In November 2019, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted to launch a Poet Laureate program and make their first appointment to this esteemed position, one geared towards increasing awareness of the literary arts. Council Members Rachel Schaevitz and Allen Buansi initiated the program, with CJ Suitt in mind as the obvious choice to serve as the town’s inaugural Laureate.
Suitt, a Chapel Hill native, has roots that run deep within the poetry and spoken word communities. Between his role as director and coach of the beloved Sacrificial Poets, as well as his work with groups ranging from the Marion Cheek Jackson Center to UNC’s Playmakers and Ackland Art Museum, CJ has earned his self-proclaimed title as a “creative catalyst.”
CJ brings his rich history as a Chapel Hill native to make poetry more accessible to our community. He is a true public humanist, working with young people in our schools, inspiring our staff at our recent Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, and finding ways to address the important issues of representation, tradition, culture, and history through art and poetry.
He is about to embark on a collaborative project with two UNC graduate students and a group of eighth-grade students at McDougle Middle School to help these young people tell their own stories, rather than allowing the world to dictate their stories to them.
– Rachel Schaevitz, Chapel Hill Town Council Member
We wanted to get to know CJ better, and who better to showcase the new Chapel Hill Laureate than the current Carrboro Poet Laureate, Fred Joiner? Fred also serves as one of thirteen national poets to be selected as an inaugural American Academy of Poets Fellow, as well as chair of the Orange County Arts Commission.
More Than Words
By Fred Joiner
Although CJ Suitt was just recently named one of Orange County’s newest poet laureates, (he now serves as the Town of Chapel Hill’s inaugural Poet Laureate), Suitt has been directing the power of his talents since a high school English teacher asked him to present a poem for Black History Month.
When one is fortunate enough to share space with Suitt, it is clear that he is “a force of good” and that good finds its way into his poetry performances.
I first became aware of CJ while living in Bamako, Mali, West Africa, when my wife and I found out we were moving back to the United States, to Chapel Hill. As I began to research the area from an art and poetry perspective, I found a rich interdisciplinary culture of music, craft, visual art, poetry and other literature that made me excited about coming here. In addition to many of the poets and writers whose work I was already aware of, I came across the collective called The Sacrificial Poets, which was my introduction to CJ Suitt’s work.
The first time I experienced Suitt’s presence and performance in person was at Intrahealth International’s SwitchPoint Ideas Conference, a conference Suitt presented in 2014, 2017, 2019 and where he will present again this year. Suitt was tasked with being the catalytic energy to start off a long day of workshops and exchange of ideas. One year Suitt read a piece that attempts to capture the essence of what SwitchPoint is and gives some insight into “How to SwitchPoint.” Another year he presented a piece steeped in what it meant to be a native of a part of Chapel Hill and Orange County that is rendered invisible by the other aspects of The Town.
I had a chance to catch up with CJ by email to answer a few questions. In contrast to his lushly verbose poetry performances, his answers were surprisingly spare, yet no less heartfelt and connected to the communities and fellowships he builds everywhere he goes.
- How important is a sense of place in your poetry?
Home is what we carry. I carry it in my words. They are my place. I write a lot about Chapel Hill because I have this unending desire to see my home be the best that it can be. As a spoken word poet I’ve often felt out of place next to more academic poetry. In this way, I feel I am always making my place.
- How have your roots here in Orange County specifically affected your work as a poet?
In every way. Growing up outside the rural buffer in Chapel Hill, I was always faced with the juxtaposition of being in the town but not of the town so-to-speak. Like, my neighborhood was all black but I went to school with a mix of wealthy, country, artsy black, white and brown kids. I grew up choppin’ and stackin’ wood, mowin’ lawns, and getting lost in the woods. Making mud pies and being told to go outside because grown folks was talkin’. I became an adult and then ran a nonprofit here in this court for many years. This county is
core to who I am and will always be a part of who I am becoming.
- Why are the arts important in communities?
Many times when we say “Art” I think we mean “Culture.” Art is the language of those who have few other ways to communicate the dynamics of the human experience. This world often tells us we are not enough. My art always tells me there is abundance. It is a place where you can say what you need to say.
- What is your vision for your new role as the Poet Laureate of Chapel Hill?
I want to open up more pathways for artists to work together in the city of Chapel Hill. I want us to become a town known to be a space where artists can come and thrive. I want to facilitate community through poetry at the intersection of all other art forms. I hope that will shine a light on the folks who are often silenced and don’t have a voice when the town makes developmental decisions.