Thursday, May 28, 2009

NC to Lose Poet Laureate

“Musings” for May 21
NC to Lose Poet Laureate

On June 1, North Carolina will join 8 other states in the dubious claim of being the only states without a poet laureate. At that time, Kathryn Stripling Byer, North Carolina’s Poet Laureate since 2003, will complete her term, and in the wake of state budget cuts, no new laureate will be named.
The word “laureate” is derived from the Greek laureatus, meaning crowned with laurel, after the practice of crowning Olympic champions with branches of the laurel or bay tree. Over the years that practice was applied to other fields, and the term laureate was used to designate a person who had been honored for achieving distinction in a particular field.
It is unclear who the world’s first poet laureate was. The term was used as a degree in rhetoric in the Middle Ages, so it was applied to a number of poets from that time. At the same time, British monarchs had developed a tradition of having a court or royal poet, the earliest perhaps being Gulielmus Peregrinus, King’s Poet for Richard I in 1190. Geoffrey Chaucer was considered poet laureate in 1389, and James I named Ben Jonson poet laureate in 1617, but Charles II was the first to have a legally designated poet laureate, that being John Dryden.
In the U.S. there has been an official Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress since 1937, but the term poet laureate has only been used in an official status at the national level since 1985. On the other hand, North Carolina has had a poet laureate since 1948. The first such NC Poet Laureate was Arthur Abernethy from 1948 to 1953. He was succeeded by James Larkin Pearson (53-81), Sam Ragan (82-96), and Fred Chappell from 1997 until Byer took over the post.
The official purpose of the state poet laureate, as overseen by the NC Arts Council, is to promote the reading, writing, and appreciation of poetry across the state. The poet laureate is also called upon to write “occasional” (meaning written for a particular event or ceremony) poetry and to mentor the state’s community of writers. Byer has gone well beyond the official call of duty, visiting hundreds of schools, judging competitions, and creating her blog, “The Laureate’s Lasso,” which features poetry news and events, commentary on and samples from new books of poetry in NC, links to NC poetry journals, links to other poetry-related blogs, and a poet-of-the-week profile of NC poets.
It is difficult to say what impact not having a poet laureate will have on the state of poetry in NC. Poets tend to be missionary in their work, and with or without the title I know Byer will continue in her efforts to promote the mission of poetry. Nevertheless, one can’t help but be saddened when their home state becomes one of the few to no longer have a publicly-supported presence in an undertaking as noble and vital as that of poetry. Certainly the inability to share in a statewide pride in our very own poet laureate will weaken our sense of North Carolina as a place rich in the arts, and if Mary Cloake, Director of the Arts Council in Ireland is right when she says the presence of publicly-funded arts is “considered a key indicator of a mature and attractive knowledge-based economy [which] plays a crucial role in attracting inward investment by global corporations,” then our financial health may be damaged as well.
In honor of Byer’s work as poet laureate and to illustrate the sort of “occasional” verse she created in that post, I’m including below a poem she wrote for her own coronation.

Piece of Cake

When the young woman calling from
Charlotte to interview me for her radio program
asked, “What is a Laureate, anyway?”

I heard my voice hem and haw
like a bad line of poetry. I thought I heard all of the Old
North State holding its breath while I struggled

to say something clever, but all I could think of
was “lariat.” Then in a moment
of quiet desperation, I thought of Laurette,

who lives just down the road
from my childhood home, hands busy sculpting
the icing on each of her Milky Way cakes

as she stands in the heart of her kitchen,
the sun sliding into the cornfields, another June
day disappearing, another night kindling

its Milky Way stars,
and at long last I know how to answer
that question. A Laureate

lassoes the Milky Way,
word after luminous word of it,
holding it out in her hands

like a piece
of Laurette’s chocolate cake

Try this!
Believe me,
You’ll like the way poetry tastes!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

CVCC Students In Mule and Goose

“Musings” for May 14

I was in graduate school before I had my first real publication as a poet. The poem was called “Preserving the Horn,” and the journal was Southern Poetry Review. It was a big day for me. I was finally able to say that I was a “published poet,” and I felt like I must have finally figured something out about the world of writing and publishing poems.

One of the things I try to do with my own creative students is help them find the concrete encouragement to keep writing that publication brings. I’m very proud to say that this year, nine of my students at CVCC have had or are having their work published in two online journals. As of May 1, five students’ work went online in the journal Dead Mule, at The students and their poems are as follows:
Keegan Blankenship: “Note to Life,” “Junkie,” and “Failed Remorse;”
Heather Carl: “Fleeting Innocence;”
Jacob Gryder: “Mirror,” “Ours Is the Night,” “The Story of a Rock,” and “Upon Having Read His Own Poem Aloud in Class;”
Theodora Netza: “For Maurice Krafft” and “Nightmare;” and
Kristen Sealy: “Dash.”

In a few weeks a new issue of the journal Wild Goose Poetry Review will also go online and will feature poems from six of my students, including Keegan’s “Steve,” Jacob’s “Like Van Gogh But More Ears,” and four others as follows:
Jenni Conklin: “Freckles” and “If You Ask Me Why I Brought a Bowler Hat to a Funeral;”
Houa Lee: “Helplessness” and “Scribbles;”
Deanna Mullins: “Self Service;” and
Graham Ponder: “Icarus.”

One of the joys of teaching creative writing at a community college is having the opportunity to see the wide variety of people who are still interested in poetry. This group is no exception to that variety. Keegan, from Hickory, is a dual enrollment homeschooled high school student preparing to attend UNCG to major in theater. Heather is from Newton and will dual major in English and Business at UNC. Jacob, from Alexander County, will major in Comparative Literature at ASU. Jenni is a Challenger High School student at CVCC who wants to study illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. Houa, from Taylorsville, wants to study political science at UNCC. Deanna is another Challenger student who wants to study forensic anthropology at Western Carolina. And Graham is a product engineer from Claremont with a degree in business administration from UNC Asheville.

I’m very proud to reprint two of these poems below:

Upon having read his own poem aloud in class
by Jacob Gryder
the man reads,
not a poet anymore
just a vocalist—
an orator
his oration no longer
a piece of his soul.
clears the throat,
but still the words
are whispered,
creaking phlegm
infiltrates his meaning.
and mournful silence falls
his peers wear quiet contemplation
as he sports a blush,
ruddy face and a million quiet heart beats,
his fate will, here, be decided.
in his chair he does not move,
but in the boy his spirit writhes
“out with it” he yells,
echoes resounding in his mind.

A note to life
by Keegan Blankenship
Next time you are feeling generous,
keep your lemons to yourself.
If you are freely distributing fruit,
I would much prefer grapes.
For with these grapes
and ample time,
we can sit on my back porch
and get drunk on the wine.
And then when you are good
and drunk;
that’s when I’ll take full
advantage of you.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Bill Griffin

Bill Griffin
“Musings” for April 23

Bill Griffin is a family doctor in rural North Carolina and long time Board member of the NC Poetry Society. He is also a fine poet. Author of three collections of poetry, his work has appeared in many regional and national journals including: Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, Poem, NC Literary Review, Pembroke Magazine, and Illuminations.
His most recent chapbook is Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (March Street Press 2008). In it the various creatures of the Smoky Mountains speak their mind. Bear, for example, states:

if you hear me, it will be the rising chest
of the mountain and its timeless slow
and if you hear me
it will only be because
I didn’t hear you first.

As if the words are not beautiful and authentic enough, each poem is accompanied by a sublime drawing by Bill’s wife, illustrator Linda French Griffin.
In a recent review of Snake Den Ridge, I said the book could be used “to add immediate aesthetic beauty, intellectual depth, and meditative calm to any living room or waiting room fortunate enough to have the book placed therein” because “the poems’ unique combination of intellect and readability and the visual appeal of the sketches will make any room a more interesting place.”
Often today it seems the only ones interested in reading poetry are other poets, and just as often it seems poets are all-too-willing to write only for that audience. Such is not the case with Griffin. His poems are compelling and intricate, full of precise language and imagery, but they are also straightforward and familiar enough for any reader to enjoy. At the end of each poem I find myself thinking, “Yeah. That’s it. That is what a bobcat or hawk would say.”
My own favorite of his creatures is the first and last to speak, the raven, who says at the beginning:

I know from twenty circles
of snowdeep and hungry moons
and twenty circles of fresh shoots
that Sky . . . Water . . . Earth . . .
none of them are mine.

And I know none are yours.”

And at the end:

Don’t sigh
at my passing -- each morning
and for every dawn to come
I will spread my soul of wings
where they cast no shadow
and invite you to join me as part
and presence
of Snake Den Ridge.

Griffin will visit Hickory on May 12 to read from his work with poet DB Cox as part of Poetry Hickory, held at 6:30 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse. Those who attend will meet a poet of great warmth, hear poetry of ineffable beauty, and perhaps learn what so many poets have wanted us to understand, that the natural world is sacred, invested with a divinity which is too often and too easily obscured by our obsession with ourselves as prime mover.