Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wherein I make remarks on the NC poet laureate fiasco

As I continue to come to grips with the fact that my bad driving and forgetfulness about daily deodorant application, among other faults, most likely preclude me from ever obtaining a poet laureateship anywhere, even a small community of miscreants, I have watched a single proclamation cause the literary community just north of me to totally explode into a fireball of fire, setting off car alarms for miles and miles around it.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, allow me to explain:

Whatever number of days ago, the governor of North Carolina nominated a "disability examiner for the Department of Health and Human Services" who has self-published two books of poems, as the new holy poet laureate of the sovereign state of North Carolina.

Cue fireball.

The governor, Pat McCrory, a Republican, made this nomination without consulting the Poets That Be of the state, ones who have a Whole Procedure on this, as is the tradition and custom.

Some said he "ignored" the Way Things Are Done Around Here, but that isn't really accurate because, as the literati discovered in ongoing updates on the situation from The News and Observer (Raleigh) and The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte), the governor "wasn't aware" of the rules and regulations.

Whoever takes Governor McCrory gently by the elbow and deftly helps him side step major piles of shit seriously fucked up on this one.

The taste left over in the literati's mouth is, of course, the bitter cud of knowing for double-sure that the governor of this state gives less than a Rhett Butler damn about poetry, poets, or the care and feeding of either in the state of North Carolina.

Because that's what really happened. The governor, ignorant of and apathetic to the importance of literature, put about as much consideration into the selection of a new poet laureate as he does into choosing his socks each day.

But here's how he shirked the heat:

Instead of acknowledging that he is a goober and made a mistake by not taking the decision seriously, raising his hand in a Mia Culpa, Poetica gesture, OR, what would have been better, defending his selection by revealing and explaining a complex and lengthy thought process about how he arrived at the idea that the woman he selected was totally awesome, what he did do was point his finger at his criticizers and make the following accusation: Ya'll are just a bunch of snobby bitches, you bitches.

In a moment that was like something out of Bizarro World and The Twilight Zone combined, the Republican governor, who ran, in part, as most Republicans do, on "traditional values," who turned away money for Medicaid expansion and has cut programs that help flannel-and-jeans poor people, instead choosing to favor and promote suit-and-tie corporations, accused his complainants of elitism, and patted himself on the back for getting all funky and anarchist with it in his non-traditional choice for the position.

Essentially, Governor Pat McCrory is a bitchin' punk rocker, and all these fuckin' establishment poets are The Man holding him down.

And you might be surprised to know that there are some poets - poets! - who agree with him, at least on the issue of Fuckin' Establishment Poets. Nobody believes that Pat McCrory is a punk rocker of any type. That was hyperbole on my part.

When a friend first posted a link to the initial announcement, I responded the way many other local poets and artists responded: Here this asshole goes again.

Along with poor people, literary and other artists (who are also poor much of the time), have not received a whole hell of a lot of respect from the current administration in North Carolina. And no artist is immune from his derision, from the elite upper echelon of academic liberal (liberal - there's your hint) artists in Our Lady of the Duke Chapel Hill Castle, down to the sordid, dirty performance artists bringing political and social activism to life in the clubs and cabarets found deep in the seedy part of major cities across the state.

Governor McCrory is both a businessman's businessman and a politician's politician. He likes his public art clean, tasteful, neutral and served with champagne and millions of dollars that benefit his political agendas - art that makes her own money and doesn't ask him for anything. If the art's dirty, needy and maybe a little drunk, I'm sure there's a member of his party who would meet her in a non-descript hotel, but he wants her to keep her mouth shut about it.

That's how many of the writers and artists of North Carolina feel about Pat McCrory, and so when he made his selection for the new poet laureate, we knew he wasn't being purposefully, thoughtfully non-traditional or anti-elitist. He was, however, being a punk. I'll give him that.

When I commented initially on posts that appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, it was for the most part to agree with the others who expressed their frustration with the govenor, yet also their empathy for the selected poet laureate, who was now being ripped apart for her inexperience.

However, at one point, Rattle, a literary magazine widely known and loved beyond North Carolina and the surrounding region, posted a link on their Facebook page about the situation.

And it garnered a whole 'nother reaction.

Many who commented on the posted link (which was to a particularly spiteful and detailed calling-to-the-carpet of the poet in question), were mightily miffed at the Poets That Be, Far and Wide, who spoke up against McCrory's decision. They agreed that the literati were acting like elitist, snobby bitches. Was it any wonder that people shy away from poetry? What a clique of mean-girl, MFA brats! The worst. The absolute worst.

And I was aghast. While I could understand chastising someone who viciously attacked a very brief poet laureate who swiftly resigned after her public tar-and-feathering, how could anyone side with an arrogant numbskull (to be clear, the governor) who doesn't respect, know, understand or care about poetry, not even, I'd wager, the poetry that the very woman he selected to laureate has written? How could they wag their tongues at the highly decorated, respectable former poets laureat, or at the process of choosing future poets laureat?

But I realized that the people commenting had a point. For one thing, they likely knew nothing about the Governor, or his lack of respect for any art, be it written or otherwise. All they saw was a bunch of poets taking flight from their perch atop The Academic and Experienced and Awarded-Out-the-Wazoo Castle, extending their talons, and attacking the holy hell out of a defenseless, peace-loving Carolina Wren.

They also didn't know Cathy Smith Bowers, one of the four former poets laureat who were reported to have requested a meeting with Governor Pouty Pants in the midst of this debacle. She is one of the most nurturing, encouraging, downright mothering poets I have ever met. I believe she would no more attack a poet who had innocently been thrust into a shit storm than she would raise her skirt up over her head and go shouting through the streets.

I like Rattle. I like them a lot. I've read their mission statement, and pretty much agree with every word of it.  I like most of the poems they post to their website, and not just because they provide me with free poem-porn. Rattle is an outsider - outside of academia, outside of polite company. I like that. For the most part, people who comment on their Facebook posts like that too, except for every now and then soneone walks off in a huff and declares that they're never going to submit again and/or are going to cancel their subscription and I wonder, Did you ever really try to get to know them at all??? And now you're breaking up with them?????

Anyway, the comments from Rattle readers really.....rattled me. Sorry. But I started to think about elitism and poetry and poetics and snobs and where I stood.

Honestly, I've never really thought I had a problem with academic elitism. In fact, as a poor child of a single mother, I've always looked up to academics. Academic elitism was the only form of elitism I thought I could reasonably expect to achieve. "Elite" only has a negative connotation when you put the "-ism" on it. Many of us want to be elite at something. Education, especially college education, is sort of pushed like you wouldn't believe on poor people as the only option out of their miserable plight, despite the whole Bill Gates thing.  Perhaps erroneously, many poor people view college as (the lottery or super-human athletic ability excluded) their ticket out of hell. *Thus it's no wonder that, after watching my mother clean other peoples' houses and cook their fast food for income, I went to school for my B.A., that I attempted an M.A., and that I eventually earned an M.F.A. It's no wonder that, at a young age, I set a goal that I would one day have a "Dr." in front of my name.

I respect academics, I respect the universities, as well as their publications. Lord knows I would be triple-over dizzy and verklempt if I was ever published in one of their volumes.

When I read that the governor's selection for poet laureate had only "self"-published book credits to her name, I was disappointed.

Yet I am not an elitist. Here's why:

I don't believe that the academic elite - the powers that be over the poets that be - and their presses should have the lone control of and soul right to the publishing of Books That Actually Appear on Shelves and in Reviews and are Read and Receive Notice like they apparently do.  Especially when, as I learn and forget, learn and forget, over and over again, the Academic Elite and the Historically Wealthy overlap a lot, even with poor people being encourged to go to college so much. Especially when the Persons Who Publish Stuff and the Persons Who Review Published Stuff and the Persons Who Have Their Stuff Published weren't exactly strangers before Stuff was published.

I also don't believe in "self" -publishing as it currently exists. By "as it currently exists" I mean poets and writers paying money to a company that may or may not have any interest in their work's literary value but certainly have a whole lot of interest in their cash. Maybe it's because I came of age in the 90's, the decade when zines were popularized, but to me, self-publishing, without the quotations around it, means finding some paper, typing your poems, folding those bitches in half, stapling the shit out of them, then distributing them at coffee houses for $5 a pop. (I actually did this once. Now I wish I could eat those poems and thereby absolve myself of writing them.)  In today's "self" -publishing, you hire a company. The driving factor is, essentially, cash. If you've got the money, they've got your glossy, 9 by 5 inch rendition of your heart's most heartfelt verse. If you've got the money. If you've got the money. That makes me really uncomfortable.

Because if success as a poet counts on either the approval of the academic elite or having enough money to pay-publish (my suggestion to replace "self"-publish), then I am thoroughly and royally screwed. Because I can only act dignified and posh but for so long until the barefoot mountain girl in me comes out, and no academic elite I've ever met has been too keen on that at their parties. Because I've never had enough money to pay for several thousand copies of something glossy as well as the advertising to promote it. I'm not that kind of elite, either.

My hope as a not-famous poet is in the independent magazines and presses out there, running off of subscriptions and what televangelists call "love gifts," journals and presses who give new poets and writers a chance regardless of their education level, or financial status. They cover a wide variety of styles, aesthetics and personal creeds. My hope is also in the lesser-known universities who operate open and fair calls for submission to their journals and competitions for their prizes. Would I love to be published in one of the Big Deal journals? Of course. Will I keep submitting to them? Yes, if I read their F.A.Q. page and it looks like I have a chance in hell. (Hint to other poets out there: If their answer to "Do you accept new poets?" starts off with "It's difficult to define new in this context..." move on, my friend. Move on.)

So I'm not an elitist, even though I attended an MFA program - Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. I was absolutely, literarily (and literally!) nourished there. I never felt that anyone was trying to push me into being a certain type of poet; in fact, I felt that they very much were interested in finding out what I was trying to do, and helping me to do it. I didn't sniff one single elitist the whole time I was there. There was one guy having a full-on love affair with Yeats, but it was in a way that would make even the most hard-core abstractionist sitting behind me in the seminar smile. (Hi, Kate.)

I'm not an elitist, but I want poems to be careful, thoughtful, educated, specific, new. I prefer plainspoken poems that don't require a thousand detours to the Encyclopedia Brittanica to decipher, but I realize that that is an issue of personal style and aesthetic rather than an absolute toward holiness.

I believe any state's or city's or small community of miscreant's poet laureate should be selected with great thought and consideration, with input from a variety of sources, including poets who have devoted a good part of their lives to poetry and have received deserved recognition, and people who are not poets. I wouldn't even be opposed to an audition process. America's Got Poets. Dancing with the Poets. Something where both expert opinion and audience vote count. I worry attendance would be low at such an event.

What I do know is that the governor of North Carolina failed, failed miserably, and that the woman he nominated suffered for it, and that poetry in general suffered for it on account of the "elitism" accusation, but maybe if enough barefoot mountain girls with an MFA, and all their cousins of varying geographies and financial statuses and education levels flood the smaller and/or independent magazines and journals and presses with submissions and donations and subscriptions, we can recover.

* I'm still poor.

No comments: