News of the current flap over Governor McCrory’s selection of Valerie Macon as Poet Laureate of North Carolina has spread far and wide. For many citizens of the Old North State, McCrory’s announcement was simply one more item in a long list of things to complain about. And, after all, which is the greater affront to human decency—to appoint a self-published state employee as poet laureate, or to refuse funding that would have expanded Medicaid—at no current cost to the state—to thousands of our citizens struggling in a depressed economy?
But McCrory’s failure to follow the normal process of consulting the Arts Council, along with his selection of someone without a national or statewide reputation, seems like a slap in the face to the literary community. Criticism, some of it quite vicious, has been leveled at Valerie Macon and her poetry. As a result, Macon has resigned her position. She is accused of being a “hobbyist” or a “dabbler,” as if there is a clear dividing line between an amateur poet and—what?—a professional poet? The truth is that at this point in time it is virtually impossible for a poet, however accomplished, to support himself or herself solely by writing and publishing poetry. Since poetry does not produce much income, its practitioners cling fiercely to what it does bring them—the respect of their peers.
Most of our best-known poets earn their livings as teachers at the college or graduate level, and, in fact, we have come to expect that the poet laureate will have academic credentials. But must a poet be a professor? Have none of our widely published poets ever written a sloppy poem? Is it impossible for an amateur to produce a single poem where every well-crafted word fits perfectly into place? Granted, there are many poets in our state more deserving of the title of laureate and better prepared to carry out the duties of the position. But when Macon’s attackers are labeled as “elitists,” I agree that, to some extent, they are.
Several of those sneering at Macon’s poetry have invoked the name of Sam Ragan, Poet Laureate from 1982 until his death in 1996. Ragan was not a college professor, but owner and editor of The Pilot, a newspaper published in Southern Pines. I knew Sam Ragan well during the fifteen years I lived in Moore County. He was a modest, gentle, and above all encouraging presence on the literary scene.
During those years, I was a state employee (at Central Carolina Technical Institute in Sanford). I had no training in creative writing except for one marvelous course in fiction with Guy Owen. But Sam Ragan accepted my contributions to The Pilot, whether in the form of poems, editorials about the arms race or the continuity problems in the movie E.T., or dispatches from Lhanbryde, in Scotland, where our family spent two months. When I helped obtain a North Carolina Humanities Committee grant to bring Alice Walker to Sanford, Sam Ragan was happy to appear as part of a panel. I suspect he influenced the decision to commission me to write a play about the history of Moore County. True, he never suggested me for a statewide position like poet laureate (and that’s a good thing), but he took a lot of chances on me when I was very young and inexperienced.
If I were to name the ten people who had most encouraged my development as a writer, Sam Ragan’s name would be near the top of the list. Many others who knew him would say the same. Each spring Ragan presided over an event at Weymouth, with morning readings from accomplished poets and an afternoon open mic, where anyone could read. Everyone was applauded. Everyone was awarded one of Sam Ragan’s beautiful smiles. While Valerie Macon would not have been invited to read in the morning, she, too, would have earned a smile in the afternoon.
When Ragan appeared as Poet Laureate in locations large and small throughout the state, he was not there to not show off, but to invite the audience into the world of poetry. I believe he would have agreed with Valerie Macon’s resignation statement, encouraging “everyone to read and write poetry.” Although, as a lifelong Democrat, he would have found much to criticize about McCrory’s leadership of his beloved state, and although as the first chair of the North Carolina Arts Council, he would have resented McCrory’s high-handedness, he would never have engaged in a line-by-line critique of anyone’s poems or have lent his name to that kind of meanness. The poetry Ragan wrote was not flashy, but accessible. I suspect that if some of Macon’s harshest critics were asked to do a blind review of a selection of Ragan’s poems, they might attack his writing with the same ruthlessness they have used to assault Macon’s works.
As the fallout from Valerie Macon’s appointment and resignation continues, I would encourage North Carolina’s community of writers to honor the legacy of Sam Ragan. Poetry is not a barricaded citadel for the elite. It is more like an unfenced garden, where everyone is invited to stroll.