July 16, 2014
North Carolina governor’s choice for poet laureate sparks controversy
by Nick Davies
Governor of North Carolina Pat McCrory is in deep trouble with the state’s literary community this week, after picking a self-published writer as the poet laureate, especially since he made the decision without any input from the North Carolina Arts Council.
David Menconi reports for the News and Observer in Raleigh, NC that McCrory’s selection for the coveted post is Valerie Macon, a state employee for the Department of Cultural Resources who’s self-published two poetry collections to date. The proceeds of the latter, Sleeping Rough, are going to a small charity that grows food to feed the homeless, which she started. So she’s clearly a nice person, but the first strike against Macon as a creative force is that chose the absolutely groan-inducing “Garden of Eaten” as the name for that charity.
But the thriving poetry community in North Carolina has more relevant complaints than horrible puns. Menconi writes that after the announcement of Macon’s appointment, “social media discussions flared throughout the weekend in North Carolina’s poetry circles. Many poets wondered who Macon was; the consensus of most discussions was that she wasn’t qualified.”
Richard Krawiec, a poet and publisher in Durham, NC, points out that “Valerie Macon is a beginner in her poetry career. Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations. If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than what’s the purpose of the laureate position?” As Menconi points out, she doesn’t stack up that well against the outgoing poet laureate, Joseph Bathani, who’s published six books of poetry and received awards and fellowships for his poetry and novels.
Beyond the actual selection, many people in the community are disappointed about the way McCrory went about it. For one thing, the poet laureate announcement—usually an occasion for some kind of ceremony and fanfare with the laureate present—was merely announced with a press release. While the governor isn’t required to consult anybody on the decision, North Carolina’s Arts Council has frequently overseen the nomination and selection of candidates in the past. Former laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer criticizes what seems like an uninformed decision saying, “It’s supposed to be an open, transparent, democratic process. It does very much seem to us that he either didn’t know what he was supposed to do, or he just didn’t give a damn, frankly.”
Macon, for her part, says she’s staying out of the fray, saying in a Saturday interview, “All I can say is I will definitely do my very best to promote poetry. I’ll work hard to be the best poet laureate I possibly can for the citizens of North Carolina.” She is in something of an unenviable position, and it’s easy to sympathize with her—at least until you remember “Garden of Eaten,” which is truly unforgivable.
Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.