Meet CJ Suitt, Chapel Hill’s First Poet Laureate

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CJ Suitt
Photo by Cornell Watson

CJ Suitt first experienced poetry at his family’s Southern Pentecostal church as a child. “Watching passionate people not just standing in the pulpit, but taking up space, sharing a 2,000-year-old story, wrapped in metaphor with power and grace, in a way the congregation could apply it to their daily lives,” CJ says, “it was amazing.” It’s also part of why CJ believes poetry should be read aloud. “Humans have been speaking language for thousands of years before we ever wrote anything down, but looking at our world now, you’d think it was the opposite,” CJ says. 

He believes listening to those charismatic speakers at church, combined with his expressive, musical household, was the first major influence on his creative life. At home, his father frequently sang R&B ballads to CJ and his younger brother, Josh Suitt, instilling a love of music and leading to their own early collaborations. “Josh was the poet then,” CJ says. “He wrote these amazing poems, and I would put melodies to them.” By middle school, CJ wrote his own R&B songs for girls he had crushes on, and by the time he entered Chapel Hill High School, he wanted to pursue a rap career. “I grew up in the boy band era – NSYNC, O-Town – I thought that was my future, to be a rapper in a band,” CJ says. 

CJ began constructing verses in Michael Irwin’s 10th grade English class. Michael noticed CJ writing one day and told him he should perform at an upcoming Black History Month event at the school. “I told him I’d think about it, and he told me he [had] put my name on the list already,” CJ says.

Michael describes his former student as an artist in a constant state of acceleration. “He’s always growing, always pushing … past the next frontier,” Michael says. That first performance was another big moment for CJ. “It rhymed and felt silly, but it was from the heart,” CJ says. “I felt like I shared something with the world, and they responded – the whole auditorium stood up and clapped, and I said to myself, ‘Yep, this is what I want to do all the time.’”

Kane Smego, associate director of global hip-hop exchange program Next Level, met CJ in high school when they both played on the football team. After high school, Kane and CJ competed on the same poetry team at the Brave New Voices (BNV) International Youth Poetry Festival in New York City. “A year later, we became roommates and started mentoring younger poets who competed at BNV, hosting local events and giving performances around the Triangle,” Kane says.

Kane and CJ were either roommates or neighbors for several years after that and frequently met up with other poets and friends to collaborate, share poetry and music, and plan and rehearse for events. “It was during that time that we began thinking of formalizing our work, initially partnering with the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham,” Kane says. Later, they co-founded a nonprofit youth poetry slam team with their friends and fellow writers Terrence Foushee and Ira Yarmolenko. Ira died in 2008, and the team changed its name to Sacrificial Poets in her honor. “In a poetry slam, the sacrificial poet is the one who goes first, setting the stage for others,” CJ says. “That’s who Ira was for us.”

Terrence, who has been friends with CJ since preschool, says, “[CJ] always had this innate ability to connect with people.” That trait is what helped CJ evolve into a mentor, coach and leader to so many. “He actually inspired me to write my first poem – that wasn’t a school assignment – during my senior year in high school,” says Terrence, who now teaches English at Northwood High School. “His poetry genuinely reflects how he sees the world, and it blends compassion, heart, healing, vexation and hope.” 

Kane echoes the sentiment: “CJ is like a brother to me and someone who has always inspired me with his willingness and ability to be a bridge [among] communities, cultures, worldviews and generations.” The feeling is mutual. “Though we are on different paths now, I still consider Terrence and Kane not only my co-founders, but [also] my friends and co-creators,” CJ says. 

CJ intends to use his appointment as poet laureate, which he received from the Town of Chapel Hill in November 2019, to create a more expansive world of poetry and bring the art form to the community in new and exciting ways that uplift the history and legacy of the local poetry community. “It’s a big deal that Chapel Hill has a poet laureate,” CJ says, “especially because I’m standing on the shoulders of so many great writers. George Moses Horton, Pauli Murray, Zora Neale Hurston – all of these amazing people have come through Chapel Hill, and my work honors them.”

CJ’s friend and North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green says she is awed by CJ’s ability to reframe his life experiences through spoken words in a way that both honors and challenges poetry’s traditional conventions. “His poetry expresses complex and sobering realities that are memorable and elicit empathy,” Jaki says. “CJ’s vision and voice loom large across these Southern landscapes. He is ushering strong medicine into the world in a season of uncertainty.”

Although the pandemic continues to create challenges for in-person experiences, CJ is optimistic for the road ahead and his tenure, which runs through January 2022. “I’m super excited that hopefully as the world opens back up, we can gather folks for more poetry events in person to give them a chance to see good artists and poets from all around the state and country,” he says.

“I don’t think Chapel Hill could have selected a better person to be its first poet laureate,” Kane says. “Like many of the young poets that he’s coached, I often look to CJ for advice within my writing and even in my mentorship. Being able to sit and talk with him can just help lift your spirits. Conversations with him truly will make you a believer in his poetry.” 

His high school teacher Michael Irwin agrees. “[CJ has] only produced incredible beauty,” he says, “and his best is yet to come.”

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Morgan Weston

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