Three Poets Laureate: Lightning Rods for Poetry

Nick Narbutas

In your essay “Ghostwriting,” you mention an aspect of teaching creative writing in prisons that I would think carries over to working with veterans as well: “In prison there are certain stories you simply do not criticize; to do so would be an epic breach of etiquette. Disrespect. Like you didn’t get it.” This can sometimes feel true even in more traditional creative writing settings, when someone shares a piece that is too real, too much from the heart, to be given the normal workshop critique. In these situations, what services are left for a writing teacher to provide?
There are times when a writing teacher’s number-one task is to get the heck out of the way. I’m thinking primarily of the work I’ve done with prisoners and veterans—and I taught for a year in a battered women’s shelter—but also students of mine at the university. These folks might be taking their very first crack at articulating how they really feel about subjects that are often explosive and intimate—things they’ve kept hidden inside, possibly for years—in language, on paper, with strangers in the room.

They are suddenly exposed. It’s terrifically dangerous terrain. The teacher’s initial job is to get them to write anything, to assure them they have something to say in the first place, that they indeed have stories worthy of being told and listened to. Worrying about whether it’s good or not can come later—the assessment part, the craft part. Critical appraisal at this point is irrelevant. What’s more, their presence in such a class—especially in the case of vets and prisoners (and other immured populations)—might be a one-shot deal. The teacher has to ensure, through his very measured response, that he does not convince them that they were fools to put pen to paper in the first place.

The fact that certain folks even show up in a class or workshop strikes me as poignant. It’s not about style. It’s like being in church. You don’t criticize the style of someone’s prayer. You don’t tell someone who’s learning to talk again after a four-decade silence—as in the case of some Vietnam vets I’ve had in classes—that he’s going about it improperly. A hush pervades the room when one of these silent sealed vets—or anyone—elects finally and mysteriously to open up. The first draft sometimes is a wail, a keen—what Whitman called that barbaric yawp—and it tends to look very different on the outside than it did on the inside. And once it’s out, it can’t be called back. The teacher’s crucial goal with beginning writers, in any setting, is to keep them talking, keep them writing—until what’s too raw, too hot, seasons and cools. So you have to be pretty darned careful with any kind of knee-jerk qualitative judgment. The teacher’s job, initially, in these instances, is to back off, and get invisible in a hurry, and simply listen.

When Valerie Macon was appointed as your successor, there was an uproar over her perceived lack of qualifications and the governor’s rejection of the traditional nomination process, causing her to step down less than a week later. One positive that came out of the situation was the revelation that North Carolina really does care about its poet laureate. It’s obviously much more than a ceremonial role or an empty political gesture. What about the state and its poets do you think fosters that attitude?
The uproar that ensued as a result of Valerie Macon’s appointment was triggered by a number of things, chiefly the fact that the long-standing process that had been in place to select North Carolina’s poet laureate was completely ignored. A great deal has been written about that fiasco, and everybody, everywhere, knows about it, so I won’t beat that straw man anymore. However, there was a terrifically positive side to that uproar. North Carolina poets and writers and readers sent out the message loud and clear that the poet laureate post in North Carolina matters very much to them and, by extension, and more importantly, that the cherished integrity of North Carolina’s legacy of writing and literature is something very much worth fighting for.

We often hear the word community used to describe a body of writers; and, in truth, the community of North Carolina writers is the real thing, not merely a rhetorical community. The writers of this state tend to know one another and support one another and care about one another; and, without getting too saccharine, there’s much about that community that’s familial. It’s a big state, but the literary community is very connected. It’s like a union. What’s more, the legacy of North Carolina and its writers, current and past, are supported and celebrated in every county in the state, in large places and very small places—in public schools, colleges and universities, community colleges, public libraries, local arts councils, and bookstores.

Of course, as in any other state, there are tiers and hierarchies among the writers here, but nothing elitist or hegemonic, nothing cutthroat. When I first arrived in North Carolina, thirty-eight years ago—a Pittsburgh Italian Yankee—the only writing credential I had was my yearning. I could not have been treated any more generously, any more graciously, by the established writers here. They nurtured me. They welcomed me into their ranks. And I really do believe that spirit of generosity, of inclusiveness, has continued to earmark North Carolina as the best place to be a writer. That’s certainly been my experience.

What rankled me more than anything during the flap over Valerie Macon’s appointment were the charges—from those folks who thought having a poet laureate was superfluous—that the post was “honorary,” “ceremonial,” “symbolic.” These were three words used to describe the appointment. Nothing is further from the truth. Poets laureate in North Carolina get in their cars and travel to the people. They show up everywhere. I made upwards of three hundred appearances during my tenure as poet laureate. I’ve said before that I don’t want a medal. It was my honor. But I do want to underscore that I took all my cues from my North Carolina poet laureate predecessors, the tradition of pride and service they exemplified, and the trails they blazed ahead of me.

In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of poet laureate positions in the country. Most states appoint a poet laureate, and many cities do as well. What do you think is behind this surge in the desire to name an “official” poet of a region?
The surge in poet laureate posts has been prompted, I’d assume, by the surge in poetry, of all stripes, all across the country. Such proliferation is another indication of the health of poetry and its democratization among, hopefully, the working class and the most marginalized citizens, folks who perhaps do not have ready access to poetry—and here I’m thinking about my own childhood and the very working class, ethnic neighborhood in Pittsburgh where I grew up.

State poets laureate work very hard, but realistically can reach only so many people; and, again, my chief concern is that poets laureate maintain a vibrant visible presence among public school children as well as various immured populations—among everyone. The appointment of city, town, and county poets laureate certainly instigates dialogue and activities (workshops, readings, classes, you name it) that zero in on poetry in specific communities and spread the benefits of poetry as avenues to the obvious art of reading and writing and performing poetry, its timeless culture and appreciation, the enjoyment, the fun, that it provides. But those kinds of activities and dialogue also underscore essential keys to life enhancement: literacy, critical thinking, cultural awareness, community solidarity, and the groundedness and self-esteem that familiarity with one’s own stories—in one’s own language—and their importance brings.

Poets laureate who are from—in every sense of the word—those communities that appoint them (urban and rural, enormous and tiny)—who know and live among their target audiences—have a cachet that creates extraordinary groundswells around poetry in a particular locale. What’s more, the nominal dollars invested in launching these grassroots poet laureate programs repay those dollars exponentially in healthier, safer, and more rooted communities.