American Culture

Pat McCrory, Art Pope, and the short unhappy career of a Poet Laureate…

The North Carolina Poet Laureate controversy isn’t about poetry, it’s about power – and probably about money, too…

Erato, Muse of Poetry (image courtesy Wikimedia)

North Carolina has been in the news a lot lately – and not for the right reasons. A Tea Party-dominated legislature doing the bidding of a billionaire ally of the Koch Brothers, a guy named Art Pope who, while having inherited a vast fortune made by his father by selling crappy stuff to the poor, has wholeheartedly embraced  the somewhat warped version of Randian philosophy of “more for me and none for you if there’s any way I can make that happen.” As is typical in such cases, Pope sees himself as a self-made man who “won life’s race.”  Well, as my colleague Sam Smith notes, winning the 100-yard dash of life is not so tough when you start at the 90-yard line and your competitors start somewhere in the Gobi Desert. Call it the Dubya Effect: congratulating yourself for being the scion of wealth and scoffing at those who didn’t wind the biological lottery.

The words you’re looking for are selfish, self-satisfied asshole.

While Pope and his minions destroy North Carolina’s educational system, environment, and social safety net, NC’s sock puppet governor, Pat McCrory, given the small amount of time he’s needed for rubber stamping into law Lord Voldemort’s Art Pope’s acta, just this week took it upon himself to dip his toe into one pool that he and his fellow Libertarian ubermenschen had previously avoided direct contact with: the arts. (Of course, they’ve cut funding for the arts – lazy shits like artists, writers and musicians should make art that makes money or die like the worthless curs they all are, right?)

What McCrory did, and his appointee undid just yesterday, was appoint someone as poet laureate of North Carolina who is, in the words of one critic, a “hobbyist poet.”

There are several ways of explaining this mess:

1) McCrory is an ass – contemptuous and dismissive of anything he doesn’t understand (and that covers pretty much every damned thing), and his appointment of Valerie Macon, a state employee (ah – politics) and aspiring poet is a slap in the face of North Carolina artists of all stripes, not just poets. Boy, is this a satisfying, if depressing and probably mistaken, explanation.

2) McCrory’s appointee, Valerie Macon, is a well meaning amateur (which some claim we should embrace as the return of the past) – and we are unfairly criticizing her, and we might be guilty of sexism (although two of the last four poets laureate for NC have been women), racism, every other -ism. I hope I am clear when I say this is demonstrably false.

3) By choosing Macon, what McCrory and his puppet master Pope hope to do is undermine, then abolish the office (and divert its pittance of a stipend which ranges from $5000-15000 into the pockets of those who already have far too much). IndyWeek describes  this scenario thus:

Or could McCrory be sacrificing the hapless Macon in an effort to eliminate the laureate program altogether? You can anticipate his smug 2016 statement: “We’ve evaluated the effectiveness of the poet laureate over the last two years and have decided the position no longer merits taxpayer funding.” The budget line item is, however, tiny—the News and Observer reported the laureate’s stipend as between $5,000 and $15,000. That’s around 5 percent of the taxpayer funds McCrory had planned to spend to renovate his Executive Mansion bathrooms until public furor flushed his boondoggle last year.

This seems the most viable explanation. McCrory, mouthpiece of the hatred of learning – and its attendant, critical thinking – has been noising his contempt for liberal arts education, a cornerstone of which is an understanding and appreciation of literature.

By the way – the attacks on Macon’s poetry, which I think she works at sincerely, are cheap shots – condescending and contemptible. She’s self-published, yes, but so was this guy, another North Carolina poet who sometimes referred to himself as an amateur. She’s not a great poet, but how many poets are? There’s a little of what my pal David Comfort calls the “MFA Mafia” smell about the reaction to Macon. I agree that she’s unqualified to be poet laureate. I think the process of choosing the next poet laureate needs to be as transparent – and democratic – as possible. Otherwise the selection process will become yet another partisan bludgeon against an “elite” that McCrory and his ilk will use in working towards their avowed aim of creating gammas rather than alphas. Politicians aren’t the only ones capable of slipping into cronyism.

Whether North Carolina’s creative class have won anything from McCrory by Macon’s resignation – and, sadly, needlessly, Macon’s humiliation – remains to be seen. Do I think somehow North Carolinian poets and writers will seize this moment to take a stand against mean-spirited plutocrats? Can’t say. From what I’ve seen, the creative class I’ve seen speaking truth to power have been musicians.

Maybe poets need to speak up more often than simply when their own turf is threatened. Here’s a textbook example of a time when remembering the words of this Founder might be useful.

And who better to articulate the people’s displeasure than their most able wordsmiths?

10 replies »

  1. Five stray thoughts, no particular order.

    1: Art Pope: Born on third, thinks he hit a triple.

    2: This is all very sad – the last thing poetry needs is this kind of cynical politicization. Or heck, maybe this is EXACTLY what it needs. Anything that gets people to thinking about art a little is better than the normal course of things. If she’s like most poets, these events are going to get her work more eyeballs than everything else she’s ever done put together.

    3: Wait – all I had to do to be a famous NC poet was suck up to Art Pope? Can I use my mulligan here?

    4: Seriously, though – I waste 35 damned years trying to be a real poet and in the end I call it quits because nobody cares, and a self-pubbed amateur poet gets to be laureate for a week?

    5: I haven’t read her work, and it sounds like I probably shouldn’t bother, but yeah, it’s a damned shame that it’s gone down this way. But it’s typical of how Merica works. Wealthy sociopaths do something appalling and good-faith, innocent working people take the beating for it. Had I not given it up to be a photographer I might be thinking hey, there’s a poem in there somewhere.

    • I think in most cases it is fundamentally impossible for people with inherited wealth, who have never had to work let alone create as much as an Excel spreadsheet, to understand the value of the hard work required to create things like paintings, poems, pop songs and photographs. And they pick on government-funded arts councils and programs because they are easy targets for personal disdain and for making a self-serving public show of “trimming the fat” from government spending. Such people are parasites, remoras sucking the fat and blood from whale sharks, and people like Pope shouldn’t be in any kind of position to dictate or sway public policy, particularly concerning the arts.

  2. While I may never be a Poet Laureate for Iowa (I criticize way too much for any politician, preacher, or businessman to ever like me), I am with everyone else on this. I do not care for the “Tea Party”. They are disgracing the name of those (Poor) colonists who made up the original tea party. Ah, but I forget. Politicians believe the founding fathers would be billionaires today, even those poor dirt farmers who threw the tea into the harbor.

  3. Said McCrory, “I feel like a dope.
    Picking poets is out of my scope.
    It’s best, for us all,
    When I heed protocol,
    So next time, I’ll ask Mr. Pope.”

  4. There are numerous questions the appointment of Valerie Macon raises. When not delivering cookies to protesters, NC Governor Pat McCrory has been dismantling public support of the arts and education during his brief but turbulent administration. Some may and do choose to see McCrory’s efforts as individual tokens of a collection of otherwise unrelated tastes and other assorted random walk behaviors. Others see such seemingly random taste-driven actions rather as calculated, fundamental and coordinated components of the power machine constructed by a set of wealthy elites who have in effect purchased the NC Congress as well as the Governorship in order to put government in their service. So, if one is to understand that actions against cultural assets in the public trust could be part of a larger “full spectrum war” strategy of disabling one’s local opponents in order to pursue an agenda of what has been historically labeled “crony capitalism,” then this seemingly small and singular act of the governor may be exemplary if not wholly revelatory. When you add the observation that Macon was clearly not qualified for the very reasons Chris Vitiello so clearly (and un-sexist-ly) raised, one might ask, was this appointment a random act, or was it yet another notch in the belt of the new owners of the state of North Carolina? It turns out that this question is crucial to answering who Valerie Macon is, the very question in the headline of this article that remains unanswered.

    The first thing the appointment of Macon did was undermine the influence of the North Carolina Arts Council. Historically the NC Arts Council has presided over the Laureate appointment, and the selection of a Poet Laureate is one of the most visible activities of the state arts organization. Given recent budget cuts to the NC Arts Council totaling approximately 40% of its 2008 funding levels, McCrory’s excision of the NC Arts Council from the selection process sent the message to the Arts Council that the McCrory administration was unambiguously and thoroughly opposed to the Arts Council, not just by purse strings, but also by the very visibility of the governmental arts organization. It hit the Arts Council right where it hurt: in the eye. In public. In the public eye.

    It is frequently stated that in lean times arts cuts are often necessary, and that the particular cultural tastes of the Governor and the NC Senate alike are hardly sympatico enough to encourage them to act in any direction other than to promote those cuts. The gestures always seem to indicate, “those aren’t my sort of people, I’m not one of those fancy-pants.” It is also a commonly held notion that such cuts help the current administration’s pro-business agenda. The fiscal performance of NC arts in every county, however, should disabuse anyone of such notions, as should the importance of a creative workforce to the future of the state’s economy. It should be noted that while several million dollars have been taken away from the Arts Council budget in the name of fiscal responsibility, the current administration simultaneously labored to usher in a $140 million tax break to eliminate estate taxes, a tax break only having a significant impact on the fiscal elite of the state. Astonishingly, the normally lock-step Republicans in the NC Congress became divided about cuts to the Arts Council funding, precisely because of the massive positive economic impact of the Arts Council’s work in every county in the state.

    It is of course peculiar, then, that the North Carolina Governor would choose to describe his choice of Poet Laureate as a blow to dominant elites, given his track record of supporting a narrow band of fiscal elites led by none other than his own Budget Director, Art Pope, and the shameful lack of evidence supporting the theory that funding the NC Arts Council or any governmental arts program, for that matter, is an economic burden. And it is at this point we might ask, who Valerie Macon was, and ask whether her appointment was as McCrory claimed an act against elitism. If so it would be an important move for the governor as it would make the appointment of Valerie Macon perhaps his very first anti-elitist act in office.

    As the story goes, Valerie Macon is a state Department of Health and Human Services employee, a mid-level manager responsible for delivering benefits to the disabled. She is also a volunteer for efforts to feed the homeless. Most relevantly, she is a poet and author of two books of self-published work. Macon clearly has a strong background in community service at a personal and professional level. It is the central requirement of the Laureateship for which her small and comparatively insignificant body of work makes her unqualified and a target of legitimate grief. Valerie Macon seems to be a good person who has perhaps been innocently swept up into a maelstrom of controversy, or so the story goes.

    What I found this week about Valerie Macon was shocking. No, she doesn’t have some sort of double life, some sordid past, or anything like that. Rather what I found was completely banal and in line with the sort of elitist platform that those currently in power uses to bend governmental rules to get government money from the public to their own political interests. Wha-? Let me back up. When I first attempted to investigate a little of her background, I searched for web pages containing her home address as listed by public voting records and the Wake County public tax record. I immediately found her home address listed as the business address of a corporation called, “Wake Up America, Inc.”

    The web site for Wake Up America, perhaps like Valerie Macon’s resume, had recently been taken down. Thanks to Brewster Kahle’s wonderful Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive it is easy to find the old website. “Wake Up America, Inc.” is a non-denominational church with 501.c.3 status. It was founded by Horace Tart, a wealthy Fuquay-Varina, NC (Macon’s town of residence) real estate developer with property holdings in Wake County with a value in the neighborhood of $10 million. Tart is also perhaps memorable as the man who was a member of the Wake County School Board who lost his seat to the ultra-right Pope-proxy, John Tedesco. Before that Tart was better known as the school board member who sent his children to a private Christian academy rather than to his own public schools. He was the lone right wing member of the school board before it became notoriously right-wing. One corporate profile website lists the minister of the “Wake Up America” church as Mikel Macon, Valerie’s husband. Several company profile databases list the Macon residence as the location of the church. It should be noted that the Macon residence is one of three different addresses listed as the main office of the Wake Up America church, the other two of which are properties owned by Horace Tart and his wife, Brenda.

    One brief look in the Wayback Machine at the Church’s official website shows that Wake Up America was a right wing political organization that raised for legislation and using its 501.c.3 status to translate tax breaks to its employees. While the church claims to be Christian, the website doesn’t discuss the teachings of Jesus Christ. Rather, it provides statements of encouragement to its viewers to encourage political leaders to promote “Christian” legislation while supporting other organizations well known for abusing their own 501.c.3. charters to support a right wing cultural (re: Christian) elite. On the website you’ll find only political iconography dominating the website’s layout: images of the American flag, the US Constitution, and A.M. Willard’s famous painting, “The Spirit of ’76.” Perusing the archives for the site, you’ll find no images of Jesus or any religious iconography for that matter. Instead you will find pictures of George Washington and other founding fathers positioned next to seemingly pro-religious quotations attributed to them. On every page you’ll find political language, such as, “register to vote and vote,” “get politically involved,” and perhaps that most nakedly defiant of 501.c.3 regulations, “Christians must inject Christ centered views into the political and legislative processes.” On one page you’ll find, in bold letters “GOD REJECTED” next to the warning, “In direct opposition to our founding fathers’ warnings, God and His principles are being incrementally removed from the public affairs of our nation.”

    To be fair, the website makes no mention of Valerie Macon in its 11 years of existence, though, that may be simply be because the website was built in or around 2002 and remained relatively unchanged throughout its 11 year history. The simple fact of the matter is, Wake Up America was at one time based in Valerie Macon’s home, which means that there is a distinct possibility that she was the direct recipient of benefits obtained by the abuse of 501.c.3 status wrongly conferred upon the organization. It is reasonable to ask whether she received tax benefits from having the church in her home and what her involvement in the organization was. Wake Up America, Incorporated was used by a fiscal elite of the home county of the State’s capital. It was used in a fashion similar to other right wing political organizations who have used the false pretense of church status as fronts for receiving benefits from the state while stumping for political aims of the current elite. It is clear that the Wake Up America, Inc. organization operated to promote the kind of cultural platform fueling the fiscal and cultural elite regime now ruling the state of North Carolina. Whether Macon knowingly and deliberately participated in the wrongful doings of the church is unknown and perhaps even irrelevant. It is easy to imagine that behind this appointment is not a bull-headed defiance of elitism but rather some smarmy small-time glad-handing, $15,000 dropped into the pockets of a person residing in a home where the collection box of a political operation pretending to be a church once resided. The appointment of Valerie Macon was completely characteristic of the full spectrum political warfare waged by the political, fiscal, cultural elite that has an iron grip on the state of North Carolina. The appointment dealt a blow to the NC Arts Council while providing fiscal means a person whose only apparent qualification was her association with the kind of “Christians only” cultural elitism used by the current political elite of the state. Asking who Valerie Macon is leads us not to a story of guffaws and incompetencies by a spunky cow-licked Governor who means well but rather to yet another item to be added to the cabinet of dastardly banal curiosities exhibited by the current North Carolina ruling elite.

      • Indeed. It does show just how ambitious, expansive and ill-informed their platform of control is. Interestingly enough, the text on the archived Wake Up America, Inc website reads a lot like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s June 24th speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
        Forest of course is a former senior exec for Little, a huge global architecture firm that just happens to make all of its Eastern US revenue in North Carolina. Did Tart land Little make a deal on something in Wake County at some point? Wouldn’t be surprised.