Poetry Is Life
And life is poetry for Greensboro’s first Poet Laureate
By Billy Ingram
“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” – Leonard Cohen
For the first time ever, the City of Greensboro has appointed a Poet Laureate, Josephus Thompson III. Some people might envision a pointy-headed intellectual with a snowy beard spouting iambic pentameter while safely ensconced inside an ivy-covered garret. In contrast Josephus is a tall, lithe 46-year old who appears considerably younger in person.
It was a fourth grade classroom assignment that led Josephus into discovering his previously undiagnosed love for wordplay. “I won a fourth place ribbon for an essay about my father,” he tells me. “And I was ecstatic that I won fourth place.” Later, in high school, Josephus composed a poem for an English course that he performed in front of the entire student body. “I got a few accolades for it and I was like, people like my writing. I should do more of it.”
Although it’s a part of every school’s curriculum, “So often the poetry that we hear — the Mayas, the Frosts — it doesn’t sound like us, doesn’t look like us,” Josephus remarks about society’s overall failure to connect students to creative expression. “It’s all about education through correlation, something they can actually relate to.” This dichotomy led to the creation of The Poetry Project in 2005 for, “using poetry to teach, inspire and build the communities that we call home.”
What began inside individual classrooms turned into packed school assemblies. “When I go into a space, maybe 70 percent of the kids probably don’t like poetry,” Josephus says. “They think it’s whack, it’s boring. But when I’m able to relate it to hip-hop, to music, to empowering their voice, all of a sudden the light switch goes on. They’re like, ‘Wait a minute. You wanna hear what I have to say?’”
Over time, Josephus developed a scintillating Monday through Thursday curriculum rooted, but not mired, in traditional English Language Arts. “Then on Friday,” he says, “I’ll bring in a poet, a singer, a rapper, a guitar player, so they are able to see what we’ve talked about all week in real life.” Wildly popular, this avant-garde bard poetically pied piper-ed impressionable audiences, winning over a multitude of restless, attention deficient pupils, a paroxysm attributable not only to Josephus’ charismatic delivery, but also his impressive lexiconical athleticism.
Funded primarily by fees for service plus occasional grants, The Poetry Project has provided literacy-based programming not only in Guilford and Forsyth Counties, but also in Harrisburg, VA, and as far afield as Malaysia and the Phillippines. “I had the pleasure of performing with the Greensboro Symphony in 2019,” says Josephus. “It was phenomenal.” For that event, every third and fourth grader in the county school system was transported to Grimsley High School’s auditorium for five daily jam sessions, experiencing for themselves Josephus’ participatory prestidigitation. The result? It’s poetry emotion: “A thousand kids singing along and chanting.”
“I’m able to talk about the fact that the money is in songwriting,” Josephus remarks, explaining that most youngsters don’t realize musical artists generally don’t compose their hit songs. “The people that write the music are sitting at home collecting a check, a lot more than the singer. By the end of the class everyone wants to be a writer.”
Having piqued students’ interest, Josephus realized budding authors had nowhere to hone their craft. “There’s a place for Frisbee, and basketball and soccer, but, if you’re going to be a writer, where do you go?” To fill that void, Josephus partnered with the McGirt-Horton branch of the Greensboro Public Library to establish an after-school outlet for aspiring scribes. “Every person has a voice,” Josephus says of his motivation. “Everyone wants to be heard, period.”
As a side gig that has since expanded exponentially, Josephus launched The Poetry Café at Triad Stage in 2009 to serve as a launching pad and showcase for emerging regional wordsmiths. It was then that one of his mentors, D. Cherie’ Lofton, at that time operations manager and content manager for N.C. A&T State University’s radio station, began urging him to adapt his concept for the airwaves. “I didn’t want to be on the radio, but I had no idea the number of people I could reach.” It took Lofton more than a year to talk him into it, but in 2012 Josephus began broadcasting The Poetry Café over 90.1 FM, WNAA.
Earlier this year, The Poetry Café became a weekly syndicated radio show, airing Sundays at 6–7 p.m. on WUNC radio, recorded in his studio on the second floor of Triad Stage. “We already have artists that are coming now to Greensboro to be featured on the show because it’s statewide.”
Last year, Josephus created a monthly retreat called Poetry Field Trip in conjunction with the Van Dyke Performance Space located in downtown’s Cultural Center. “We were able to bring in 300 kids for 90 minutes to experience poetry up close and personal with a full band,” Josephus says, somewhat amazed. “Before they leave, I’m giving autographs to fourth graders — as a poet in Greensboro.”
Josephus is on track to host a combined 3,000 kids for October’s Poetry Field Trip at the Van Dyke Performance Space (firstname.lastname@example.org). “Beginning at 9 a.m., there’s ‘Poetry is Life’ breaking down what poetry is, how it connects,” our Poet Laureate explains. “In the afternoon, we do a second part called ‘The Cypher: From the Page to the Stage.’ The same kids can come back and write their own poetry, then get up on stage to perform it. Three hundred kids coming in the morning and the afternoon for a full day field trip.”
It’s not just about poetic license, but poetic licensing. The Poetry Café is headed to the National Public Radio convention this month. “The goal is to pick up another 10 to 12 stations,” Josephus says, “so the show will be national by the end of the year.” He’s already submitted a proposal to PBS North Carolina. “We’d love to get on their network with The Poetry Café, featuring North Carolina artists, which means advertising dollars.”
In April of 2024, The Poetry Project returns to Tanger Center. “We’re talking about video, audio, all of that being accessible, sellable and licensable,” Josephus notes. In 2025, he’s looking to export The Poetry Café to London, Dubai and Durban, South Africa. Having grown up a military brat with frequent upendings, he says, “I’ve been to those places, so I know it’s possible.”
Set the clock for inevitability. “As Poet Laureate of Greensboro, it’s my due diligence to make it happen,” Josephus contends. “We’re setting the mold, breaking barriers, proving every single day that poetry is life and life is indeed poetry.” OH
Billy Ingram is O.G. — Original Greensboro.