Since April is National Poetry Month, tell me, dear readers, who is the Poet Laureate of the United States? M-m-m-mmmmm. Thought so. Don’t be abashed. Here’s another one: who is the Poet Laureate of Alabama? If you mentioned the names of Natasha Trethewey and Andrew Glaze, then I O U a cinquain on the subject of your choice by the end of the month. And if you can name Phillip Levine and Sue Brannon Walker as their successors, I will simply faint in surprise with a case of the “vapors.”
Confession: most everything I know about poets laureate I learned after my first college degree. It’s the kind of thing you know about as a teacher of English. But I’ve also been privileged to get to know several individuals rather well. Our tradition in the United States hinges on the pleasure of the Librarian of the Library of Congress. From 1937-1986, a slew of poets served either one or two-year terms as Consultants in Poetry. In 1985 the name was changed to Poet Laureate Consultants in Poetry. The term runs from October to May and a poet may be asked to serve more than one term. Newly appointed Natasha Trethewey is initiating a first: she will make herself available to visitors at the Library of Congress.
The method of selection for states varies. Greg Pape was the Poet Laureate of Montana 2007-2009. I studied with him in the first workshop for poetry in the MFA in Writing program at Spalding. Since then I have been reading and learning from his poetry, those keen observations reflecting the landscape of wherever he happens to be, particularly the wildlife and birds. My landscapes in Alabama were quite different from Greg’s in Fresno and Bitteroot, but he also wrote a poem “Trains: Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Spring, 1983” in which he remembers his first train ride from Fresno to L.A. I learned from his various examples that I could write about what affected me, my own deck and screened porch as well as that of my own backyard birds coupled with a brilliant Indigo Bunting just passing through Birmingham in the spring after his long flight from South America.
Sena Jeter Naslund was the 2005-2006 Poet Laureate of Kentucky. She says she is known in Kentucky as “the fiction-writing Poet Laureate.” The guidelines for that position state the “the word poet in the position title is interpreted in it broadest sense to include person where accomplishments are in any of the recognized literary forms.” Naslund has published four major novels and when I caught up with her for this article was about to make a quick trip to Paris. Her novel-in-progress, THE FOUNTAIN OF ST. JAMES COURT, is set partly in Louisville and partly in Paris in the house where she lived and wrote the first national bestseller, AHAB’S WIFE, THE STARGAZER, on St. James Court.
“There’s nothing I didn’t love about being Poet Laureate. I’ve traveled from one end of Kentucky to the other, from Paducah on the Missississippi River to Pine Mountain in the Appalachian Mountains. Many people have a book or poems inside them. I was honored to be able to encourage them to try their own hand at writing and to talk about how reading enriches our entire lives.”
Robert Penn Warren was Naslund’s favorite Poet Laureate of the United States. “His college textbooks with Cleanth Brooks, about how to read literature—that is with an understanding of how its artistry works—influenced my education and my life. When I learned how to analyze a poem in freshman composition at Birmingham-Southern College, taught by the dean, Dr. Cecil Abernethy, I learned how to use my mind in an entirely new way. Now I could think for myself, not just understand what others explained.”
A native of Birmingham, Naslund teaches and writes in Louisville, but she never forgets where home is. “I do want to say how grateful I am to have received one of the Alabama Governor’s Awards in the Arts, for 2011, and for having been honored with the Harper Lee Award. Born and bred in Alabama, it’s always a joy to come home.”
Of the ten Poets Laureate Alabama has had since the State Legislature passed a bill initiating the process, four have been female. Of those I’m pleased to say that three have been personal friends. Helen Norris and I became fast friends in the 80s when I lived in Prattville and she lived in Montgomery. Even her prose is poetic. In fact, I would say it is equally as poetic as her poetry and there’s a reason for that. Many of the poems published by John Curbow in her two books of poetry were “outtakes” from her short stories, edited out to hone the stories into what I consider her finest genre, the short story. Her work and her life have influenced me so much that I chose her writing as the topic for my critical thesis for the MFA.
Helen Blackshear who preceded Helen Norris as Poet Laureate was the other half of the two Helen’s. If Helen Norris is known for her short stories, Helen Blackshear is known for the sonnet form, and her stories of the early history of Alabama. That and, in loving laughter, her legendary bad driving. Everybody was afraid to ride with her and after a car trip with her from Prattville to Tuscaloosa once, I understood why. I was a ready audience for her stories although I breathed a sigh of relief on our safe arrival because the steering wheel often went the way of her head as she looked at me and talked.
I can’t remember my first meeting with Sue Brannan Walker, Alabama’s Poet Laureate, 2004-2012, but I knew her before I met her. Every writer in Alabama was aware of her literary magazine Negative Capability, and we all wanted her to choose our poems for publication. As recently as last summer I participated in a workshop where she handed us a sheet of a dozen or more ideas of ways to start a poem. This is one person who won’t let Writer’s Block even get a little toe through the door, much less a foot.
Two projects she initiated as Poet Laureate are memorable: an anthology and a web site for poets. J. William Chambers joined her for the first one as Co-editor. Another generous-spirited woman, Walker beat the proverbial bushes for poets and their best work. I think it would be safe to say that Walker and Chambers have published poems that may be the only poem ever written by that individual. Somehow to me that is important, historic, even. For after all, isn’t poetry first and foremost an attempt to express the deepest emotions, to voice the unvoiceable? Some are not poems that would gain critical superlatives. But, so what? As Poet Laureate of the people of Alabama, Sue Brannan Walker made a valiant effort to record Alabama’s poetry, if sometimes warts and all.
The second thing Walker did is to provide an online literary salon of sorts where poets can converse on things poetic, can post poems and ask for critiques, or, if needed, can just rant about one subject or another. Participants are grateful to Walker for this rare opportunity.
I salute all poets this month, especially Andrew Glaze, our newest poet laureate. I enjoyed a visit with him and his wife, Adriana, a few weeks ago. View the resulting profile of Glaze in the current hard copy edition of WELD and at www.weldbham.com.