Gov. Pat McCrory’s failure to follow protocol in selecting the new poet laureate of North Carolina has thrown the typically peace-loving literary community into a furor of what some might call epic proportions.
McCrory’s office on Friday issued a press release announcing Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as the laureate who will serve a two-year term as “ambassador of N.C. literature.” Joseph Bathanti, professor of creative writing at Appalachian State in Boone, fulfilled his term in June.
The furor is not centered around Macon herself, who is 64 and works in Raleigh in the Department of Health and Human Services as a disability determination specialist. She’s a New York native, a graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh and the author of two self-published books of poetry.
No, the furor is about McCrory bypassing the protocol of a call for nominations by the North Carolina Arts Council. Each nominee has traditionally been asked to submit an application to the council that includes letters of recommendation; a list of publications, awards and honors; and a personal vision for the job.
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A committee of the state’s leading poets, drawn from east and west and appointed by the council, then studies the applications and offers a recommendation to the governor. The governor has traditionally selected one of the recommendations.
An email and a call to the governor asking why he failed to use standard procedure have not been answered. When asked who advised McCrory, McCrory spokesman Rick Martinez told the (Raleigh) News & Observer that he did not know.
Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, said McCrory did not request the council’s assistance. Martin said governors have asked the council for assistance when selecting the last three laureates.
“I’ve talked to Ms. Macon, and I think she’s going to have some interesting projects,” Martin said. “She’s interested in working with people who are homeless and feeding people who are homeless. This will give her a platform to do that more effectively.”
Macon told the News & Observer she is trying to stay above the fray. She also said she was “honored and humbled” at the appointment.
“All I can say is I will definitely do my very best to promote poetry,” Macon said. “I’ll work hard to be the best poet laureate I possibly can for the citizens of North Carolina.”
The arts council gave Bathanti a $15,000 grant for his projects as poet laureate. Any grant Macon is awarded will depend on the kind of projects she undertakes, Martin said.
Macon’s salary with Health and Human Services is about $45,000.
Poets wanted a voice in the decision.
“I think while McCrory is within his legal rights, this was an act of utter arrogance,” says Richard Krawiec, editor and publisher of the Durham-based Jacar Press. “Or maybe he was ignorant of standard procedures that had been established to make sure whoever was chosen was a writer who was at the top of his or her game, involved in the cultural scene, had earned a statewide and national reputation, and who could handle the job.”
Susan Kluttz, secretary of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, praised Macon in a statement released late Monday night.
“Both the Governor and I are impressed with Valerie’s work with the homeless,” she said. “I met with her today to welcome her to her new position. Valerie brings an energy to her work that many, including me, find inspiring.”
Krawiec points to the last four laureates: Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Cathy Smith Bowers and Bathanti. “Their literary credentials are impeccable, really solid. Generally, everybody agrees these were accurate choices.”
Chappell, laureate from 1997-2002, is the author of more than 30 collections of poetry, and his awards include a Guggenheim fellowship and the T.S. Eliot Prize.
Bowers, who teaches in the low-residency master of fine arts program at Queens University of Charlotte, served 2010-2012. Her “Collected Poems” has just won a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Poetry Award. Byer, the first female laureate, 2005-2009, has won the Roanoke-Chowan, the state’s top award for poetry, as well as the Hanes Poetry Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Bathanti has eight collections of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories and a soon-to-be released collection of personal essays.
What also provokes the state’s poets is there were so many poets to choose among, poets who were widely published and had long paid their literary dues.
“The North Carolina literary tradition has been to award this honor to people with a record of achievement,” says Betty Adcock of Raleigh, who has published six collections of poetry with Louisiana State University Press.
Krawiec says he knows Macon through meetings of the N.C. Poetry Society.
“In the last three or four years, her poetry has gotten better,” he says. “However, she is very much a person at the beginning of her career. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think the fact that she worked as a student to be mentored in the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poetry Series is a sign that she’s going to be a good poet.
“But she’s not in any way on the same level as the prior poet laureates. She is someone who is still learning.”
Byer offers help
The Gilbert Chappell Poet Series is another point of contention.
The governor’s press release said, “Macon was the Gilbert Chapel (sic) Distinguished Poet for the Eastern Region in 2010-2011, and her work has been widely anthologized.” The Gilbert-Chappell Series is named for the late poet Marie Gilbert and former poet laureate Fred Chappell.
Actually, Macon studied with Becky Gould Gibson of Greensboro, who was the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet in that period.
The press release also incorrectly says that Macon’s first book, “Shelf Life,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The prestigious prize, sponsored by the Pushcart Press, is awarded only to individual poems or stories published in small press magazines. The prize is not awarded to books or chapbooks.
Byer says she will gladly help Macon.
“I feel it’s part of my role as a former poet laureate to offer my assistance to the incoming poet laureate, no matter the violation of protocol that led to her selection.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed to this story.