Poets Laureate

History of Carrboro's Poet Laureate

Carrboro Day- Building Community

The creation of Carrboro’s Poet Laureate program began with the creation of Carrboro Day. 

In November 1992, Jay Bryan, member of the then named Carrboro Board of Aldermen (BOA), presented to his colleagues a memo on proposed ways to build community in Carrboro based on John Gardener’s essay, “Building Community” (1991).  Included was Jay’s idea “…that we establish a purely “Carrboro” day that is separate from July 4th to actively involve all groups and members of our community and bring us together to have fun, dance, and celebrate our life together.”  

November 1994 Carrboro Day was approved by the BOA. With input from fellow Board member, Jacquie Gist, Jay Bryan crafted a philosophy for the spirit and purpose of the day, 

His philosophy stated in part:

As Carrboro grows in population and its boundaries expand, its citizens need opportunities to enlarge their circle of acquaintances as well as feel a part of the entire community. Expanding acquaintances and feeling a part of Carrboro engenders cooperation, respect and a sense of tradition and history that is needed amidst the diverse, mobile, and rapidly changing world challenging citizens of this town. 

Carrboro Day will offer such an opportunity for people to meet and celebrate living together in Carrboro. This day will be modelled after the small-town homecomings and parades once common in the United States, and the festivals in Europe, which were started for religious purposes but now have evolved into community celebrations. Local music, games, food, poetry, stories, groups, talents and humor will be allowed to offer Carrboro’s citizens a day to forget themselves, to reach out to others, and to create a memory of renewal and fun that will be sustaining when difficult issues face them or the whole town. (published in The Chapel Hill News, September, 1995).

Jay was committed to including poetry in order to encourage poetry readings by Carrboro residents.  His goal was to develop an offering of populist poetry accessible to local citizens from all walks of life. 

Carrboro Day Poetry Readings Begin in 1995

With the support of Daphne Athas, Maura High, Susan Spalt, Grey Brown, and Catherine Devine, Jay Bryan organized poetry readings at Carrboro Day beginning in 1995.  

For each annual reading, Jay, with the help of Carrboro’s Recreation and Parks Department, recruited local and community poets, determined times slots for each poet, collected their bios for publicity, and publicized the reading. 

The Idea of a Poet Laureate in Carrboro, 2001

In 2001, due to the increasing number of local poets reading on Carrboro Day and publishing their work, Jay Bryan and Ann Blythe, reporter for the News & Observer, discussed the idea of a poet laureate in Carrboro. Ann provided Jay with some examples in other states of the role and its scope. Among them was Union Bridge, Maryland, population 1,000.  The story described a poet laureate who found poetry in small town life – the town seal, a creek, historical figures, the chief of police, an elementary student, a new office building, the fifth anniversary of someone’s parents, a local pastor. 

Making the Ask for a Carrboro Poet Laureate, 2002

Stories found by Ann of poet laureates from counties, other small towns, and the pig farmer with “down home” poems about rural life who became the first poet laureate for the state of Utah, inspired Jay Bryan to appear on January 22, 2002, before the BOA and ask them to create a Carrboro Poet Laureate. 

The BOA referred the idea to the Arts Committee whose chair was the late Catherine Devine. In an email sent to her after the referral, Jay stated that from his readings, he thought the laureate would “…compose poems that can inspire people in the community, about town life as it appeared to them…” and offered those focuses of the Union Ridge laureate as examples. 

In his view there would be no special quantity required or time commitment for poems, the laureate would naturally be a good reader of poetry, and they would not be salaried unless a state’s laureate. 

Jay emphasized that the overall idea is to “celebrate a community, and to celebrate and encourage poetry… a role and words as done in the spirit of healing, community building, celebratory and serving.” 

Catherine responded by saying she believed that the Arts Committee would agree with his vision. Based on the recommendations of the Arts Committee, the BOA approved the role in 2002, believed to be the first in North Carolina. 

Celisa Steele advanced the idea of an honorarium for the poet laureate to begin at the end of her term. Gary Phillips helped build a bridge between spoken-word poets and page poets, curated open mic sessions, and helped institute poetry readings at the beginning of Town Council meetings.