Update: Valerie Macon has resigned.
Who the hell is Valerie Macon?
That’s what poets in North Carolina are asking this week after Gov. Pat McCrory bypassed the established process for choosing the state’s poet laureate and appointed the unknown, inexperienced Macon to the post for the next two years.
Typically, the North Carolina Arts Council handles the selection of a new laureate. They solicit nominations, convene a selection committee to review the poets against the position’s guidelines and recommend a finalist to the Governor, who announces the new laureate.
But McCrory couldn’t bother with that. Ignoring the NCAC’s process, he simply issued a Friday-afternoon press release that Macon was in. The governor didn’t even bother to thank outgoing laureate Joseph Bathanti, who has done exemplary education and outreach work around the state since 2012.
Well, at least McCrory didn’t slash Bathanti’s tires.
Ignoring standard procedure and professional courtesy is one thing. Macon’s profound lack of qualifications is another. Bathanti’s resume is typical for a laureate—more than 10 books, decades of literary involvement, major awards and a teaching position at Appalachian State University.
Macon’s got none of those chops. She’s self-published two short poetry books. She studied business, not literature. She’s never taught. Her poetry outreach work amounts to zero. Judging from the collective social media shrug from the Tarheel poetry world, Macon’s not involved in any literary community. She’s a bureaucrat, commuting to her Department of Health and Human Services job from her Fuquay-Varina home—a hobbyist poet.
Meanwhile, NCAC guidelines state that the laureate should possess “deep connections to the cultural life of this state, literary excellence and influence on other writers and appreciation of literature in its diversity throughout the state.”
A poet laureate should be a truly stellar poet and, more importantly, an educator and advocate—a high-energy expert in audience engagement. Bathanti, for example, has traveled the length and breadth of the state, reading and conducting workshops at schools, libraries, workplaces and community centers. Laureates define their tenure with a passionate, overarching public project. Bathanti has been lauded for helping Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans express their experiences and use writing to move past trauma. And perhaps Macon, whose poetry often expresses sympathy for the homeless, will surprise us by doing similarly tireless work for poetry in North Carolina. The question is whether she has the skills and experience to do it well.
Granted, this particular maverick political act doesn’t rank with McCrory’s legislative disdain for women, children, the middle and lower classes or the environment, but his cultural disdain for the people of North Carolina is almost as insidious. Does McCrory know that, by association, this embarrassing appointment hurts every writer based in the state? Poets laureate represent their state’s literary past and present and should have a national profile. Macon didn’t have a profile outside of her cubicle until last Friday afternoon.
How and why was Macon selected? Who exactly selected her? The Governor is mum on these questions, so we are left to speculate. It could be naive obliviousness: “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.”
Or could McCrory be sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether? You can anticipate his smug 2016 statement: “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of the poet laureate over the last two years and have decided the position no longer merits taxpayer funding.” The budget line item is, however, tiny—the News and Observer reported the laureate’s stipend as between $5,000 and $15,000. That’s around 5 percent of the taxpayer funds McCrory had planned to spend to renovate his Executive Mansion bathrooms until public furor flushed his boondoggle last year.
McCrory has castrated the NCAC. And since the council has to live in fear of his red pen, they get to maintain a closed-lips smile while he waves it in their faces. Sorry—don’t visualize that.
Again, who is Valerie Macon? What kind of a poet is she? It seems even Macon doesn’t want us to know. Her personal poetry website was taken down upon her appointment. God forbid the people of the state she now purportedly represents might read her work.
Sales pages for her two books are still up, however, each with an example poem. Her 2014 effort Sleeping Rough is a 36-page book of poems about homelessness on the vanity imprint Old Mountain Press. Old Mountain can be said to be a publisher in the same way that a photocopier is. As a self-publishing house, it buys up blocks of ISBNs—the book cataloging number that forms its barcode—and re-sells them to authors along with services like retyping handwritten manuscripts. Scrape together $100 and bam! You’re a poet or a memoirist or a sci-fi romance novelist.
To be fair, some self-published books are great. The occasional outsider poet produces the occasional gem. But self-publishing, in the poetry world, ranks closer to sticking wide-ruled paper to the fridge with magnets than having an edited book with a reputable press. Unfortunately Macon’s work appears to bear this out.
Her author statement for Sleeping Rough sets out her poetic project: “This book was written in my Suzuki Grand Vitara during a year’s worth of lunch breaks. I had only to park, open my eyes, pick up my pen, and the homeless paraded before me, compelled me to tell their stories.”
In “Detour,” Macon gives an imaginary voice to a father living out of his car:
I’m grateful for my car, he says,
voice raspy with hard living.
Tossed on the seat, a briefcase
covered with union stickers,
stuffed with unemployment forms,
want ads, old utility bills,
birth certificate, school application
papers for the skinny ten-year-old
sitting beside him who loves baseball.
The cat paces the seats. Rain
rumbles on the hood, wind
snatches the leaves into a spiral—
a layoff, a broken leg, a missed payment;
fate, a twister, picked him up
and dropped him on a side street.
Has Macon ever read a poem by another poet? From a craft standpoint, this is rough, immature work. The convoluted syntax at the end of her second sentence kills the momentum of her list of the briefcase’s contents. Placing the line break after the adjective “application” rather than the noun “papers” cuts against her list as well. And as an item in that list, the child is made into a thing rather than a person. This is the central moment in the poem—when the reader realizes that the people in this car are a family unit—but Macon’s awkward form and language botch it.
Even worse, Macon seems unaware of the politics of the man’s situation, using fate as an escape hatch rather than attempting analytical engagement. In the guise of close observation and description, “Detour” steps over a moral line into bad faith territory. It’s a low act to put your words in someone else’s mouth without making the slightest effort to know them. The homeless parade before her? That’s shamefully patronizing. Macon damns the homeless with her lame lyricism and objectifies this man and child as an apolitical fantasy constructed at a safe distance.
Not that a Grand Vitara’s windshield can’t be a window onto the soul, but you have to get out of your damn car to engage with a person or subject. A good poet—and a laureate even more so—does the footwork here. You have conversations with people on the street. You volunteer at a shelter. You get involved with who and what you’re writing about. You can’t be poet laureate from the front seat of your car.
How gut-wrenching and involved must Bathanti’s work with combat veterans have been? What kind of emotional territory has he explored with his workshop participants? That’s the power of poetry in the public sphere, channeled by someone with real skill and talent. That’s who McCrory’s kicked aside without thanks or explanation.
I don’t know Macon, but I’d bet any money she’s a very nice person. I appreciate that she has sympathy for those less fortunate and that she feels compelled both to express that in Sleeping Rough and to act upon those feelings by donating some portion of book sales to the Garden of Eaten’, a community garden at Piney Grove Baptist Church that Macon co-directs.
But Macon couldn’t be less qualified to be poet laureate of our state. She’s a dabbler as a poet and a question mark as a thinker, educator and advocate. And now she suddenly has to represent the pinnacle of all that for two years? She should have recognized how out of her depth she is and turned this appointment down. It’s not too late for her to step aside.
The truth is, I feel awful for Macon. McCrory’s appointment seems mean. He’s put her in an unenviable spot. She is set up to fail spectacularly, damaging the national reputation of every writer in the state. Valerie Macon is Pat McCrory’s middle finger, pointed at North Carolina’ literary tradition.
But you know McCrory won’t cave, and Macon probably won’t have the sense to refuse the appointment. Politicians can never appear to have been wrong. We are stuck with Macon, and we must deal with that. That’s why the poets who’ve been griping and tweeting and commenting since Macon’s appointment was announced, including yours truly in this column, should take this moment as a call to service.
Rather than lambaste the Governor’s cruel, poor choice, maybe poets should rally around Macon. Forget McCrory. This is about the power and possibility of poetry, not the incompetence of a bully politician. Kathryn Stripling Byer, who served two terms as poet laureate last decade, has already pledged to help Macon. Let’s pledge too. Let’s crowdsource the poet laureate.
Let’s offer her all our experience and ingenuity. Let’s start public workshops and outreach programs and invite Macon along. She doesn’t have to run them—nor should she, with no experience as a teacher. But the laureate can be in the room. She can see how poets teach and think. Macon does not have to be a spectacular failure. But if she is, we will have let her be that.
To paraphrase Frank O’Hara: Valerie Macon has collapsed! oh Valerie Macon we love you get up.
INDY arts writer Chris Vitiello is also the author of several books of poetry and a poetry teacher.