Poetry Slam: North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Drama

magnetic_poetryThe more job listings I read, the more efficient I get at parsing them. First, of course, comes the position description, to make sure it’s something I can actually do and might even want to. The list of requirements takes a little longer to weigh: which are the slam-dunks (grasp of basic grammar, proficiency in Microsoft Office Suite, ability to lift 25 pounds), which are the no-ways (second language, second Master’s degree, second shift), and which are the gray areas, the fake-it-’til-you-make-it qualifications. A professor of mine once kindly pointed out that the only person with every one of the skills called for in a given employment description is the person who already has the job, but there’s still the fear of overestimating one’s talents. Nobody wants to be humiliated in the course of an interview, and certainly no one wants to somehow land a job they’re unsuited for.

It happens all the time, though. Think of FEMA’s Michael Brown and the “heck of a job” he did after Hurricane Katrina, or Cathie Black, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s choice for School Chancellor, who stepped down a little more than three months into her tenure when it became painfully clear that chairing Hearst Magazines didn’t quite translate into running the New York City school system. Think of George W. Bush’s friend Harriet Miers, who never made it to sit on the Supreme Court but could have. Or, if you like your incompetence scandals a little more literary, think of Valerie Macon, who was North Carolina’s Poet Laureate for all of six days.

To be fair, it wasn’t so much Macon’s inadequacy for the position that came under fire as Governor Pat McCrory’s disregard for the selection process, apparently typical of his general disengagement with cultural issues. Traditionally, the North Carolina Arts Council would review applications from poets around the state, and then submit its recommendation to the governor. McCrory, however, went ahead and chose Valerie Macon to fill the position being vacated by outgoing Laureate Joseph Bathanti without consulting anyone other than an unnamed “staff member.” Macon, a government employee—she’s a disability determination specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services—has two self-published poetry books to her name, Shelf Life (2011) and this year’s Sleeping Rough, a collection of poems about homelessness. While she’s been lauded by fellow employees and fellow poets alike for her energy, activism, and earnestness, this is not a good-intentions kind of job. Poet Laureate is a serious role; it’s the state’s face of the arts, and—especially in these times of whittled-away cultural funding—needs to be treated as such. Poet Jaki Shelton Greene, a recent inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, described McCrory’s attitude as

an affront to all the hard work so many of us have done…. I can name writer after writer in this state with a legacy not just in writing, but in leadership on how art informs lives. I don’t think McCrory has a clue. But what’s clear is he knows he doesn’t have to have a clue, just be governor.

Macon resigned the post six days after her appointment, noting that

I would like to encourage everyone to read and write poetry. They do not need prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations—just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression.

It’s unclear how McCrory intends to proceed in order to fill the position, but it looks as though Macon is getting her wish. The Raleigh, NC News & Observer invited readers to respond to the fracas with poems of their own, and the people comported themselves admirably in free verse, pentameter, and, of course, limericks:

When art’s left to our politicians,
It’s subject to noxious conditions.
The state’s warm embrace
Can become a disgrace
And displeasing to academicians.

—Barry Campbell

(Image is “Magnetic Poetry,” from Natalie Roberts’s Flickr set, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

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