Poet laureate is a coveted position in North Carolina’s literary world. Fred Chappell and Sam Ragan are among the nationally known previous laureates, while outgoing Laureate Joseph Bathanti has published a dozen books and won major awards, including the Carolina Novel Award and the Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award.
Bathanti’s two-year term is up, and a new poet laureate was announced Friday: Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina, a state employee whose publication résumé consists of two self-published poetry collections. Given the stature of the poet laureate position, the thinness of the largely unknown Macon’s poetry output and the fact that Gov. Pat McCrory made his selection with no input from the North Carolina Arts Council – which oversaw nominating and vetting in previous years – North Carolina’s poetry community reacted to her appointment with swift vehemence.
Kathryn Stripling Byer, who was poet laureate from 2005 to 2009, called McCrory’s handling of it “a slap in the face” even as she pledged to help Macon with her new position.
“While the governor is not bound by law to consult with the Arts Council, it’s supposed to be an open, transparent, democratic process,” said Byer. “It does very much seem to us that he either didn’t know what he was supposed to do, or he just didn’t give a damn, frankly.”
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Macon is the eighth person (and third woman) to hold the poet laureate title since 1948. She’ll hold the post for two years, conducting workshops and readings while earning a stipend between $5,000 and $15,000, according to the N.C. Arts Council.
Since 1997, Macon has worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. She’s a disability determination specialist with an annual salary of $44,770.
Macon’s most recent book is this year’s “Sleeping Rough,” a self-published collection of poems about homelessness. Proceeds from “Sleeping Rough” go toward Garden of Eaten, a quarter-acre garden Macon started at a Fuquay-Varina church, which grows food for the homeless.
Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council, declined to answer when asked if he thought Macon’s work was artistically significant enough to make her poet laureate. But he cited her activism as a positive attribute.
Susan Kluttz, secretary of the Department of Cultural Resources, also cited Macon’s work with the homeless in praising her in a statement issued late Monday.
“I met with her today to welcome her to her new position,” Kluttz said. “Valerie brings an energy to her work that many, including me, find inspiring. I think she will make a great poet laureate and I, and my department, look forward to working with her.”
When asked who advised the governor on the selection of Macon, McCrory spokesman Rick Martinez said he did not know.
“I don’t know the governor’s familiarity with her work,” Martinez said. “I do know that she’s qualified and has won some awards here in North Carolina.”
Macon won honorable mention in a 2014 contest sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society. Before it disappeared over the weekend, her website ValerieMaconPoetry.com also listed Macon as a Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet; she was actually a student in that program, which pairs new poets with mentors, studying under Becky Gould Gibson in 2011.
Most years, the new poet laureate is announced with some fanfare in an introductory ceremony, with the newly minted laureate on hand to make the occasion more poetic. This year, Macon was announced with nothing more than a press release. After the news broke, social media discussions flared throughout the weekend in North Carolina’s poetry circles. Many poets wondered who Macon was; the consensus of most discussions was that she wasn’t qualified.
Macon herself said in an interview Sunday that she was trying to stay above the fray and ignore the flak. She also said she was “honored and humbled” at the appointment.
“All I can say is I will definitely do my very best to promote poetry,” Macon said. “I’ll work hard to be the best poet laureate I possibly can for the citizens of North Carolina.”
That wasn’t good enough for Jaki Shelton Green of Mebane, a former Piedmont Laureate and newly inducted member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Green pronounced herself as “sad, but not at all shocked” at McCrory’s selection.
“It’s an affront to all the hard work so many of us have done,” Green said. “I can name writer after writer in this state with a legacy not just in writing, but in leadership on how art informs lives. I don’t think McCrory has a clue. But what’s clear is he knows he doesn’t have to have a clue, just be governor.”
Durham poet and publisher Richard Krawiec echoed the sentiments of many of his peers, lauding Macon’s activism and intentions while maintaining that she does not meet the requirements for poet laureate.
“Valerie Macon is a beginner in her poetry career,” Krawiec said. “Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations. If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than what’s the purpose of the laureate position?”