Featured photo: Josephus Thompson III was recently named Greensboro’s first honorary poet laureate (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
Josephus Thompson III has a way with words.
That’s why — during their June 6 meeting — the Greensboro City Council appointed him as the city’s first honorary poet laureate for the next year.
“It feels great,” Thompson says, when asked how he feels.
In this position, Thompson aims to sustain the craft of poetry, create more spaces dedicated to the artform and initiate more programs.
“I’m basically an ambassador for the poetic artform,” he says.
Thompson’s poetry career began with a high school English poetry class. Students were introduced to some of the greats: Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. Thompson mimicked what he learned and wrote his first poem, “The Color,” his interpretation of the color black as it relates to his race.
“Life I live is not simply a color. It cannot be compared to any other. Black is not simply a color to me, Black is so simply an everlasting reality,” he recites.
“The Color” was well-received by his teacher, and like a child getting a cookie as a reward for good work, Thompson kept writing, hoping to get more props.
“If you do something well,” he says, “you want to do it again.”
Eventually, word of Thompson’s talent spread across the school, landing him a performance spot during the school’s Multicultural Day celebration. To this day, that poem hangs on the wall at his mother’s house.
Despite the accolades, Thompson didn’t realize poetry was something that could be pursued as a job.
“I knew I had a gift in writing,” he says, “I just didn’t know it could be a career.”
That would change.
His craft created more opportunities for him, especially during his undergraduate days at NC A&T State University. He made a name for himself on the yard, performing at campus open-mic nights and other events. When the 2004 Aggie Fest concert needed a show opener, Thompson was recommended; he opened for Kanye West and Floetry, artists known for incorporating poetry into their music.
It didn’t stop there.
After collaborating with the theater department to include poetry into performances at Bennett College, Thompson and the poetry troupe were invited to perform during a fundraiser headlined by Oprah Winfrey in 2006.
Through the years, Thompson has perfected his craft, solidifying himself as an educator, poetry coach and event host.
As poet laureate, Thompson plans to expand programs already in motion and implement new ones. The Poetry Project, founded around 2009, is his effort to “use poetry to teach, inspire and build the communities that we call home.” The organization stems from his work with the Artist’s Responsibility Movement, a collective of mentors for the public school system. When he realized poetry was included in the seventh grade curriculum, he incorporated what he knew into mentoring sessions. Teachers caught on and asked him to stop by their classes and instruct, something Thompson couldn’t pass up.
“You want to pay me to come to your classroom? Say less!” he replied.
In these classes, Thompson tried a different approach, using popular songs as classroom material rather than poems from notable writers like Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson.
“They’re great and wonderful, but they’re classics,” he says. “Having a poet that looks like you, talks like you and sounds like you in front of you makes you identify with it a lot quicker.”
In the Poetry Project workshops, open to all ages, students focus on poetic devices, vocabulary and personal development. It doesn’t take long for Thompson to notice a change in his students after attending a few classes. Typically, students are expected to soak in material with little to no chances to provide their own commentary, but Thompson makes it a priority to ask students about their thoughts and ideas.
“Having your voice validated changes your character and how you see yourself in the world,” he says.
Other programs Thompson is organizing include The Laureate Series: From the Page to the Stage, an 8-week interactive workshop fusing creative writing and performance that begins August 2. Poet for a Day, set for October 4-5, is described as a “poetry field trip” for fourth to twelfth graders. Following a workshop focusing on voice, critical thinking and other skills important to poetry, the students will flex what they learned during a cypher. Thompson will also continue his Poetry in the Park series in LeBauer Park, the next of which takes place on July 15. Each Sunday, Thompson hosts “The Poetry Cafe,” a radio show dedicated to showcasing international poets and hip-hop and R&B artists.
At his core, Thompson believes art imitates life, tackling subjects like the power of poetry and his identity as a Black man in his work. Most recently, he wrote a poem about the birth of his 7-week-old son Josephus Thompson IV. One poem he’s particularly proud of is “Breathe,” an ode to the act of filling and emptying one’s lungs. In it, he emphasizes something seemingly small being major and encourages listeners to value the small things in life.
“Breathe like your life depends on it. Cherish the intention, the moment,” he says in a YouTube video of the performance.
Thompson, to the right of the stage, gestures boldly with his hands as he orates the spoken word. He pauses intentionally, urging listeners to really take in his words. At times, he closes his eyes as he feels the emotion of the performance. The set is fused with live music by a singer Jha’Mai.
“Once it’s gone, there’s no coming back. No second chances, no romance, so commit to it now ‘til death do us part,” he recites.
Thompson’s commitment to poetry has now been recognized by city leaders with his new designation. Thompson says he’s grateful to be Greensboro’s first poet laureate and a Black man at that. He’s elated to not only serve as a point of representation for young poets, but to follow in the footsteps of renowned Black poets. He compares his success to George Moses Horton, a formerly enslaved man and the first Black author to be published in the United States in 1829.
“It puts me in the mindset of [James E.] McGirt and [George] Horton who are both Black poets who were able to create words that are still on the street,” he says. “It reminds me of where we started and how far we’ve come.”
In 2010, McGirt-Horton Branch Library in Greensboro became the first to adopt the Poetry Project, allowing Thompson to lecture there. As he teaches in the building that bears the names of a poet he idolizes, Thompson realizes the poet laureate position is exactly where he was meant to be.
“This all comes full circle to me.”
Learn more about Josephus Thompson III and The Poetry Project at josephusiii.com. Email [email protected] to learn more about The Laureate Series. The Poetry Cafe airs every Sunday from 6-7 p.m. on WUNC 91.5.
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