The state of our state being what it is, recent budget cuts slashed some of the funds that go to North Carolina's Arts Council--which conducts the laureate search and selection process--and as a result the organization pushed its mission from January back to July. But Mary Regan, executive director of the Arts Council, says filling the position is still as important as ever. "It's very special to have artists recognized at such a high level of service to the state," she says. "Poet laureates point out to everybody in a very concrete way the role that professional writers and artists play in the civic life of the state. They draw a lot of attention to the importance of poetry and the arts in general."
Now the search is on, and not for the first time. The official position was created in 1935, though it remained vacant until 13 years later, when Governor Greg Cherry appointed Arthur Abernethy, a religious journalist and poet who later became a minister. Popular poet John McNeill was the official state poet laureate before him, and though he was never given the title by the state, it still appears on McNeill's Scotland county tombstone. James Larkin Pearson, specialist in a laid-back rural poetry, served as the state's laureate from 1953 until 1981, when he died at age 101. For 20 years as a younger man, he printed his own sharp monthly newsletter, called The Fool-Killer. Governor James Hunt appointed the much-loved Sam Ragan to the post in 1982, who served until his death in 1996.
Though the N.C. Arts Council had been consulted in Ragan's appointment, in 1997 Governor Jim Hunt directed the council to take full control of the search and selection, and to eventually recommend a candidate for his approval. Up till now, Hunt and the council had decided that the position would have a 5-year term limit (the council is currently mulling a further amendment of the term to just 3 years). In '97, the council unanimously selected Fred Chappell, a renowned poet and professor at UNC-Greensboro who ends his term this month.
Now the Arts Council has gathered another search committee from across the state to debate, discuss and select the next laureate on an undetermined day in late July (the deadline for nominations is July 11). But it's not that simple--not just anyone will be considered: The poet laureate must have been widely published, highly respected among peers and readers alike, and must have resided in North Carolina for a reasonable amount of time. The search committee itself, comprised of literary figures from Wilmington to Boone, will bring nominations to the table as well, and it's expected that only a select few names will be seriously considered when decision time rolls around.
Ed Wilson, provost emeritus and professor of English at Wake Forest University, who was appointed as chair of the selection committee six years ago, is faced again with the difficult task, as chair of the 2003 committee. "Obviously you want a person who is a poet of distinction," he says. "You want a person who lives in and represents North Carolina. You also want someone who will undertake the responsibility of traveling the state on personal appearances. We will look for the person who could best succeed Fred Chappell."
And those aren't easy shoes to fill, as many adored Chappell in the role. "Fred was superb," says Wilson. "He is a writer of great quality and he is good at speaking before any group of people; he can speak to fellow poets, he can speak to a college audience or a group of ordinary miscellaneous people who might get together in a school or library to hear him. He is very human and in very many ways himself a poet of the people."
Chappell has been commended for exceeding all the expectations and duties for the laureate, which included writing poems for special occasions or events, traveling the state to give readings and work with school children, and promoting reading and writing in general to a wide cross-section of the state. The laureate also works with the North Carolina Writers Network Fellows as a mentor to other writers. It's not an easy role: Chappell met numerous demands during his term, not the least of which was "The Attending," a remarkable poem which he was asked to compose in the wake of Sept. 11.
"I think poetry is at the heart and soul of man's humanity," says Wilson. "And I think if we can find somebody who represents that, and if that person is related to the people of North Carolina, then I think we have done a very important thing for the state."
There is, of course, a national poet laureate, and the tradition goes back for centuries in England. All but 11 states in the United States had a laureate position as of 1999. There's even one in Carrboro--Patrick Herron debuted as the city's second annual laureate on July 4 when he read his winning entry, "Independence Day 2003." He succeeds Kate Lovelady, who read new poems for multiple Carrboro events during her term. Herron hopes to introduce a series of poetry readings around the town and further integrate poetry into the contemporary American life, a modern theme he frequently explores in his own work. "I think the idea behind the position is that it really represents Carrboro's invested interest in the arts," Herron says. "Top of the list in terms of values of the community is the word 'arts,' and I think it's great that it is."
Look for local poet laureate fever to come to a head when the Arts Council's committee selects the next North Carolina laureate, a position established way back in a certain sepia-toned General Assembly Resolution, No. 60, 1935.
"North Carolina is a state that is known around the country and the world for the quality and number of its writers," says Joe Newberry, communications manager for the Arts Council. "It's only fitting in a state with that kind of reputation that we present a poet laureate to represent us in the arts, and to comment on things that happen in our state."
Now if only they could tackle that budget.