Get to Know Chapel Hill’s New Poet Laureate, Cortland Gilliam

January 11, 2023

The Town of Chapel Hill is ringing in the new year with a new Poet Laureate – educator, scholar, and cultural organizer Cortland Gilliam.

In 2019, Chapel Hill Town Council appointed artist and activist CJ Suitt to fill the inaugural position. Since then, Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture and Suitt worked together to develop the program and a framework for selecting future Poets Laureate. Community Arts & Culture issued an open call this fall which included an application and interview process. The selection team unanimously chose Cortland Gilliam for the position for his powerful writing, performance skills, and commitment to the community.

Gilliam’s identity as a poet has grown out of his political activism and cultural organizing. Currently, Gilliam serves as the co-chair of the Board of Directors of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History. He regularly performs at open mic nights and protest rallies in service of the local anti-racist movement. “Poetry is an active and political practice as much as it is a literary exercise,” says Gilliam. “It’s the parting of perspective, the sharing of knowledge, the transmission of feeling, the disruption of power, and the cultivation of community.”

Gilliam was interested in becoming Poet Laureate because of his love for poetry and deep interest in the community, cultivated while studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. In 2010, Gilliam graduated with a B.A. in Economics and is currently a doctoral candidate in Education focused on cultures of school discipline, political education, and histories of Black youth contributions to political struggles and liberation movements of the late twentieth century.

The fusion of the creative and political extends to art forms beyond poetry for Gilliam. Following a protest effort in response to the refusal to remove a Confederate monument on UNC’s campus, Gilliam and graduate colleague Jerry Wilson co-curated a collaborative art exhibit, #BlackOutLoudUNC. The exhibit featured a screening of a short film, produced and shot by Gilliam and Wilson, which explored Black undergraduate experiences belonging at a historically White university in the American South.

While Poet Laureate, Gilliam hopes to initiate youth programming, host local writer meet-ups, and activate voices of both young and old. Over his tenure, the community can expect to see new works produced by Gilliam as well as performances at Town-sponsored events.