State Poet Laureate Controversies: From North Carolina to California

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory

By now readers of this blog are probably well aware of the swift rise and fast fall of erstwhile North Carolina Poet Laureate Valerie Macon. Macon was appointed North Carolina Poet Laureate by Governor Pat McCrory on July 11. The selection immediately drew criticism from North Carolina’s literary community, and soon afterwards by other state residents. The criticisms were twofold: not only did McCrory’s appointment of Macon bypass the standard process for selecting a state poet, which involves consulting with the North Carolina Arts Council, but Macon herself has questionable literary credentials, with only two books of self-published poetry to her name. McCrory said at a July 16 press briefing that he chose Macon from a list of recommendations created by his staff and that he hadn’t been aware of the standard protocol for selecting a Poet Laureate, even though it was clearly listed on the North Carolina Arts Council’s website at the time of the selection (the text has since been removed). McCrory’s claim at the press briefing that “we must have missed that web site, sorry,” struck some people as odd given that the press release announcing the appointment includes a link to the North Carolina Arts Council website and language about the position seemingly taken directly from the site.

The story’s denouement came shortly after McCrory’s press briefing, on July 17, when Macon submitted a resignation letter to McCrory, stating that she “did not want the negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate.”

Macon’s term as N.C. Poet Laureate lasted only six days, to my knowledge the shortest tenure of any U.S. state Poet Laureate on record. While the North Carolina Arts Council website listed Macon as the N.C. Poet Laureate during her brief time in the position, that information is now gone, and as of this writing the site does not list Macon among North Carolina’s previous Poets Laureate. Meanwhile, Macon’s own website, which was taken down shortly after the appointment (see an archived version here), has yet to return, and may be a permanent casualty of recent events.

While much of the criticism aimed at Macon focused on the quality and sparsity of her poetic output, it’s worth noting that there has been at least one state Poet Laureate who has had fewer literary credentials upon appointment. Lounge singer Norman Kaye was appointed to a lifetime term as Nevada Poet Laureate by Gov. Grant Sawyer—who was a fan of Kaye’s music—in 1967. Kaye held the position for nearly forty years, although he never published a poem during his lifetime. In 2007, despite fighting to remain Poet Laureate, Kaye was named “Poet Laureate Emeritus” by Gov. Jim Gibbons, a move intended to allow for the appointment for a new Nevada Poet Laureate. (The position has since remained vacant.)

The Kaye incident aside, Macon’s appointment as North Carolina Poet Laureate was the biggest Poet Laureate controversy since 2002, when New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka performed his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. The poem was criticized on a number of fronts, including for expressing anti-Semitic sentiments in the wake of the World Trade Center bombings, as in the following lines:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey asked Baraka to step down from his post in the wake of the poem’s publication. When Baraka refused, and McGreevey found no official mechanism for removing him from the position, the Governor took the unprecedented step of repealing the law that established the position of Poet Laureate. Consequently, New Jersey has not had a Poet Laureate since 2003, and is one of only six states without an official state poet or state writer.

Another state poet to come under fire in 2002 was California Poet Laureate Quincy Troupe. Appointed Poet Laureate by Gov. Gray Davis on June 11, 2002, Troupe resigned from the position that October for falsifying information on his resume. It took more than two years for a new California Poet Laureate, Al Young, to be appointed, though the extended vacancy is much preferable to what’s befallen Nevada (no poet laureate for seven years) and New Jersey (poet laureate position eliminated) after their respective Poet Laureate controversies.

Let’s hope that North Carolina bounces back quickly from its own Poet Laureate problems and, after an appropriate nomination and selection process, appoints a Poet Laureate everyone can celebrate.

U.S. State Poets Laureate as of July 24, 2014

State Laureate
Alabama Andrew Glaze
Alaska Nora Marks Dauenhauer
Arizona Alberto Ríos
Arkansas Peggy Vining
California Juan Felipe Herrera
Colorado David Mason
Connecticut Dick Allen
Delaware JoAnn Balingit
District of Columbia Dolores Kendrick
Florida Vacant
Georgia Judson Mitcham
Hawaii Kealoha (Steven Kealohapau’ole Hong-Ming Wong)
Idaho Diane Raptosh
Illinois Kevin Stein
Indiana Unofficial: Cecil Tresslar
Official: George Kalamaras
Iowa Mary Swander
Wyatt Townley
Kentucky Frank X Walker
Louisiana Ava Leavell Haymon
Maine Wesley McNair
Maryland Stanley Plumly
Massachusetts No position
Michigan No position
Minnesota Joyce Sutphen
Mississippi Natasha Trethewey
Missouri William Trowbridge
Montana Tami Haaland
Nebraska Twyla Hansen
Nevada Vacant
New Hampshire Alice B. Fogel
New Jersey No position
New Mexico No position
New York Marie Howe
North Carolina Vacant
North Dakota
Larry Woiwode
Ohio No position
Oklahoma Nathan Brown
Oregon Peter Sears
No Position
Rhode Island Rick Benjamin
South Carolina Marjory Heath Wentworth
South Dakota David Allan Evans
Tennessee Margaret Britton Vaughn
Texas Dean Young
Utah Lance Larsen
Vermont Sydney Lea
Virginia Ron Smith
Washington Elizabeth Austen
West Virginia Marc Harshman
Wisconsin Max Garland
Wyoming Echo Roy Klaproth



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