Since 1937, the United States Librarian of Congress has appointed a poet to tend the fires of poetry for the American people. The national program was started by Archibald MacLeish when he was Librarian of Congress. From 1937 to 1986, the title was Consultant in Poetry. Thirty poets from Joseph Auslander to Gwendolyn Brooks held that title. From 1986 to the present, the title is Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. So far, 22 from Robert Penn Warren to Tracy K. Smith have held that title. However, what most people, including poets, don’t know is that the field of poet laureates is growing. Poet laureates can be representing states, counties, and towns in the US.
In this essay, the Steiny Road Poet will look at state laureateships and, in particular, the new Poet Laureate of Maryland—Grace Cavalieri.
STATE POET LAUREATE PROGRAMS
Many state poet laureate programs predate the Library of Congress. California named its first laureate Ina Donna Coolbrith in 1915 and Colorado followed suit in 1919 naming Alice Polk Hill. In 1921 Nebraska named John G. Neihardt. In 1923, these states named their first laureates: Arkansas—Charles T. Davis, Idaho—Irene Welsh Grissom, Oklahoma—Violet McDougal, Oregon—Edwin Markham. In 1923, Georgia named Frank L. Stanton, in 1926, Kentucky named James Thomas Cotton Noe, and in 1929, Florida named Franklin N. Wood. Minnesota named Margarette Ball Dickson, its first laureate in 1934, although it is not clear that she was an official appointee. Illinois in 1936 named Howard Austin.
Of the 50 states in the United States of American, only Massachusetts and New Mexico have never had a poet laureate. However, as of April 5, 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a bill allocating $107, 000 to the New Mexico Department of cultural Affairs for the creation of a state poet laureate program. Michigan has had only one laureate from 1952 to 1959, and he was the renowned Edgar A. Guest
Two states have abolished the poet laureate program. In 1999 in New Jersey, a program was established and by April 17, 2000, Gerald Stern was appointed the first New Jersey Poet Laureate. In 2002, Amiri Baraka was appointed but he read his anti-Semitic poem “Somebody Blew Up America” at the September 2002 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, which caused a furor. Governor Jim McGreevey called for Baraka’s resignation which Baraka refused to do. In October 2002, through a bill introduced to the Jersey Senate, the position of state poet laureate was abolished because the originating legislation had no provision for removing a laureate. In 1993, Governor Bob Casey appointed Sam Hazo as the Pennsylvania Poet Laureate but by May Day 2003, Governor Ed Rendell sent a message to Hazo that the poet’s “services were no longer needed.” Apparently, Rendell had also abolished the job of the cultural advisor
under which the laureate program had been established.
HOW GRACE CAVALIERI BECOME MARYLAND’S POET LAUREATE
In November 2018, Grace Cavalieri, author of 21 collections of poetry, was selected as Poet Laureate of Maryland and began her four-year term in January 2019. The Maryland State Arts Council initiates a call for nominations for who will be the next Maryland laureate and the Council relies on the narrative of the nominations as well as a panel of past state laureates and prominently known poets to make the selection. Cavalieri generated a substantial stack of nominations as one would expect since she is a well-known radio impresario who created and carried out programs for decades as host of “The Poet and the Poem” on WPFW-FM and which now is uploaded from the Library of Congress to National Public Radio.
HOW CAN CAVALIERI AFFORD TO BE MARYLAND’S POET LAUREATE?
In April 2019, she was awarded a $75,000 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship, one of thirteen such awards this year which range in amount from $50,000 to $100,000. This money, financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will help Cavalieri achieve the goals she has always had for serving the cause of poetry. The state of Maryland does very little to financially support their laureates. For example, all the state gives the laureate for gas money is $.58 per mile, but the state officials expect the laureate to visit every one of the 24 counties in the state.
DOES BEING POET LAUREATE MEET CAVALIERI’S EXPECTATIONS?
On May 8, 2019, Steiny interviewed Grace Cavalieri to learn more about the laureateship and whether Cavalieri’s expectations were being met.
STEINY: Why did you want to do it and now that you hold the title, do your expectations match up?
CAVALIERI: “I was always happiest when I am serving poetry, it’s my life force. It’s not a great departure from what I do. Just a lot more to do.”
For example, she has already visited five counties since March 1. In Hagerstown, she gave a workshop for teenagers. Cavalieri has two projects she plans to pursue as Laureate—poetry workshops for teenagers done in partnership with the Future of Children Foundation and building a Web page with all the podcasts she has done of Maryland poets.
STEINY: Will you have the opportunity to meet any other Laureates from other states in the US?
CAVALIERI: “Yes. All the poets laureate who got Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowships will meet Aug. 31 on the National Mall for the National Book Fair.”
Cavalieri will meet laureates from Nevada County, CA (Molly Fisk), North Carolina (Jaki Shelton Green), town of Carrboro, NC (Fred Joiner), Los Angeles, CA (Robie Coste Lewis), Washington State (Claudia Castro Luna), Columbia, South Carolina (Ed Madden), Indiana (Adrian Matejka), Oklahoma (Jeanetta Calhoun Mish), Utah (Paisley Rekdal), Philadelphia, PA (Raquel Salas Rivera), San Francisco, CA (Kim Shuck), and Tucson, AZ (TC Tolbert). Here Steiny pauses to note that three of these lucrative awards went to laureates in California locations, including a county and two large cities, and two went to North Carolina—one for the state and the other for a town.
Cavalieri is the tenth Poet Laureate of Maryland. The program began in 1959. Some of the prominent poets holding this office included Lucille Clifton (1979-1985), Reed Whittemore (1985-1988), Linda Pastan (1991-1995), and Stanley Plumly (2009-2018). Reed Whittemore was also the 28th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1964.
SEEKING COMPASSION IN POETRY
STEINY: As a Buddhist how will you awaken people to poetry in the public place you are now given access to in a way that is different from your usual approach?
CAVALIERI: “What Buddhism means to me is being present, being in the moment—all the things that poetry requires. I start all my workshops with meditation. Ask that the participants be mindful. I ask Hold your feelings to live with them. Going within is what poetry does. Buddhism is a natural fit, kinship of faith. Being raised a Christian I have certain images in mind. I’m still a theist. But mindful. Compassion is above love in Buddhism. Working with other poets is a form of compassion.”
SERVICE NOT SHOWBOATING
Cavalieri said, “I plan to do this for four years. I’ll be 90 then. I have plenty of energy. This is a service position. Not a showboating venture.”
Steiny’s final question: Have you written any secret poems about being Laureate?
Cavalieri: “How can you write a poem about a title? But the title is nice because it opens doors.”
Being poet laureate of a place is to be an ambassador of appreciation to a community. That appreciation is of the written word in all its abilities to communicate what humankind has to offer each other. Cavalieri who has promoted the work of hundreds of poets through her radio programs and her book reviews is the penultimate ambassador of appreciation.
Here’s a poem by Grace Cavalieri
You Can't Start the Spiritual Journey until You Have a Broken Heart
Take the edge of the past,
not the whole
just the edge,
the way the art teacher
said You Blink Too Much,
the way the English teacher said
Your Father Must Have Written This-
It's Too Good . . .
This must be why
God started talking to me
in my own voice with
ideas I never knew,
in my own voice,
even though I thought
a better one surely
should be found,
and certainly could be found-
It sounded at first
like a fiery sun
and a silk moon
spinning through me,
I finally understood
but fast- so fast-
by the time I got the pen
it was gone.