By Ed Southern, Executive Director, North Carolina Writers’ Network
The North Carolina Writersâ€™ Network stands for writing as â€œeverybodyâ€™s art.â€ In our mission statement, we affirm that â€œwriting is necessary both for self-expression and a healthy community, that well-written words can connect people across time and distance, and that the deeply satisfying experiences of writing and reading should be available to everyone.â€ We are egalitarian, democratic with a lower-case â€œd,â€ and anti-elitist.
We stand for excellence, for preserving and promoting the best of North Carolina writing, for continuing and strengthening and deepening North Carolinaâ€™s remarkable literary tradition. We believe that fine writers can come from Duke and Oxford like Reynolds Price, or from the Marines and carnival sideshows like Tim McLaurin. We believe fine writing can come from anyone, any place, any press or publisher, including yourself.
Some writers publish more work than others, sell more copies and make more money than others, win more awards, get more glowing reviews, tell more gripping stories, construct more elegant sentences, use more evocative words. Some writers are better than others.
That does not cheapen or negate the work, the effort, or the passion any writer puts into their words; he or she still is just as much a writer as any other. Whatever our level of skill or experience, education or fame, we are all writers as long as weâ€™re writing, all lovers of the written word and what it can do, all fighting the good fight for the caring and thoughtful use of the language.
I do not know Valerie Macon or her work, but I know people who do, and they describe her as a kind and caring person who is well-liked and active in Fuquay-Varina, where she has done great work with and for the homeless population.
I do not know why Governor McCroryâ€™s office selected Valerie to be North Carolinaâ€™s new poet laureate. I do not even know how the governorâ€™s office went about selecting her out of all the poets now writing in North Carolina.
I do know the governorâ€™s office chose to make the appointment without the usual (and public) nomination, selection, and recommendation process conducted by the North Carolina Arts Council.
I do know that bypassing this processâ€”bypassing not so much the North Carolina Arts Council, as the people of the stateâ€”devalues the stateâ€™s literary community and tradition, the poet laureate position, andâ€”through no fault of her ownâ€”Valerieâ€™s tenure in the position.
Dannye Romine Powell, for the Charlotte Observer, and David Menconi, for the Raleigh News & Observer, have covered well the announcement and the reactions to it, and I recommend their articles and blog posts to everyone (full disclosure: Dannye and David are members of the Network). Even they, though, have not gotten answers to the two biggest questions remaining: why did the governorâ€™s office ignore the traditional and offered help of the state Arts Council, and how did they come to select Valerie Macon?
Whatever the intrinsic quality of Valerieâ€™s poetry, she does not have a body of work comparable in size or recognition to those of our past laureates. Those laureates, too, all were teachers of long service and high renown, and were well-known to poets and readers across the state and beyond.
The â€œselection criteriaâ€ that, until recently, were posted on the Arts Councilâ€™s website (Menconi posted them on the â€œUnder the Domeâ€ blog) called for â€œliterary excellence,â€ â€œinfluence on other writers,â€ and â€œstatewide, national or international reputation.â€ On Friday, Valerieâ€™s websiteâ€”which also has come down recentlyâ€”said she has two books of poetry, both self-published through Old Mountain Press. Both books, the site said, were nominees for the Pushcart Prize, but Pushcart Prizes are not given to book-length works, and anyone can nominate any work for a Pushcart.
Really, though, Valerieâ€™s resume is less important than the way she became laureate. The North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame this fall will induct four outstanding poets (Betty Adcock, Ronald Bayes, Jaki Shelton Green, and Shelby Stephenson), but if any of them had been appointed poet laureate in such a sudden and apparently arbitrary way, we would be right to object.
The traditional nomination process allowed any and all North Carolinians to suggest poets they thought deserved to be our stateâ€™s â€œambassadorâ€ of poetry and the written word. Those poets were told they had been nominated, and, if they accepted the nomination, were asked to provide work samples, lists of publications and awards, references and recommendations, a statement of what they would hope to accomplish as laureate: in other words, to create a public record of the reasons they should be the poet laureate.
The Arts Council then brought together North Caroliniansâ€”poets, professors, editors, journalists, even (once, at least) an executive directorâ€”representing as much of the stateâ€™s population as possible to discuss and decide which of these nominees the council should recommend to the governor, whoâ€”no offense to poets or poetryâ€”presumably has more pressing matters at hand, and probably, sadly, is not as up-to-date on contemporary poetry as he or she should be.
Choosing to ignore this process means choosing to ignore the people of the state. It does not mean that Valerie will not perform her laureate duties well. It does mean that Valerie enters her laureateship in a difficult and unfair position, deprived of the consensus and support that the customary selection process would have built.
I hope Valerie will be an outstanding poet laureate. I hope she will use the laureateâ€™s position and platform to increase and expand her work with the homeless, as she has said she plans. I hope she will be as effective in those efforts as Joseph Bathanti has been in his work with returning veterans. I hope the Network will be able to help her, as our past laureates have pledged to, in that or any other productive mission she decides to undertake.
I hope that the governorâ€™s office will remember this experience, will see the value of the laureate position, and will accept the help of the North Carolina Arts Council when selecting the next.
I hope that all this will show othersâ€”and remind usâ€”how much our poet laureate matters, how much poetry matters, how much the written word matters, to so many: to those fighting the good fight, with whatever weapons they have, and to those who donâ€™t realize the fightâ€™s being fought.