NC's controversial poet laureate resigns

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJuly 17, 2014 

Valerie Macon

MATTHEW WAEHNER — N.C. State Archives

— Valerie Macon, whose appointment as North Carolina poet laureate sparked outrage among the state’s writerly class, has resigned from the post less than a week after Gov. Pat McCrory appointed her.

Macon could not be reached for comment Thursday night. But she released a statement thanking McCrory and “the many individuals” she said supported her.

“I do not want the negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate,” she wrote.

Macon was the eighth person and third woman to hold the poet laureate title since 1948. She was to serve a two-year term and conduct workshops and readings while earning a stipend between $5,000 and $15,000.

But controversy erupted over the appointment because of the thinness of Macon’s resume in contrast to past laureates, and misrepresentations on her website (which was taken down over the weekend after debate heated up).

Macon, a disability examiner for the Department of Health and Human Services, has self-published two books of poetry since 2011. Her most recent book, this year’s “Sleeping Rough,” features poems about homelessness, with proceeds going to support a garden Macon founded at a Fuquay-Varina church to grow food for the homeless.

Her website had also listed her as a Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet, but she was actually a student in that program, which pairs new poets with mentors.

“All I can say is I will definitely do my very best to promote poetry,” Macon said in an interview on Sunday after the controversy over her selection became public. “I’ll work hard to be the best Poet Laureate I possibly can for the citizens of North Carolina.”

McCrory’s role

The arts community also was upset that McCrory made his selection with no input from the N.C. Arts Council, which oversaw nominating and vetting in previous years.

But at a press conference Wednesday, McCrory said he had minimal involvement with Macon’s selection and was unaware of the Arts Council’s guidelines. Still, he defended his choice as an expansion of opportunity “for people that aren’t always a part of the standard or even elite groups that have been in place for a long time.”

Macon touched on the same theme in her resignation letter to the governor, saying: “I remain passionate about the mission of poetry to touch all people regardless of age, education or social status. I would like to encourage everyone to read and write poetry. They do not need a list of prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations – just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression.”

Upon Macon’s resignation Thursday, McCrory released a statement expressing disappointment with “the way some in the poetry community have expressed such hostility and condescension toward an individual who has great passion for poetry and our state.”

He added that he hoped the public would make recommendations for poets “from both traditional and non-traditional organizations” in the next stage of the appointment process.

Reviewing the process

On Wednesday, he had said he would review the selection process.

Department of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz, who earlier praised Macon for her energetic work on behalf of the homeless, could not be reached for comment Thursday evening, but she released a statement late Thursday night.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, who served as poet laureate from 2005 to 2009, took issue with McCrory’s attack on the state’s poetry community.

“I was surprised Valerie had to resign, but I can’t say I blame her,” Byer said. “I just wish she’d withdrawn her name before it got so contentious and vitriolic. I’m sorry McCrory put her through this. 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. It’s sad.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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