NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

Watch North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson read from his poem "Etchings" in 2015.
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Watch North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson read from his poem "Etchings" in 2015.
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Wanted: one new North Carolina Poet Laureate, preferably without controversy

By David Menconi

dmenconi@newsobserver.com

November 13, 2017 11:46 AM

Nominations for North Carolina Poet Laureate open this week, and it’s a position whose recent history has some controversy.

Coordinated by the North Carolina Arts Council, nominations for the prestigious position begin Wednesday and go until Dec. 8. Laureates serve as advocates for poetry and literary ambassadors for the state, conducting programs and workshops. Their duties also include writing poems to commemorate “historical or culturally important occasions.”

Gov. Roy Cooper gets the final say on who the next Poet Laureate will be, with the announcement tentatively scheduled for sometime in the first quarter of 2018. Poet and educator Shelby Stephenson currently holds the position.

But during the last nomination period, the process to pick the laureate took an unexpected political detour. In July 2014, then-Gov. Pat McCrory announced his choice to succeed the retiring Joseph Bathanti as Poet Laureate: Valerie Macon, a state worker with a thin poetry resume.

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Past laureates like Fred Chappell and Kathryn Byer were internationally acclaimed and extensively published. But Macon was virtually unknown, with just two self-published books to her credit. McCrory, who made the appointment with no input from the state arts council, never specified how she came to be nominated.

North Carolina’s poetry community reacted with fury, calling Macon’s credentials into question. She resigned after less than a week with a written statement saying she didn’t want “the negative attention that this appointment has generated to discourage or distract attention from the Office of the Poet Laureate.”

Stephenson, a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, was subsequently appointed and took office in early 2015. According to the Arts Council, he has made 129 appearances and published three books of poetry (one is a reissue) and has two books on the way.

As for Macon, she continued writing and published a third book of poetry in 2015, “A String of Black Pearls.”

Stephenson’s successor will be the ninth Poet Laureate going back to 1948. As laid out in guidelines established by the department of cultural resources, judging is based on the following criteria:

▪ A North Carolinian with deep connections to the state’s cultural life.

▪ Literary excellence.

▪ Influence on other writers and appreciation of literature in its diversity throughout the state.

▪ Statewide, national or international reputation.

The position is for two years but can be extended by the governor.

It comes with a stipend, traditionally between $5,000 and $15,000 depending on how much traveling the laureate does. You may also nominate yourself.

For details, see ncarts.org and also the online entry form.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Past North Carolina Laureates

▪ Arthur Talmage Abernethy (1948-1953; appointed by Gregg Cherryl)

▪ James Larkin Pearson (1953-1981; appointed by William B. Umstead)

▪ Sam Ragan (1982-1996; appointed by Jim Hunt)

▪ Fred Davis Chappell (1997-2002; appointed by Jim Hunt)

▪ Kathryn Stripling Byer (2005–2009; appointed by Mike Easley)

▪ Cathy Smith Bowers (2010–2012; appointed by Bev Perdue)

▪ Joseph Bathanti (2012–2014; appointed by Bev Perdue)

▪ Shelby Stephenson (2015-present; appointed by Pat McCrory)