You could almost say that North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green’s very first publisher was the dirt she grew up on. As a child growing up in Efland, descended from families of slaves going back centuries, she began writing poems, sealing them into jars and burying them in her grandmother’s yard with the intention of digging them up later. But after years went by and she tried to dig them up, the ground had shifted enough that she couldn’t find them. They were lost to the earth itself.
Undeterred, Jaki never stopped writing, even at times when it seemed as if she would never be published, respected, heard. But she made it happen. By now, enough of Jaki’s works have been published by more conventional means to land her in the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2014. Her ascendance to North Carolina Poet Laureate, the first African-American to hold the post, followed in 2018, appointed by Governor Roy Cooper.
In performance, Jaki’s poems have always had a profoundly musical quality, images flowing by in the sonorous, knowing murmur of her voice. She comes by that quality honestly. Long before Jaki called herself a writer, much less a poet, music was an important part of her life. She grew up surrounded by records in the family home, taking in all of the jazz, rock, blues and soul music in the air—“The Last Poets,” Arthur Prysock’s “This Is My Beloved,” Nina Simone, James Brown, even recordings of street-corner speeches by Malcolm X—and it left a mark.
Put all of that together and add Jaki’s stature as beloved cultural icon in the fertile crescent of North Carolina’s music community, and you have The River Speaks of Thirst, her debut album. At age 67, Jaki is adding Recording Artist to her resume.
“For the past 20 or 30 years, people at readings have come up and asked if I have a CD,” she says. “Well, now I do. I’m terrified and also excited because it’s a new thing. But I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable. And this genre means a lot to me. It takes me back to a time when I was coming into consciousness of what it meant to be black in the U.S., to bear witness. At a reading once, an older African-American man came to me, started naming Harlem Renaissance poets and asked where I fit. I told him I’d like to think I’m just down the road on the continuum, moving along. It’s like a conveyor belt and someone else will be coming along after me, which is as it should be. That’s what this album feels like to me.”
Jaki’s work life has always been a complicated mix of writing, teaching, activism and sometimes all of the above simultaneously through programs like SistaWRITE, which she founded to help younger, under-represented voices get a wider hearing. Untold numbers of women have found their voices through Jaki’s inspiration and example. She’s become a major influence on younger generations of slam poets like singer/rapper Shirlette Ammons, who spent a lot of time reading and rereading Jaki’s 1996 poetry collection Conjure Blues while taking her own first steps as a writer.
“I could relate to her voice as a black Southern woman, and it felt like she was committed to sharing the perspective of a rural Southern black woman,” says Ammons. “She has a relationship with the land and the experience of blackness in the South. I just felt drawn and connected to that from the beginning. She’s important, someone who best represents what I think is the North Carolina experience on the page. She’s one of the best at capturing that.”
That experience is vividly rendered on The River Speaks of Thirst, which consists of 10 new, previously unpublished poems set to music and sound by producer Alec Ferrell. Shirlette Ammons is a cameo guest, along with Chapel Hill Poet Laureate CJ Suitt, gospel singer Jennifer Evans and, on the album-closing title track, Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon in an epochal call and response.
But while Jaki shares her spotlight with customary generosity, the unquestioned center of this album is the poet herself. Her gentle murmur is so soothing it can take a while for the listener to realize these song-poems cover subjects like the middle passage of slavery (“This I Know For Sure”), lynchings (“I Wanted To Ask the Trees”), police shootings (“Oh My Brother”) and America’s original, still-biggest sin of racism (“Letter From the Other Daughter of the Confederacy”).
Hard but not hopeless, The River Speaks of Thirst casts freedom as its central theme and most-repeated word. It’s very much a document of its maker, as well as an impressive exclamation point for Jaki’s time as North Carolina Poet Laureate.
“Being the first African-American Poet Laureate really does matter to me on so many different levels,” she says. “I’ve been receiving depths of love in terms of what it means to total strangers of all different hues and belief systems and ages across the state. People really celebrate the space I’m in and appreciate what I’m trying to bring to the post. Yes, it’s about being an ambassador for poetry, but also compassion and kindness and how we might reimagine how art helps cross boundaries.”