A bit of a stink going on in North Carolina this week. Nothing so serious that lives are at risk, but serious enough, in a state that prides itself on its ability to nurture and grow literary giants, that the story moved all the way up the Looky Here ladder to the New York Times.
I’ll get right to it: After North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti’s two-year term was up, Governor Pat McCrory took it upon himself (a big no-no right there, see below) to appoint Valerie Macon, a nearly unknown poet, to the prestigious post.
I am not going to pick on this poor woman who, as I understand it, writes poems about the homeless, a subject after my own heart. No, I’m going to pick on Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, the guy who appointed her, subjecting her in the process to intense scrutiny and extreme humiliation, all because the dumb bugger apparently didn’t know the first thing about appointing a Poet Laureate.
Not every state has a Poet Laureate. (Michigan, my Michigan doesn’t have one, though the folks in the U.P took it upon themselves to appoint one for our neck of the woods.) But North Carolina has a long history of producing and nurturing poets and writers. within the state itself and within the writing program at Chapel Hill. They take their writing claim-to-fame seriously.
Note to Michigan writers: Not saying we don’t take our writing seriously. We do. Some pretty famous writers and poets have come out of our beautiful state. So really, folks, why don’t we have a Poet Laureate?
But back to NC: Traditionally–and rightly–writers from all over the state, including members of the North Carolina Arts Council, have always been consulted before the poet laureate selection. They’re the only ones in a position to actually know which poets have the credentials to be up for consideration. They then pass along a recommendation to the governor, who, since he has bigger fish to fry (we’re hoping), just goes along and signs the decree. Then almost everyone is happy. (The exceptions being the poets who thought they should have been chosen, of course.)
Gov. McCrory has only been in office for a year and a half. His previous job was with Duke Energy. It could be that Valerie Macon is the only poet he knows in the entire state, and since he’s the governor he thought it was his duty, and his duty alone, crazy as it seems, to choose a Poet Laureate, whatever that is.
But didn’t Valerie Macon know enough about the job to be able to say to McCrory, when he asked her if she was interested, “Are you nuts?” She had to know her flimsy credentials didn’t even begin to qualify her for such a post. She self-published two chapbooks, claimed she was a Pushcart Prize finalist (an impossibility for a self-publisher), and has had to admit she didn’t actually win the prestigious award cited in the governor’s press release about her new position. (The award went to a poet who had mentored Macon.) Right there, she should have known there would be trouble ahead.
So, okay, poor unsuspecting Valerie Macon. She was thrilled. And who wouldn’t be? But for over a week now she has been subjected to unrelenting, mostly hateful comments about her ethics, about her life, about her work as a poet.
I won’t repeat them here, or link to them. She doesn’t deserve all that hate. They’ve attacked her abilities as a poet and that’s not fair. She may not be Laureate material, but poetry is so uniquely personal and individual, who gets to decide what’s good and what’s not?
At least one screed ended on a thoughtful note, saying, in effect, “Let’s help Valerie be the best Laureate she can be by inviting her to places where she can be exposed to actual poetry”. The writer then went on to publish an entire poem written by Macon–without her permission–and take it apart in an appalling, insufferable, holier-than-thou critique.
In a little less than a full week, Valerie Macon resigned her new post.
Governor McCrory owes her an apology. And so, by the way, does that patronizing poetry critic who went on to call her poem “patronizing”. (And me, too, for even bringing it up again.)
It’ll all be over soon. With the help of the literary community in North Carolina, a new Poet Laureate will at last be chosen. And everyone can get on with their lives.
Except maybe Valerie Macon.
(Update: A new poet-laureate has been chosen and this time the governor stayed out of it. Here’s the story.)