By Mark I. West
February 21, 2023
Junious “Jay” Ward moved to Charlotte in 2006, and has since become one of the city’s best-known poets. His slam poetry performances are epic and fierce with a rarely seen emotional power. In 2018, he and members of SlamCharlotte won the National Poetry Slam Poetry Championship in Chicago. The very next year, he was named the Individual World Poetry Slam Champion out of 74 international competitors. In addition to performing his original poetry, Ward has had great success publishing poems in various publications as well as in a short chapbook titled, Sing Me a Lesser Wound, in 2020. One of his most important recognitions came in April 2022 when the city of Charlotte officially named him its first Poet Laureate. Now Ward has released his long-awaited first full-length poetry collection, Composition, on February 7 through Button Poetry.
Composition features 37 poems, many of which relate to his experiences as a member of a multiracial family living in a small town north of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. In these poems, he explores how his past experiences and family history helped shape his current sense of identity.
“The original set of poems that would later become Composition were kind of an exploration of my own Blackness,” Ward said. “But I knew that wasn’t the whole story. Why did I want to write about Blackness? What meaning did that hold for me, why was it important I explore that theme, why should anyone care?…I realized this manuscript wasn’t simply about Blackness, it was about identity.”
The book is dedicated to Ward’s father, William Ward. Several of the poems are about his father, including the first poem, “Kodak 4200 Slide Projector Asks if I Ever Held Hands with My Father.” Ward’s poems about his father are charged with emotion and memory. In the opening poem, for example, he writes about his father’s hands and how his hands reflect his life, from his years as a young father to his final days.
“My father died when I was 21 years old. The manuscript evolved to include sub themes of grief, life in the rural South, and self-discovery,” said Ward.
The poetry collection also includes historical documents and visual images, giving the book a collage-like quality. “I interact with form, documents, and visual elements throughout the book,” he said. “It was important for me to not only capture the ‘spirit of conversation’ around interracial marriages at the time that my parents got married in 1969, but also to find a way to enter those conversations, to ‘talk back’ to certain documents.” These elements provide readers with historical context for Ward’s poems and his upbringing.
For Ward, the publication of Composition demonstrates his standing as Charlotte’s Poet Laureate is based on more than his reputation as one of the city’s leading performance poets. Although he initially achieved acclaim as a slam poet, the poems in Composition reflect his commitment to writing what he calls “literary” poems.
“As Charlotte’s inaugural Poet Laureate, I am keenly interested in bridging the perceived gap between ‘performance’ poets and ‘literary’ poets, as I’ve had a modicum of success in both arenas. I think this book is also a step in that direction; a blending of two mediums, a way to blur or solidify the lines,” Ward said.
Composition stands as a milestone in Ward’s career, but it’s also a significant contribution to Charlotte’s poetry community. The poems in this book weave together personal experiences, social history, and political convictions. In the process of exploring his own experiences as a Black poet living in the South, he also provides insights into racial dynamics that shape the society in which he lives.
Composition can be purchased directly from Button Poetry. For those who want to learn more about Ward, check out his official website and follow him on Instagram.
Mark I. West is a professor of English at UNC Charlotte. He also writes Storied Charlotte, a weekly blog that celebrates Charlotte’s community of readers and writers.