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Interview with poet & activist Jaki Shelton Green

Jacinta White (JW): Jaki, thank you for your time. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started as a writer? What or who inspired you?


Jaki Shelton Green (JSG): I grew up in a small community, in an extended family environment, where education was very essential in every discussion. Books were my friends, my toys. I gravitated towards books, not backyard games with other kids. Reading was nurtured by my mom’s sisters (who were teachers), and my uncle (who was a principal), and cousins (who were in college when I was in elementary school). I spent more time with older cousins than those my age. They inspired me. They nurtured my identity as a creative younger person. I predominately wrote in church as a child, and was often reminded that I wasn’t supposed to be writing there [laughs]. I made stories out of what I saw. I saw poetry in everything in that church: how light would fall on stained glass, how light changed between the time of Sunday school and 2:00. I existed between that light in my little mind. I heard the poetry in every song and every prayer. I wrote about the church women and their hats. Family and community, growing up Southern, gave me a deep literary theater that my poetry is made of stories and memories of the tribe that claims me and helped raise me become the containers for where much of my stories and poetry come from. If I close my eyes I can conjure the smell of Sunday morning. I can smell my grandmother’s "Sunday pocket book" that reeked of Wrigley’s chewing gum or Spearmint. I remember the church ladies who wore Estee Lauder and the old Shalimar perfume. I still have these sensory spikes. I remember the kitchens... smells and tastes: who put onion in their potato salad and who didn’t. I believe that all of us are human museums. For me, the pen is a powerful tool to excavate that which lies there.


JW: You’re taking me back to my time growing up in the Black church. Wow. Thank you. And Snapdragon Journal, we’re looking at the intersection of art and healing. What’s been your personal experience with writing and healing?


JSG: Back in the 70s, my former husband, who is now deceased, and I were very active in prison reformative work in Connecticut. We sponsored prisoners after their releases. I spent a lot of time engaging prisoners around their own recovery and forgiveness through creative writing. I’ve always been privileged to witness what healing look likes through the lens of older woman and older men. So it was easy for me to fall into the work with prisoners. I moved back to North Carolina and continued to facilitate creative writing with prisoners in addition to working in homeless shelters; with illiterate people, the newly literate, people with mental illness, survivors of all kinds of trauma and crisis. Writing saves lives, helps people understand that their voice is worthy and it matters, that they don’t need others to validate them. That was modeled to me -- how to be self-actualizing and manifesting. To affirm yourself in the healing process. When I work with people, I am more blessed – to be the vessel. The spirit allows me to become a part of the shared healing with people.


JW: Yes! Say more about what writing does?


JSG: On a personal level, I felt connected and loved and reaffirmed even though I saw the world through a different lens. I would see something everyone else would miss. I would say to others, “did you see him breaking pencils” or “did you see how his ear turned red when someone asked him a question?” And they would say, “no, I missed that.” I always paid attention to my inner sensibilities or ticking. In my most vulnerable times -- divorces, deaths -- it was writing that always helped me to be my own balm of Gilead. It helped direct me to know what I needed. We don’t always know what we need. Sometimes it is beyond our articulation. Writing helped me ask the questions of myself and therefore I was able to start the process of transformation, step out in the light. Writing helps me go beyond the veil and lift it when it’s time to come out, open my heart wider, and be exposed to my own reality. In writing you can slay your dragon. In your art you can slay as many [dragons] as you want without doing harm to others. When I facilitate writing groups, I provide safe space for people to put on the mask(s) they feel they need in order to speak to that dragon, that person who has caused some harm. I watch them embody the persona, say, “My inner power is a lion and I can fight back.” That’s what I’ve witnessed in my own journey of reinventing myself and peeling away layers. We all ask ourselves who am I really, what do I want really, who do I want to become really? And for me, sometimes I look at the journals I keep and the questions, and they have righteous power and show the sacredness of being involved in the creative process.


SJ: Our theme is “resistance.” What does that mean to you?


JSG: “Activism” is a better word for me. But I thought of you this morning and “resistance” and was reminded of a quote by Audre Lorde, “We were never supposed to survive anyway. Caring for myself is not self-indulgent, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The role of activism and writer are interwoven; they overlap or are interwoven. Each present different challenges and pulls forward different emotions/experiences requiring me to be fully present. Being in the moment as a Black woman is to always be resisting the boxes. All my life I've been the “keeper of the story,” upholding the mission of the story. My craft guides and instructs how I show up in the everydayness of being “other” in America. I am a black southern woman poet who decidedly chooses a non-academic path for my writing life. Its not a career. I’m not as thrown off by the election of Trump as some I know. He has always been here, figuratively. My writing informs my activism. My resistance informs my writing. My writing unshackles me. I’m unapologetic by the resistance that shows up in my writing. I control the mute, pause, go buttons. The challenges of controlling this balance is a huge responsibility and has taught me a lot about my creative process and how I facilitate safer spaces for emerging writers; using creativity for the purpose of crossing boundaries and building community. There is always a constant hustle required of most artiste especially writers in my tribe to be able to survive while simultaneously doing what we love to do... create... be the artist. Activism is also tricky because we can get lost in the struggle and deplete our creative vigor. Self-care is a powerful form of resistance since we weren't supposed to survive any how. My craft is the container for my restoration, revitalization, and repurposing. In my writing, I am reinventing myself over and over again. Many years I didn’t feel like I was a writer, no matter how many books I had, because I had a day job. It took me awhile to stand up in the skin of writer. I disenfranchised my own self-identity as an artist before I realized that writing was my yoga, my path. So I surrender to all the checks and balances of accountability and yet I have to stay vigilant ensuring that voices like mine are not marginalized. For as long as I've been in this game, I've learned that the arts community is very political. There is unnecessary rivalry, bullying, meanness and all the bullshit that comes with creating a space for yourself on a stage that was never meant for you. I am a stage. I am the poem. I am the voice of my own choosing. That is also my daily activism... resisting the racism, sexism, classism, and now ageism.


JW: What are you currently working on?


JSG: Right now I’m really inside of the reality that writing for me is about restoration, recuperating, and living with my heart wide-open. At the latter end of my 60s, I have never felt more supported as I carve out a life that enables me to write full-time. I enjoy the embrace of a literary community that continues to hold me up. There’s a Zora Neale Hurston quote above my desk – it’s been there for 30 years – about being too busy sharpening oyster’s knives. I’m not sitting at that desk all the time. I am busy sharpening oyster’s knives. I’m writing in my backyard with Muslims for Social Justice or across the restaurant table with a Moroccan poet with stories so sad, they make my bones ache, or I’m writing in my reserved seat at a rally protest for Michael Brown... I'm writing at a huge confederate rally where a Black man is defending the confederate flag to the cheers of confederates bearing every stripe of racism on their signs. I’m not writing at my favorite beach Bed & Breakfast or from a quaint cabin in the mountains... right now I'm sitting in spaces that require me to bear witness... I’m writing at a funeral of a young man slain by police in Durham. I’m writing in the meeting fighting to retain funding for the mentally ill...I am never NOT at the table for the fight for equality, to be seen and heard. My strength is the commodity to stay purposeful to lead a very unconventional life to make this life matter. I am collaborating with several artists on upcoming projects across NC and outside of NC. (California, Martha's Vineyard, Paris). I will be in Morocco in April presenting at a prose poetry symposium where my work is being studied and read by a wider international audience. I’m also at Duke University teaching documentary poetry. It allows me the opportunity to discuss how poetry, film, story, photography – are interwoven organically. I enjoy being celebrated. I am honored and humbled by it. But I write for the sake of my soul. And when I inspire others or bring light to the path someone is on or hold the hand of someone who is walking the path—that’s what it’s about. Life is too short and all of our lives collectively are threatened – this isn’t about politics – this is about good and evil, darkness and light. We will perish—our spirits will perish if we fail to resist. Resistance is resisting the toxins. I just want to be a writer and to be writing. I am humbled by all the accolades.


JW: You have a writing group too?


JSG: I started a business, SistaWRITE, after a lengthy illness. In 2009 my eldest daughter, Imani died. My life as I knew it turned upside down. In 2011, I was stricken with an undiagnosed chronic illness that was later diagnosed as Lyme disease. Trauma ushers in a beauty you aren't expecting. The concept for SistaWRITE emerged when I was sitting in a wheelchair (from 2011-2014) not able to walk, speak, write, limited motor skills. What was I going to do when I get well? The literary world was moving on and passing me by. Yet, there were some in the literary community who wrapped me in love. I will always be eternally grateful and humbled by the generosity of spirit bestowed upon me. There are certain gatekeepers – who deem themselves gatekeepers. I remade, repurposed myself in order to become my own gatekeeper. SistaWRITE was born out of that will to thrive... with the goal of creating safer writing spaces for women... being immersed in beautiful places to support and nurture us so we can hone our focus to what we want to write -- bring women into beautiful spaces to make art has always been my dream. Over 40 years I’ve been going to writers retreats and conferences and I would come back broken – either I didn’t write or came back exhausted. I wanted the balance where we play and write hard, laugh and cry hard; where we are finding ourselves over and over again and the core of why we want to write. We have to know our purpose so we can own it. Artists are often asked, “How are you going to support yourself?” Support is relative because it depends on the life you want. I made the decision to come home, write, and have a wonderful life. A wonderful life is about being able to have three people over for a pop-up writing retreat whenever I plan. This is my path. I’m not trying to encourage others to follow it but it’s serving me well. I also have manuscripts in the works. I’m involved with the Resisting Arrest anthology readings which have brought so many people together to discuss police brutality, social justice issues, and community building.


JW: I would love if we can conclude with you sharing who are you currently reading.


JSG: I read a lot of poetry that I’m judging for contests, critiques, reviews, and blurbs. It is pleasurable to read so many new innovative poets. Currently, every night, I am settling in with the poetry of our NC siSTAR, Metta Sama. I’m also reading a novel, Farishta, by Patricia McArdle, and Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women. I read a lot of literature ongoing. I recently saw the film, “I’m Not Your Negro” and I am now committed to re-reading all of James Baldwin’s books. I'm reading and studying the brilliant guidebook and journal of Skye Ward, entitled Skyeview: A Sistah's View of the World, Paris Chapter. Skye and I are scheduled to launch a creative collaboration this year focused on women of color and travel as a spiritual practice.


JW: This has been wonderful. Thank you for your time, Jaki.

JSG: Thank you.


To contact Jaki or for more information, visit her website at www.sistawrite.com.

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