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NC names its first African-American Poet Laureate to be ambassador for spoken word

NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

Watch North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson read from his poem "Etchings" in 2015.
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Watch North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson read from his poem "Etchings" in 2015.

Jaki Shelton Green, a native of Orange County, has been appointed North Carolina’s new poet laureate.

The ninth laureate overall, Green is the first African-American and third woman to receive the honor. Her term officially starts July 1, succeeding Shelby Stephenson.

“I am very humbled,” Green said in an interview from Morocco, where she was traveling to a writing workshop. “My intention is to serve us well, strengthen the good work that’s been done. I hope to expand it into communities where the literary arts aren’t as strong.”

Green, 65, is one of the most acclaimed poets in the state’s modern-day history. She won the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2013 and was inducted into the state’s Literary Hall of Fame in 2014. She was also the first Piedmont Laureate in 2009.

At a Durham County Library forum in 2015, new North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green tells her story of becoming a writer and a poet.

“Jaki Shelton Green brings a deep appreciation of our state’s diverse communities to her role as an ambassador of North Carolina literature,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement. “Jaki’s appointment is a wonderful new chapter in North Carolina’s rich literary history.”

Poet Laureate is a two-year appointment, in which the laureate serves as poetry advocate and literary ambassador for the state. Duties include conducting programs and workshops, as well as writing poems to commemorate “historic or culturally important occasions.”

It pays a stipend, traditionally between $5,000 and $15,000 depending on how much traveling the laureate does. The governor makes the appointment, with input from the state arts council.

The arts council began soliciting nominations last November. Judging is based on the following criteria:

A North Carolinian with deep connections to the state’s cultural life.

Literary excellence.

Influence on other writers and appreciation of literature in its diversity throughout the state.

Statewide, national or international reputation.

In 2014, controversy erupted when then-Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Valerie Macon, a largely unknown poet with just two self-published books to her credit. He did so with no input from the state arts council.

When Macon’s credentials were called into question, she resigned after less than a week. Stephenson was subsequently appointed in early 2015.

Green teaches documentary poetry at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. She plans to work with North Carolina communities on documentary poetry.

“I thought that would be a very beneficial focus, combining literature and art into a vehicle to help preserve stories of who we are,” Green said. “I hope to help build bridges.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi
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