By Alicia Stemper/Vitamin O for the Orange County Arts Commission
Jaki Shelton Green, named the inaugural Piedmont Laureate in 2009 and inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2014, is obviously a poet. But she is also a story teller, writer, teacher, creativity coach, and change agent in the lives of others. She founded Sistawrite which allows her to bring women together for writing retreats, community, and nurturing.
Until 2004, Shelton Green paired her writing with full time jobs in other fields. That duality was “never a disconnect for me.” She feels fortunate her employers were “women who always supported the other side of me.” She found material to feed her writing in her past employment at agencies such as North State Legal Services and Child Care Services, and her inherent creativity fed her success in those endeavors. However, in 2004, she felt the balance shift. She had become “a fundraising diva” and missed having the energy for other pursuits. Shelton Green left her job. “Life changed from that point on – I am writer hear me roar.”
Presented with the following list: vision, hearing, joy, sorrow, music, and memory, Shelton Green identified memory as the most essential. “A lot of my writing comes out of a container of memory.” Shelton Green feels “We are all human museums and we carry our anthropology and archeology inside of us. For those who write, the pen becomes the shovel.” She explores this further in some of the classes she teaches, such as one called What we Keep Keeps Us.
Asked to discuss how a photograph is like a poem, Shelton Green said, “Photography looms large in my craft.” She spoke about some of the writing exercises she uses in the Documentary Poetry class she teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. For example, she will present students with photos of two different people and ask them to have the subjects talk to each other. Or she will give students photos of three random people and ask them to write a story where one of the people murdered another. She tells a fascinating personal anecdote about bringing all the women from an old family photo together after interviewing each alone. The gathering erupted in emotion when the women discovered each had a different memory regarding why they were together on the day of the photo. Shelton Green points to this as a lesson. It is because we will never know the truth in situations like this that she advises, “Be careful about the lens you create to tell stories.” The use of that lens can reveal or obscure the truth. But ultimately, Shelton Green finds, “That’s where the poem lives – inside of a story.”