Notes on a Scandal: North Carolina Poet Laureate Valerie Macon
McCrory bypassed the North Carolina Arts Council and selected Macon on his own. Some believe that McCrory picked Macon because she's a fellow Republican who speaks and writes in a voice far removed from the "elitists" he disparages on a regular basis. Of course, by selecting the hapless Macon, the governor has made her both a political and artistic football. Despite her political leanings, I have no doubt that Macon is mortified and hurt by the vitriol unleashed upon her by fellow poets, the press and on social media. By all accounts, Macon was just as surprised as anyone else by her appointment and was not seeking the job.
Macon is a New York native who moved to North Carolina 35 years ago and works in the state's Department of Health and Human Services. She self-published two collections through Old Mountain Press – Shelf Life in 2011 and Sleeping Rough this year. The latter deals with homelessness and proceeds from sales of the book go to Garden of Eaten, a program at a North Carolina church that grows food for the homeless.
Macon told AP that she has no idea how she was selected as the new poet laureate, but would do her best to represent the state and stay above the "fray" of her appointment. She also wants to use her poetry to continue and aid the homeless. Since the news broke, Macon's website has gone offline, she's been accused of padding her resume, lying about prize nominations and, of course, not being good enough. Poet Chris Vitiello's nasty personal attack in IndyWeek is one of the examples of the ugliness mustered by the poetry community, describing Macon as "barely a poet" and McCroy's "middle finger" to the arts.
The North Carolina Arts Council has seen its budget slashed, which is a typical move in Republican controlled states. Reading accounts of last year's political maneuverings, it's obvious that if the GOP had its way the arts council would cease to exist. So, it also comes as no surprise that McCrory would not seek the advice of a council that he would like to abolish. When pressed by the media about appointing Macon, the governor made some remarks about opening up opportunities for people who aren't part of an "elite group" (note the use of "elite" again) and that he believed it was a good idea to "welcome new voices and new ideas."
Since Macon's website is offline, it's been nearly impossible to find any links to her work. I found a couple of sample poems from her two collections at the Old Mountain Press website. "Vegetarian Meat Lover" is slight and humorous and I do like the image of the woman being "six feet tall and straight as a sunflower," but there's no wow factor here. It could have been written by a high school kid or a 64-year-old, which Macon happens to be. "Detour" from Sleeping Rough catalogues a homeless man's possessions he keeps in a briefcase inside the car that has become his home. The poem ends with the lines "fate, a twister, picked him up / and dropped him on a side street." There's no rhythm to the list, the line breaks are a mess, but the poem is filled with imagery that doesn't require a secret handshake or decoder ring to understand. It speaks at a basic, human level that a vast majority of poets label as simplistic.
Are these poems "good" or "bad?" That's up for you to decide. Poetry is subjective, whether it's printed on a greeting card or among the pages of a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection. Go back and read some of the reviews of former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey's incredible collections Native Guard and Thrall. You'll find readers and critics who also labeled her language simplistic and imagery not up to snuff.
I'm certain that if McCrory had picked a poet – Republican or otherwise – published by a traditional press and with a couple of awards under his/her belt, this controversy wouldn't have flared up. The fact that Macon self-published her work, completely undermining the MFA directive not to do so under threat of killing your poetry "career" before it begins, really galls the hell out of plenty of poets. I'm okay with that, because even if every line and stanza was perfect, Macon would still not be a "real poet."
McCroy's selection of Macon might be a riposte to artists, but it also highlights the "middle finger" that poets give to each other. I've read in comments and other editorials that Macon hasn't sufficiently paid her dues as a poet to earn the title of laureate. If you don't have an advanced degree, if you haven't won a first book prize, if you haven't been published in the right journals or by the right press, then you are not a "real" poet but a hobbyist who has no business hogging the tiny limelight. In that case, Macon – and any other self-published poet – will never pay enough dues to make it kosher with some in the ivory tower.
There are calls for Macon to step aside, but I hope she resists. I'm curious to see what an outlier does as poet laureate and if she can survive the politics, not only of state, but of poetry.
UPDATE: Valerie Macon has officially resigned as North Carolina's poet laureate. She said in a statement: "I would like to encourage everyone to read and write poetry. They do not need a list of prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations – just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression." Read more at this link.
I hope the poets and writers who made such nasty, unnecessary personal comments are happy now that they've bullied this woman out the door. Gov. McCrory is now planning to ask the public to submit names for the poet laureate, again bypassing the North Carolina Arts Council.