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Cortland Gilliam, Chapel Hill's new poet laureate, hopes to give back and uplift

Chapel Hill’s new poet Laureate, Cortland Gilliam poses in from of George Moses Horton Residence Hall on Wednesday, January 18, 2023.

Chapel Hill's new poet laureate Cortland Gilliam hopes to amplify suppressed voices and educate young members of the community.

Gilliam's objectives as poet laureate include highlighting the voices of marginalized people and honoring the local community that has supported him through his time as a graduate student and doctoral candidate at UNC.

“I want to do some kind of historical narrative poetry, where I'm kind of talking about the history of the town, and individuals of the town's history that have had in many ways helped make the town for what it is, but without receiving any kind of credit or recognition,” he said.

Gilliam said some of his major inspirations to become a serious poet include local artist and activist Jerry Wilson, Piedmont Laureate Dasan Ahanu and former poet laureate of Chapel Hill CJ Suitt. 

Gilliam worked extensively with Wilson on a piece titled "Black Out Loud," presented by The Center for the Study of the American South. This collaborative art exhibition and documentary-style short film detailed the experiences of Black students at UNC, a predominantly white institution.

Gilliam is also on the board of directors at the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a non-profit organization committed to preserving historically Black neighborhoods in Chapel Hill. 

“I'm accountable to the Black community that has supported me during my time as a graduate student here, that's brought me into spaces and has loved me and fueled me and breathed life into me,” he said. 

As an educator, Gilliam is eager to engage with the younger members of the community. Fostering environments where storytelling and poetry are used to encourage youth to contribute different ideas and showcase their talents is also a priority of his. 

In conjunction with Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, Gilliam plans to establish a youth poetry series comprising of poetry workshops, spoken word open-mic nights, and other creative gatherings for young people.

“Having an opportunity to come share space with peers in a non-institutional, non-schooling context and express themselves and share what's on their mind, share what they care about, what they would like to see changed in their community," he said. "I want to be able to facilitate that voice through poetry."

Hannah Olson, Chapel Hill Public Library's marketing and communications coordinator said the library is working with Gilliam to facilitate National Poetry Month events this April, as well as a local poetry list. 

“We've discussed at least one big public event during Poetry Month, which would involve some sort of reading from Cortland, having the youth or anyone who wants to recite a poem that they've written or is important to them and some sort of workshop element,” she said.

Melissa Bartoletta, the marketing and communications coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, said the poet laureate position could encompass many different operations and varies based on the person who fills the seat. 

“It's dependent on the person that comes into the role,” she said. “Duties could range anywhere from speaking at council meetings or other community events could be crafting new poetry. It could be hosting or leading workshops.”

Since the birth of the position in 2019, Bartoletta said the poet laureate has brought opportunities to the community.

“The poet laureate is an opportunity to challenge perspectives and encourage a new way of thinking through a literary art form,” she said.

@stefanstalkerr | @DTHCityState |

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