—article by Brian Howe
North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green has been the state’s leading international champion of literature’s ground-level power for decades. Her vital voice, last heard in all its solemnity and splendor on the album The River Speaks of Thirst in 2020, fell silent only after the death of her daughter, Imani, in 2009, a life-reshaping event that finally found outlet in the acclaimed book-length poem I Want to Undie You in 2017. A wail against death, it seems to live life after life. Italian publisher Lebeg Edizioni recently issued a translation, while local label Soul City Sounds, which stewarded The River Speaks of Thirst, will release Shelton Green’s musical version of I Want to Undie You digitally and on CD the day before her birthday, which is Juneteenth. I reached her by phone at her home in Mebane for a typically intimate, generous interview about the translation, the album, and the resonance of a mother’s grief in any language.
First, Jaki, how did this Italian translation of I Want to Undie You come about?
In 2006, I was invited to keynote an international prose poetry symposium in Marrakech, Morocco. [Writer] Pasqualino [Bongiovanni] and [translator] Giuseppe [Villella] from Italy were there. We read together and just really fell in love, the three of us. They approached me in 2018 to write a preface for an Italian translation of an obscure book by Harriet E. Wilson called Our Nig. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and another historian dug it out of the vaults and reprinted it. It’s an interesting book about a woman who was a freed slave, but apparently, in some New England states, if you were a freed slave but couldn’t take care of yourself, you could hire yourself out to a family. So, she did this, but the situation was crueler than the slavery that she had run from.
As a sidebar, a dear Moroccan friend of mine—a young man who had a Fulbright and would often stay with us when he was in the United States—introduced me to the translator of the book, Rachid Faggioli, who was his professor. When I was in Morocco in 2018, Rachid wanted to meet me because they’d given him all my books, and he fell in love with I Want to Undie You. He came to where I was staying to talk about translating it.
Fast forward: I come home, I get a phone call from Rachid, and he says, “Jaki, I would like to come over to your place. The translation is just about done, but I have a lot of syntax questions.” And I said, “Rachid, I’m not at my house in Morocco. I’m home, in America.” He said, “I know, I know, I want to come by your house.” I was like, “OK—when were you thinking about coming by my house?” Next week. I was like, “OK—how long were you thinking about staying?” Perhaps one month. I said, “OK!” So Rachid came, and we nailed down words he was having a problem translating, because sometimes I use a lot of colloquial language.
What was that relationship like? Was it very professional, focused on the work, or did it have more personal dimensions?
Oh, it was personal. If I invite you into my home, you’re a part of the fabric of the family. If it’s a professional relationship, I’ll meet you downtown at a coffee shop, you know? When I cross that threshold with people, it’s a different dynamic. My husband and I live here. My 104-year-old mom lives with us. Rachid is an early, early riser, so he was getting up before anybody, doing a morning walk around the neighborhood. He’d come back, make coffee; sometimes I would wake up early, too, and we would sit on the porch and talk. He spent a lot of time talking to my mom. He and my husband would go off places. He was here during that really bad hurricane, when I was supposed to be inducted as poet laureate. Our granddaughter had just been born, and he held the baby a lot. So, it was lovely. I have pictures of us at the Nasher where I’m pushing the baby carriage and he’s pushing my mom.
It must have been so complex to render this book in another language, because it’s so rooted in intrinsically Southern and African American perspectives. How do you bring that across to Italian readers with a completely different frame of reference?
Well, since the book is about grief, and how we hold grief, how memory is a container, there’s so many universal codes inside of it. It’s written by an African American; it’s about an African American daughter. But it’s really a mother’s wail, a mother’s way of moving past her daughter’s death.
Barbara Tyroler, a photographer in Chapel Hill—we go back to the ‘60s—when Barb said, “I want to do a collaboration with you,” we kept saying, “What do we want to do?” One day, we were having lunch, and I said, “Barb, I know what the collaboration is. I think I should read I Want to Undie You, and there should be music.” The original book has photographs of Imani, and Barbara texturized them. When an article appeared in the Chapel Hill newspaper that FRANK Gallery was going to host this big exhibit, reading, and musical interpretation, I was getting calls and emails from all over the place, people saying, “Oh my god, I want to undie you—that’s it.” That’s what every parent wants to say. Our culture is strange around death. I just wanted to kind of rip those seams. It was my wail.
I had a girlfriend who started calling me a month after Imani died. She called me one day, and she said, “I just have one question. Have you wailed? No, you haven’t wailed. I’ll call you back.” This went on for months. She would just call and say, “Have you wailed?” So, one day, I called her, I think two years out. And I said, “I wailed.” But I did not write again until this book came out. It has a universal appeal that just pulls people in, if you are thinking about loss or trying to work through grief.
Even though a lot of my work, yes, is political, is situated inside of being Southern, being African American, I’m always thinking, what are the human tones inside of the language? If I write a poem and only Black women get it, I feel that I failed. If only women get it, I still think I failed. If only Southerners get it. What is the human code inside of my language that pulls anybody’s humanity in? And that’s been my measurement. Poetry should arouse; it should agitate; but it should definitely be an invitation inside. I think that’s what the book is, an invitation into a landscape that’s prickly, you know? It was good that Rachid got to see Imani’s family, so it was more than working with a text. He knew her grandmother, her brother and sister.
Yes, I’m sorry if I seemed to suggest that the work was limited in its scope or appeal. I was wondering about the challenge of translating the full cultural freight of certain concepts, and whether you thought anything was lost or gained, but of course that mother’s wail crosses language barriers.
Yes, let me respond to that, because that was the challenge. I probably edited the editing like six times. I’d send a proof back and Pasqualino would say, from an editorial perspective, in Italian, this word has to stay, because it’s holding up the rest of that sentence. They weren’t changing things; they might have been changing the tense of something, but nothing was lost in translation.
Has your work been translated before?
It has been, but I never saw it. Many, many, many years ago, Dead on Arrival was translated. This was probably in the ‘70s. One of my books had been selected for the Frankfurt Book Fair, which was a big deal back in the day, so I want to say it was translated in German.
Then this is the first time you’ve encountered your work in translation. What was it like to read it, not speaking the language, but knowing and having shaped what it says?
Well, I’m fascinated with textures and different languages. Since I know what it means, it’s like Braille to me, if you know what I mean. It’s me touching it. It’s me trying to understand how those words feel inside of my mouth. When I’m teaching, I always ask students, especially young students, how does that word taste to you? What are some words you just love to say, you like the way they roll around in your mouth? You like the way “chocolate” sounds when you say it or evokes so much more than what it means. That’s what this new text has been, like a new texture of the book.
One of the most powerful experiences that I’ve had with my writing was at that conference in Marrakesh, when I read “Oh My Brother.” There were a lot of Amazigh-speaking people in the room, elders. There was this long line of men sitting in the back, and they looked like clergy. They were old men with long beards and kufis and long robes, and most of them had these wonderful shepherd walking canes. When I was reading, they were dabbing their eyes, and I’m thinking, they don’t speak English.
The next day, I was coming out of a door, and I literally bumped into a man. He said, “Oh my god, it’s you. You’re the woman from last night who was reading.” He said, “Oh my god, that poem was just heart-wrenching.” I knew who he was; he was very distinguished Amazigh scholar. And I said, “Thank you, thank you.” And he said, “All of those men with me, they kept asking me, ‘why are we weeping?’” He said, “That’s the power of language. We felt you even though we didn’t understand the words. We understood the power of what you were saying.” They got it even before he explained that it was about police brutality, the death of a Black man at the hands of a white policeman. I believe that we carry language, that we carry a poetics, inside of our bodies, so my entire body, when I’m performing, is there with me—my heart, my hands holding that book, all of the energy that’s coming through it is going back out. And that was just a very beautiful affirmation for me.
And you released “Oh My Brother” on your album The River Speaks of Thirst last year. I understand that there’s another musical project in the works?
There’s another recording: I Want to Undie You is going to be a CD. Jennifer Evans is a local vocalist, very powerful. She’s on the first album, kind of riffing on the Juneteenth poem, “This I Know for Sure.” She does everything, gospel, she’s been a mainstay with the Murphey School Radio Show. She does the music, and it’s my voice, and that’s it. So, I’m excited. It’s just about done.
I know this is still a transitional time, but do you have any plans for a live release event?
We need to figure that out, because we didn’t really get to celebrate the other album because of COVID. We were going to have a big party at Motorco, and it didn’t happen, but I want to do something this year, and now we’ll have both albums.
And Governor Cooper extended your poet laureate term?
Yes, that went out in his press release yesterday, so I’m getting a lot of stuff ready for 2022.
Did you have to change your plans for the role drastically during COVID?
Not really. Of course, it’s different than in person, and a lot of my workshops are very hands-on and interactive. You had to do a lot of brainstorming to try and effect that kind of community-building, but I think we managed to do it well. I think I’ve reached more people and done some interesting things that I probably never would have done. I’ve been doing some teaching with a group of seventh graders in Saudi Arabia.
Now I want to concentrate a little more intensely on developing some youth initiatives. I have this project I started when I received a fellowship from The Academy of American Poets called Literary ChangeMakers, which works with young writers and poets around the state. Pembroke University and I have partnered for two virtual youth conferences on Zoom, and it’s our plan to have our first in-person next April. I do a lot of library work, university residencies, and two-week pops in public schools, but I want to be in these communities putting together task forces of young people who are going to guide us, telling us what resources they’d like to have. I’m excited about trying to create more poet laureates in high schools across the state. There are several high schools that have them, but I think every high school should have one.
When I started, I wanted to travel the state and be in the places where no one knows what a poet laureate is, and I wanted to hear people’s stories and encourage them to tell them. When I’m talking to people—Black, white, anybody—the first thing they say is, “Mrs. Shelton Green, I’m just a poor farmer, no one wants to hear my story.” And I say, “Your story is the one we want to hear.” That’s what being an ambassador for the literary arts means to me—you’re in the places where nobody knows who you are, not in the places where you’re a star. I want my legacy to have been that I really tried to bring a presence of the poet laureate to people’s lives.
And that’s a wrap: Regrettably, this will be my final Orange Crush column as I take on a big copywriting job this summer, with some even larger projects on the horizon. I’m very grateful to the Orange County Arts Commission for funding not just me in particular, but the vital and severely under-resourced enterprise of local arts journalism in general. Thanks also to the wonderful subjects who told me their stories and the readers who followed along, and who can still look forward to monthly OCAC columns by Emilie Menzel and David Menconi.