Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Lev Butts Beats Another Dead Horse by Lev Butts

Earlier this month, North Carolina made history when its governor, Pat McCrory, appointed the first self-published poet laureate, signifying what is certainly one of the first public and official acknowledgements of the value of independently published authors to the world of letters. Indeed, his remarks on her appointment seem to imply exactly this kind of acknowledgement. He claims his objective was to be more inclusive in his appointment, to look outside "the standard or even elite groups" that normally take these positions. "It's good," he continued,  "to welcome new voices and new ideas."

In short, July 11, 2014 is a date that every independently published author should memorize; it's the date when the game changed.



WAIT for it....

Almost...

She resigned less than a week later.

If you've been reading the articles I've linked above, you may well be thinking "Well, that's awful nice of her. After all, she was appointed without the input of the Arts Council, which has traditionally (if seven previous poet laureate appointments can really be called a tradition) provided recommendations."

You could think that, but you'd be wrong.

Technically, the recommendation of the Council of Arts is a courtesy, not a requirement. Something the Council was made very aware of with this appointment. And something they've been stewing over ever since.

Ms. Macon resigned after the literati of North Carolina took issue primarily with her status as self-published. As soon as her appointment was announced, writers and English faculty all over the state howled as if their chai lattes, Smart cars, and Mumford and Sons LPs were being taken away. They have since behaved towards Ms. Macon with all the class and decorum of gun-nuts a Chipotle restaurant.

Who are you to deny me my right to deny others their right to a peaceful dinner? 
While many avoid using the phrase "self-published" directly, the subtext is clear:

Jaki Shelton Green, a former Piedmont Laureate and a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, claims that Macon's appointment makes her sad: because “It’s an affront to all the hard work so many of us have done,”

Apparently, Green, like another Green I have mentioned, seems to think that virtually no work goes into self-publishing. That Ms. Macon simply inhaled deeply and belched two books of poetry while working with the disabled at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (becasue we all know how lax and easy those jobs are) and helping to raise money for the homeless (the proceeds of her latest book are going to support a farm that raises food specifically for the homeless community).

Richard Krawiec, a poet and publisher from Durham, NC claims that the “Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations." He further argues,  "If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than [sic] what’s the purpose of the laureate position?”

If the assumption is that the laureate should only go to those with national and statewide reputations, it seems unlikely that indie writers could ever be poet laureates, regardless of how good their work is since it is virtually impossible for someone to promote their work statewide (much less nationally) without either being independently wealthy or having the backing of a publisher. Thus the laureate belongs, according to Krawiec's own argument, to the "elite" literary groups the governor mentioned earlier.

The irony is that raising a self-published writer to the position would have greatly improved other independent writers' chances for recognition. It would have said that literature is for everyone, that writing literature is for everyone as well. 

And therein lies the real problem:

The truth no one has the guts to voice is the tired old classism that rears its head throughout human history, sometimes as racism, sometimes as sexism, this time as literary snobbery. Independent authors should look up to the eliterati and strive to be like them though they can never actually join their ranks.

Self-publishers, know your place. Send us your membership dues for our writing societies and support whatever "real" author you enjoy, but until you get traditionally published, stay the hell out of our poet laureate seat.

Stop! Stop! Now that's just silly.
This started out as a nice little post about the disrespect of independent authors,
but now it's gotten silly.
You're making it sound like these liberal writers and faculty are just as bad as racists, and
anti-marriage-equality bigots,
and that's just silly.
I'm sure they believe black and homosexual independent writers deserve just as much disrespect as WASP independent writers.
I've written about this before, and I expect I'll be writing about it many times again. The only way attitudes toward independent writers will ever change is if more of us write and speak out about it. 

Is Valerie Mason a good poet? I have no idea. And quite frankly I don't care since, apparently, few of her critics do. In the admittedly limited research I have been able to do on this post, I've only seen complaints about her status as a self-published writer. I've found very little that discusses her actual, you know, poetry.

Clearly, her detractors assume that since we are a country that absolutely adores poetry (as evidenced by our hugely popular reality shows American Poetry Idol and Rhyme Swap) if she were any good, she'd be traditionally published (as it is ever so easy for poets to be published in this country where poetry books sell so well).

Should the governor have appointed her without other input? Probably not the best idea he's had, but his stated goals, of allowing more diverse candidates to fill seats normally reserved for "elite groups," would have more than likely been thrown out had he done so. If you're going to protest this appointment, though, stay focused on that. Harping on the self-published angle is just petty and mean-spirited.

The point is moot, though, as Ms. Macon resigned her position last week, after serving a grand total of six days, to avoid having this flustercluck divert any further attention from the importance of the poet laureate position.

Yes, while the North Carolina eliterati were busy defending the honor of the poet laureate seat by debasing it with mud-slinging, name-calling, and all-around whining, Valerie Macon took the high road for sake of the very position she was accused of defiling.


In her response to this news, Kathryn Stripling Byer, herself a former the North Carolina poet laureate, after criticizing Macon for having the unmitigated gaul to allow herself to be named in the first place, urged her readers to make sure not be insensitive to the poor dear and to place the blame squarely where it belongs.


I intend to do just that. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the true instigators of this whole fiasco:


The North Carolina Eliterati:

Vivian Smith-Smythe Smith

Nigel Incubator-Jones

Gervais Brook-Hamster
Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris
Oliver St. John-Mollusc
Phil

Valerie Macon served less than a week as the North Carolina poet laureate, but she still served. She is still, to my knowledge (and if I am wrong, it's even better news), the first independently-published writer to hold a laureate position in any state. 

No one, not the governor of North Carolina, not the upperclass twits of the Council of Arts, not the other members of the North Carolina literati, can take that away from her.

She still wins, and that win is a win for all independent writers everywhere.

10 comments:

madwippitt said...

Ummmm ... actually I have no idea what the point of a laureate is ... or does. My rather ignorant and uninformed thought was that apart from providing the occasional ditty to commemorate various occasions, they were basically a kind of literary ambassador. And if literary excellence is a criteria, who is to judge since opinion will inevitably be subjective? Take Nahum Tate for example, who revised King Lear to give it a happy and unbeat ending ...

madwippitt said...

grrrr .... UPBEAT ending!!!!

Nick Green said...

Great post, but... I have to confess I'd be more on the side of those who said the appointment was a mistake. Valerie Macon's work reveals her to be no great shakes as a poet - by no means bad, just... not brilliant, never mind exceptional, which I think you'd have to be in order to be appointed Laureate.

It's not elitism to suggest that someone appointed to a high-level job has to be very good at that job. As Tom Stoppard points out very vividly in his play 'The Real Thing', cricket bats don't work because of some elitist conspiracy of cricket bat manufacturers. They work because of the fine engineering that goes into them. The same, he goes on to suggest, is true of literary works. If you try to swing a lump of wood that just looks like a cricket bat, you'll sting your fingers badly.

Leverett Butts said...

I agree wholeheartedly,Nick. If she's not exceptional, she shouldn't be laureate (though I was initially surprisedto learn NC even HAD one). And the governor probably SHOULD have consulted the Arts Council. I took exception to the mounds and mounds of articles and editorials attacking the woman primarily for being self-published.

I have since found one article crtiquing her actual poetry (I initially found two, but the second one was just paraphrasing the first), and it does appear that her poetry leaves a bit to be desired.

However, if this is the case, how about referring to her as "the mediocre poet who was made laureate"? To constantly focus on the outrage of her appointment and then call her "the self-published poet who was made laureate" suggests either that its the manner of her publication, not her talent, that disqualifies her for the post or the manner of her publication IMPLIES her lack of talent and disqualifies her for the post.

Either way the critiques become a critique of self-publishing, not of the mediocre poet herself.

Scott said...

I heard Ron Rash say that writing novels was nice because he actually made money, as compared to his poetry books he wrote early in his career. Poetry is something people do out of love. It's clearly not for financial gain. Writing of any kinds should be open to all, not just the elite of literature.

Nick Green said...

Ah, I see your point, Lev. The focus of the criticism was misguided.

After all, poetry is such a difficult area for most of us - is it genius, or is it garbage? Often I honestly can't tell, though armed with an Eng Lit degree. But anyone can understand 'self-published' and then see it as a shorthand way to say 'no good'.

Given that poetry makes so little money anyway for publishers, self-publishing should carry the least stigma in that genre. If anything it could be a badge of honour: look, this stuff is so non-commercial, no-one would take it.

Leverett Butts said...

You would think. I have a friend, Joe Milford, who is the second Georgian ever to graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop (the Harvard/Yale of American writing programs), and the only poet(the first Georgian, was, of course, Flannery O'Connor).

His first five books were self published through lulu. His first traditionally published collection came out a few years ago, and it was predominantly the best work form the self published books.

Following the NC Arts Council's objections, Joe was a crap poet regardless of his background until his most recent book, and the poems were crap until they showed up in the book, too.

It's all ridiculous.

Susan Price said...

I dunno about the NC laureate, but Britain has had some bloody awful poets as Poet Laureate. Alfred Austin? Colley Cibber? - They were all conventionally published.

Lee said...

Lev, did anyone actually suggest that Milford was a crap poet while self-published? I was under the impression that 'Iowa', like 'Harvard', tends to stifle objections.

Lydia Bennet said...

Laureates of cities or areas or indeed garden sheds are burgeoning fast, and are more like Poets in Residence but with slightly bigger residences than the original Laureate posts. They are normally supposed to represent the place or speak for it or stand for it in some way and should be well regarded poets. They might be well regarded performance or spoken word poets even if not published or self published. Being self pubbed shouldn't bar someone or be the basis of criticising their work, otoh if they are just self published and not otherwise distinguished in any way or without any kind of track record, it would be strange for them to be well known enough to be appointed to the post.