Chapel Hill Poet Laureate CJ Suitt seeks to uplift other artists

CJ Suitt grew up singing in a church choir, where he learned performance from preachers – who delivered their messages with charisma and passion.

In high school, Suitt began to turn to writing poetry. With encouragement from her 10th grade English teacher, Michael Irwin, Suitt performed a play at her school’s Black History Month celebration.

“It was crazy for me to be able to be applauded for just sharing how I felt,” Suitt said.

With his poems, Suitt began to use his voice to highlight people who often don’t have a platform.

“I care about people who grew up, like me, outside of the Chapel Hill rural buffer…and more often than not those people are low income or they’re black or brown,” Suitt said.

Now Suitt is in his final year as Chapel Hill’s first Poet Laureate – a role he took on in 2019.

“I am so honored and grateful to stand on the shoulders of Zora Neale Hurston, who taught at UNC, and George Moses Horton, who was the first published black poet in the South, who redeemed his time as a ‘a plantation to read poems on UNC campus to students and was therefore published,’ Suitt said.

A native of Chapel Hill, Suitt stood out as a cheerful and intelligent student, Irwin said.

“CJ had such a natural curiosity to learn,” Irwin said. “Not only to learn real history and engage in meaningful literature, but also to have a creative voice to respond to that learning.”

Irwin said he did what every educator should do and used his position to help one of his students shine.

“CJ’s poetry has always been profoundly beautiful, and all I really had to do was hand him a mic and walk away,” Irwin said.

Since then, Suitt has used her work to draw attention to the art of poetry and the issues faced by members of the Chapel Hill community beyond the university.

“I think it’s really important to get students to understand that their college, or their college experience, isn’t just Franklin Street and Chapel Hill isn’t just the UNC campus,” Suitt said. “But it’s actually a much larger community that will be there after the four years.”

Suitt has worked with many student coalitions over the years. One of them grew into what is now known as the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a community organization that honors historically black neighborhoods near the UNC campus.

Suitt has performed at many community events, including the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and June 19 celebration. He has also taught at schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district.

Melissa Bartoletta, marketing and communications coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, said she hopes for more poetry events that connect the community this year.

“This is CJ’s final year as Poet Laureate, and we really hope to bring the community together in a safe way to experience his performances and his poetry,” Bartoletta said.

At this time, however, Suitt said he does not yet have any performances scheduled in town.

Bartoletta said the city is working with Suitt to determine what criteria they want for future poet laureates.

“We want to look for someone who is passionate about their work and is present throughout the community,” Bartoletta said.

Suitt said he hopes the next poet laureate recognizes that poetry is not just for the wealthy upper class and that the laureate has a connection to North Carolina.

“I think the Poet Laureate nomination is for someone who is willing and ready to be out in public, in front of people and to share poetry and to showcase and elevate not just themselves, but others. ‘other artists in the community,’ Suitt said.

As Suitt’s position as Poet Laureate comes to an end, he hopes to continue the work he is doing as an artist in Chapel Hill.

“As deeply powerful and moving as anything CJ has ever done, I clearly believe the best is yet to come,” Irwin said.

@k8e_mack | @DTHCityState

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