Valerie Macon, appointed by Governor Pat McCrory as North Carolina’s poet laureate last Friday, resigned her appointment Thursday.
The North Carolina literary community noisily—and almost unanimously—objected to the virtually unknown Macon’s appointment on the grounds that she was substantially unqualified for the honor and that her inexperience undermined the integrity of the office of laureate as well as the literary tradition of the state. Macon has self-published two books and lacks teaching or program facilitation experience, which are core duties of the poet laureate. Past laureates have all been substantially published poets with national reputations and decades of teaching experience in the state.
Furor has largely been directed at McCrory for bypassing the established laureate nomination process, usually handled by the North Carolina Arts Council. On Wednesday, the governor stated that he was not aware that there had been a nomination process at all. He accused critics of his unilateral selection of Macon of “cultural elitism,” even while acknowledging that he did not know what the guidelines for a laureate were. McCrory pledged to review the process and guidelines in the future.
Acknowledging Macon’s resignation a day later, the governor expressed disappointment in the literary community’s criticism of her appointment, characterizing it as “hostility and condescension.” He also noted that the public may be involved in future nominations.
In Macon’s letter of resignation, she writes that she does not want the “negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate.” Macon states her passion for poetry and self-expression. She also mildly echoes McCrory’s accusation of critics as elitists in writing that neither publishing credits nor “accolades from impressive organizations” are required to enjoy the art form.
Susan Kluttz, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, amplified McCrory’s disappointment in her Thursday statement. Kluttz praised Macon’s “passion to use her talent to combat homelessness” while expressing regret “that she became the focus of disingenuous comments that she did not deserve.”
Meanwhile, four former state poets laureate—Kathryn Stripling Byer, Fred Chappell, Cathy Smith Bowers and outgoing laureate Joseph Bathanti—released a Thursday statement as well, expressing outrage over McCrory’s circumvention of the NCAC-driven process which “insured that the poet laureate, ultimately appointed by the governor, was indeed a poet and educator of singular accomplishment, someone not only with a literary reputation in North Carolina, but beyond.”
While critical of the governor and the unfortunate position his ill-advised selection put Macon in, the former laureates expressed interest in working with him to clarify a process and guidelines for the poet laureate nomination.
Byer said to the News and Observer: “I hope people place the blame where it belongs, not on the literary community but on a governor who took matters into his own hands and chose a good person who just was not yet ready for this post.”
For Macon’s supporters and detractors alike, many questions remain unanswered in the aftermath of this situation.
How exactly was Macon selected, and who selected her? What was the justification and motivation for her choice? How could the Governor’s office have lacked the political savvy to anticipate how controversial Macon’s appointment would be? Did they consider how their choice might hurt Macon—a private citizen plucked out almost unawares and foisted into public controversy?
How did the governor not know about the existing laureate nomination process or the role of the NCAC in it? Did he know about the process and simply choose not to follow it? Or, if he was truly ignorant of the process, then whose responsibility was it to inform him? When will North Carolina have a poet laureate? What will the process be, and what guidelines will drive it? Will the governor choose transparency or opacity? It’s discouraging that so far, he has clearly chosen the latter.