NORTH CAROLINA AND POETRY CREDS

The North Carolina controversy is now familiar to all in po-biz. The governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory awarded the poet laureateship to Valerie Macon, a 64 year old state worker without academic creds; there was an uproar in the creds universe, and as a result, Macon resigned.

The North Carolina Arts Council—complaining vociferously—was not consulted by the governor in his choice of Macon.

The NC law says the governor appoints the laureate,  which is how it happened the first time in 1948; governor Gregg Cherry, and the first poet laureate of North Carolina, Arthur Talmage Abernethy, who never published a book of poems, were friends.

The appointment was lifetime until Governor Jim Hunt told Fred Chappell he had 5 years; when Chappell stepped down in 2002, he was only the fourth laureate in over 50 years; since 2002 there have been four, including Macon: Byer, Bowers, Bathanti—with Bowers, the appointment was sliced to 2 years.

Compared to Fred Chappell, Byer, Bowers, Bathanti, are, in terms of reputation, nobodies.

Macon is to Bathanti what Bathanti is to Chappell. 

That didn’t prevent the Council from choosing Bathanti.

Macon is not the issue.

Bad poetry is.

A quick glance at poems available on-line reveals that no North Carolina Laureate, no Arts Council member, no poet, no journalist alive today in North Carolina is a substantially better poet than Valerie Macon. So what is all the fuss about?

If the following poem was written by Louise Gluck, the gods of po-biz would swoon in appreciation.

Clicking into Vinny’s Pizza
in Jimmy Choo platform pumps,
a woman, six feet tall
and straight as a sunflower,
in high-waisted leggings
and gold cropped tee.
Her boyfriend,
a weed sprout beside her,
ambles in Old Navy flip-flops.

She holds her yellow head high
like a flower tilted towards sun,
scans the chalked daily specials,
tapping Black Truffle acrylics
in the rhythm of a gentle spring rain.

She orders vegetarian pizza.
The boyfriend, arms coiled around her,
orders the meat lover’s special.

Unfortunately for this poem, the author is Valerie Macon.

We don’t say this is a great poem—not at all.

But we know what the fuss is all about: bad poets with more creds than Macon wanted the Poet Laureate job.

The Star News story announcing Macon’s resignation quoted poet (with creds!) and journalist Chris Vitello—no doubt aching to be poet laureate—who wrote in a blog:

She’s a dabbler as a poet and a question mark as a thinker, educator and advocate.

Star News got Vitello’s name wrong—the graduate of The Naropa Institute spells his last name Vitiello, in case you want to google this genius.

Here’s a sample of the previous North Carolina Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti’s poetry:

The City Jail spiked out of Fifth Avenue
in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh.
When we drove by it, my father would pause
and signify in its direction,
never uttering a word. Riding shotgun,
my mother on cue blurted she’d glimpsed
our imaginary condemned prisoner
in the jail’s uppermost barred window.

In this whole ‘creds’ controversy, it seems no one has bothered to look at the actual poetry of the participants in this North Carolina drama.

The above lines ends the controversy for us.  Let Macon be the poet laureate.  No law was violated. Macon’s poetry is equal to Bathanti’s.

Let us firmly assert that there is not a shred of poetry in the above excerpt from Bathanti.

Poetry is known immediately by its passion, inspiration, sublimity, beauty, unique expression, and the above is clearly nothing more than the prosaic opening of a short short story randomly brokenly into lines.  “Fifth Avenue?”  “downtown Pittsburgh?”

Is Mr. Bathanti familiar with this sonnet by John Keats?

If not, he should acquaint himself with it, forthwith, and then, as punishment for his insolence, he should go about North Carolina reciting it.

The House of Mourning written by Mr. Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunkenness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the Muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr. Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour –
All these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover! – who could write upon it?

Defenders of Bathanti and his “downtown Pittsburgh” verses will say:

Look at the detail!  Bathanti avoids Hallmark cliches! He gives us ‘real life’ by evoking “downtown Pittsburgh” with phrases like “Fifth Avenue!”

Bathanti writes about what he knows; about his lived life: “my father would pause” and “my mother on cue blurted she’d glimpsed!”

Bathanti paints the scene! “When we drove by it” and “Riding shotgun” and “the jail’s uppermost barred window.”

Good. Let Bathanti publish fiction if he wants.

We say: take the laurel from his head, and shame on everyone who embarrassed poor Ms. Macon—who writes no worse than Mr. Bathanti.

22 Comments

  1. noochinator said,

    August 5, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    Below is the list of North Carolina poets laureate as of Aug. 7, 2014:

    1. Arthur Talmage Abernethy (1948–1953; appointed by Gregg Cherry)
    2. James Larkin Pearson (1953–1981; appointed by William B. Umstead)
    3. Sam Ragan (1982–1996; appointed by Jim Hunt)
    4. Fred Chappell (1997–2002; appointed by Jim Hunt)
    5. Kathryn Stripling Byer (2005–2009; appointed by Mike Easley)
    6. Cathy Smith Bowers (2010–2012; appointed by Bev Perdue)
    7. Joseph Bathanti (2012–2014; appointed by Bev Perdue)
    8. Valerie Macon (July 11–17, 2014; appointed by Pat McCrory); resigned

    Detour

    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.

    Valerie Macon, 8th North Carolina Poet Laureate (11-17 July 2014)

  2. noochinator said,

    August 5, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    BTW, two books of Macon’s poetry can be purchased from the poet, info in the links below:

    http://www.oldmp.com/valeriemaconpoetry.htm

    http://www.oldmp.com/valeriemaconpoetry2.htm

    I’m a-gonna buy me a copy of each….

  3. thomasbrady said,

    August 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Ma-con! Ma-con! You rock, Nooch…

  4. August 6, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Well, it would be nice if a state or community’s poet laureate were a good poet and also someone likely to be committed to promoting poetry and educating people about poetry. Robert Pinsky is my favorite US Poet Laureate, not because he is the best poet to have held the role, but because he took very seriously his role as poetry cheerleader-in-chief.

  5. Gideon O'Rourke said,

    August 6, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    While it delights me no end to see the University “Poets” foaming at the mouth over themselves, I can’t muster much outrage in Macon’s favor, although I am sympathetic to his person; He poetry doesn’t seem very good, and for heaven’s sake he didn’t have to resign. I can’t see the Academy putting a hit out on him (they’re far too impotent for that).

    But should we care about Laureates at all? Do we? No and No it seems. Louise Gluck was mentioned above. She is a fine poet, but not a great one. Those don’t exist in the English language anymore, apparently. You can throw a billion dollars an hour at writer’s workshops, new vestments for our laureates, and month long log cabin retreats in New England, and it won’t make a bit of difference to the drivel coming out of big stone buildings.

  6. noochinator said,

    August 7, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Night Fishing

    I bait my lines
    with the scent of old planks
    rotting over the Tuckasegee
    River where drowsy snakes
    coil in the rushes and lightning
    bugs fizzle like spirits
    of nightcrawlers nibbled
    by minnows. No catch
    in my throat but this aching
    to wade into lazy black water
    and stand all night long
    in its leavetaking, calling
    the fish home to Mama.

    Kathryn Stripling Byer, 5th North Carolina Poet Laureate (2005-2009)

    http://www.storysouth.com/poetry_features/2006/01/byer_poems.html

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 7, 2014 at 9:01 pm

      Why do poets these days think line breaks like “lightning/bugs” are clever and effective? They’re not. They’re dumb.

      Even worse is “catch in my throat” in a poem about fishing. Come on. We are supposed to be impressed with this?

      Byer, kindly remove laurels and give them to Macon. Thanks.

      • noochinator said,

        August 9, 2014 at 11:31 am

        I like that line break “lightning/ bugs” — the reader pictures in the mind lightning, which then becomes lightning bugs. It’s good for the synapses to make that quick transition from lightning to lightning bugs. The poem evokes both the bucolic and the predatory aspects of nature, esp. “calling/ the fish home to Mama.”

  7. noochinator said,

    August 7, 2014 at 9:01 am

    Women Dancing with Babies on Their Hips

    We had traveled to that old coast,
    six hours to New Bern, the long ferry
    from Cedar Island to Ocracoke and then
    to Roanoke where Manteo, for love
    of the glittering English, killed Wanchese,
    and so began, even from within,
    that long, slow clearing.

    And that night, tourists sick
    of the bloody ending of our beginning,
    we went for beer and music
    on the deck of the Jolly Roger
    where in the starry distance
    lighthouses stayed the blown
    shoals of islands like paperweights.

    It was there we saw them, their separate
    bodies swaying among the couples
    coupling on the dance floor, two women,
    alone, dancing with babies on their hips,
    weaving in and through, stitching up
    the random piece-goods of the night.

    They were banners. Their hair
    starfish lit. Their faces the blossomy
    bright shock of sand dollars
    when you find them whole.

    How useless our wondering the whereabouts
    of their men, imagining them away,
    some war they did not belong in,
    or too late back from the shrimping boat,
    and tired, to join them here. These women,
    their strong lovely hips dipping
    and cresting, their babies’ heads
    flung back in a whirl of toothless
    laughter, loving the lone ride,
    their wild, dumb entry into the world.

    Cathy Smith Bowers, 6th North Carolina Poet Laureate (2010-2012)

    http://ncartseveryday.org/2012/06/75-artful-days-of-summer-cathy-smith-bowers%E2%80%99-women-dancing-with-babies-on-their-hips/

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 7, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      OK, we get it. Women with “strong lovely hips” don’t need men. Be sure to inform us the women’s hips are “strong” and “lovely” in case we don’t get the message. “Their hair starfish lit.” Yes of course. And the other dancers were not “lit by starfish.” We were tourists, blah, blah blah and then we saw them! There they were!

      Kindly give the laureate back to Valerie Macon. Thanks.

      • noochinator said,

        August 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

        Valerie Macon is the Lady Jane Grey of North Carolina poets laureate….

  8. noochinator said,

    August 8, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    Narcissus and Echo

    Shall the water not remember Ember
    my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above of
    its mirror my half-imaginary airy
    portrait? My only belonging longing;
    is my beauty, which I take ache
    away and then return, as love of
    teasing playfully the one being unbeing.
    whose gratitude I treasure Is your
    moves me. I live apart heart
    from myself, yet cannot not
    live apart. In the water’s tone, stone?
    that brilliant silence, a flower Hour,
    whispers my name with such slight light:
    moment, it seems filament of air, fare
    the world becomes cloudswell. well.

    Fred Chappell, 4th North Carolina Poet Laureate (1997-2002)

  9. noochinator said,

    August 9, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Let Us Walk Into April

    It was a pear tree in bloom
    That lit up your eyes.
    You came at blossom time—
    Dogwoods and lilacs,
    The camellia and azalea,
    And the glow of the redbud tree—
    Thousands of wildflowers run before your feet,
    And a faint green hovers in the woods.
    Here we are just before the coming of April,
    When the whole world is new
    And each day is a beginning,
    A time of sunlight and splendor—
    Come, let us walk into April.

    Sam Ragan, 3rd North Carolina Poet Laureate (1982-1986)

  10. thomasbrady said,

    August 9, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you Nooch. No matter how great a poet’s reputation, we still judge them in small bites. Chappell’s poem feels overly precious. I prefer Macon’s little poem quoted above. So there you have it. David has slain Goliath. North Carolina is forever shamed by what it did to its humble laureate of a few days.

  11. thomasbrady said,

    August 13, 2014 at 2:09 am

    Blog Harriet’s lame take on the controversy. They simply quote Chris Vitiello.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2014/08/what-does-a-state-poet-laureate-do-anyway/

    Really, Blog Harriet? Really?

  12. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    October 15, 2014 at 5:46 am

    Well, with all of the fuss from Chris Vitiello, I sought out some of his poems. He is a laguage poet. Hello Chris, 1980 called and wants its poetry movement back. Anyway, I digress. I noticed he posted her photo, as if to somehow shame her. Now, this puzzled me because she is above average looking, I would say, for a woman 64 years old. So, I went searching for one of HIS photos.

    He has a large long face with the type of decidedly prominent nose his Roman ancestors probably bore. I could imagine his dark cavernous nostrils flaring in anger or outrage. He is almost handsome, in a brutish Stanley Kowalski kind of way. However, one thing he is not. He is not smiling. Because professional poets never smile in their publicity photos. His expression, more than likely an attempt to look wise or serious, makes him appear constipated. One sees many credentialed professional poets looking constipated as they stare at you from their publicity stills.

    I thought of Valerie Macon’s photo and I finally figured it out. There she is, smiling cheerfully and beaming with happiness. This obviously marked her as a rank amateur and deeply offended all of the professional poets. It’s not fair, they thought, that she should get to smile, and even show her teeth, while they have unflattering pictures of themselves plastered all over their poetry books in an attempt to look distinguished. Instead, they look like they’ve just eaten bad seafood, or that their dog has just died. How dare she! That upstart!

    Well, I suppose Valerie would have a constipated look on her face too if, like Chris Vitiello, she had shelled out thousands of dollars to attend Naropa, only to watch, in horror, as Ginsberg paraded around all hairy and naked while being forced to serve as a captive audience as Greg Corso screamed, “Shut the fuck up! Just shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up so I can read my fucking poem about the fucking bomb!” Perhaps, then, Mary would have been the one to dedicate a book of poems to the word “this,” whatever the word this means. And if you want to know the meaning of the word “this” then Vitiello is your go to man. I imagine it’s some kind of weird half hearted wink at Bill Clinton’s, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.”

    As for a sampling of Vitiello’s poetry, I offer the following:

    from Irresponsibilty

    23 July 2004
    35th birthday
    The office

    1

    The mouse undersides cakes gradually
    with dust/ Dust accretes there
    Bartok string quartet number one, lento

    Done unloading outside
    the ramp noisily rolled up into
    the delivery truck

    Noticing with effort
    Am I supposed to write that it rained?

    One, two, three, four, five, six

    What rained?

    The carpet patterns
    Sticking out
    Seven

    Now, that was only a sample. I believe someone else already quoted an entire poem from his book Obedience (which is the one dedicated to the word “this”). So, I will spare you any more examples from that gem. Concerning his book Obedience, Vitiello had the following to say in his author’s statement:

    “Sometimes I get distracted and over-busy and rush through everything and my attentiveness (as well as goodness) is lost and all shattered and time passes like that and it hardens and hurts after a while, hurts, everything.”

    We HATE when that happens, Chris. We don’t mind you getting into pissy moods and taking it out on yourself. But next time you feel the urge to write something particularly nasty about another poet, just don’t. Save your wall-eyed hissy fits for those nearest and dearest to you.

    Also in his author’s statement, concerning his book Obedience, Vitiello writes:

    “I just needed a touch-place in which to be clear and thorough- with a pervasive Wittgensteinian and Heisenbergian doubt. That sounds a little like bullshit but it was the project.”

    Yes, Chris, it DOES sound like bullshit considering, in the very next line you wrote, “Clarity isn’t an aesthetic choice in Obedience.” Is that much CLEAR to YOU? And please leave Wittgenstein and Heisenberg out of it!

    Once again, I think my spell check is kaput.

  13. Diane Roberts Powell said,

    October 15, 2014 at 8:01 am

    I obviously meant to say Valerie Macon, not Mary, in part of my comment posted above. Excuse the brainfarts, please.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 15, 2014 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks, Diane, for your insightful remarks. I fixed the little errors.

      • Mary Douglas said,

        October 15, 2014 at 5:40 pm

        Dear Diane,

        I also liked a lot of what you said but especially when you spoke of the horrifying spectacle of a workshop with Ginsburg and Corso.
        I remember a little paperback bantam book called The Voice That Is Great Within Us I found at my college bookstore in 1971 that included many poems, and many poems I loved in American poetry, including Ginsberg and Corso which I generally skipped over.

        The next decade after that I didn’t do anything connected with poetry and I used to regret that I hadn’t seen any poet readings from that time period at all. Reading your very vivid description has completely healed that regret and caused me to thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t anywhere near those exhibitions and to thank God in retrospect (a fun thing to do).

        And to thank you for revealing this, after the fact.
        Thank you Thank you Thank you!!!

        Mary D.

  14. Mary Douglas said,

    October 15, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Valerie Macon’s diamond watt smile in the picture seemed always (in all the postings that I saw of it) to float above the fray (as she would say, and said and did) as if to radiantly discount whatever was written below the picture. It made me laugh everytime I saw that picture because I couldn’t help but think of it that way.

    As well, her smile was, is consistent with her philosophy of reminding us as she said in her resignation letter- of “the joy of writing.”

    Diane is so true in pointing out the dour looks of the professional poets in their publicity photos. How sad is it that we have reached a state where it isn’t cool to be happy about writing, reading poetry or anything, really!. It’s the happiness of my life to be connected with poetry in any sense of the word,and that such a thing even exists in the world. I have felt this way since as a little kid I found out about it at home and in school and I still have the same little kid feeling about it.

    We have lost also I think (those of us who have lost it, perhaps, including misled Chris Vitrello, who even so, perhaps loves poetry but was not the one who led the charge against Valerie though his comments were indeed harsh)- we have lost – the happiness of doing things for their own sweet sake: writing a poem, singing a song, painting a picture.

    Everything only seems to have value only to th extent you can wring celebrity out of it, awards, fame, whatever and if not, the contestant’s face is crestfallen and the dream is said to have died.

    No wonder so many people can’t have a smile for the camera or even think – they shouldn’t.

  15. Michael Treadwell said,

    August 6, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    In the case of North Carolina I wonder if political correctness was involved when Valerie Macon was forced to resign. Any opinions?

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 8, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      Political correctness is probably not the issue in this case. It is about academic credentials versus little or none. I believe the governor who appointed Macon was a Republican. So one could make an argument, I suppose, that politics is to blame.


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