Notes on a Scandal: North Carolina Poet Laureate Valerie Macon

Valerie Macon
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory is a Republican and most definitely not a fan of the liberal arts. He's also anti-gay, hates the Affordable Care Act, cut unemployment benefits, has been accused of voter suppression and believes the "educational elite" (that's GOP code for pinko, homo, commie, hippie liberals) have taken over the schools and universities. So, his selection of Valerie Macon as the new state poet laureate should come as no surprise.

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.


BLUE said…
ungh-hungh. this oughta rattle some cages on three or four sides of the zoo! very balanced perspective.
Collin Kelley said…
Thanks, B. :)
Karen Head said…
While you know that I agree with you completely about the issues surrounding self-publishing and poets who are from non-academic circles being unfairly discounted and dismissed, I do have one problem with Macon's appointment. Laureates traditionally have held the important role of outreach for their communities (including constituencies from every part of that community) and for arts education initiatives (this has become especially true as K-12 schools have dropped arts education). I would have no problem with someone like you being named a laureate precisely because your dedication to the arts has been long-standing. You have for many, many years selflessly dedicated yourself to almost every community--young people engaged in Poetry Out Loud, older people exploring the arts in late life, community groups attached to public libraries, queer writers of all ages, minority writers, as well as serving on the boards of Poetry Atlanta, AQLF, and the Georgia Center for the book. You have tirelessly offered to read manuscripts and hold readings--both in your local community and world-wide--usually without any acclaim and certainly without any renumeration. The question should not be whether Macon, or any writer, has paid dues (however that is defined), but rather has a writer established herself/himself as someone wholly committed to fostering the arts across every conceivable boundary. In short, has the person acted as a laureate without having the title?

Just my two cents.
Collin Kelley said…
Very good points, Karen, but as I said in the post McCrory is suspect of anyone established in the arts community because they're all a bunch of liberals trying to brainwash kids. This morning I was reading about his disdain for gender studies.

The governor surely had his staff dig around to see if they could find a Republican or conservative poet and they picked Macon. Should she be the poet laureate? Probably not, but the nasty reaction by fellow poets against Macon personally is what really pissed me off. She didn't ask for the appointment and rather than tearing her apart, they should - as Kay Byers has done - reach to Macon and offer their assistance. It could be a transformative experience for all involved.
Collin Kelley said…
And that should be Kay Byer - as in Kathryn Stripling Byer, former NC poet laureate.
Karen Head said…
Absolutely no question--the problem here is McCrory. I hope his strategy backfires mightily. And, people like Kay can certainly help that happen. :-)
Jennifer Perry said…
While I certainly can't add anything special to the topic I am dismayed at how Macon has undeservedly become the target of shameful behavior. What good is served by this?

Thank you for being a voice of reason here, Collin.
Jessie Carty said…
I blogged about this today as well, and I know the accepted "career" of the poet will always be a bone of contention, but I think we have to find some way to measure receiving an honor.
. We won't ever all agree on the criteria. If they'd picked one of the slam poets or even one of the young guerilla poets who are very community involved I'd have been ok with those choices as being new voices outside the possible elite. Good points, Collin, and Karen
BLUE said…
OMG, Karen, you have just about taken me to church and given me the Holy Ghost with this statement: "The question should not be whether Macon, or any writer, has paid dues (however that is defined), but rather has a writer established herself/himself as someone wholly committed to fostering the arts across every conceivable boundary. In short, has the person acted as a laureate without having the title?"

this is such an articulate way to question the appointment. Collin knows i'm outdone with the mean-spirited way many poets have chosen to question Valerie Macon's credentials. it just wasn't necessary. but what you bring up here is one of the real issues that folks should have. that fact that this is not the kind of language they are using makes me smell a lot of hateration batspit in the mix. thank you so much for saying this *the way* you said it. it really matters to me how we (self-defining poets) treat one another.
Yes, the fault does seem to be McRory's. Macon clearly does have a passion for poetry and for bringing it to the community. Her work for the homeless and her obvious commitment to self-expression for all make her an admirable person. Also, I don't like the way many "academic" poets (in this country too) look down their noses at those who get there by more adventurous ways.

Still, poetry is not only self-expression,is it? We are also trying to make works of art, Heaven help us! It does seem to me that a poet laureate should be, among other things, someone who has attained some distinction in that respect.

Ms Macon seems to have conducted herself with honesty and dignity. Evidently some other poets have failed in kindness. And I'm not sure that Mr McCrory is an expert on poetry.

(That being said, i am a bit snobby myself - I think having poets laureate for every State, and holding office for only 12 months, is rather odd. Then again, it's probably never going to happen in Australia and we may well be the poorer for it.)
Valerie is my cousin and the controversy seems to be jealousy toward her and proof the poetry "community" is just a bunch of nose up in the air snoots. She is better than the job she resigned from.

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