by Jerry Klein
You’re going to have to make the decision here. Either the Charlotte Observer has scored an all-time “bizarro” record with its lead cover story in Tuesday’s print edition, or North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has really gone over the deep end this time. Is McCrory losing complete touch with all sense of propriety with his decision-making, and rising into an arrogance of judgment that has left even those to whom politics is an afterthought . . . speechless.
It’s that confounding. The headline story, complete with four head-shots, covering two-thirds of the page across the top? “Disgruntled Poets Society: Poets across N.C. piqued at governor’s snubbing of tradition in picking new laureate.”
That’s right. At a time when the General Assembly continues to be locked in internecine warfare over how to deal with a budget shortfall it caused by lowering taxes last year; with McCrory threatening to veto bills to increase teacher pay passed by a Senate controlled by members of his own Republican Party; with disputes over coal-ash cleanup and whether or not tens of thousands of low-income, medically-needy residents will lose their health coverage, the Observer has handed over its prime real estate to a story questioning the governor for not following protocol in naming the state’s poet laureate. Huh?
Here’s the deal: Standard operating procedure has always been that the governor will put out a call for nominations for this position through the N.C. School of the Arts. Each nominee normally submits an application listing their “bona fides”: what they’ve published, awards and honors they’ve received, letters of recommendation, etc.
Then, a committee of leading poets from across the state gives its input to the governor - who usually selects one of those recommended names, which makes sense, especially if, as you might guess in this case, the governor might not be an “expert” in the field of poetry. Of course, such a process would shield the governor from accusations of favoritism, or any other impropriety in who gets the honor - and any monetary compensation.
Not this time. McCrory bypassed all of that - and has not given a single word of explanation as to why. To make things even more confounding, his choice has left many people wondering what he might have been thinking.
Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina has been named “Ambassador of N.C. Literature,” and will serve out a two-year term, replacing Joseph Bathanti, a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, who finished his term in June.
Bathanti has written eight collections of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories and a collection of essays coming out soon. A previous laureate, Fred Chappell, wrote more than 30 collections of poetry and won awards including the T.S. Eliot Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. McCrory’s choice - Macon - has self-published two books of poetry. And she works in Raleigh at the Department of Health and Human Services as a disability determination specialist. Hmmm.
In reacting to this, the Observer’s story quoted Richard Krawiec, editor and publisher of the Durham-based Jacar Press, as saying, “I think while McCrory is within his legal rights, this was an act of utter arrogance. Or maybe he was ignorant of standard procedures that had been established to make sure whoever was chosen was a writer who was at the top of his or her game, involved in the cultural scene, had earned a statewide and national reputation, and who could handle a job.”
Possibly the most-telling statement about this sad saga is that the very last person anyone would expect to be writing a lead, front-page political piece at the Observer is the author of today’s story, Dannye Romine Powell. Powell is highly regarded for her many years of work in this community’s literary circles and many consider her to be deserving of the laureate title herself.
One has to wonder how Powell feels today about the “play” this story has gotten in her paper as will, we suspect, many of the Observer’s readers - maybe especially Governor McCrory.