Brow Beat

People in North Carolina Are Really Upset About Their New Poet Laureate

How many of these must you prove you have read before becoming poet laurate?

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Update, July 18, 2014: In between the writing and publication of this post, Valerie Macon resigned from the position of poet laureate of North Carolina. 

Who the hell is Valerie Macon?”

She is the new poet laureate of North Carolina, and North Carolinians are not happy about it. In a press release last Friday, Gov. Pat McCrory announced that Macon, a disability determination specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, would take up the two-year mantle. She succeeds the celebrated writer and university professor Joseph Bathanti. But this is no peaceful, bittersweet changing of the guard.

Chris Vitiello, a poet and teacher, recently posed the question I opened with in a piece for North Carolina’s INDY Week.* Over the course of his article, he asks several more questions, such as whether McCrory is “sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether” and whether Macon has “ever read a poem by another poet.” He asserts that “this embarrassing appointment hurts every writer based in the state” and speculates on the governor’s thought process leading to the appointment: “Hey, doesn’t that nice lady on the first floor write poetry? I think I saw something pinned to her bulletin board. She should be poet laureate.” Vitiello concludes by pronouncing Valerie Macon “Pat McCrory’s middle finger, pointed at North Carolina’s literary tradition.”

To be fair, Macon does not seem terribly qualified for her new position. Unlike the credentialed-to-the-teeth laureates of yore, she holds a degree from Adelphi Business School in Mineola, New York, and studied business at Meredith College in Raleigh. She has never taught. Her publication résumé consists of two self-published poetry collections. Friday’s press release noted that both volumes—Shelf Life, about “the joys and sorrows of life,” and Sleeping Rough, about homelessness—received Pushcart nominations. But that can’t be quite right: Only individual poems or stories placed in small-press outfits are eligible for the Pushcart Prize. The release also declared that Macon had served as the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the Eastern Region in 2011. Actually, as the Charlotte Observer reports, Macon was paired with Becky Gould Gibson, the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for the Eastern Region, in a mentor-student program that took place in 2011.

Meanwhile, outgoing laureate Bathanti has published at least a dozen books with reputable imprints and won a handful of major awards. Before him, Fred Chappell, Kathryn Byer, Cathy Bowers, and Sam Ragan all had the experience and community engagement to make the title glisten. And the North Carolina Arts Council is angry that McCrory violated precedent by anointing Macon without consulting them first. The council usually does most of the laureate selection behind the scenes, finding candidates, reviewing qualifications, drawing up a short list, and presenting a final recommendation to the governor. This was more of a unilateral sclaff from on high.

So literary Tar Heels are mad. Because Macon’s poetry is … not good. However, something about Vitiello’s brutal response doesn’t sit well. I can understand his frustration, and his sense of the stakes, but public dismemberment is never fun to witness, particularly of someone who means no harm. And certain characterizations throughout the piece—Macon is “a dabbler … out of her depth,” a “nice lady,” a “hobbyist”—have the faint whiff of sexism. (Is it an accident that Vitiello says the new laureate’s appointment “castrates” the NCAC?) Quality of her work aside, I wonder whether we’d find it so easy to dismiss a male writer for self-publishing and for holding a non-literary job. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company.

Of course that question is rendered mostly moot by Macon’s lack of poetic prowess. (Vitiello devotes a blistering few paragraphs to demolishing one of her stanzas.) So here’s another one: What is it about an unqualified woman that makes people want to crush her into the ground? Just ask Harriet Miers: Sometimes it seems we reserve our hottest, most hyperbolic anger for women who get tapped for honors they don’t deserve. Perhaps this is also true of minorities, or anyone who might conceivably profit from affirmative action. And the anger does not feel any better—for those on the receiving end—when it manifests as condescension: Vitiello, in closing, urges real poets to rally around Macon, to hold readings and “invite her along,” so she can absorb their smarts. It made me yearn for the dawn of a century of illiterate barbarism.

This is not to overstate the role of gender. The new poet laureate is unsuitable, and a lot of worthy candidates got a bad deal. People would be mad no matter what. But perhaps writers like Vitiello should channel their ire less toward Macon and more toward the governor who put her in her current unenviable position. That would be poetic justice.

P.S. To mark this complex occasion, I humbly submit my own memorial quatrain, on the basis of which I hope and expect to be named the next Poet Laureate of North Carolina:

The Tar Heel state poets
at the end of their rope,
when McCrory tapped Macon

*Correction, July 18, 2014: This post originally stated that Chris Vitiello was a professor. He teaches creative writing, but is not a professor.