ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
ORANGE COUNTY — “I like to have workshops. I like to have readings. I like for people to be sharing poetry. I think it’s a way to create community, to be in community.”
That’s Liza Wolff-Francis, the 2023-2024 Poet Laureate of Carrboro, a town that begins every town council meeting with a poetry reading. The town has a poets’ council as part of its arts committee that provides guidance for poetry programming.
“Poetry can be a great dialogue. We’re getting to know each other in community by what we share through poetry,” Wolff-Francis continued.
The poet laureate position was established by Carrboro in 2002. In an ongoing tradition, this year, Mayor Damon Seils once again proclaimed April Poetry Month, in conjunction with National Poetry Month.
Being a poet laureate isn’t a passive role where poets get to wax eloquent about the subject of their choice. It is an active position and carries the responsibility of promoting poetry and facilitating poetry events for the public. As such, throughout April Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Orange County are brimful with opportunities to witness poetry.
For example, Wolff-Francis will conduct Write and Read workshops for kids ages 5-7, 8-14 and 14+/15-18 on April 8 at Carrboro Town Hall.
Weave and Spin featuring Chapel Hill Poet Laureate Cortland Gilliam, on April 12, is followed by an open mic at Eno Arts Mill.
Earth Day, April 22, is also full of poetry programming. Refer to this graphic from the town of Carrboro.
Wolff-Francis feels poems let us take, “the side door, versus the front door. You can speak in metaphor or in simile so that people think about a different perspective because no one wants to listen to my opinion, but they might listen to my poem. Hopefully it allows you to wander a little further than a news article and lets you use your thinking abilities in a different way.”
The county has two poet laureates — Hillsborough and Durham have their own programs as well — plus a Piedmont Laureate co-sponsored by art commissions and councils in Raleigh, Durham, Orange County and Wake County.
To top it all off is Jaki Shelton Green, the state poet laureate, reappointed for a second term in 2021 by Gov. Roy Copper. She’s the first African American and third woman to serve in the position.
Last Thursday, Green moderated a wide-ranging conversation about the role of poetry in the public realm with Wolff-Francis and Gilliam at Flyleaf Books, which began with the three poets taking turns reading
The event was sponsored by Orange Literacy, a nonprofit which for 40 years has provided free adult instruction in reading, writing, basic math, English, computer skills and GED prep, entirely through grants and donations.
Getting to the subject at hand, Green asked both poets to personally contextualize their responses to her question: “How have you witnessed and experienced public audiences?”
Gilliam shared that he started off at open mics with predominantly Black audiences. Once he returned to the Triangle area for graduate school from Houston, Texas the audiences hearing his poetry were at rallies and protests on campus, related to the local movement to address UNC-Chapel Hill’s Silent Sam statue and its removal.
“The witnessing there was about the relationship between the reception of my words and action,” he said. “What do the words do after I utter them? What do people do with them?”
Wolff-Francis recounted how her experiences in poetry slam reconnected her with poetry and it kept her on her toes because of its format. She feels ultimately, it’s a way for people to communicate with the audience and connect.
“I think it’s a conversation. How are people perceiving me?” she said. “I often feel inspired by the energy of an audience and the dialog that happens between poetry that I’m presenting and real-time reactions from the audience.”
It can be difficult to keep track of poetry events in the area, even beyond the month of April. Wolff-Francis said Carrboro is in the process of updating its website where poetry information will be gathered in a central location. Chapel Hill has its own town events and poetry is very much alive in all of Orange County year-round.
Coordinated by Gilliam, you can participate in a blackout poetry display all month long at Chapel Hill Public Library . Later in April, there will be an unveiling of an artistic installation of a poem honoring George Moses Horton, the “historic poet laureate of Chatham County …” For the full list of Chapel Hill Poetry Month celebrations see this page.
In closing the conversation Thursday night, Green posed the question: “How do you feel about how poetry might encourage and influence the greater community?”
Because the reading and reception of poetry involves revealing who the poet is and how this resonates with similar places inside the listener, Wolff-Francis emphasized how poems are a way, “to cross some of the systemic boundaries around race, class and gender.”
“Crossing those boundaries and being able to say, ‘This is who I am,’ ‘And who are you?’ is a gentler way of speaking. It can reach people in wonderful and beautiful ways.”
Gilliam feels poetry is an invitation to an open space where we’re vulnerable in both showing ourselves and in considering the input of others, and how that may have a ripple effect.
He said he named his upcoming event — The Poet is a Verb — because “to poet is an action thing. But with it being a verb, for me, it’s community work,” he said. “It’s a relational practice.”
There are poetry events throughout the year. Carrboro’s flagship event, the West End Poetry Festival, takes place in October, although the website isn’t updated yet. The town also has poetry in the round on Carrboro Day, May 7 at Town Commons. Flyleaf Book’s Second Sunday Poetry Series continues April 16 and every month on the second Sunday. Eno Arts Mill Gallery’s Weave and Spin referenced above is a monthly event every second Wednesday.
Pamir Kiciman is a freelance writer, artist, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://my.visualcv.com/pamirkiciman or contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org .
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