It’s not every day that you get to use the words “poetry” and “scandal” in the same sentence, but a poetry scandal has indeed erupted in North Carolina this week. (Quick, someone alert Olivia Pope.) The issue centers around the state’s poet laureate, one of the most coveted positions in North Carolina’s literary world. The laureate is an ambassador of literature for the state, participating in literary activities, working with schools and community groups, and receiving a stipend of $10,000 to work on their own long-term personal projects. In the past, the appointment has gone to nationally recognized poets such as Fred Chappell and Sam Ragan, who have published numerous books and previously received major literary awards. But this year is different. This year, Governor Pat McCrory appointed as poet laureate Valerie Macon, the author of two self-published books of poetry.
What’s strange about the decision is not that her writing is solely self-published. There’s a good argument to be made that self-published poets should be given just as much consideration as poets published by traditional presses — perhaps the strongest argument being that self-published authors are more likely to be tied to local causes. Macon has worked for the Department of Health and Human Services since 1997 as a disability determination specialist, and her most recent book, Sleeping Rough, is a collection of poems about homelessness in the state. Proceeds for the book go toward Garden of Eaten, a quarter-acre garden Macon started at her local church, which grows food for the homeless.
What’s caused the controversy has less to do with Macon's self-publishing and more to do with how Governor McCrory went about making his appointment, which was without any input from the North Carolina Arts Council, the body that traditionally oversees the nomination and vetting of candidates. While it isn’t illegal for the governor to appoint a laureate without consulting the council, it does undermine the openness and transparency of the process.
Following criticism of the governor from North Carolina’s literary community, it was announced this morning that Macon had resigned from her post. She released a statement stating, “I do not want the negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate.”
The scandal, though specific to North Carolina and now somewhat over, is noteworthy because it points to larger issues about how we reward writing. When one person chooses who fulfills a position like the North Carolina Poet Laureate, it no longer recognizes an “outstanding and distinguished man of letters” (language used by the North Carolina General Assembly when the position first came to be in 1935). Rather, it becomes one of three things: a matter of opinion, a political move or, perhaps most likely, a toxic combination of both.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of an award that doesn’t beget a modicum of dispute. From the Tonys to the Pulitzer to the Nobel Peace Prize, people jump to say who should have won. However, the debate occurring in North Carolina is not just a matter of who should have won; it’s a dialogue regarding if the winner was given due scrutiny.