NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson
There they were, in the very last line of my colleague David Menconi’s story. The words that are about to ruin at least two weeks of Gov. Roy Cooper’s days and nights.
Oh, David did the right thing. He had to have all the facts, pure and simple. He could not have left out that final sentence, in his story on the opening of nominations for North Carolina’s next poet laureate, a position to be filled solely by the governor.
So that last sentence read: “You may also nominate yourself.”
Hello. Be prepared, dear governor, to sort the mail from would-be laureates far and wide, who’ll be sending their vitaes to Blount Street for your perusal. Along with samples of their work. Also, understand that when the choice is made, out of the approximately 3 million entries, you will have 2,999,999 enemies – serious, blood enemies – you didn’t have when the process started.
Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? Your correspondent, at the age of 15, saw the late Arnold Palmer in a golf tournament in Charlotte and penned the following: “Now Arnie had charged, and charged again, his shots were deadly and bold; and had it not been for his weathered skin, you’d have sworn t’was the Arnie of old.” And 7 years before, after one particularly memorable Wake Forest basketball game, I wrote, “He was a beacon for the Deacon.” Modesty prevents me from using the term “prodigy,” but should others say it, well...
Game, set, match. It’s over. The governor has, I’m sure he’ll agree, found his poet laureate. I would also note I have the tweeds and the driving caps to pull it off, and I have GPS, to enable me to visit the hamlets and the small town campuses, which is what the poet laureate is supposed to do.
Actually, the laureate’s duties are spelled out by the Department of Cultural Resources.
The position is to be filled by someone with “deep connections to the state’s cultural life.” I played 17th chair in the Daniels Junior High Concert Band. Check.
The laureate also is supposed to have demonstrated “literary excellence.” See above quotes from my poem, “Arnie.” Check.
The position demands a “statewide, national or international reputation.” I have lived in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville and Greensboro and have no outstanding warrants in any of those places. I have also been to New York, Washington and the White House and Canada. Check.
A final requirement: “influence on other writers and appreciation of the literature in its diversity throughout the state.” Influence? I once convinced former N&O legendary columnist Dennis Rogers to try the nachos at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, something he would not have done absent my influence. Check.
It occurs to me that a good poet laureate might, while traveling the state, write poems about the places he or she visited. That’s not something, perhaps, that every poet laureate could do, but herewith: “Shelby is just swell-be.” Or, “The sun does shine on Southern Pines.” Or, “I’m a fan, you know, of Manteo.”
And, a savvy laureate also would spotlight the state’s most illustrious citizens, those who could, say, raise that meager stipend paid to the laureate ($5,000 to $15,000 per annum) in recognition of his or her personalized tributes: “Now don’t you cross Speaker Tim Moore, or he’ll just have to settle the score.” Or, “Gov. Cooper is tried and true, but please don’t mention HB2.”
Can you feel the ground swelling? Of course.
The state arts council is supposed to be consulted on the job, and former Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointment of a laureate deemed unqualified by the arts community was done without such consultation. The appointee, an innocent bystander, resigned quickly, saying she didn’t want the publicity she received to “distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate.” It was a classy move.
The arts council would, I’m confident, support the nomination of the creator of “Arnie,” “Shelby” and “Deacon Beacon” for the post. As a gesture of that confidence, I do believe each member of the council will find a crisp picture of George Washington under their agendas at their next meeting, if you know what I mean.
Presumably, the governor will make his choice and announce it soon – in Raleigh. By golly. (Sorry, but I could sooner stem the ocean’s tide...)
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org