Jaki Shelton Green: Poetry for the Pandemic

North Carolina Poet Laureate’s first album, The River Speaks of Thirst, features poems that take on America’s historical crimes with truth, compassion and a hope for a better future 

Jaki Shelton Green (Art: Ron Hart)

Jaki Shelton Green is the Poet Laureate of North Carolina.

She’s the state’s third woman – and first African American – Laureate and usually travels the state teaching classes and reading her poems at gatherings organized by libraries, universities and arts organs. “I also do residencies at schools and universities, to expand the appreciation of the literary arts and poetry across the state,” Green said, from her home in rural North Carolina. “I teach Documentary Poetry at Duke University, but everything has been shut down since March, so I’m doing a lot of virtual presentations and meetings on Zoom. I thought I’d have a chance to do my own writing, but that’s not happening so far. 

“That said, as I witness what’s happening in the natural world, I’m childish enough, and hopeful enough, to think this pause might give us the possibility of imagining a different world, a different kind of existence. Right now, the air is cleaner. The water is cleaner. I haven’t heard an airplane since March. I’m seeing lightening bugs at night. There’s less spraying of weed killers and pesticides. Every thing is lush. We can hear the earth breathing. She had to take our lungs away to get hers back. The universe has given us a moment to pause. When it’s over, we can drag all our old stuff back in with us, or we come back with a sense of lightness and optimism.” 

Green’s optimism is present in her conversation and in her poetry. The poems on The River Speaks of Thirst, her first album, take on America’s historical crimes with truth, compassion and a dream of a better future. With the help of producer Alec Ferrell, Green blended music and poetry into a hybrid that amplifies the intensity of her inspiring words. “I Wanted To Ask the Trees” is a graphic investigation of lynching, accompanied by sparse piano chords and Green’s soft-spoken poetry. “This I Know for Sure” describes the voyages of slave ships, while imagining a future where all Americans are free. Jazz singer and poet Jennifer Evans adds wordless, improvised vocals to the track that amplify the power of Green’s recitation. 

Jaki Shelton Green The River Speaks Of Thirst, Soul City Sounds 2020

The idea of an album of poems has been simmering in the back of Green’s mind for a long time. “I’ve recorded some of my poems, but never formally,” she said. “A friend of mine did a CD years ago, and invited me to be a part of it. I did two poems of my own on his CD, the same way I invited CJ Suitt, Jennifer Evans, Nenna Freelon and Shirlette Ammons to be part of this CD. This album happened because I was introduced to Phil Venable, who produced it, along with Alex Ferrell. Phil said I had to make a record, but I didn’t know anything about the music process, or making a CD. I trusted his vision for the body of work I selected. We didn’t go to a big studio. It was created in Alex’s living room studio; he was also the engineer. He created all the music, except for the beats Shirlette made to accompany ‘A Litany for the Possessed.’

“We started in September of last year and wrapped it up this March, the week the Governor told us to go home and stay in. We had sessions two or three times a week, between my work as Laureate. It was released on Juneteenth, which is also my birthday. This year that day was pretty momentous, but we had to celebrate the CD, and my birthday, virtually on Zoom, with hundreds of people, complete with a cake.” 

The album’s title track, “The River Speaks of Thirst”, is one of the musical highlights of the record. Six time Grammy nominee, composer and jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, added her wordless, gospel drenched vocals to Green’s words. “I wrote that poem a few years ago, thinking about our humanity and how we’re hungry and thirsty all the time for more consumption. That need has depleted the resources of the natural world. The poem is a homage to all the rivers, actual and metaphorical – the river of history. Nnenna and I did an evening of jazz and poetry together last winter, so I wanted her to sing one of the poems on the record. I sent her the poem on Saturday. Sunday morning, she came into the studio and knocked it out in an hour. She read the poem, said she loved the words and gave them back to us. It was magical, improvised on the spot.” 

Green’s been writing poems since she was a little girl. She’s published eight books of poetry in the past 40 years. Last year, The Academy of American Poets named her one of their first Laureate Fellows. Still, in today’s America, poets don’t get the respect accorded to musicians, but Green doesn’t let that hold her back. 

Jaki Shelton Green (Art: Ron Hart)

“You never know how people will react to your art. You just do the work and hold your breath and hope it lands where it needs to land and that the people who need it will receive it. We’ve gotten so far away from the idea that art sustains life. For me, growing up, poetry was organic. As a child, I heard poetry in everything. I still do. When I was a girl, my uncle had a service station and a convenience store. He sold gasoline and serviced cars. When it rained, the oil and rain made a kaleidoscope of color on the ground. I now realize it was toxic water, but I was fascinated. When rain and gas and oil mingled, that was poetry. Getting together to share meals in the kitchen had its poetry. 

“We’ve gotten away from so many traditional things. When I grew up, it was required that you learn poetry in school and memorize it and recite it. Our senses have been hijacked by technology.  People text. Letter writing is gone. For a certain generation, poetry was required, in both black and white schools. You heard it everyday in 4H Clubs, or Girl Scouts or faith based organizations. I heard it every Sunday morning in rituals at my Black church. I appreciate the young people today doing spoken word, poetry slams and open mics. They draw crowds. When was the last time anyone packed a bookstore to hear poetry? At the poetry slams, young people write about what they know and they’re not afraid to speak out. A lot of people are afraid of poetry.”  





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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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