Chapel Hill poet laureate releases poem as program navigates COVID-19

November 16, 2020

BY SASCHA MEDINA

WRITTEN FOR THE DAILY TAR HEEL

Chapel Hill Poet Laureate CJ Suitt released a poem on Oct. 27 reminding the community of what it has to look forward to when the pandemic is over.

The poem, titled “In The Aftermath” comes as the Chapel Hill’s poet laureate program navigates the impact of COVID-19. The program was created in late November 2019, so it has been grappling with the pandemic since near the beginning of its existence.

Suitt said his goal as the poet laureate is to uplift youth voices and highlight the rich history of poets in the community.

Chapel Hill Town Council member Allen Buansi, who helped create the position, said the role of a poet laureate is to support the community by bringing it closer to poetry — but the pandemic has presented the program with some challenges.

“COVID-19 has prevented us from being able to gather and to have convenings of younger poets under the leadership of CJ,” he said. “CJ is doing the best with it, especially with his latest work.”

Melissa Bartoletta, marketing and communications coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, said “In the Aftermath” was released as part of the program’s adaptation to the pandemic.

She said because Suitt was not able to perform the poem in person, he worked with a team to produce a performance video that was filmed at recognizable places throughout Chapel Hill.

When Suitt began writing the poem, the pandemic was in its early stages. He said his world was feeling small, and it was important for him to make it bigger again through art. He said when he wrote the poem, he traveled back in time and thought about things such as sharing food, hugging people and eating at restaurants.

“I remembered the things that really brought me strength, the things that I was missing and not able to do in this moment,” Suitt said. “That catharsis manifested itself in a form of art for me and in this poem.”

Suitt said he wanted to document the beautiful parts of the world so people don’t forget them in the context of what the year has been like.

He said while the pandemic has been difficult for artists everywhere, as poet laureate, he’s been able to find new ways to shape his work. This includes the “In The Aftermath” video, additional digital content and virtual speaking engagements and workshops.

Buansi said as soon as things become safer, the poet laureate program will transition to in-person events. Suitt said the events would include a variety of open mics, workshops and showcase performances.

“One of the great things about having CJ Suitt as the Town’s poet laureate is he is in the position to really set the tone and be a pioneer and demonstrate to the community what all a poet laureate can do,” Buansi said.

As poet laureate, Suitt said one of his main roles is to set a foundation and create structure for the program and the future. He said art is integral to the community because it is representative of its culture.

“When we go to a place and say it has so much culture, oftentimes we are referring to murals, people’s statues, the music and sounds that we are hearing in a space,” Suitt said. “All those things are art for me.”

@SaschaVMedina

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Header image by Cynthia Liu for The Daily Tar Heel.