The University is currently operating under normal conditions

‘Poetry isn’t just what you write. It’s how you live’

Carolina graduate student Cortland Gilliam has been named Chapel Hill’s new poet laureate.

Gilliam near the Unsung Founders Memorial at McCorkle Place on Carolina's campus.
Gilliam near the Unsung Founders Memorial at McCorkle Place on Carolina's campus. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Double Tar Heel Cortland Gilliam ‘14 has been named the Town of Chapel Hill’s second poet laureate. The UNC School of Education doctoral candidate is a scholar, educator, cultural organizer and now, the Town’s official poet.

Chapel Hill’s first poet laureate, CJ Suitt, encouraged Gilliam to apply for the position.

“I saw CJ perform on campus long before he was poet laureate when I was an undergraduate,” says Gilliam. “Seeing him perform had an impact on me, and it was one of the things that made me want to get into spoken word poetry more. So, this has been a really beautiful, full-circle moment.”

Gilliam developed an interest in wordplay as a child and would make up silly rhymes and combine words into new combinations. With the help of his teacher, he even produced his first book of poems in elementary school.

“My teacher had the class create a collection of poems that we wrote and illustrated ourselves and she had it bound into a hard copy,” Gilliam says. “You could say that was the birth of Cortland the poet, but that love of language was carried through the rest of my youth through a love of hip-hop until I went to college and started writing poetry again.”

Gilliam’s love for poetry and passion for community organizing grew out of his struggle to find and use his voice while navigating the experience of being a Black student at a historically white university. He credits Carolina’s spoken word poetry community as key to finding a sense of voice and belonging as a young poet.

“When I got to Carolina is when I started to take writing more seriously,” Gilliam says. “I started learning about spoken word and slam poetry, which to me was like learning a new art form. I took a class in poetry writing because I wanted to learn a little bit more about form and structure, and since then, I’ve been writing poetry consistently.”

Gilliam on West Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, NC. January 13, 2023.(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Gilliam on West Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, NC. January 13, 2023.
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Gilliam graduated from Carolina with his undergraduate degree in economics in 2014 and is in the School of Education working toward his Ph.D. His graduate work focuses on school discipline and how Black youth contributed to political struggles in the late 20th century. Outside of his studies, Gilliam has pursued his passion for the power of voice by co-curating the collaborative art exhibition #BlackOutLoudUNC with fellow School of Education doctoral candidate Jerry Wilson. The exhibition featured Black student and alumni works that explored representations of Blackness in the Carolina community.

“To me, poetry isn’t just what you write. It’s how you live,” Gilliam says. “It’s about your relationship to different spaces and the people you share those spaces with. I always want to engage actively with the people around me and with the politics of a space. That line of thinking brings together my poetry and my academic work.”

During his two-year tenure as poet laureate, Gilliam plans to create youth programming for local students, host writer meet-ups at local businesses and unite the community through poetry. Gilliam will also share his poetry with the Chapel Hill community at town-sponsored events.

Gilliam’s talent as a spoken word performer, work in the community and skillful wordplay all contributed to the poet laureate selection team unanimously appointing him.

“We’re excited to work with Gilliam to help realize the vision he has for the role, and to assist in making his goals and ideas a reality in Chapel Hill,” says Melissa Bartoletta, the Town of Chapel Hill’s community arts and culture marketing and communications coordinator.

To learn more about Cortland Gilliam‘s upcoming performances and programs and the Town of Chapel Hill’s poet laureate program, visit chapelhillarts.org/poetlaureate.