Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Poet Laurie Ate

So. A thing happened in North Carolina last week.

In the course of normal state business, NC Governor Pat McCrory (no relation to Helen, as far as I know, and all the better for her) was called upon to appoint a Poet Laureate to follow in the very able and completely awesome steps of Joseph Bathanti.

He's just a regular Joe. (GET IT?)

Governor McCrory made his decision, choosing Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as Bathanti's successor. There's a problem, though: McCrory made his decision without following recommended guidelines set forth by the North Carolina Arts Council or taking official nominations. It would seem that he saw fit to move ahead without guidance on this matter, and the NCAC has supported this action. (Bathanti was named Poet Laureate by McCrory's immediate predecessor, Bev Perdue.)

There are four upcoming inductees into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, any of whom would have made an excellent choice for Poet Laureate (full disclosure: I know one of them personally and have met two of the others). As Ed Southern, Executive Director of the North Carolina Writers' Network--to which I belong--points out, "[I]f any of them had been appointed poet laureate in such a sudden and apparently arbitrary way, we would be right to object" to them, as well. Southern is correct, and that's the rub of it: the arbitrary nature of this situation does not agree with any of us, regardless of the merit of the poet's work.

Ron Bayes: poet, homeboy, soon-to-be NC Literary Hall of Famer.

However, as Dannye Powell of the Charlotte Observer points out in an article published on 14 July (link above), Macon, who is a State employee, has been misrepresented as a compelling choice. Macon has neither served as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet--she was a student poet, as I was once upon a time--nor been properly nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Moreover, her two collections of poetry have been self-published; while self-publishing is far less stigmatized than it used to be, it is still regarded warily by the poetry world.

Given McCrory's disregard for the citizens of North Carolina, as evidenced by his terrible comments about liberal arts education and questionable approaches to reforming public education, I'm not surprised by this move on his part. I do think, though, that he has waded into dangerous territory. As funding decreases for the arts and humanities across the nation, more and more writers face financial and societal difficulty; few people--aside from other poets--take poetry seriously. 

But as a friend of a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, North Carolina poets are in a tough spot now. If they protest too loudly, McCrory may take the opportunity to dismantle the Poet Laureate program altogether by way of teaching "jealous" poets a lesson. If that sounds like extreme logic to you, you've clearly never been on the wrong end of an arts/humanities budget cut or faced loud criticism over your choice of major.

We writers tend to huddle together as a result of living under fire. And I would love to have supported Valerie Macon, if I felt she had the experience necessary to serve as Poet Laureate. (She herself does not appear to have any faith in her own abilities, as she resigned from the post less than a week after the announcement.) As it is, I cannot do that. It makes me sad to see North Carolina writers put into the position of having to reject their Poet Laureate, too, because the position is vitally important. I hope that McCrory is able to see the error of his ways and that Macon will have the grace to admit her lack of qualifications and reach out for help, which would no doubt create some goodwill among other writers in the state. 


Images via my own Instagram feed and St. Andrews University.

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