PORT TOWNSEND — The words of poet Gwendolyn Brooks called out one day to 17-year-old Gary Copeland Lilley.
He was working a summer job in New Jersey when he and his friends walked into what used to be called a head shop.
“We real cool. We
“Left school. We
“Lurk late. We
“Strike straight. We
“Sing sin. We
“Thin gin. We
“Jazz June. We
Brooks’ poem, on a poster on the wall, “blew our heads completely off. It was like she wrote this stuff for us,” Lilley said.
That was circa 1968. Come 1994, Lilley was teaching young students in Washington, D.C.
“I introduced that poem, and these kids were like, ‘She’s writing about us.’”
When he later met Brooks, Lilley added, “I had to tell her what her poem meant to me as a young guy, and now what it’s meaning to the hip-hop boys.”
Those eight lines are “an act of defiance,” signaling that Lilley and his friends and students could stand up and express themselves. No matter what.
Lilley himself has since authored eight books, including “Black Poem,” “Alpha Zulu” and “High Water Everywhere,” while sharing his passion for poetry with students around the country.
A native of Sandy Cross, N.C., he came to Port Townsend in 2008 via Asheville, N.C., New York City and the many other places where he has studied, lived and taught.
This month, Centrum writing program manager George Marie announced Lilley is the new artistic curator of the Port Townsend Writers Conference, the summer gathering founded in 1974.
First off, Lilley said he wants to diversify the conference — and “not just the faculty. I’m talking about the participants,” he said.
Lilley’s mission also includes “taking the privilege out of poetry,” dispelling the belief that only a certain class of people write the stuff.
His life experience proves otherwise: Lilley has taught in prisons, institutes, colleges and the Jefferson Community School in Port Townsend.
“I wanted to teach the American novel,” he said, to the sixth- through 12th-graders there.
From 2009-11, that meant a variety, from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.”
“They really got into it,” said Lilley, who has been teaching — and learning — about literature in Port Townsend ever since.
A graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College, he was first drawn to the Pacific Northwest by Centrum’s writers conference. He’s also partaken, with much joy, in the Acoustic Blues workshop’s gospel program.
“Back home, my church is small, maybe 50, 60 people. We have that in the gospel choir here,” he said.
As for the writers conference, it has room for poetry, fiction and nonfiction, all of which can be their own kinds of music.
“Poetry informs everything,” Lilley said, adding a poem turns on not only rhythm but those aha moments that come with effort.
“There has to be a discovery,” he said.
When he sits down to write, he doesn’t have to know how everything turns out.
Inspiration abounds for Lilley: He’s in love with poets Victoria Chang and Diane Seuss, one who writes her own kind of sonnets.
“Yes, they’re all 14 lines,” he said. “But they don’t have a rhyme scheme. She counts syllables, but it’s not rigid. And the stuff she’s writing about: real-life things.”
All of Centrum’s workshops are being made over now in the wake of the pandemic as the organization acquires equipment to livestream workshops and other activities.
Plans for the Port Townsend Writers Conference, set for July 17-24, are for an in-person event, Marie said.
“But we’re also planning for it to be a hybrid, with online components. Should there be another surge [of COVID-19], should there be another unforeseen event, then we’ll be able to pivot,” she added.
The faculty Lilley lines up will be announced in the next few weeks, and then registration for the writers conference will open in January.
The free, public readings traditionally held every night of the conference will happen again, Marie promised.
However the gathering is held, 2022 “is about going forward,” Lilley said.
“The salvation of poetry has to come from writers of color,” he said. “That’s not a surprise when you look at people who have been shunned aside for so long. They have turned to their own resources,” to create something altogether new.
“Centrum supports you 100 percent on that,” Marie told Lilley.
“We’re grateful to see a shift.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected] news.com.