Durham’s first Poet Laureate empowers others to tell their own stories

When DJ Rogers was nine, he couldn’t read fluently.

Rogers’ ADHD made it almost impossible to read long texts, his attention span dropping too quickly to finish a page. The drugs only put him to sleep. Growing up in South Raleigh as one of 14 children and lacking accommodation for his disorder, he felt school was a place he could never make it.

In third grade, Rogers’ teacher, Mr. Peterson, and his assistant, Mrs. Cook, saw an opportunity to change Rogers’ experience. The two approached the struggling student with works by famed poet and activist Langston Hughes.

Suddenly things clicked. The pieces were creative and eloquent, but short enough for Rogers to read without losing sight. He pored over the stanzas, learning words, phrases, structures, and prose. Soon he is teaching himself to read and write his own poetry.

“To see that there were such long writings in a book was amazing to me,” says Rogers. “I was like, I can do this.”

Poetry shapes Rogers’ language to this day – and now he will bring that language, that passion and that talent to the public as Durham’s first Poet Laureate.

Durham City Council announced its one-year term, starting July 1, as arts and culture community leader on June 22.

Just over a year ago, a group of local poets – Dasan Ahanu, Crystal Simone Smith and Chris Vitiello – approached the city council’s cultural advisory board to propose the creation of the post.

“I feel like there have been splits and loneliness in the poetry world,” says Vitiello, who has been part of the Durham poetry scene for almost 30 years. “I think having a publicly recognized poet to host public events is a good talking point for the arts to come together and for writers to come together.”

The Poet Laureate will bridge the gap between Durham and its poetic arts scene by bringing craftsmanship to streets and schools. In addition to writing memorial poems for events in Durham, Rogers will present his work through readings in the community and lead educational opportunities to encourage arts participation throughout the city.

“I wanted [the laureate] not just being someone who sits in the studio or the writing studio and writes poetry and publishes books,” Smith says. “I wanted someone who was going to bring poetry to our different communities, especially our vulnerable communities, and use that tool to bring us together.”

Rogers’ quiet, calm presence would put anyone at ease. He speaks in clear endless sentences, figurative language embellishing his ideas like spangles of gold. Narrative and prose poetry flows naturally from him. Poetry is the foundation of his speech and thought, and it is how he tells his own story.

A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Rogers, 33, has been involved in teaching, activism and the arts for more than 12 years. His first teaching experience came when he helped found Building Bonds, Breaking BARS (Barriers Against Reaching Success) during his freshman year of college. This group raised awareness of the pipeline of African American men from school to prison. Its members have also traveled to juvenile detention centers to work with young people, teaching subjects such as black history to help spread knowledge about topics typically overlooked in school systems.

Rogers, a tall man with long hair and a full beard, began his journey as a teaching artist after graduating in 2011. He helped form a slam poetry team at UNC called the Wordsmiths. The group has trained for regional and national spoken word performance competitions. Rogers served as an “idea generator” for the new group, he said, and as a coach for budding poets.

Former Wordsmiths managing director Kat Tan, 25, says Rogers has always encouraged its students to reach their full potential. “I think the most important thing for me,” she says, “is that he took my point of view seriously.”

She worked with Rogers for three years in the group while he was a community counselor. “He sometimes reminds me a lot of a preacher, and that’s something uplifting,” says the medical student. “It inspires you to see how you could play a part in a larger story.”

“I love slam because it encourages people to write,” says Rogers, “and that’s one of my goals – I want people to write and generate work, to take their ideas and bring them to the public.”

Rogers worked with the Wordsmiths from 2011 to 2020 (when the national poetry slam competition was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic). At the same time, he introduces teenagers to the creative arts through projects such as the Street Scene Teen Center and the group Sacrificial Poets.

The non-profit organization Sacrificial Poets uses poetry to develop the artistic and personal growth of young people around the Triangle. Rogers, as executive director and teaching artist, has co-led workshops with middle and high school youth as part of the Boomerang program at Chapel Hill – Carrboro City and Orange County schools. The program works with students suspended from school and provides them with the opportunity to make up lost credit hours with coursework and developmental activities, one being Rogers Poetry Activities.

“I’ve worked with a lot of students who had a lot of issues related to their family life or their mental health,” says Rogers. “They had written these poems which were brutal to read and listen to. But they were the story they needed to tell, and being able to do that made them feel heard and listened to in a way that fostered communication between them.

Much of Rogers’ philosophy on teaching poetry stems from this idea of ​​self-expression. “Empowering people to tell their own stories,” he says, “is something I’ve seen be transformative for people of all ages and backgrounds in my years of work.

His experience with the Sacrificial Poets revealed to him his passion for teaching, he says. Rogers has taught at several schools and now works as an instructional coach and teacher at Art of Problem Solving, a nationwide virtual program, providing administrative guidance to the school’s English teachers.

“I wasn’t someone who grew up knowing I wanted to be a teacher, educator, or artist,” Rogers says. “I was just someone trying to find my place and also trying to build a future where I could then use what I had to help others.”

In his article “I would like to clap but I’m too tired”, he writes:

To be a black man

and an educator

is to be

a voodoo doll —-

something that holds others

Pain.

Each of us who dies

I feel like they swept my class —-

not a ghost, a needle.

Intentional and precise.

He plans to use his new position to develop poetry and creative workshops in Durham housing projects. Residents of the projects are often overlooked, says Rogers, but they have as much art to share as the rest of the city. He hopes that as a recipient he can bring recognition and resources to these communities and others so they can tell their stories.

“I don’t want to find their voice, because they already have it, but to engage with them in a new way, to tell them, ‘This is how I want to tell my story.’ Saying, ‘It’s important to me because I was here and nobody can take that away from me.’ Just to say, “I’m here now, nothing’s gonna change that.”

This story was published through a partnership between the INDIA and The 9th Street Newspaperproduced by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.


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