“When I think back to my early interest in what words could do, it was really their sonic qualities that drew me,” says Junious ‘Jay’ Ward, the inaugural Poet Laureate of the city of Charlotte.
Ward’s family moved from Poughkeepsie, NY to the eastern Carolina town of Rich Square when he was five years old. There, he encountered 5th and 6th grade teachers who dedicated class time to reading novels aloud. Ward rode the rhythm of these spoken words. He absorbed each phrase’s rise and fall, aligning the cadence of a sentence with the pace of a plot. His teachers introduced him to the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes’ jazz-infused poetry. And his peers listened to hip-hop, which was in the midst of its heyday. Language—its strength and its beauty—surrounded Ward from this young age and made an indelible impression.
I began to fall in love with how much power words could have and how cadence and pattern influenced that power.
“I began to fall in love with how much power words could have. I started paying attention to how cadence and pattern influenced that power. I wanted to do that. I wanted to write poems, I wanted to write rap songs, I wanted to write short stories. I wanted to use words to create…something. Something that didn’t exist before,” recalls Ward.
We Have Our Obsessions
So Ward set pen to paper to explore family and fatherhood, gentrification, the prison industrial complex, Southern masculinity, racial justice, and grief and resilience. “As poets, we respond to the moment, what’s happening around us. We respond to inspiration when it hits. But outside of those things, we also have our obsessions. We have themes we keep coming back to either on purpose or out of compulsion,” says Ward.
No matter the theme, each poem he writes is an attempt to articulate the indescribable, explore the extraordinary, or untangle the complex. “Poetry is life translated,” he says. “Poets can reckon with issues in ways that help readers better understand their place in the world – even when those concepts seem beyond the scope of words.
His knack for interrogating topics that resonate, ear for language, and talent for performance earned Ward a victory at the national slam poetry championship, as well as at the world poetry slam championship. He has one collection of poetry published by Bull City Press, as well as a forthcoming collection with Button Poetry.
A New Role
In April, a committee composed of local arts leaders and city employees selected Ward as Charlotte’s inaugural poet laureate. The committee evaluated candidates based on the quality of their literary work and their commitment to arts advocacy.
“My approach to the poet laureate role is about not reinventing the wheel. There are so many poets and arts organizations in this city that are doing amazing things. Rather than attempt to duplicate what they are already doing, I want to partner with them. Together, we can find ways to amplify poetry and the impact it wields on communities,” says Ward. In other words, although the role may be new for Charlotte, Ward’s mechanisms for making an impact certainly are not. He strives to use those mechanisms to elevate those who are already enmeshed in Charlotte’s literary scene, as well as introduce “the power of poetry” to new audiences.
Lately, Ward has been producing poetry that hinges on themes of resilience and celebration. It’s an intentional choice made despite a divided nation riddled with hate and despair. As Ward reflects on his new poet laureate role, he harnesses that same hope for positive continuity. “The most exciting thing to me about being the city’s first poet laureate is that it means there will be another, and another.”