Valerie Macon, appointed by Governor Pat McCrory as North Carolina's poet laureate last Friday, resigned her appointment Thursday.
The North Carolina literary community noisily—and almost unanimously—objected to the virtually unknown Macon's appointment on the grounds that she was substantially unqualified for the honor and that her inexperience undermined the integrity of the office of laureate as well as the literary tradition of the state. Macon has self-published two books and lacks teaching or program facilitation experience, which are core duties of the poet laureate. Past laureates have all been substantially published poets with national reputations and decades of teaching experience in the state.
Furor has largely been directed at McCrory for bypassing the established laureate nomination process, usually handled by the North Carolina Arts Council. On Wednesday, the governor stated that he was not aware that there had been a nomination process at all. He accused critics of his unilateral selection of Macon of "cultural elitism," even while acknowledging that he did not know what the guidelines for a laureate were. McCrory pledged to review the process and guidelines in the future.
Acknowledging Macon's resignation a day later, the governor expressed disappointment in the literary community's criticism of her appointment, characterizing it as "hostility and condescension." He also noted that the public may be involved in future nominations.letter of resignation, she writes that she does not want the "negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate." Macon states her passion for poetry and self-expression. She also mildly echoes McCrory's accusation of critics as elitists in writing that neither publishing credits nor "accolades from impressive organizations" are required to enjoy the art form.
Susan Kluttz, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, amplified McCrory's disappointment in her Thursday statement. Kluttz praised Macon's "passion to use her talent to combat homelessness" while expressing regret "that she became the focus of disingenuous comments that she did not deserve."
Meanwhile, four former state poets laureate—Kathryn Stripling Byer, Fred Chappell, Cathy Smith Bowers and outgoing laureate Joseph Bathanti—released a Thursday statement as well, expressing outrage over McCrory's circumvention of the NCAC-driven process which "insured that the poet laureate, ultimately appointed by the governor, was indeed a poet and educator of singular accomplishment, someone not only with a literary reputation in North Carolina, but beyond."
While critical of the governor and the unfortunate position his ill-advised selection put Macon in, the former laureates expressed interest in working with him to clarify a process and guidelines for the poet laureate nomination.
Byer said to the News and Observer: "I hope people place the blame where it belongs, not on the literary community but on a governor who took matters into his own hands and chose a good person who just was not yet ready for this post."
For Macon's supporters and detractors alike, many questions remain unanswered in the aftermath of this situation.
How exactly was Macon selected, and who selected her? What was the justification and motivation for her choice? How could the Governor's office have lacked the political savvy to anticipate how controversial Macon's appointment would be? Did they consider how their choice might hurt Macon—a private citizen plucked out almost unawares and foisted into public controversy?
How did the governor not know about the existing laureate nomination process or the role of the NCAC in it? Did he know about the process and simply choose not to follow it? Or, if he was truly ignorant of the process, then whose responsibility was it to inform him? When will North Carolina have a poet laureate? What will the process be, and what guidelines will drive it? Will the governor choose transparency or opacity? It's discouraging that so far, he has clearly chosen the latter.
Who the hell is Valerie Macon?
That’s what poets in North Carolina are asking this week after Gov. Pat McCrory bypassed the established process for choosing the state’s poet laureate and appointed the unknown, inexperienced Macon to the post for the next two years.
Typically, the North Carolina Arts Council handles the selection of a new laureate. They solicit nominations, convene a selection committee to review the poets against the position’s guidelines and recommend a finalist to the Governor, who announces the new laureate.
But McCrory couldn’t bother with that. Ignoring the NCAC’s process, he simply issued a Friday-afternoon press release that Macon was in. The governor didn't even bother to thank outgoing laureate Joseph Bathanti, who has done exemplary education and outreach work around the state since 2012.
Well, at least McCrory didn’t slash Bathanti’s tires.
Ignoring standard procedure and professional courtesy is one thing. Macon’s profound lack of qualifications is another. Bathanti’s resume is typical for a laureate—more than 10 books, decades of literary involvement, major awards and a teaching position at Appalachian State University.
Macon’s got none of those chops. She’s self-published two short poetry books. She studied business, not literature. She’s never taught. Her poetry outreach work amounts to zero. Judging from the collective social media shrug from the Tarheel poetry world, Macon’s not involved in any literary community. She’s a bureaucrat, commuting to her Department of Health and Human Services job from her Fuquay-Varina home—a hobbyist poet.
Meanwhile, NCAC guidelines state that the laureate should possess “deep connections to the cultural life of this state, literary excellence and influence on other writers and appreciation of literature in its diversity throughout the state.”
A poet laureate should be a truly stellar poet and, more importantly, an educator and advocate—a high-energy expert in audience engagement. Bathanti, for example, has traveled the length and breadth of the state, reading and conducting workshops at schools, libraries, workplaces and community centers. Laureates define their tenure with a passionate, overarching public project. Bathanti has been lauded for helping Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans express their experiences and use writing to move past trauma. And perhaps Macon, whose poetry often expresses sympathy for the homeless, will surprise us by doing similarly tireless work for poetry in North Carolina. The question is whether she has the skills and experience to do it well.
Granted, this particular maverick political act doesn't rank with McCrory's legislative disdain for women, children, the middle and lower classes or the environment, but his cultural disdain for the people of North Carolina is almost as insidious. Does McCrory know that, by association, this embarrassing appointment hurts every writer based in the state? Poets laureate represent their state’s literary past and present and should have a national profile. Macon didn’t have a profile outside of her cubicle until last Friday afternoon.
How and why was Macon selected? Who exactly selected her? The Governor is mum on these questions, so we are left to speculate. It could be naive obliviousness: "Hey, doesn't that nice lady on the first floor write poetry? I think I saw something pinned to her bulletin board. She should be poet laureate.”
Or could McCrory be sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether? You can anticipate his smug 2016 statement: “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of the poet laureate over the last two years and have decided the position no longer merits taxpayer funding.” The budget line item is, however, tiny—the News and Observer reported the laureate's stipend as between $5,000 and $15,000. That’s around 5 percent of the taxpayer funds McCrory had planned to spend to renovate his Executive Mansion bathrooms until public furor flushed his boondoggle last year.
McCrory has castrated the NCAC. And since the council has to live in fear of his red pen, they get to maintain a closed-lips smile while he waves it in their faces. Sorry—don’t visualize that.
Again, who is Valerie Macon? What kind of a poet is she? It seems even Macon doesn’t want us to know. Her personal poetry website was taken down upon her appointment. God forbid the people of the state she now purportedly represents might read her work.
Sales pages for her two books are still up, however, each with an example poem. Her 2014 effort Sleeping Rough is a 36-page book of poems about homelessness on the vanity imprint Old Mountain Press. Old Mountain can be said to be a publisher in the same way that a photocopier is. As a self-publishing house, it buys up blocks of ISBNs—the book cataloging number that forms its barcode—and re-sells them to authors along with services like retyping handwritten manuscripts. Scrape together $100 and bam! You're a poet or a memoirist or a sci-fi romance novelist.
To be fair, some self-published books are great. The occasional outsider poet produces the occasional gem. But self-publishing, in the poetry world, ranks closer to sticking wide-ruled paper to the fridge with magnets than having an edited book with a reputable press. Unfortunately Macon’s work appears to bear this out.
Her author statement for Sleeping Rough sets out her poetic project: "This book was written in my Suzuki Grand Vitara during a year's worth of lunch breaks. I had only to park, open my eyes, pick up my pen, and the homeless paraded before me, compelled me to tell their stories."
In “Detour,” Macon gives an imaginary voice to a father living out of his car:
I’m grateful for my car, he says,
voice raspy with hard living.
Tossed on the seat, a briefcase
covered with union stickers,
stuffed with unemployment forms,
want ads, old utility bills,
birth certificate, school application
papers for the skinny ten-year-old
sitting beside him who loves baseball.
The cat paces the seats. Rain
rumbles on the hood, wind
snatches the leaves into a spiral—
a layoff, a broken leg, a missed payment;
fate, a twister, picked him up
and dropped him on a side street.
Has Macon ever read a poem by another poet? From a craft standpoint, this is rough, immature work. The convoluted syntax at the end of her second sentence kills the momentum of her list of the briefcase’s contents. Placing the line break after the adjective “application” rather than the noun “papers” cuts against her list as well. And as an item in that list, the child is made into a thing rather than a person. This is the central moment in the poem—when the reader realizes that the people in this car are a family unit—but Macon’s awkward form and language botch it.
Even worse, Macon seems unaware of the politics of the man’s situation, using fate as an escape hatch rather than attempting analytical engagement. In the guise of close observation and description, “Detour” steps over a moral line into bad faith territory. It’s a low act to put your words in someone else’s mouth without making the slightest effort to know them. The homeless parade before her? That's shamefully patronizing. Macon damns the homeless with her lame lyricism and objectifies this man and child as an apolitical fantasy constructed at a safe distance.
Not that a Grand Vitara’s windshield can't be a window onto the soul, but you have to get out of your damn car to engage with a person or subject. A good poet—and a laureate even more so—does the footwork here. You have conversations with people on the street. You volunteer at a shelter. You get involved with who and what you're writing about. You can't be poet laureate from the front seat of your car.
How gut-wrenching and involved must Bathanti’s work with combat veterans have been? What kind of emotional territory has he explored with his workshop participants? That’s the power of poetry in the public sphere, channeled by someone with real skill and talent. That’s who McCrory’s kicked aside without thanks or explanation.
I don't know Macon, but I'd bet any money she's a very nice person. I appreciate that she has sympathy for those less fortunate and that she feels compelled both to express that in Sleeping Rough and to act upon those feelings by donating some portion of book sales to the Garden of Eaten’, a community garden at Piney Grove Baptist Church that Macon co-directs.
But Macon couldn’t be less qualified to be poet laureate of our state. She’s a dabbler as a poet and a question mark as a thinker, educator and advocate. And now she suddenly has to represent the pinnacle of all that for two years? She should have recognized how out of her depth she is and turned this appointment down. It's not too late for her to step aside.
The truth is, I feel awful for Macon. McCrory’s appointment seems mean. He’s put her in an unenviable spot. She is set up to fail spectacularly, damaging the national reputation of every writer in the state. Valerie Macon is Pat McCrory's middle finger, pointed at North Carolina' literary tradition.
But you know McCrory won't cave, and Macon probably won't have the sense to refuse the appointment. Politicians can never appear to have been wrong. We are stuck with Macon, and we must deal with that. That’s why the poets who’ve been griping and tweeting and commenting since Macon’s appointment was announced, including yours truly in this column, should take this moment as a call to service.
Rather than lambaste the Governor’s cruel, poor choice, maybe poets should rally around Macon. Forget McCrory. This is about the power and possibility of poetry, not the incompetence of a bully politician. Kathryn Stripling Byer, who served two terms as poet laureate last decade, has already pledged to help Macon. Let's pledge too. Let’s crowdsource the poet laureate.
Let’s offer her all our experience and ingenuity. Let's start public workshops and outreach programs and invite Macon along. She doesn't have to run them—nor should she, with no experience as a teacher. But the laureate can be in the room. She can see how poets teach and think. Macon does not have to be a spectacular failure. But if she is, we will have let her be that.
To paraphrase Frank O’Hara: Valerie Macon has collapsed! oh Valerie Macon we love you get up.
INDY arts writer Chris Vitiello is also the author of several books of poetry and a poetry teacher.
A small group of clearly excited Duke officials greeted the media this morning. The occasion: the unveiling of a shimmering, newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium. As Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald noted in preliminary remarks, the 685-seat facility is designed exclusively for acoustic music and as such, it will fill a niche in the area's acoustic music spaces.
Greenwald pointed out that Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall, the Triangle's premier recital venue, is more than twice the size of Baldwin.
Although the exterior of the building, which was completed in 1927, looks the same, the interior was gutted. Now, $15 million worth of renovations later, the auditorium is ready to become a world-class concert venue, according to Vice Provost for the Arts Scott A. Lindroth.
Lindroth believes the renovated Baldwin will become an artistic and cultural destination for not only the Duke community, but the Durham community as well. The Duke Endowment of Charlotte funded the renovation as part of a multi-building proposal that included Page Auditorium and others on campus.
While enhanced aesthetic appeal was a contributing factor to Baldwin’s renovation, the primary reason for the work was a much-needed improvement of sound quality. Ray Walker, the staff architect for the project, said renovations have been in the works since 2007. The school called in an architectural firm and a Connecticut-based group of acousticians to take on the project.
An acoustical shell of curved wooden panels, subtle modifications to the dome ceiling, acoustic draperies and a slew of other contemporary methods of controlling sound reverberation are part of the new design.
Most of the original architecture has remained intact throughout the remodel, and the new additions essentially create a more contemporary theater within the existing auditorium.
Greenwald said Duke Performances and the Department of Music will share the space and lists new chamber arts and vocal ensemble series as part of its upcoming performance season.
Duke's Department of Music will host an inaugural gala concert Sept. 14. Information here.
The first event by Duke Performances in the space will take place Sept. 21 and feature the Ciompi Quartet with the Kruger Brothers. Information here.
A few photos are below.
DSI Comedy Theater’s founder, owner and executive producer Zach Ward returns to Carrboro and DSI this month. Last week, the theater announced his return, following a two-year stint at ImprovBoston in Cambridge, Mass.
In a telephone interview, Ward says that returning to North Carolina was always part of his plan when he decided to go to Boston in 2011 and cites raising his 1-year-old son as a key reason for making the move back to his hometown.
“When I left, I knew what I wanted to accomplish in five years, but it only took me two,” Ward says. He also credits his team with the success of the company.
During his time as managing director of the nonprofit ImprovBoston, the company grew from a $600,000 company to one with a budget of more than one million dollars, he says. In addition to its revenue, ImprovBoston’s programming grew.
Ward now plans to initiate some new programs at DSI, similar to that of ImprovBoston, to give back to the local community.
DSI plans to work with the town of Chapel Hill to bring improv into schools. The Boston improv company worked with children and held improv-based, anti-bullying workshops—something Ward hopes to bring to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area.
“That’s probably the thing that’s most exciting to me. I was able to see what a theater in a nonprofit space does to give back, and it made me really proud of what DSI is already doing.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story quoted Ward as saying it only took "about" two years to achieve his goal. In fact, Ward said, "It only took me two." One further clarification: To more fully represent Ward's assessment of his success in Boston, a sentence was added to reflect the contributions of his co-workers.
The “interim” tag is gone. Sarah Schroth is now officially in place as the director of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.
After a committee comprising academic heavyweights and museum board members conducted an international search throughout the spring, the decision was made to promote from within.
“I’m actually happy that they did an international search because it makes everybody feel like the right decision was made,” Schroth said.
An expert in 17th-century Spanish art, Schroth is also a knight-commander in the Order of Isabel la Católica. King Juan Carlos I of Spain bestowed that honor upon her after she organized the award-winning 2008 exhibition, El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
She takes over an institution with a lot of forward momentum at the moment. Through exhibitions such as The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl (2010-2011) and the current Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, the Nasher has established a reputation as one of the premiere venues for contemporary art in the Southeast.
Duke University, meanwhile, has made a cross-disciplinary commitment to the humanities in recent years, even establishing its first MFA program two years ago in Experimental Documentary Arts. As a teaching institution, the Nasher has become one of the campus’ biggest classrooms.
Schroth understands the moment and sees opportunities to build upon the resonance between the Nasher’s national reputation and Duke’s academic transformation.
“I would like the Nasher to be even more concretely integrated into the undergraduate humanities education here at Duke,” she explains. “It’s one of my missions to think about serving the undergraduates the best way we can and contributing to Duke’s commitment to cross-discipline collaboration, which is what makes Duke so special.”
“The whole transformation through the arts here at Duke is very exciting and the Nasher has to be a keystone in that, and we will.”
One facet of that transformation will be a focus on photography in the Nasher’s future. Schroth points to the 2009 exhibition Beyond Beauty, which drew upon photography and film in the Duke Special Collections Library, as the beginning of an initiative at the museum. Gathering photographs from some of North Carolina’s most prominent collectors, this year’s Light Sensitive exhibition, which Schroth co-curated with art history and visual studies professor Patricia Leighten, expanded that initiative.
“There’s room for the Nasher to participate in the overall Duke story of collecting and exhibiting photography,” Schroth says. “We have the Center for Documentary Studies doing it and we have the library doing it. So, you know, what can the Nasher do?”
“I think Light Sensitive was a good answer to ‘What can the Nasher do?’—bring in some really exciting non-documentary work and give it a good curatorial infrastructure.”
That attention to infrastructure will help Schroth in selecting her curatorial successor, her next task as director.
“I wanted to scream,” Byrne recalls when she received news of the agreement at the end of last week. “[My agent] was excited, everyone was so excited, and so pleased by the deal, which was considerable.”
Crown signed what Byrne characterized as a six-figure deal for the North American publication rights in a pre-emptive contract for the book, buying it before it went to auction with other publishers. As a result, she now joins a group whose roster of writers is capped by the likes of Rachel Maddow, Martha Stewart, George W. Bush and Michelle and Barack Obama.
The Girl in the Road, some 98,000 words long in manuscript form, traces the harrowing twin journeys of two women forced to flee their homes in different times in the near future. The first, Meena, is a Brahmin-caste student whose odyssey takes her from the coastal city of Mumbai toward Djibouti across a futuristic but treacherous bridge that spans the Arabian Sea. The second, Mariama, escapes from slavery as a small child in Mauritania, joining a caravan heading across Saharan Africa toward Ethiopia.
The novel took five years to write, Byrne says, and was completed during a research trip to Belize at the end of last year. Its purchase came three weeks after she acquired representation with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, a New York firm specializing in literary fiction and politically oriented nonfiction. Its clients include Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Allison and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The development follows Byrne’s successes as a playwright on local stages over the last two years. After she appeared in productions of Fistful of Love and REDGHOST with Durham’s Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, artistic director Jay O’Berski directed Byrne’s dark comedy Nightwork for Manbites Dog Theater in 2011. Last April, Little Green Pig commissioned and produced What Every Girl Should Know, a speculative historical drama inspired by the work of Margaret Sanger. The company has commissioned a new work for their 2013—14 season. A subsequent drama, The Pentaeon, was selected for the 2012 Collider New Play Project, a collaboration between Fermilab and Fox Valley Repertory Theater in Illinois.
Byrne is currently at work on her second novel.
One change is taking place at the top. Early this week, CAM parted ways with Elysia Borowy-Reeder, the museum's executive director of the last two years. The change has been announced internally but an official announcement is expected soon.
[UPDATE 4:11 p.m.: Here it is.]
Kate Shafer, who has served as gallery and exhibitions manager since the institution’s opening, is now interim director.
“There was a desire on the part of the Contemporary Art Foundation and the advisory board to seek a new direction for the philosophy and the leadership of CAM,” says Marvin Malecha, ex-officio of the museum’s advisory board.
Borowy-Reeder, who is traveling, referred questions to Malecha.
“I think there are some people here who were looking for maybe more of an out-of-the-box thought process relative to how we go forward with CAM, rather than a traditional director’s role as we’d been in," Malecha said.
"We’re looking to take a new turn after two years of finally getting the museum into place after years of aspiration. This is really a chance to go off in a new direction.”
What does “new direction” mean, exactly? The museum’s two governing bodies—the 14-member advisory board and the 16-member Contemporary Art Foundation—will kick around answers during a half-day retreat next week. They’ll also decide what kind of search CAM will make for a new director, or whether they’ll simply reorganize the existing staff.
In other very recent changes, Marjorie Hodges has taken on the role of director of the Contemporary Art Foundation. Her commute won’t change, however—Hodges leaves the Flanders Gallery, directly across West Street from CAM.
Gab Smith also comes on board as director of advancement and membership engagement.
North Carolina Theatre’s Nerds: A New Musical Comedy, running from Jan. 18 to Feb. 2 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is the story of Bill Gates (Stanley Bahorek) and Steve Jobs (Darren Ritchie), the two men most celebrated for the rise of personal computing.
“We thought it would be fun to watch nerds singing,” says co-writer Jordan Allen-Dutton. “In any type of musical you have to believe that someone at anytime can burst into song. And in order to do that, you need characters who are really over-the-top, bigger-than-life characters. And these two guys fit that model.”
Allen-Duton, along with writing partner Erik Weiner and composer Hal Goldberg, have crafted the story of how two lowly nerds rose to the highest levels of wealth and success. The heart of the show, however, is Gates and Jobs’s personal rivalry. In real life, their companies, Microsoft and Apple, were fierce competitors for decades, and the play makes this competition personal: Gates the insecure geek, Jobs the brash stoner, both trying to overcome the social limitations of being a “nerd.”
The celebration of nerds in all their forms is a major theme of the show. Producer Carl Levin notes that nerds have transformed from being social outcasts to leaders of the world. “They’ve evolved. I think now being a nerd is cool.”
Covering the years 1975 to the present, the show also uses the music as a way of exploring history and the characters. “We define Jobs as a rock star in a lot of ways,” says Goldberg, “so that comes through musically. Whereas Gates, he starts off in more of a traditional musical theater way, which is nerdy.”
At rehearsal, it takes no time at all to fix the LED screens. Such technology, of course, is possible thanks to the show’s real-life subjects. “I think the show is really a celebration of American ingenuity and innovation,” says Allen-Dutton.
“Over those 30 years that the show focuses on, we went from seeing a computer that was the size of a city block to a computer in everyone’s pockets at all times. And that was a lightning speed transformation.”
The NC Theatre production is the very first time Nerds is being performed for an audience. After being given a chance to workshop and premiere in Raleigh, Levin hopes to bring the show to New York and, eventually, the world.
“People in Europe and Japan, they really know Bill Gates and they know about Steve Jobs.”
It surely can't hurt the show's chances, then, that nerds are a universal subject.