Thursday, January 18, 2007

Overview of the Poet Laureate Position

First, I am so touched and so grateful to everyone who made Jan. 17 at the Lawrence Arts Center a moving community event. I'm posting my remarks that evening about the poet laureate position and my plans for it:


To me, one of the most striking things about the poet laureate position is how unique it truly is. Despite electronic communications and commercialization, this quaint post still exists and indeed flourishes. I wish there could be a Laureate for each occupation. This uniqueness underscores how essential poetry is to the human spirit.

The poet laureate position has a long European history. A king’s poet or “versificator regis” was part of a royal household. In 14th century Rome, Petrarch, who invented a sonnet form,
was called a poet laureate. Richard the Lion Hearted had a court poet, and Chaucer had a pension and allotment of wine to serve the court of Edward III. Spenser served Elizabeth I, and John Dryden was the first officially appointed poet laureate. Ben Jonson in 1619 declined a pension and took his payment as wine only, and no cash. So far the state of Kansas has not offered this option to me, nor have they offered cash beyond a modest stipend for related expenses. A Topeka radio station disc jockey wondered just how much the state of Kansas was paying someone to be poet laureate, and believe me, it is not a salaried post. My state is known for being frugal.

In America, a position Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress was created in 1937, and Kansan and KU graduate William Stafford held that position. In 1985 Congress changed the name to The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and their guidelines state: “During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” The current Poet Laureate is Donald Hall, who will speak in Kansas City Jan. 24. Nebraskan Ted Kooser spoke at KU and the KC area in 2005-6, during his tenure. The American approach to the national and state poet laureate positions is to value individualism. The US laureate mission states: “Each Laureate brings a different emphasis to the position.” Various projects have included teaching school children, discussion of the African diaspora, placing poetry in public places such as airports and buses, and many other forms. Most often public appearances in themselves raise public awareness, and I understand Ted Kooser made 100 appearances in a year.

There are poet laureates for cities, San Francisco. We could indeed create a poet laureate position for Lawrence or any other community.

The governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius, appointed the first poet laureate, Jonathan Holden, in 2005. In Kansas, the arts commissions stipulates: “The Poet Laureate program of Kansas is intended to serve the cultural tradition of officially recognizing a citizen poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment. The program will also encourage the appreciation of poetry in Kansas by making the Poet Laureate available to a wider audience throughout the state.”
Holden, a distinguished professor at Kansas State University and friend for 25 years, addresses the needs of the Poet Laureate position in terms of the size of this state, through a series of teleconferences. Holden writes of this project, on the site:

"To promote the practice of poetry in the state of Kansas, I propose a series of poetry readings and conversations by and about Kansas poets. The Kansas Poets 'Shoptalk' Series will consist of readings of contemporary poets, as well as readings and discussions of past Kansans, in order to provide an historical perspective. In this way, we can create a Kansas-wide community of poets who have access for continued discussion and 'shoptalk' to the finest and most knowledgeable poets across the state no matter the location.”

This shoptalk series has outlets in just about every town in Kansas over 10,000 except.
Lawrence. There are two more of these planned, and if you live in the Lawrence area, please let Greg German know if you want an teleconference site in Lawrence—he wants at least half a dozen people in order to justify the fees. One of these conferences will honor Holden. German can be reached via the kansaspoets website.

Thomas Fox Averill nominated me for this position, and I am grateful to him! The position runs from July 1, 2007 to July 1, 2009. My own plans are to continue some of Holden’s initiatives, including the website; a few shoptalk sessions; participation in the second annual Kansas Book Fair in September and the first River City Book Fair in Lawrence (October 2007); and personal appearances.

In addition, I have talked with the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn University about an internet and print media project that would result in an anthology of Kansas poets. The Kansas Ad Astra Poetry Project would begin with a weekly e-mailed poem by a Kansas poet, to be delivered to libraries, schools, and other subscribers and also published on the Kansas Poets website. Libraries and schools would be encouraged to print out copies to post. I would select from living and historic poets and include short biography, the poem, and commentary. At the end of the term, the Center for Kansas Studies is interested in printing the collection of these pieces as a representative publication of Kansas poets. This anthology can be distributed to school and public libraries across the state, according to the Center for Kansas Studies. I have also begun, through encouragement of my women writers group, this blog, which lists events, commentary, reviews, and poems.

Poetry holds our communities together and sustains our spirits. It celebrates the land, and our loves, and it mourns our losses. Words create our ability to survive. N. Scott Momaday named his autobiography, Man Made of Words, and I think this title comments on our unique identity as human beings. We all are made of breath and flesh. Poetry binds these together.

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