What does a state poet laureate do—and why does it matter? | Reading | Indy Week
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What does a state poet laureate do—and why does it matter? 

Former poet laureate Joseph Bathanti

Photo courtesy of Bathanti

Former poet laureate Joseph Bathanti

There's an email that Joseph Bathani keeps handy. It's from a chopper pilot whose family dragged him to the former poet laureate's writing workshop. There, the veteran found himself talking and writing about combat experiences he had never shared with anyone.

"Some of the demons I carry around were weakened," he later wrote to Bathanti, who served as laureate from 2012 to 2014. "It is a good thing you are doing."

This is the kind of service poets laureate provide. They keep daunting itineraries. They might have to hold the attention of auditoriums full of squirming elementary-school children in the morning and conduct intimate, emotionally charged workshops for senior citizens in the afternoon.

They teach, judge, counsel and cheerlead in every corner of the state, using poetry to connect people of all ages and backgrounds to their families, communities, memories and inspirations.

Three weeks ago, Valerie Macon, an employee at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services resigned from her week-long tenure as the state's eighth poet laureate, after the literary community objected to her meager publications and experience.

Whereas her predecessors had numerous books on legitimate presses and poems in reputable magazines, Macon has only two self-published books. But when talking to prior poets laureate, Macon's lack of publication experience seems even less relevant than her lack of teaching experience. The outcry wasn't about insiders shunning an outsider. It was about her being profoundly unprepared for the actual duties of the job.

"It's crucial that people understand what we do," says Kathryn Stripling Byer, who was N.C. Poet Laureate from 2005 to 2009. "The laureateship is not a ceremonial role. It was quite a hands-on job and it was very much a public job."

Macon had been appointed by the governor, as all poets laureate are. What was unorthodox was that Gov. Pat McCrory bypassed the North Carolina Arts Council's established selection process and guidelines and then turned the furor to his advantage to attack "cultural elites." But the idea that a public office-holder should be qualified isn't elitist—it's just common sense.

Though the governor would like to paint qualified poets as elites, the prior four poets laureate—who all brought decades of teaching experience to the post—come from working-class backgrounds.

Born on a farm near Canton in 1936, Fred Chappell (who served from 1997 to 2002) went on to publish more than 30 books and founded the writing department at UNC-Greensboro.

Byer, a student of Chappell's before becoming poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University, grew up on a farm in Georgia.

South Carolina native Cathy Smith Bowers (2010–2012) was raised in a cotton-mill family, going on to teach in grade schools and college for more than 40 years.

And Bathanti, whose parents were a steelworker and a seamstress in Pittsburgh, teaches in different hills now, at Appalachian State University.

"Me, Kay, Cathy and Fred—we couldn't manage a silver spoon among the four of us," Bathanti laughs. "We don't live in ivory towers. I've spent my life in North Carolina working in prisons and shelters. That's part of what the poet laureate is about—having someone on the ground, being a kind of utility player."

Bathanti brought a blue-collar work ethic to his 22-month laureateship. Visiting 45 of the state's 100 counties, he delivered nine keynote speeches and commencement addresses, judged 10 poetry competitions, gave 14 radio and television interviews plus many more to newspapers and magazines, taught workshops and read at hundreds of public and charter schools, universities, libraries, domestic violence prevention organizations, prisons, retirement communities and veterans' groups.

Laureates are also encouraged to develop a signature project to define their tenures. Bathanti wrote with veterans and their families in workshops all over the state, founding the Veterans Writing Collective and collaborating with the Touring Theatre of North Carolina on Deployed, a production featuring writing from those workshops.

On a single day in April last year, Bathanti taught two classes of third graders, read at a library luncheon, taught a workshop at a VA hospital and judged a teen poetry slam. Not bad for a day's work.

Almost every state has a poet laureate, as do many counties and municipalities. In the United States, it used to be more of an honorary title or fellowship, recognizing a distinguished publishing career but requiring little of the poet. The culture wars of the Reagan years changed that. Laureates and other comparable appointments in the arts took active roles, using the title to aid in education and social justice reform movements.

Threatened by legislators who viewed any cultural subsidy as a waste of money, many poets laureate emphasized education over their own writing. The arts organizations that handled laureate appointments, needing to justify the receipt of public funds for its programs, encouraged laureates to institute projects and programs in schools and communities. It wasn't enough just to make great art; you had to show some metrics of impact. Whether or not the bean counters value art, they can find cost-benefit value in the number of schoolchildren served by laureate workshops, for instance.

The laureateship of N.C. has undergone parallel changes. Legislation creating the poet laureate title was passed in 1935, but we didn't get our first laureate, Arthur Talmage Abernathy, until 1948.

At first, it was a lifetime appointment. The first two laureates served a total of 33 years. Then, Gov. Jim Hunt bestowed the honor upon Sam Ragan, a legendary poet and journalist. Reflecting the national trend, Ragan modernized the laureate's role during a 14-year tenure that ended with his death in 1996.

When Chappell succeeded Ragan in 1997, the current expectations of the laureate began to form: the poet as educator and devoted public advocate. Hunt also limited the laureate's term to five years (it's since been narrowed to two) because there were so many deserving poets in the state.

The North Carolina Arts Council has managed the nomination and selection process for new laureates since 1997, updating their guidelines in 2004. Any North Carolinian has been able to nominate any other state resident for the post. The NCAC collects these nominations, asks nominees for supporting materials and outreach project proposals, convenes a panel to winnow down the nominees and then presents a short list to the governor, along with the council's recommendation. This recommendation is non-binding; the governor always has the final say.

Although Gov. McCrory said he would revisit the selection process and acknowledged a letter from the last four laureates offering their help and experience, there has been no direct contact to date.

"I sense that we're probably going to have to reach out, that we're not going to be summoned to Raleigh," Bathanti says. "We appreciate the governor's statement that he would meet with us. Now we would love to actually meet with him."

Bathanti says that he would bring a dossier of concrete examples of what a poet laureate does. He's confident that McCrory would be surprised by its breadth. Additionally, Byer would bring a sheaf of work to the meeting featuring both established poets and school-age students.

"I think that if the governor could be encouraged to read a poem a day," Byer says, "he could begin to understand what the literary community is all about in the state. He would begin to hear the voices of the writers who live here. That could be an important first step for him to understand what's at stake."


The Bull by Joseph Bathanti

Quail go up at the first crash.

A tulip poplar trembles to the water.

It is the bull, ribald as ever.

Not that he wants to be this way,

but rage is his plaything.

The cows know his curse.

They'd rather forget him.

Today he's demolishing the river bank:

old, a trifle sway-backed,

self-conscious as a graying power-lifter;

up to his hams in mud and buck-tallow,

fuming like an idling Bushhog.

His bastinado head has a near-charming

heaviness, a lovelorn slowness

in the eyes that seems to smile cleverly

as if drumming up his history.

Red clay drapes him.

His sleep is riven by toreadors.

His speed is so unusual —

an army driving thunder,

a black slash across the corn.

— From Anson County. Published with permission from the author

This article appeared in print with the headline "Unrest on Their Laurels."

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