As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Jaki Shelton Green in response to a video of her reading her poem “i know the grandmother one had hands” aloud. Jaki Shelton Green wrote letters back to six of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Jaki Shelton Green also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Poetry Lovers!
Thank you all for your amazing letters. I am truly touched that you made time to communicate with me about my poetry.
It is such a challenging time for all of us. I am so grateful for the tremendous ability of all the arts to help us reach across so many real and imaginary boundaries to share our stories and celebrate our unique voices.
I can tell that you are all serious thinkers, researchers, and care deeply about the power of language and the literary arts. I encourage you to bring poetry alive!
I encourage you:
To start a Zoom Reading Festival or Spoken Word Fest with your friends, classmates, or family.
Choose a different poet from a different country each month to read and discuss.
Translate a poem from another language and think about how we are impacted when we experience words that are foreign to our ears.
Reach out to schools in other states and find poetry buddies who might want to just kick around poems online.
Create your own YouTube poetry videos .
Be well and be happy!
Jaki Shelton Green
North Carolina Poet Laureate
Jaki Shelton Green reads "i know the grandmother one had hands" for Dear Poet 2020.
I hope you don't mind if I call you Jaki. I think it's a very nice name. You seem super kind and I hope you are doing well. I have been wanting to write a letter to someone that I admire and when I saw this website I was so happy! Before I get started I would like to say that you have an amazing last name. Green! How cool is that? I know you work at Duke university. I went there for a writing program, the one in Orlando. I love writing and always wanted to be a writer. I have been interested in poetry since I was in the second grade. I wrote songs, poems and stories. When I saw your piece, "I know the grandmother one had hands" it was the last one on the list. I went through each of the poems (that's just what I do) and yours really captured my heart. My grandmother is so important to me. She lives overseas in Africa. I visit her every summer, but this year we can't. This poem really reminded me of her. She is always helping and doing things. It is so special and emotional. I loved the lines "I know the grandmother one had hands, but they were always inside the hair, parting, plaiting, twisting it into rainbows." I loved that line because my grandmother is always brushing and braiding all her grandkids hair. Another reason why I loved your poem was because today is my grandmas birthday. I think there is a reason the poem was last and I kept looking for that special poem. Please keep doing what your doing. Share your art in the world because it inspires all of us. I am in 6th grade and I am thankful for poets like you. You’re very wise and all of your poems hold a sense of truth. Besides your amazing poem, I want to take some time to talk about your hair. I have no words. It is so beautiful and I wish my hair was as large and confident as yours. I know confident is not a usual word to describe hair. However, for your hair, it is perfect. I don't know you, but by your words I can tell you are a great and kindhearted person. I have a few questions for you if you could please respond, it would mean a lot. One, How do you stick to writing a poem or story, when I start writing no matter what type of writing it is, I tend to get distracted and start writing a new poem because I have another idea. Do you know a good way to stop that from happening? My next question is what writers did you read as a kid? Was there a specific book that helped you learn poetry? I know I read Edger Allen Poe. He is inspirational. My third question is, did writing always come easy to you. I think that is very interesting to know since your poetry is so divine. Also, how do you deal with writers block? I get it a lot when the little writing fairies don't come and touch my head with a brilliant idea. Okay, this is my last question (Promise), What are your stages of writing poetry. How do you develop characters, imagery and how is your working day. How do you set up and get ready to write another beautiful poem and teach some kids. I hope you are healthy and staying strong through these times. I really believe we get through this if we have each others backs and fronts. Keep inspiring kids, and teaching them art because we need more writers in the world. Writers and poets take you to places that don't even exist in your dreams. They can take you to a forest in Brazil or magical kingdom where everyone walks on their tip - toes. You bring light into the world and I just want to say thank you. Thank you for sharing your beautiful artwork with us because your poem "I know the grandmother one had hands" really made my day and I hope someone makes yours! KEEP BEING YOU!
Sending you the best of wishes,
Thank you for your lovely letter. I am happy that my poem about my grandmother provides a special connection to memories you share with your grandmother.
In response to your questions… it’s ok to allow new ideas to pull you away in another direction. When that happens, I listen to the new idea and record it in my journal. I encourage you to follow the flow of the idea. Don’t think of it as distraction, but rather new information that might bring you back to your original idea. Look for the connections!
As a kid I read everything; especially novels like Little Women and The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and Dickens. I loved fairy tales and mythology (still do). I also loved science books because I always wanted to be a scientist or oceanographer. I was fascinated with biographies of famous historical figures especially famous people of color.
Inspiration is everywhere. I find it when I’m cooking, cleaning, being in the natural world, watching sports, making memories, family stories, genealogy, and listening to the world around me.
Writing is my yoga. It’s a deep wide stretch that opens my heart and mind wider for engaging with the world, so I don’t really experience writers block. However, there are times when I need a pause from writing. I turn to painting, photography, cooking, knitting, and interior design projects.
Because I don’t have the powers of a superwoman, I am very organized and have systems that help me to be creative, maintain a high quality of life with my family, serve the state of North Carolina as Poet Laureate, (which requires tremendous travel) and teach my classes at Duke. I am very nerdy and push myself to stay on task and focused especially since I have many writing projects going on simultaneously.
I am always researching content for specific writing processes. My characters, landscapes, and poetic devices that I use are sometimes derived from current or historical events and often characters come to me and tell me their stories.
Thank you for your compassion and appreciation of the literary arts.
Your words about unity and hope are so necessary in this season of uncertainty. I am truly grateful for your letter, your interests, your questions, and for being your ancestor’s wildest dream.
Happy writing trails,
Jaki Shelton Green
Dear Jaki Green,
I’m Navya, a Sophomore at Burlington High. I loved your poem I know the grandmother one had hands. I live with my maternal or paternal grandparents, they live on the other side of the world, literally. They live in India and I only see them every year or two. Whenever I do see my grandmothers they are mirror images of your poem. They are always busy, it’s like they are trying to accomplish all their grandma duties in one day. Your poem was a way I connected to them and thought about them.
Whenever I do go to India the one thing that always happens is that my grandmas make my hair, whether it’s simple braids or elaborate hairdos for the wedding of a long related relative I’ve never met. In your poem you mention how a grandma’s hands are “always inside the hair, parting, plaiting, twisting it into rainbows”. That sentence brought back so many amazing memories and it was that one clause that brought me to tears as I sat there missing my grandmothers.
In addition, spending summers in India, my grandmothers, and even my mom would always make bread. Flatbreads. The stanza that starts off your poem is what caught my eye I started relating and seeing the memories your poem brought back. Bits and pieces that I didn’t even remember.
I was wondering if our poem was about your grandmother? And this might sound weird if so what kind of bread? I’m a complete foodie and for some reason that was the first question that came to mind. In addition, did you always grow up around your grandmothers? I am assuming you must have for such a heartfelt poem but maybe not.
Your poem made me think about family, and people that I love but don’t get to see very often. I want to thank you for reminding me of my grandmother’s and all the little things they do for us. I know my grandmothers don’t get to act like my grandmothers all the time but when they do, their hands are flying doing a million things at once. Our grandmother’s hands are such a clever use of symbolism and I can’t wait to share this poem with them. They won’t understand English properly so I’ll have to translate, maybe they’ll know by next year.
A granddaughter in a long-distance relationship,
Thank you for your gracious letter. It is very powerful to witness how poetry and other art creates a bridge that helps us to celebrate the many unique experiences that connect our humanity.
I am humbled that you were able to see yourself and your grandmothers inside of my poem. That is always my purpose in making art.
I grew up next door to my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandparents were already ancestors when I was born. My grandmother was my caretaker after school and summer months. She was funny, playful, and very creative.
My grandmother strengthened my imagination with stories and all her wisdom about the earth, flowers, growing food, faith, and what it meant to be a good human being. We spent hours gardening, fishing, making food, and going on long walks in the woods.
She taught me how to see beauty and poetry in everything, especially the things that frightened me like bugs, thunderstorms, fire. She was my first critic and editor and instilled a sense of tender fierceness for writing.
The poem is a celebration of her hands and how they continue to hold up a universe for me. I am hoping that you will soon be able to experience the loveliness of your grandmothers’ hands.
I appreciate that you are a foodie! So am I! I grew up in North Carolina so the breads my grandmother made were biscuits, nut or banana bread, cornbread, and something similar to flatbread but with a heavier texture.
Jaki Shelton Green
GO HORNETS, PANTHERS, OR TAR HEELS! You may not be a fan of any of these teams but, I felt it would be more intriguing to have an unorthodox introduction. Considering your home of North Carolina. My name is Elijah, I'm a young man from the Class of 2020 in Chandler, Arizona. I composed this letter to first thank you for your expression and identity shared in "i know the grandmother one had hands". Being a young African-American with family from the Southeastern region of the U.S. (Louisiana Natives) it immediately intrigued me. Being a young poet myself however, I interpreted your expression as more than just a grandmother doing essential things to survival. I visualized a caretaker, a protector, a beautiful sense of strength within your imagery. "but they were always in the earth planting seeds removing weeds growing knives burying sons". Raising children, removing the negatives and venomous traits of the environment around us, and nurturing the body all the way till it returns to essentially what it started as, soil, a seed within something living. Then towards the end "but they were always inside the clouds poking holes for the rain to fall". Even after grandmother or the idea of caretaking has long died it will always rebirth itself. As would the rain washes away the bad and recreates the beautiful. When water comes, delight is breeded afterwards. This was an eloquent explanation, in my opinion, of the life cycle of a caring set of grandmother hands. With all of this a couple questions I pose is why the title "i know the grandmother one had hands"? I interpreted it to be an unusual way of saying that grandmother once had hands. Then lastly, as an aspiring poet yourself, what is your biggest piece of advice to someone who not only wishes to express himself through his art, but leave this earth with an impact upon the masses. Leaving nothing but a positive and beautiful addition to this wonderful, blessed life. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. Would love to hear from you. You have many great days to follow!
Elijah Jacob (EJ)
Even though I teach at Duke University (Blue Devils), I am a die-heart Tarheel fan!
We are a family divided. My energetic 103-year mom is an avid basketball enthusiast and loves Duke, so does my husband.
Thank you for your generosity of spirit in response to my poem. I wrote this poem many years ago while working with incarcerated women writers who were on death-row in North Carolina. For an entire year, I only allowed the writers to use the theme of “hands” as a writing prompt.
In my poem, I used repetitive language to enlarge the metaphors and create a sense of timelessness. The poem serves as an homage and celebration of the wider context and symbolism.
I encourage you to speak your truths in whatever you deem to be your authentic voice as an African American male especially in this season of uncertainty. Do not allow other constructs to “other” “erase” “mute” “invisible” or invalidate your truths and your creativity.
Research. Write. Read other writers of all genres and continue to be awed by all the mysteries and wonderment that life will continually unfold.
Seize the time! Congratulations 2020 graduate!
Jaki Shelton Green
Dear Ms. Green,
When I read your poem, I kept replacing “one” with “once.” Only after several readings did I realize what I had intuitively done. Upon further reflection, my use of “once” may have implied that the grandmother in your poem is no longer alive; she once had hands that planted seeds and removed weeds but now, those hands are at rest. Perhaps my reading has been colored by current events. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately killed many elderly Americans, as they are far more at risk for the disease. I’ve read about the virus sweeping through assisted living facilities in Washington and Florida leaving a trail of death in its wake; these people - many of them probably grandmothers and grandfathers - weren’t supposed to die alone like this.
I think about my own grandmother, and how she is isolated in her house in Houston. Before the quarantine, my grandmother would often come over to my house to bake rum cake. I would watch her “folding, pinching, rolling the dough” as I eagerly anticipated my favorite dessert. Her hands seemed to possess an endless amount of patience; as I grew more impatient, it would seem as if she took a greater amount of care in baking the cake. In this moment, and as conveyed by your poem, time appears to be frozen. I can visualize my grandmother slowly taking her time to do various household tasks. But now, in quarantine, the days seem to go by. I dare not visit my grandmother, as I fear passing along the disease, and I do not know when I will be able to see her next. I am also very aware of my grandmother’s mortality, and how quickly things can go south if she were to somehow contract the disease.
Although there are references to death, I would like to think that your poem is still alive. The poem is not necessarily an elegy. I think that single-word lineation and alliteration found in the latter half of the poem (“parting / plaiting”) as well as the repetition (“holding the knots / “holding onto herself”) give the poem an energy, a life that could only be found in someone that is still alive. The enjambment pulls the reader from one line to the next in sudden shifts; it reminds me of active movement. My grandmother is still very much alive, and I eagerly await the day when she can bake me rum cake again. This time, I’ll pay particular attention to her hands.
Your poem is very applicable to the current COVID-19 crisis. You may not have intended it to be this way. But I found your poem to be comforting in the way that it balances life and death. I will be sure to give my grandmother a call.
Thank you for all your comments regarding my poem especially your personal references and connections to your grandmother. You very vividly introduced me to all the ways she provides tenderness and joy in your life.
It is such a troubling time. It is truly a season of uncertainty that requires us to breathe deeper and open our hearts wider to the arts. Music and poetry bring us joy and help us to remember our tremendous connections to our shared humanity.
I wrote this poem many years ago, but I am glad that you pointed out how it might be especially appropriate as we face our current social, political, and cultural crises. That is one of the amazing functions of poetry to serve and offer a place of solace.
Regarding some of your questions… my grandmother was not alive when I wrote the poem so the use of the word one was to signify her as specifically “the one.”
The poem bears witness to her specialness and celebration of the memories her hands created. She remains close as a guiding North Star.
I hope that you and your grandmother will be holding hands soon and making more memories that you might write about. Be well.
Dear Jaki Shelton Green,
Hello, I am thrilled to be able to write to you. I just discovered your poetry and I admire your simplicity in the way it is enjambed and all lowercase. I think that you often use enjambment because each word flows into the next slowly and smoothly. I enjoy your poetry especially because it relates to me, such as your poems about rumors or women in the family. Hi, I’m Graciana and I’m in sixth grade at Sidwell Friends School.
I am writing to you because I enjoy reading your poetry and it has taught me a few things about writing and refining my own poetry. I consider myself a writer, and I am constantly looking for inspiration and writing techniques. In i know the grandmother one had hands, the grandmother was always busy and was constantly doing something with her hands. I realized that the meaning is true in my family as well: not just for the grandmother but for the women in general. So much is expected from women, but they do it out of love.
“i know the grandmother one had hands
but they were always inside
twisting it into rainbows"
These lines resonated with me especially because I have memories of my mother braiding my hair when I was younger. I am African American, and I used to have long, thick, kinky hair. Although my grandmother has never done my hair, it was a tradition among my mother and I.
I am in middle school, and in my opinion, middle school is a time in which many people choose to spread rumors. It is important to learn how to prevent it, avoid it, and deal with it.
“they know ‘bout you / know ‘bout you before you were ever born”
This shows how people know more about you than you think. You could think that someone doesn’t know you but they might still find pleasure in spreading rumors about you.
This poem means a lot to me because I am trying to navigate through a world full of rumors. A lot of your poems have a deep meaning to me.
Thank you for your kind words. I am touched that my poem truly resonates with you and that you find similar connections with your family inside the narratives of the hands.
I wrote this poem to honor the spirit of the powerfulness of my grandmother in the life that she lived as a guide, teacher, nurturer, protector, and creative being. Her life stories continue to instruct me as I move through the world.
It is a very difficult and complicated time in our culture. Furthermore, It is especially challenging for African American youth and other youth of color. It is my hope that you will use your voice, your poetry, your creativity, and your beauty to create the balance that we are all looking for as we move forward towards peace and harmony.
Poetry is powerful medicine! Continue to grow in your reading and writing experiences.
Jaki Shelton Green
Dear Jaki Shelton Green,
I listened to and read your poem, “I know grandmother one had hands” as part of an assignment in my writing program. This poem stood out to me because of how unique it sounded, and the title itself sounds interesting. Of course mostly everyone has hands, but the title made, and still makes me, wonder what those hands represent. If your grandmother is still alive, what does it mean for her hands to not be present? Additionally, the theme of hiding stands out to me within this poem, as every statement about your grandmother concerns her hands being inside of something, or busying herself with chores around the house. I wonder what the effect of your grandmother’s busyness was on your life, and how close you were to her. Did you feel as though she was always busy, spending time on work, yet still not revealing who she was? Or is your grandmother representative of those we love in life, and how we don’t always know what they are hiding? Other than this prominent theme in your poem, I am interested in the lines suggesting death: “starching lives” and “growing knives burying sons”. From this, I sense darkness, more than just, “my grandmother is busy”. Do these lines mean to say that busyness causes the death of families and close relationships? Moreover, this poem made me consider how we don’t always really know people. Either they might be too busy, or hiding something. Personally, I relate to this idea in my own friendships, because I feel that the friends I do have don't always share much, or just talk about basic things like school. Not necessarily like they are hiding something, but like the hands in the poem, do I really know them? Ultimately, I enjoyed your poem for a number of reasons: the structure, the complex themes discussed, and the interesting lines included as well. I like how you used the idea of busyness into your punctuation: there are very few punctuation marks in total, and the poem is continuous for a long time. Also, the line “poking holes for the rain to fall'' has a strong magnitude that I cannot describe. I am not entirely sure what it means, but the thought of this sounds so unique and beautiful. Furthermore, I enjoy the movement you have in your poem about the rainbows and veins, because it really adds to the uniqueness and enhances the poem. Overall, I liked this poem for the content, flow, and themes that it brought up- still leaving me wondering more, and wanting to know the backstory for this poem.
San Francisco, CA
Thank you for your comments and insights regarding my poem. Per your request, I’ll start with the backstory.
Many years ago, I facilitated a class for incarcerated women writers who happened to be on death row in North Carolina. For an entire year, I only allowed them to write about the theme of hands. The writing exercises I offered ranged from visualization sessions to creative movement since I believe that the body generates, holds, and carries our stories.
I know the grandmother one had hands was one of several poems I wrote during these writing sessions using my grandmother’s hands as a source for texturizing context. My grandmother died many years away, long before the writing of this poem.
There is reverence and a tribute in each description of what you regard as busyness. In the winter months my grandmother sat on an antique settee in her bedroom facing a large window quilting all day. In summer months, I followed her through the vegetable garden planting and gathering from row upon row of good food, going on long walks in the woods where she displayed her botanical knowledge of medicinal herbs, or pruning and making colossal flower arrangements from her magnificent flower gardens. I often found my small hands inside of her hands speaking the language of love as she taught me to knead, roll, and pinch the dough.
My grandmother’s hands were magical, healing, and loving. I always knew who she was. She lived life upfront and out loud… never hiding. The hands represent her tremendous presence, spiritual energy, a life force and source of nurturing and protecting. Delicious meals around a happy table, the trails of mint or rosemary that her hands left in each stitch of a quilt I fell asleep under, her captivating stories, or even now as I continue to cut blossoms from her hydrangeas that are timeless… I feel her breath on my face. I feel her whispers in my heart.
The lines starching lives, growing knives, burying sons reference the Jim Crow, racist and troubled South of her generation. Thank you for your questions and your considerable exploration of this poem.
Jaki Shelton Green