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Gov. McCrory Bypasses Arts Council In Selection Of Poet Laureate


Sometimes a news story is best told in rhyme…so here goes:

There once was a governor named Pat
Who thought in verse this state should not lack
So he picked a poet
To be our State Laureate
But his pick others found out of whack.
Here’s Duncan McFadyen
To explain what has happened

It started on July 11, 2014. In a press release, Governor McCrory announced he had appointed Valerie Macon to be North Carolina’s 8th poet laureate. She’s a 64-year-old disability determination specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services and a relative unknown in the state’s literary community.

A number of poets were upset because the governor left them out of the process. For example, the state’s first female poet laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer, calls McCrory’s decision “a violation of protocol” and “a slap in the face.”

You see, traditionally, governors have involved the state’s arts council in the selection process. Poets would submit applications to be reviewed by a committee. That committee made a recommendation to the governor. Outgoing poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, a professor at Appalachian State, explains.

"They vetted those applications to make sure that person was a poet and educator of singular accomplishment, somebody not only with a literary reputation in North Carolina, but beyond," he says.

Traditionally, the governor has appointed whomever the committee recommended. And that process just wasn’t observed this last round, he says.

Valerie Macon doesn’t have a long writing resume. She’s self-published two books of poetry, and she’s active in the state Poetry Society. We reached out to her for this story, but she politely explained it was during work hours and she’d have to call us back. She never did.

Officially, the Department of Cultural Resources says the poet laureate is charged with being an ambassador of North Carolina literature and promoting the quote “potentially transformative quality of the written word.” The Arts Council, part of that state department, funds the position with a grant. Bathani, the outgoing poet laureate, received a $15,000 grant.

He says it’s a demanding job. Over the last two years, Bathani estimates he’s made at least 250 appearances at libraries, schools, hospitals, scout troops and writing competitions throughout the state. He drove so much, he says, he had to buy a new car.

Another part of the poet laureate’s job has been to pick a signature project. Bathanti’s projectwas working with veterans. Macon has said she wants to use the position to help the homeless.

A Cultural Resources spokeswoman says Macon has a contagious enthusiasm for poetry. A spokesman from the governor’s office would not address the controversy, saying there were more pressing issues like ongoing budget negotiations and “getting our valuable teachers a pay raise.”

The previous four poet laureates were Democrats, appointed by Democratic governors. Macon, like McCrory, is a registered Republican.