Revise Your Eyes

Junious “Jay” Ward, Charlotte’s inaugural Poet Laureate, serves up three new poems and talks about how his new post lets him “take the church to the people.”

I had my first encounter with the work of Junious “Jay” Ward, back in June 2020, in a little book called Sing Me a Lesser Wound. It did not take me long to love it. Just check out the first lines of its first poem: 

We had gotten a whole hog
from Aulander, pink-fleshed
and splayed like a sacrifice
to cover sin, which is belief
that tomorrow is a place
we can eat. 

That poem wrestles with concepts of masculinity and home, two themes I certainly have little hope of ever resolving, but I’m grateful to have poets like Jay with me.

Ward is also an extraordinary performance poet: National Slam champion in 2018 and Individual World Poetry Slam champion in 2019. If you don’t know what a poetry slam is, the rules can vary, but here’s how it worked on Monday nights at the 15 Minutes Club in Washington, D.C., when I started going there in 1993, as a nineteen-year-old college student at George Mason University. 

You pay $3 to get in the door. If you want to take part you write your name on a scrap of paper, which the host then puts into a hat. Eight names are drawn, and those poets  get set up in tournament-style face-offs. Advancement is determined by audience applause: if your poem gets a louder reaction from the bar crowd than mine did, then you advance and I’m done. (The more mathematical approach has the host randomly pick three judges from the crowd to give numerical scores, which are tabulated.) After two rounds, the final two poets face off. The winner takes home a pot of cash: my first miraculous win earned me $30 and my second paid $50 (I took my friends to Denny’s afterward both times). Winners also come back the following week for a fifteen-minute feature reading before the competition starts.

With poetry slams, your work has to connect immediately with an audience that is feet away from you. It’s not about reflection, rereading, looking up allusions, or any of the worthwhile things we do with poetry on the page—it is about speaking to everyday people out for a Monday night drink. Professors, professional poets, literary critics, academic editors—they are not the judges. The people are. 

Jay’s work is all about the people. He is Charlotte’s inaugural Poet Laureate and a 2023 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow, doing all kinds of community work, serving the people of the city with and through his art. For a deep taste of his double-gift of writing and performance, as well as an example of his community-mindedness, check out this slam performance of “Gentrification.” 

Plenty of poets can move you with their stories, and some poets can do astounding formal things, but a rare few can do both in such a complementary way. Jay Ward is one of those.

His brand new book Composition is a marvel of the dance between form and content. Plenty of poets can move you with their stories, and some poets can do astounding formal things, but a rare few can do both in such a complementary way. Jay Ward is one of those.

There are contrapuntal poems (written in two or three columns that can be read column-by-column or across), a glossary, concrete poems (laid out on the page to reveal the shape of something: in this book there are poems shaped like blackbirds and one in the shape of the continental United States), there are photographs, sketches, handwritten annotations, footnotes, something between a sentence diagram and a chemical formula, and a variety of erasure poems (take an existing piece of writing, strategically cross out most of it to reveal select words and phrases).

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a poet use such a wide and relentless range of forms so cohesively. Composition is like a cross between an interactive art gallery and a scholarly archive. It makes me think of Claudia Rankine, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and the late C.D. Wright, three cutting-edge poets working in an array of forms to examine complicated subject matter. On his website, Ward writes that Composition interrogates ideas of race “through a multiracial lens” and attempts to “open up about grief while shining the light on resilience.” 

Here’s a bit of both from the end of “The Narrative”:

The stories are so interchangeable I can’t tell if I’m dreaming or

the body camera was turned off. I know you’re tired of this poem,
its nagging anticipation, its blame-song, its gnawing complaint,
all poems, inviting some pissed-off vision of the future like—

open up, hands where we can see ’em, he’s got a gun! he’s got a gun!
But I assure you, I am shopworn writing this poem, more than you are
of hearing. These stories—so kindred, I can’t tell if I’m dreaming or
fighting everything, everything in me, to envision a future.

—Andy Fogle

Section break curlicue

Home Is the Task You Remember Most

If you hate washing dishes, if you’ve always hated it,
if it was a form of punishment as a teen, if it was a tithe
in order to embrace the holiness of summertime without
lectures or fair pay, if no one in your family pre-rinsed
their plates because they knew it was your turn and dropped
the chicken bones and sauce-drenched fatty gristle into
the clean water over your shoulder, if you see a harbinger
where everyone else sees a kitchen, if your mom gave you
haircuts in that same kitchen and you hold that memory
as tightly as she used to be able to hold the clippers
without shaking and know firsthand how a memory can
be joy and an earthquake at once, if your first whooping
from your dad was barehanded next to the trash can
for your smart mouth and lifted you high in the air
like a trapeze artist flung from a graceful wrist, if you
stood there every day waiting for the school bus early
in the morning, if you know the kitchen to be the heart
of the home, if you stood in the heart of your home
and explained to the kids why mom and dad couldn’t be
together anymore, if you walked over to the sink
and whispered everything clean with salt for soap, if you
carry the gristle with you, if you carry the silverware and
know that consideration for others means you must rest
the sharp end of the knives down, then you know what
it means to accept the greasy worst coming over your
shoulder and scrub flesh away from porcelain like intention
from consequence, scrub, knowing the resurrection
of each dish also applies to self, it is all joy. Everything
to its compartment. You are waiting for the suds to rise.

The Bombs, Falling, Discuss Their Own Agency

We got fell from the ether, an invitation stapled against
a lover’s body. We pulled at the gnawing discomfort, 

drug at it, tore the stitching. We got dropped, explained away
over coffee, listed out, painted over. We screamed a nuisance 

big enough to swallow every lit turpentine ball, all of us, to pull
a city’s conscience through the pore of a newspaper’s skin. 

We are the ink. We are God’s voice lowing from a burning bush,
connecting earth and heaven by smoke. Lowing from a biplane. 

Lowing from a Molotov. Lowing from a growing growl made
by hot-fisted jealous shadows who find boldness in morality 

of numbers, too big to let shine anything anywhere not planted
in their own image. We grabbed our knees and wept, our blood 

an orange-rust leaking onto every blackness beneath us. Spurn
daylight. Churn a new nightfall. Blankets of genesis. Seekers.

This is where the accounts differ; 

some say “apocalypse.” I know I heard “reckoning.”
But we got a fire burning in us that rejects death. 

Incineration is really absorption, a becoming. There
is a oneness between the flame and the wick; it nurtures 

a different relationship with time, kisses it slow and ever.
We have lived the entire history of every prayer we cast 

skyward. We got taken. We got dropped. We got fell.
We rose. We levitated out of reach. We are clouds 

so brilliant, Tulsa, or God, had to let us go. A quiet
pounces and our name still billows. Watch it climb

until we almost forget where we came from.

Obligatory Deer Poem

There are two heads in my brother’s garage.
One used to hang above the door in our childhood
home. The other above the bed in the guest room.

The latter would stare at the gun rack in wonder
like I did. It would open locked cabinets when
everyone was away, turning the buckshot over 

and over, making whistling sounds like it was
bounding toward an open field, escaping. This one
was young and favored fascination. It longed 

for the other head, its approval. It remembered
the musculature of silence, hunting, being hunted.
Searched for a reason separation took aim, snapped

twig, a reason to disappear into the wood. Strange.
What we immortalize. I never a day hunted anything
with a gun. I would see them returning in fatigues,

orange hats. The forest shimmering to reveal shapes
exiting the tree line. A body set for the knife.
A body binding father and a son across years of dust.

Charcoal eyes revised bright. A son who is just a head.

Fourteen Questions for Junious "Jay" Ward

1. Where’d you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina by the name of Rich Square. It’s the kind of place you have to offer nearby “cities” for folks to know where it is. For example, if you’ve heard of Roanoke Rapids, it's about 25 mins from there. If you’ve heard of Rocky Mount, it's about 45 minutes from there. It's definitely the kind of place you need to use landmarks for your directions (take a left past the cow pasture, if you see an abandoned house with a Volkswagen Jetta in the front yard you’ve gone too far, etc). Growing up in Rich Square was the epitome of “everybody knows everybody.” I certainly got disciplined by other kids’ parents when I was growing up. I’m happy to have been in that environment for my formative years. I remember one time (well before personal cell phones and right about the time everyone wanted those clunky, industrial car phones but no one could afford them) my car broke down on the side of the road on the way home from football practice. It was dark, I was in the middle of the country, there were no street lights, and I was a thirty-minute drive from home. And guess what? Within ten minutes, a truck slowed down and rolled the window down. “Ain’t you Joe’s son?” My dad picked me up within a half-hour. 

2. Who were the people who educated you, formally or informally?

The artsy (and accurate) answer would probably point to all the aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, etc. who constantly provide life lessons and teach us so much about ourselves. I’m thinking, too, of the random encounters with people we can’t remember who leave an indelible mark on how we see the world. But straying away from the artsy answer, my real education in poetry started when I first attended open mics and slams on a regular basis. I often point to my desire fifteen years ago to attend these events to learn how to perform/read poetry better…but coming away having learned so much more about writing than I ever did about performance.

To be even less artsy, I attended the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop in 2016 and had the unequaled pleasure of learning from Vievee Francis and Greg Pardlo. Since then I have attended Breadloaf (where my facilitator was Vievee once again), The Watering Hole, Frost Place, and Tin House Winter Workshop. I’ve learned so many things from writing-life-altering poets who’ve really helped to shape me (Tyler Mills, Tyehimba Jess, Rajiv Mohabir, Erica Dawson, etc., etc., etc.). I don’t have an MFA but I wouldn’t trade the education I have been blessed enough to receive for anything.

3. Do you have any early memories of being in love with language (reading, writing, hearing, saying, etc.)?

Yes! My fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Tudors, used to read to us, and have us take turns reading to each other, from various sources, usually a novel for young readers, but sometimes poetry. I fell in love with the sonic nature of words and how those words (though they seem static) could create utterly unique worlds in each imagination.

Ms. Tudors used to read to us and have us take turns reading to each other, from various sources, usually a novel for young readers, but sometimes poetry. I fell in love with the sonic nature of words and how those words (though they seem static) could create utterly unique worlds in each imagination.

She also introduced us to Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, which completely fascinated me and propelled me toward poetry that incorporated both sound (i.e. jazz in Hughes’ case) and social justice.

4. How do you feel about being a Southerner: proud, ashamed, both, otherwise?

Oh, I think I’m always proud to be a Southerner. I think mixed feelings come into play when talking about the South as a whole. There are certainly things about the South and its past that aren’t pretty, rather horrifying things that tend to linger. At the same time, it is a beautiful place to be and to grow up. Being a Southerner is to hold all those things, not necessarily to be proud of everything you’re holding, but to maybe be proud that you are able to hold them, that you have been shaped and molded into something stronger than the sum of a complicated history. 

5. Have you ever left the South for any significant period of time? If so, did it have any effect on how you understood the region, or how you understood other regions?

I moved to the Maryland/D.C. area for thirteen years after I left college. Technically, I suppose that doesn’t count, since that area is still below the Mason-Dixon Line, but it feels like it should count. North Carolina feels distinctly more Southern to me than Maryland/D.C. 

I was from an area where you drove by houses and folks on the porch would wave to you whether they knew you or not, and I moved to an area where people might you look at you suspiciously if you smiled or spoke, at the very least you may not get a head nod in return while walking down the street. So there was a little bit of culture shock for that and other reasons. But every region has an embedded history, and that history gives you context for how to move, how to engage. I like Maryland/D.C a lot. I like Carolina a lot, too. But technically, they’re both the South, so maybe that kinship is what kept me grounded during my time away from “home.”

6. Do you have any sense of whether other parts of the United States are starting to see the South differently? And does it matter whether they do or don’t?

From a very general perspective, I think the view that other folks have of the South will take a long time to override. From a literary perspective, they have to see us differently. They don’t have a choice. Southern writers, Southern stories, Southern poets, are too plentiful to be ignored, our voices too compelling. The great part of this question is the allowance that it may not matter if they (non-Southerners) see us (Southerners) differently because in many ways we hold the narrative now. We’re telling the stories that move pop culture. 

7. Who are some contemporary Southern poets or poems we should know about and why?

There are so, so many. Jericho Brown, obviously. Tyree Daye. Kevin Young. Han Vanderhart. This is a list that could get pretty long, so I’ll leave it here.

8. Tell us about a great poem about an issue facing your South.

You caught me at a difficult time to answer this question. My wife and I are moving into a new house next week and we’ve already packed up all my books. Is it okay if I, instead of singling out one great poem, tell you about the best two books from Southern writers that I’ve read recently? Cardinal by Tyree Daye is an astounding work that tackles family and place (place being the South, North Carolina specifically) in a way that I relate to profoundly. And What Pecan Light by Han Vanderhart is a book that I think handles nostalgia and a reckoning of the South’s history (through themes that, to me, touch on guilt and privilege without centering it…which is really hard to do) perhaps better than any other book I’ve read. 

Being a Southerner is...not necessarily to be proud of everything you’re holding, but to maybe be proud that you are able to hold them, that you have been shaped and molded into something stronger than the sum of a complicated history.

9. What’s a poem from another era that’s close to you and why?

Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks. I find myself teaching this poem a lot. This poem deals with agency in a way that reminds me not only of its impact on a poem (or story), but how vital it is to recognize agency and lack of agency as a writer, as a human.  

10. You’re Poet Laureate for the city of Charlotte and involved in a number of other arts events. What kinds of things are going on?

I spend a lot of time trying to create bridges and platforms. For the past two years I’ve hosted a monthly series of workshops at a local library sponsored by the Arts & Science Council where I bring in local poets to facilitate the workshop, and then I’ll host office hours after the workshop, to engage with our community of writers, answer questions, and provide feedback. etc. I also teamed up with three organizations in Charlotte (Goodyear Arts, Charlotte Lit, and West Trade Review) to offer a year-long poetry fellowship for one individual and a year-long cohort for several individuals (also in our second year). Thanks to the 2023 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship I’m working with BreatheInk and Mecklenburg County’s Office of Violence Prevention to facilitate ongoing poetry workshops with youth living in communities that experience gun violence and also establishing Charlotte’s first Youth Poet Laureate. Most recently, through funding from the city, I organized a professional development series for spoken word poets. Things are busy, busy. In addition to those and other projects, I also sit on the board for organizations that I hold dear; The Watering Hole, BOOM, Guerilla Poets, and BreatheInk.

11. I imagine some of those gigs have taken you to a variety of settings around Charlotte—what have you noticed, any patterns, trends, different perspectives?

I think the one trend I’ve seen is that companies and organizations that are typically outside the sphere of the arts, are actively seeking artists to impact what would otherwise be very corporate structured meetings. I’ve been brought to engage audiences with commissioned poems for everything from annual meetings to town halls to professional development events. Not to say that this hasn’t been happening before, but I do see it more frequently in Charlotte right now and it's wonderful because it allows artists to show the true impact of the arts to a wider community. It's not just people going to the church, for example, it's the church going to the people. 

Poetry is especially relevant to the South, I think, because of the role language has played historically to enforce classism or hierarchical systems. Language has power, as we know, and the power of Southern poetry to heal, hold accountable, and transform, ripples across generations.

12. You’re an accomplished slam poet. Why do you think that mode of poetry has survived—perhaps thrived—for at least thirty years? Have you seen any evolutions or phases in it over those decades?

Poetry slam is literally a bar game that was developed to “trick” people into listening to poetry. To that end, a poet is incentivized to perform poems in a way that would be engaging to poetry lovers as well as the random souls that happen to walk into a poetry slam venue on date night. A poetry slam by nature (and by necessity) feels urgent and compelling, is entertaining and informative, and does everything that poetry is supposed to do without alienating the average person who may yearn for accessibility in the art they consume. For sure there have been thematic evolutions, what resonates with different audiences has a lot to do with what is happening locally or globally and as those things change, the themes audiences find most resonant may change as well. I think, too, that the pandemic has had and will continue to have an effect on how slam evolves, both in terms of theme and also structure (I’m thinking here about virtual components and the desire to be as inclusive as possible while still providing the social disruption poetry and activism require). But I think what will always stick, what will always be a part of poetry slam no matter how many evolutions it undergoes, is the truth telling, the urgency, the ingenuity, and the desire every poet has to absolutely change the world even if through one audience member at a time, even if that one person is themselves.

13. Can you talk about the relationship between a poem’s life on the stage vs. the page?

I want to first acknowledge that I personally know poets whose poems on the stage are the same as their poems on the page. Those poets instilled a phrase within the community that goes like this, “if it stands up on the page it will stand up on the stage.” While I agree with that point, at least to a degree, for me personally, my “stage” and “page” poems have vastly different lives. When I am writing a poem that I feel is going to be a performance poem, I have a different approach for making that poem live, I have different goals for it than, say, a poem that I hope will be published in a journal. I mean to say here that the difference is not so much related to a poem as it is to an understanding of the medium through which a poem will be received. I understand that if I’m performing the poem, there are nuances in intonation, sonic qualities, and physical gestures that will convey and I write toward that understanding. If the poem is to be read, I understand there are visual components, lineation, enjambments, and other context that can be built into the poem to take advantage of how the reader is consuming this information, not to mention that the reader has time to reread the poem. I don’t separate the oral tradition of spoken word/performance poetry from “literary” poetry, especially since all of it ultimately shares its origin and draws from the same tool box. Rather, I view them as different mediums through which this wonderful art can be expressed and seek impact on any audience/reader it should encounter.

14. What role does poetry play in understanding the South’s past, recognizing its present, and influencing its future?

Poetry is the ultimate vessel to contain difficult histories and to project preferable futures. I think this is true of not just the South, but really of any substitute: a country, a corporation, an individual, an ecosystem, etc. Poetry is especially relevant to the South, I think, because of the role language has played historically to enforce classism or hierarchical systems. Language has power, as we know, and the power of Southern poetry to heal, hold accountable, and transform, ripples across generations.

Author Profile

Junious “Jay” Ward is a poet and teaching artist from Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a National Slam champion (2018), an Individual World Poetry Slam champion (2019), author of Sing Me A Lesser Wound (Bull City Press 2020) and Composition (Button Poetry 2023). Jay currently serves as Charlotte's inaugural Poet Laureate and is a 2023 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Ward has attended Breadloaf Writers Conference, Callaloo, The Watering Hole and Tin House Winter Workshop. His work can be found in Columbia Journal, Four Way Review, DIAGRAM, Diode Poetry Journal and elsewhere.

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