No Michigan poet laureate? In the U.P., a grassroots campaign

No less an authority than the Library of Congress notes that Michigan has no poet laureate, a shortcoming we share with Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In national benchmarks of iambic pentameter and blank verse, we fall short. Why? How can a state that celebrates its visual poetry in Pure Michigan commercials ignore the written variety? 

To be sure, Michigan supports the arts in important ways. Novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell has stated that Michigan Notable Books is her favorite award, which is a pretty significant comment coming from someone who has been a National Book Award finalist. But a poet laureate position, for me (a writer, yes), feels like a missing necessity.

Intimidated by the bureaucratic red tape of pushing for a Michigan Poet Laureate position and with the help of poet Janeen Rastall, I’ve turned my efforts to naming a first-ever Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate; five finalists were selected based on U.P. library, bookstore, and author voting, including runner-up Elinor Benedict (Rapid River), Randall R. Freisinger (Houghton), Eric Gadzinski (Sault Ste. Marie), and Austin Hummell (Marquette). Russell Thorburn (Marquette) was selected as the first U.P. Poet Laureate.

We seem to have caught a wave. Just this year, The New York Times took note of the “rapid rise in poets laureate, especially in small cities and towns. ...According to the Academy of American Poets, at least 35 larger cities have poets laureate.” So why have regional poet laureate positions become so popular?

I contacted some people who would have opinions on this matter – several of the most prestigious Midwest poets, including the five U.P. poet laureate finalists, Max Garland (current Wisconsin Poet Laureate), Patricia Clark (previous Grand Rapids Poet Laureate), and Don Hall (previous United States Poet Laureate).

Their responses were informative, passionate, varied, thorough and interesting. I don’t have room to share them all, but certain ideas that emerged and were reiterated, one that the concept of poet laureate is strongly tied to history.

Benedict wrote, “Think of the Vikings, singing around bonfires about battles with monsters.  Or the Israelites, reciting tales and praise of after days in the desert. And the Greeks, speaking of the fate of proud men and beautiful women.”

For Gadzinski, “the concept of a poet laureate has ancient roots in early classical civilization.”

Garland, however, worries that that tradition may slowly be eroding, writing, “I'm sure there are people who see the poet laureate as a cuddly version of the chamber of commerce. However, as arts budgets are cut state by state, and the transfer of wealth from the working class (and education) to the economic elite is nearly complete, there is nevertheless a remnant awareness that we can't live by bread alone, particularly the crumbs trickling down from the tables of tycoons.”

Poetry, at least for poets, has a significant humanizing purpose, an absolute importance and that importance is critical in understanding the wide growth in regional poets laureate.

Clark writes that the position “celebrates the regional, in a term when regional differences might be going away toward ‘sameness’ all across the country.” And she continues that perhaps “it's an effort to put a town ‘on the map,’ in a way – get it a little attention, like trying to be a ‘cool’ city where young people want to live, and artists/writers/musicians/poets would like to live.”

Thorburn agrees that a “need for a witness to a geographic area is necessary for a culture to thrive or survive.”

For Hummell, the laureate “is more a democratic spreader of poetry as a craft, as an art form, as well as the role poetry plays and can play culturally – as protest, as intellectual awakening, as a liberator from class distinction, as an act of freedom.”

Historical ties, regional celebration, freedom itself—poetry in the hands of poets has a feeling like it’s at the heart of a country’s (or region’s) concerns.

Hopefully Michigan will follow in the footsteps of Arizona’s state legislature, which created their poet laureate position in 2012. Whoever has the dedication to be at the forefront of creating that Michigan Poet Laureate position is a hero in my book.

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Sun, 07/28/2013 - 10:45am
Great idea! I'm wondering, however, why you don't publish a longer article about this? This is like a teaser for me. I want to know more about the poets you chose, more of what they had to say, and the methods you used to make the decision. (How did you get the word out to writers and others that you were putting this up for a vote?) If this a grass-roots campaign, how do we get involved? Are you still working on this or is this announcement the end of it? And lastly, why can't we Yoopers just officially designate our own U.P Poet Laureate and let the state know we'll share if they're interested? (You might have to wait for the next administration, however. I don't think Gov. Snyder has much interest in the arts.) BTW, I would have chosen Elinor Benedict if I had been asked. She's a fine poet, of course, but I admit I'm a bit biased: When she was editor of Passages North she chose a story of mine for inclusion. She also included it in the Passages North Anthology, which thrilled me no end. I'm a Yooper myself, still writing, working to change minds, which is what we all do, no matter the genre. Good work. But I'll bet I'm not the only one who wants to know more. (We did have one Michigan Poet Laureate long ago: Edgar Guest, great-uncle to Judith Guest. Don't know why we've never had another one. It's not because we don't have the talent.)
Jann Kinzinger
Sun, 07/28/2013 - 12:11pm
Congrats to the UP with a poet laureate, with success after a laudable effort. Pity the rest of the state is not as cultural, especially when one considers we have had only one state poet laureate, Edgar Guest. Yet, we can boast five poets with Michigan connections (albeit mainly teaching at U of M) who have become U.S. Poet Laureate: Robert Hayden, Donald Hall, Joseph Brodsky, Robert Frost (who taught at U of M in the 1920s), and most recently, Philip Levine. While I truly appreciate the UP perspective and regionality, however, as a troll, I suggest consideration be given to also naming a poet laureate for the Mitten, and truly, for the entire state as the article notes. To that end, I would nominate Thomas Lynch. Perhaps this article will spur a movement below the bridge. . .
Mike R
Sun, 07/28/2013 - 12:49pm
I nominate Jim Harrison (of northern Michigan, not the "other" Jim Harrison of South Carolina). While "Legends of the Fall" is probably his best known collection of novellas, he has written several excellent books of poetry. Although he no longer lives in the UP (which I suppose may disqualify him in the minds of many), his works consistently reflect and extol the beauty, hardships, and history of Michigan in general and the UP in particular.
Sun, 07/28/2013 - 7:16pm
Why not a poet laureate in Michigan? We could pay the person $150,000 per year and include paid vacation, paid medical & dental. Offer a pension program payable at age 50. And provide the person a paid assistant with same benefits. Of course, the laureate should be a union job so that if he/she writes crap, the person cannot be terminated. Sorry to be cynical, but can we concentrate on real life issues that affect the people of this state?