Chapel Hill officially has its first-ever poet laureate.
The Town of Chapel Hill created the position in November and recently inducted CJ Suitt as the person to hold the position.
A poet laureate is responsible for being a voice for the arts in the community. For example, Carrboro's poet laureate Fred Joiner will often read poems before each Carrboro Town Council meeting.
The Chapel Hill Town Council, specifically council member Allen Buansi and former council member Rachel Schaevitz, created the position in hopes of expanding the arts scene in Chapel Hill.
“One of the big motivations for appointing a poet laureate was our emphasis and the importance we have held for the arts and cultural arts," Buansi said. "The poet laureate is a great way to help bring that out of the town.”
Buansi said he feels adding a poet laureate position will bring attention to the arts present within the town and draw people outside of Chapel Hill to the flourishing arts scene. In addition, he said the position was created in hopes of making the town more inclusive of all communities in Chapel Hill.
“In terms of Chapel Hill, I see a poet laureate as expanding the reach of the town into communities that have been historically underrepresented, including young people and including communities of color,” he said.
Suitt said he feels that expanding this representation is his primary mission as a poet laureate and within his life. As a Chapel Hill native who attended Chapel Hill High School, Suitt said he feels deeply connected to this town and the artists — particularly African American artists — that have shaped it. He said his life has been radically shaped by poetry.
“I feel called to the work of storytelling and story sharing in the world, particularly in Chapel Hill, where stories like mine and from people that look like me aren’t often the narrative of this space or this town or city,” he said.
Suitt said he hopes he can help share and open the way for voices that are overlooked or underrepresented in the Chapel Hill local government and within the University.
“I see my role as being a representative for arts and culture, particularly the art and culture of Black envisionist peoples, people of color in this town and area and to bring those voices to the floor that aren’t always so eloquent enough to stand up in front of the town council," he said. "Those voices that aren’t always going to be censored or speak in clean language enough to be in the space that is a town council meeting or town hall, or even on the University campus, which is often academic, and if people aren’t using that language, they don’t get listened to.”
He said his previous work has critically analyzed both the Town of Chapel Hill and UNC and the ways in which he has seen the voices of communities silenced or ignored. He said he has used his voice and his poetry to protest ways the University has excluded African American students from its campus.
Years before Silent Sam was removed from the University campus, Suitt said he wrote poems and sought to expose the impact of monuments such as Silent Sam had on the community.
"I love this town," he said. "Because I love it, I want it to be the best that it can be, which means I have to be critical of what is happening and have to be critical of what is leaving people like me out, what is making it hard for students who look like me to get into the University and remain here, or the ways in which the University makes decisions that leave folks out.”
Suitt said he feels he offers a perspective not seen in town governance that tackles issues and topics that are glossed over or deemed too uncomfortable to bring to the forefront. He said that today, these tough conversations are vital to the future, and he hopes to be a person to engage in the issues others aren’t.
He said he hopes that through his work he can create a legacy of Chapel Hill poets and artists far into the future.
“I think folks who don’t see themselves represented when it comes to the suit-and-tie culture of a town council, might be able to see themselves and their stories represented in the poems that I share, in the clothes that I wear, in the music that I listen to, in the performance art that I do for the community," Suitt said. "I think there is a high chance that that could impact people’s ability to feel like they can do it, too.”
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