Invoking the Name of Sam Ragan

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.

A Well-Earned Face

Just look at the woman in the photograph. Her face is wrinkled. Her hair is white and wispy. A tooth is crooked. None of that is what you notice most. There is a glow that lights her face from within. And a sturdiness that is stronger than her frailty. A kindness. A serenity. Joy.
I remember the older women—mostly Quakers and Mennonites and Catholic nuns—at the anti-war marches in Washington, DC in 1967-68. Their faces were calm as they stood on street corners or joined the protests, holding their signs. I said to my twenty-one-year-old self, “When I grow up, I want to have a face like that.”
I don’t have it yet. When I look in the mirror, I see white hair, wrinkles, collapsing cheeks, but only a hint of that peace like a river in the soul. But there’s still time, I hope. Meanwhile, although I do not judge those who have made different choices, I refuse to dye my hair. I will work hard to lose a few pounds, I will floss my teeth, I will go after my post-menopausal chin whiskers with tweezers, I will put moisturizer on my face (but no make-up) and there will be no botox injections for me. Because someday—someday maybe sooner than later—I hope to have one of those well-worn, radiant faces.
I don’t think anyone gets a face like that without suffering—without the sorrow that breaks us open and leaves in its wake a sensitivity to the slightest hint of another person’s grief. Distress, when we are in the midst of it, does not seem to be a gift, but it is. And there’s no need to go looking for sadness. If we live long enough, we are bound to have plenty of tears.
A face like this draws other people like a magnet. Here, it says, is someone you can trust. Here is someone who will understand. Here is someone who will laugh with you, cry with you, and share a gem of wisdom—but only if you ask.
Sometimes I imagine Mother Teresa (I know you’ve seen pictures of her face—glowing despite—or perhaps because of—her inner struggles). I imagine her on a television make-over show. “Now, Mamacita,” says the plastic surgeon/make-up artist, “a little cream here, a pinch here, some color, and we can certainly do something with those lips.” And in this daydream of mine, everyone—everyone in the studio audience, everyone at home—takes one look at Mother Teresa’s sparkling eyes and laughs and laughs at the absurdity of retouching a face that is already exactly what it was meant to be.

Family Road Trips

On occasions when my three brothers and I are together, we almost always reminisce about our family vacations. Although we enjoyed the destinations—such as the beach, Yellowstone Park, conference centers in Texas and North Carolina, the homes of relatives—our clearest memories are of the journeys themselves—the trips in one or another of our family’s series of station wagons. The time period was the 1950s and early 1960s, before the interstate highway system, before seat belt rules, before hand-held entertainment devices.
The expedition would begin when we assembled our bags and the camping equipment—three tents, air mattresses and sleeping bags, a bicycle pump, a cooler, a picnic basket, a camp cookware set, and a Coleman camp stove—for my father to arrange in the “way back” section of the station wagon and a carrier on top of the car. Inevitably, he would declare that our stuff would never fit and that the trip would have to be canceled—until our mother cheered him up and rearranged a few items, and we settled ourselves in the car—three children in the back seat and one between our parents in the front, as he drove and she navigated, following the route he had marked on the map.
The four of us children—myself, my brother James who came along sixteen months later, and the twins, Bruce and Rannie, who were born three months before I turned five–were a highly verbal, rambunctious group, who needed to be kept occupied. Of course, we argued about whose turn it was to sit where and about who had put a hand or a knee over the invisible dividing lines, and participated in other variations of that age-old game of picking fights with one another in order to annoy our parents. But they did a good job of keeping us engaged in various activities on the old four-lane and two-lane highways that wound through rural areas and the centers of small and large towns.
We counted the “See Rock City” signs on barn roofs and read aloud the Burma Shave doggerel. We tried to break our previous records for the number of different state license tags. We played the alphabet game, trying to find the letters of the alphabet in order on the billboards we passed. (We welcomed the Quality Oil or Texaco signs that gave us the long-sought Q or X.) Later, when we’d had more advanced math courses, we tried to form equations from the numbers on the license plates of the cars ahead of us (for example, 6202 yielded 6=22+0+2). We divided into two teams (right side and left side) to play “cow poker,” with its complex rules. Points were gained by counting cows, horses, sheep, goats, or chickens visible on our own team’s side of the road. A junkyard on one team’s side would cut the points in half and a graveyard would wipe them out entirely—but only if spotted by the other team. We learned to tune in to held breath on the other side of the car so that we could crush the other team. None of us ever spotted the red-headed girl on a white mule that would have signaled a game-ending victory.
My brother James would be given one hour each day to lead us in singing to his ukulele. Then there would be the brief rest stops at filling stations, where our parents would fill the car with gas, we would all visit the restroom, and if we had been good, our parents would buy a pack of chewing gum and give each of us one stick. Around noon, we all had to watch for the signs identifying roadside picnic tables, where we could stop, unpack the picnic basket, and eat lunch.
As the day wore on, my father would give the wheel to my mother and demand silence as he composed the narrative for the next chapter in his chronicle of the adventures of the pirate captain, Tidmore C. Jones (named for a convenience store near our Tuscaloosa home) and his crew. We cooperated because the stories were the highlight of the road trips. Each of us had what would today be called an avatar in the story, based on a characteristic or an occurrence on one of the trips—Grace G. Gorgeous, James J. Bigmouth, Bruce J. Nuts and Bolts, and Randolph J. Swollen Eye. The stories incorporated events and sights from the day’s journey. For example, the president of Dahlonega State Teachers’ College, which we had recently passed, kidnapped Tidmore C. Jones’s gum-chewing secretary, Yolanda Yvonne Smackjaws, by sticking her to his office chair with a wad of her chewing gum. In each episode, the bumbling pirate crew would get themselves into some kind of terrible jam. Finally, a solution would be suggested by the first mate, J. Rockingham Smith, who always began his intervention with the words, “Begging your pardon, Sir.” Once, my mother became so entranced by the stories that she drove off the route completely, taking what my father later assured her had been a shortcut to our destination.
At the end of each day’s journey, there was the pause for grocery shopping, and then the work of pitching camp in a state park while our mother cooked supper. We fell asleep to the sound of the frogs and crickets, and in the morning we deflated the air mattresses, took down the tents, and after breakfast at the picnic table, re-packed the car and took off again.

Only much later, when we were all adults, did we realize that the reason for our tedious method of traversing the country was that our parents were providing us with a vacation on the cheap. They had to watch every dime they spent. When we reached our destinations, our father often had to work in exchange for the cabin, dorm, or house where we stayed. But here’s the thing. Not only did we never feel deprived; these hardscrabble summer road trips provided us with what are now, hands down, the most precious memories of our childhood.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The fluttering wings of a butterfly are soundless—unless. . .
Unless you climb that high hill in Michoacan
To the spot where las mariposas monarcas retreat each winter
And the sun comes out to warm them
And hundreds of thousands of pairs of wings
Begin to move in pulsating syncopation,
Creating a sound that crosses the threshold of silence,
Quiet, but as perceptible as a heartbeat—
A challenge to the laws of physics:
Nothing plus nothing plus nothing—multiplied—
Equals something! Definitely equals something—
Indelible, recorded in my memory,
An impression that will last
As long as I breathe out and in.