“The word is powerful. It can evoke emotion, it can tell about a rock, or a tree. It can be used to instigate anger, to quell anger, to lament love, to give love; it touches you in the heart. Whether spoken or written it conveys how you feel. You may not even be the poet but [it resonates] with what you bring to it, your experience.” --Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, Poet Laureate, Playwright, Environmental Educator and Peace Activist
Sojourner reflects on Percy Shelley’s famous quote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” She says, “The implication is that we’re speaking truth. What we observe—we try to get to the essence of it.” From a young age, she has continually reflected on the impact that poetry can offer.
Sojourner’s poetry stems from her remarkable experiences. Much of her work clearly is rooted in our region and its beauty, however her life’s journey has also given her a unique perspective as a social activist.
Her love of the natural world is heard in a multitude of poems she has written over the decades, and she takes pride in her role as a poet of place and as an environmental educator. This passion has been recognized by her community where she has served as a Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, as well as a Poet-in-Residence at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
She has also received many accolades including being named a Local Hero by the Santa Barbara Independent; Outstanding Woman of Santa Barbara County by the Santa Barbara County Commission for Women; American Riviera Woman Entrepreneur of the Year; and a Commendation for Community Service by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
“I truly appreciate being the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response of the community. This is a community that loves poetry.”
“When I first came to Santa Barbara I loved going to the Bird Refuge, East Beach and Ledbetter. I love the natural environment here, up and down the coast. Every place I’ve lived in California has felt like home.”
Nearly four decades ago, Sojourner and her beau, Rod Rolle, made a road trip from their home in North Carolina to California. Their initial destination—an aunt’s home in Lompoc. Sojourner was headed to law school at Berkeley, and Rod—after two years had passed—to the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. Three years after graduating from law school, Sojourner joined Rod in Santa Barbara. Celebrating 30 years of marriage, they are among Santa Barbara’s most prominent creative couples. “We each are able to pursue our own lives as artists and, we also have dinner together [almost’ every night].”
In Santa Barbara, Sojourner discovered a close-knit community of poets and participated in variety of poetry activities. During those early years, she helped to organize festivals and regular readings featuring poetry andbegan teaching poetry workshops in the schools. “I became more of a poet than I’d ever been before. I decided that I wanted my life to be about the arts” and she served for ten years on the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission.” On her path to becoming Poet Laureate, she has taught poetry to generations of young people, published critically received articles and commentaries on subjects ranging from the environment and civil rights to love and time. She has seen her work performed on the theatrical stage.
She served as producer and host for the public access television show “Outrageous Women,” beginning in 1989 and continuing for 7-8 years, interviewing fascinating guests from diverse backgrounds. It was about this time that, at the invitation of the such entities as the Independent, Arts & Letters, and The Lobero Theater , she began conducting interviews with notable artists who came to town. These have included such luminaries as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Odetta and Hugh Masekela….
Sojourner has continually served as a community activist—a peace activist. Her renowned contributions to civic poetry are a vital part of her work, however she is also engaged in mediation, and she has made critical contributions in her work as a civil rights activist—our interview takes place on the day after she has participated in the Women’s March in Los Angeles. Millions of women participated in cities all over the world. “It was one of the most glorious days—you knew you were sharing in a historic moment.” Her life-long activism has been inspired by her family and community.
“We hold in common a dream of harmony. What binds our hearts is our hope for peace and our vision of a shared humanity.” –SKR in The Task of Our Time.
Early Life and Work
Sojourner was born in Marion, North Carolina, and, from age five, lived with her grandmother who was active in their church and in the community. With a deepened appreciation of African-American history, she added “Sojourner’ (after suffragist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth)) to her name at age 30. The influence of her family, especially her grandmother’s influence as an community leader continues in her life today. “I attended a segregated school in North Carolina during the fifties. My early memory is of not starting first grade on time because my grandmother and others were boycotting the school until the school board fired the principal. For the most part, my family protected me from face–to-face encounters with racism. Nevertheless, it was unavoidable. I've written about some of these encounters in my story subtitled, ‘Growing Up Colored in the Segregated South.’”
Her experience with poetry began at a young age. “At one assembly, like a talent show, my grandmother urged me to recitea poem I knew by heart.. .I was five years old. At my church, as well, I would regularly hear and recite a poem to the congregation. Most of the Black schools taught Speech and were famous for oratory competitions. In eighth grade, she participated in her first oratory competition at a regional Sunday School convention. “I recited from memory, ‘On Democracy’ by Arnold J. Toynbee. I didn’t win but I did give my speech!”
It was also in eighth grade that she had the lead in the class play.
Sojourner carries her southern culture with her. It is a way of viewing the world. “When I meet other southerners we have many common references, including references from the bible and folklore.”
Her growing up years included time with her mother in New York as well as time with her father abroad. I grew up in a military family. From first to eighth grade I lived with my grandmother in Marion. In ninth and tenth grade , I lived with my aunt’s family in Fort Bragg and I went to E.E. Smith High School . Then I moved with my dad and his new family to Germany where I graduated from Munich American High School.
“Living overseas, we read magazines like Ebony and Jet to try and keep up with what was happening ‘‘back in the world’,’ as we called the states. It was in a photo on the cover of Jet that I recognized a guy from E.E. Smith sitting-in at the Woolworth’s\lunch counter in Greensboro. I thought, ‘ that’s what I’d be doing if I were home.’ I wanted to be a part of the movement against segregation and discrimination. My grandmother had set that example for me.”
Now iconic photos and film footage depict the sit-ins of African American students who protested ‘Whites only’ policies by sitting at Woolworth stores’ lunch counters. The first sit-in took place in Greensboro, attracting a storm of national media attention, and was replicated by students and others throughout the south, resulting in the store changing its policies, as well as many other institutions. The impact of the Greensboro sit-ins contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Other historic events made an impression on Sojourner as a young woman, such as the murder of Emmett Till, the 1963 March on Washington , and the bombing of the the Birmingham Baptist Church, to name a few. “I was also influenced by Charlayne Hunter-Gault—hers is a famous civil rights struggle. She integrated the School of Journalism at the University of Georgia as one of the first two black students to attend.” Decades later, Sojourner interviewed the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist on her local public access show, "Outrageous Women”.
“To me, I didn’t see much future in the south in our little town (now our town has grown.) I embrace it. I was on the train to New York on my 18th birthday. A few months later, I got a job at the New York Public Library, where I worked with many college students. They encouraged me to continue my education.”
In the late 1960s she moved to D.C. and worked for as a receptionistat a radio station. She was working there when Martin Luther King was killed. That experience became a subject for one of her plays. That experience also led her to volunteer for the Poor People's Campaign. Moving back to Brooklyn, she later worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a staff member. “From that time on, I feel that I was on the path for the lifelong struggle for civil rights. My grandmother had set that example for me.” She continues today as a board member of the local Martin Luther King Jr. Committee.
After 30 years in the military, Sojourner’s father retired to start a business in their hometown. She moved to North Carolina to help him and to eventually attend UNC Charlotte. She had become involved in the children’s rights movement and majored in criminal justice with an emphasis on juvenile delinquency. Her intention was to attend law school and wasaccepted at UC Berkeley.
“In law school, I was disappointed with the world of legal practice, and even asked for a leave of absence to consider my future. My Dean told me, “you need to decide whether you want to be a crusader or a lawyer.” She eventually chose poetry and peacemaking. Subsequently, Sojourner worked for 20 years with City At Peace, a theatre group that specialized in the arts and conflict resolution.
“A friend invited me to read a poem for her college graduation.” This resurrected her lifelong journey into poetry and marked her emergence into public expression. “Now I call myself a public poet.”
Song of Place
A part of Sojourner’s living legacy during the past two decades is her gift to young poets through the Song of Place Poetry Project. Her work has included teaching poetry in the schools and she has inspired a multitude of young poets to share their worlds. She invites poets of all ages to write about their surroundings and has emphasized that. She considers herself a poet of place. “Place is the backdrop for every poem or story and informs both the exposition and the narrative.”
To experience Sojourner’s wit and wisdom, catch her at a poetry reading, check-out her Facebook page and find her on the world wide web, or go to the library or bookstore and immerse yourself in her songs of place found in her celebrated books. You may be inspired to write a poem yourself!
Where the Hum Begins
I am in a place
where water rolls across the stones
rippling in ranges
too high for human tones to mimic
It is a place
where mountains loom over land
so low it is almost level with the sea
In the distance
I can hear water falling fast
from a high plateau
brushing the slope of the solid earth
at sharp angles, diving
into the flow
where it falls, a continuous splash issues
It is at this place I dwell
between calm and tumoil,
between yang and yin
between memory and amnesia
between today and tomorrow
between sate and want
In the magic hour
when the tide changes
In the right moment
where each second becomes the next
in the pull of the moon
while the water ebbs and flows
In this place, I stand
on land rocky like a river
land where boulders abide
deep within the soil
It is a place of peace
even as on the billowing sea
--Sojourner Kincaid Rolle