Poetry Saved My Life, and I Am Doing My Best to Return the Favor

Poetry has saved my life on multiple occasions. In fifth grade, when I heard Jackie Earley’s poem, “One-Thousand Nine-Hundred and Sixty-Eight Winters,” recited at a Black history program for eighth-graders, I saw a literary mirror reflecting me for the first time. I then found my own voice by writing poetry in my first journal during an English class at Woodmont Junior High School. As a young adult, I heard Lucille Clifton recite her iconic poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” on Bill Moyers’s series Language of Life, filmed at the Dodge Poetry Festival and broadcast on PBS. Clifton’s poem got me out of a funk borne from chronic illness. It sparked my personal and professional pursuit of poetry. A few years later, at the Poetry Society in London, I read Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem “White Comedy”off of a postcard. His words made me bolder and Blacker. We became pen pals for twenty-five-plus years after I wrote to the address on the back of the postcard. Maya Angelou’s reading at Furman University in the nineties left an indelible mark on me. I met her that day and told her that I named one of my daughters after her. She turned to me and said, “Bless you, child.” I bowed, genuflected, and walked away backward. I indeed felt blessed. 

I began my poetic journey as a young Black girl, penning verses in a journal. In light of this memory, my appointment as Greenville’s first poet laureate feels both monumental and historical. I have evolved into a nationally acclaimed Black woman poet, sharing the gift of poetry with others. In the mid-nineties, I initiated the first Greenville poetry slam. I did it to expand the margins of poetry and add to the readings at Furman, the Emrys Foundation, and the Greenville Public Library. I have shown up for thirty years as a poet and teaching artist at schools and universities to inspire all students, especially those who are Black and marginalized. Representation matters. I became a teaching artist with the South Carolina Arts Commission, a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist, and an internationally touring poet. 

The Poet Laureate Fellowship has been a catalyst for promoting poetry, allowing me to organize  Verse & Voices: A Convening of Poets Laureate in Greenville,  featuring Jaki Shelton Green, Joy Harjo, Ed Madden, Crystal Wilkinson, and myself. This event marks Greenville’s first visit by a former U.S. poet laureate. The fellowship has also enabled me to continue installing Little Free Libraries, giving back to the community that shaped me. I have established seven, including one in the neighborhood in which I grew up, one in the neighborhood that I live in now, and a couple at my alma maters, Woodmont Middle School and Erskine College. I am so glad to report that these libraries are in full use. Growing up in rural Piedmont, the Bookmobile was my lifeline. I ran after it like most children ran after the ice cream truck. Where would I be without Ms. Ruth Ann Butler, both the director of the Greenville Cultural Exchange and a community leader who sat on the library board in the sixties and kept insisting that the Bookmobile go to Black neighborhoods? By the seventies, I was a benefactor of her activism.

I collaborated with the Metropolitan Arts Council on another civic project, Visual & Verse, pairing poets with visual artists for an ekphrastic collaboration. This will conclude in March 2024. A spin-off of my civic projects was the Bus Poetry Project with the City of Greenville, for which participating poets interviewed bus riders and created a collection of poems that was displayed on bus shelters throughout the city. This project won a national award.

My latest chapbook, The Song of Everything,  was also made possible by this grant. It emerged from my cancer diagnosis and COVID-era visits to South Carolina state parks with my grandson Julian. This pocket-sized collection was published by Good Printed Things, published by Elizabeth Ramos. These poems explore the enduring connection between the natural world, racial reckoning, and our internal landscape.

Poetry saves lives by providing a home—a place for a bereft person to land. It can offer different perspectives of a person, a people, or a city. Poetry serves as a chief storytelling mechanism for our city and its inhabitants. It bridges gaps and fosters understanding. Poetry is a necessary tool.

Glenis Redmond is the author of six books of poetry, including Praise Songs for Dave the Potter, which features artwork by Jonathan Green (University of Georgia Press, 2023), and Listening Skin (Four Way Books, 2022), which was long-listed for the Julie Suk Award and the PEN America Open Book Award. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Redmond will work with the Metropolitan Arts Council to launch “Verse and Visual,” a project pairing ten poets with ten visual artists for an ekphrastic collaboration; commission ten poets to write work inspired by Greenville City Parks; present local and regional poets at Artisphere, Greenville’s largest arts festival; aid the Arts in Public Places Commission to appoint Greenville’s first youth poet laureate; continue both her Little Free Libraries project and Unity Park Poetry workshops with the city of Greenville; and—in partnership with the Peace Center—convene past and present poets laureate Jaki Shelton Green, Joy Harjo, Ed Madden, and Crystal Wilkinson for a poet laureate reading in Greenville on May 10, 2024.