Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Making of a One Week Poet Laureate

While many state governments are busy dealing budgets, revenue shortfalls, pandering to the NRA and trying  to make participating in the democratic process even  more challenging, Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina has managed to create a controversy out of poetry.

Now you may say, who cares about poetry anyway? (If you are actually asking this question, you probably are not  reading this blog) Still, if you must persist with this question, then the simple answer is other poets. I'd like to argue that there is a larger universe of poetry lovers out there then just  poets themselves but  I've heard it said that  poets fair only slightly  better than mimes in terms of respect. That may be true, but I suspect we also rank higher than clowns (sorry they are just creepy), roaches, and congressmen and congresswomen.who are bringing up the rear, no pun intended. But we can hope this improves, for poets anyway and isn't that the point of having  Poet Laureates?

Evidently Governor  McCrory took lightly the responsibility of naming a new State Poet Laureate. Katy Waldman a Slate staff writer indicated it has been suggested that  Governor McCrory may have been trying to ditch the State Poet Laureate program altogether with his controversial appointment of Valerie Macon, whose credentials have been highly scrutinized - in large part due to the fact that the Governor sidestepped the North Carolina Arts Counsel in vetting  Macon as a candidate.

While I don't claim to know how every state that has a Poet Laureate addresses the selection process, I know that many states, my own included have generally relied upon some input of state arts counsels in vetting candidates the Governors to choose from. These things can get sticky as in the past there have been some controversies related to political involvement by some poets. But this case, for many, falls on the merits of the poet's body of work and literary background, not some hot button political issue. Four former state Poet Laureates have been critical of the Governor for his bypass of the Arts Counsel and selecting a person lacking in the kind of credentials one would expect  of a person to represent the state.

I suspect that Valerie Macon is a very fine individual. Of the little I have been able to learn about her I know that she is a civil servant and that she has a passion for helping the homeless.I know that she has self-published two books. I know that poems from them have been purported to have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, though nominations from such publications do not meet the contest rules.  Further, it was reported that she has served as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the .Eastern Region in 2011.when in fact she mentored under the person who actually held that title.

Valerie Macon resigned two days ago, July 17th, within a week of her appointment. In her letter of resignation she sited concern over the distraction from the function of the Laureate that she had become.
For her part, she says that she remains passionate about the mission for poetry to touch all people no matter what their age, education or social status. Governor McCrory has accepted Macon's resignation but has stated, "Poet laureate position shouldn't be limited to cultural elites.

A couple of observations on my part...

  • It's unfortunate that Ms. Macon was dirtied by the negative exposure. No one likes to become a public spectral.
  • I am amazed that Governor McCrory would appoint anyone to such a position that has almost no discernible record by search engines of any body of work. 
  • What happens next? Will the Governor McCrory consult  those who have traditionally  been a part of the process? Was he genuinely ignorant of that process or did he intentionally by-pass them? 
I find some humor in the idea that a governor would decry elitism since the political hierarchy to reach such an office as Governor generally saturated with it. 

While it seems to me that perhaps there need not be standard template for a Poet Laureate there ought to be at minimum some evidence that the individual has been able to successfully create a body of work that demonstrates a proficiency with the art and successfully publish attain publication.  The stigma associated with self-publication is slowly being broken down, but I should think that at minimum even with self-publication a strong candidate should have publication credits for various journals or reviews. 

I hope that this whole unfortunate mess will not sour poetry for Valerie Mason. It least for the present it sounds like she remains a devotee. I hope that people look past her and recognize that this was not of her making. The ball is back in the Governor's court.

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