than in the past,” Steele said. “But quantity does not necessarily mean quality. I don’t think poetry needs us; it has always been us. We need poetry.”

Bryan, who enjoys the discussions the literary genre fosters, says poetry has been helpful to him, particularly during trying times.

“It’s a kind of conversation to myself,” Bryan said

He has used haiku, the Japanese-style 17-syllable poems, to sort through his thoughts about his first wife dying of cancer.

He has compiled and edited the “Carrboro 100th Birthday Poetry Anthology,” published in 2011. His chapbook “Selected Poems” was published in June by Finishing Line Press. Blink (an experimental literary magazine), CowboyPoetry.com (an online collection) and journals specializing in law and the environment have also published his work.

A compass needle

Though the courtrooms and courthouses that have consumed much of his professional life offer numerous story lines and a cast of complicated and intriguing characters, Bryan finds little poetry in motions.

He typically focuses on topics outside that world for his creative writing.

Bryan’s poetry often points a compass needle toward home, the place of family living and gone. The Orange County property just beyond the Carrboro town border that he shares with his wife, horses, guineas, dogs, a cat and cockatiel help shape his contemporary thoughts.

“The wonderful thing about Jay is his complete dedication to poetry,” Spalt said. “And it’s so incongruous to his professional life.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service