I’ve been thinking about the North Carolina poet laureate controversy. As you may have heard, Governor Pat McCrory appointed Valerie Macon, a self-published and (from the little evidence available online) not very talented poet, to the position several weeks ago. Outrage (and some funny headlines) followed; Macon stepped down. She also took down her website, on which she had misrepresented her credentials—credentials that she then claimed didn’t matter. In her letter of resignation, she wrote, “I would like to encourage everyone to read and write poetry. They do not need a list of prestigious publishing credits or a collection of accolades from impressive organizations—just the joy of words and appreciation of self-expression.” McCrory accepted Macon’s resignation but defended the appointment, which, he said, was based on the principle of providing opportunities “for people that aren’t always a part of the standard or even elite groups that have been in place for a long time.” I’ve been Googling Macon for the past hour and have been able to find only two of her poems (one of which was buried in a Comments Box). It seems her poetry, though not yet her name, was writ in vanishing pixels.
It’s easy to make fun of charges of elitism. (And easy is good! It means anyone can do it!) For example, I love rockets! I’ve loved rockets since I was a kid! So I built this rocket ship. I’m not an engineer—I mean, that would have taken years of training—but I connect with rockets, I feel like I get them in ways that those fancy graph-and-figure guys don’t. So what do you say? Can I book you a seat on my rocket ship?
And after I send you off on my rocket ship, I’m going to take out your pancreas. I’m not sure where the pancreas is located, or what it does, but I’m pretty sure I saw somebody remove one on a YouTube video.
This dismissal of expertise finds its purest (and most dangerous) form in the political world. If Marco Rubio doesn’t want to weigh in on our planet’s history (“I’m not a scientist, man”), that’s fine—but it should preclude him from having a voice in many important matters of public policy. You don’t have to be a scientist, but you do have to at least listen to the findings of scientists. Otherwise, you’re just a decent-looking guy who knows how to stay hydrated. We need someone more serious than Rubio if we care about politics. And we need someone more serious than Macon if we care about poetry.
It’s not a question of MFA vs. NYC, or Sligo vs. St. Elizabeths, or the Department of Health and Human Services (home of Macon, a disability examiner) vs. the Ministry of Silly Walks (home of John Cleese, a disability examiner). You can practice writing anywhere, but you do have to practice—you have to work on your lines the way a basketball player works on his free throws. Because no one, by dint of his amazing heart and character, is a naturally great free throw shooter. And no one’s a naturally great poet. It takes time (usually), and it takes tremendous curiosity and concentration. From Thomas Mallon’s recent NYTBR essay on the various brows (high, middle, and low): “The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one.”
Once you start thinking along these lines, example after example pops up. A profile of Richard Linklater ran in The New Yorker a little over a month ago. “By his early twenties,” Nathan Heller writes, Linklater “was seeing six hundred films a year. . . . Often, he would write, shoot, edit, and watch film eighteen hours a day, to the exclusion of most other things.” The future Boyhood director “made shorts, each conceived as a technical study: this one was about lighting; that one, camerawork.” Linklater wasn’t born a great film director; he made himself into one. Why is any of this surprising? Even the man behind Slacker put in his 10,000 hours of prep time.
Here’s another illustration, from Mike Schur, the co-creator of Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, Schur describes his start in the comedy-writing business:
I wrote submissions to shows I wasn’t even planning to submit to. I would write sample scripts of TV shows that I liked, just to practice. I wrote a Cheers script around 1998, long after the show had been off the air. . . . That’s not a job-getting tool, that’s a way to practice your craft.
And one more example, from Lydia Davis’s 2011 interview in Gigantic:
Gigantic: I normally hate this kind of question, but I’d actually be interested to hear your answer: what advice might you have for young writers?
Davis: Advice—well, nothing surprising. To observe the world carefully, to write a lot and often, on a schedule if necessary, to use the dictionary a lot, to look up word origins, to analyze closely the work of writers you admire, to read not only contemporaries but writers of the past, to learn at least one foreign language, to live an interesting life outside of writing.
(Davis is the poet laureate of All Things Surprising. And even that doesn’t do her justice.)
Ezra Pound was thinking about the North Carolina poet laureate controversy eighty years before it occurred. The man who resolved (at fifteen years old!) to know more about poetry by age thirty than any man alive proclaimed, in ABC of Reading,
The writer of bad verse . . . expects his faculty to descend from heaven. He expects to train and control that faculty without the labor that even a mediocre musician expends on qualifying to play fourth tin horn in an orchestra, and the result is often, and quite justly, disesteemed by serious members of his profession.
Or you can ignore everything I’ve written and excerpted because, well, cataclysms are coming and Macon and even Davis and Pound will someday be forgotten. Last words go to Thomas Hardy:
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop plows.