Shady Dealings

The Battle for Minnesota's Voice

by D. Garcia Wahl

When Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed legislation that would give Minnesota its first official poet laureate in 2005, did it matter? Yes. Minnesota deserves to have a state poet laureate. Now the governor has changed his mind and passed a bill to create a Minnesota state poet laureate. Does it matter? Probably not. I still earnestly believe the position is mandatory but chances are that nothing will come of having a state poet laureate.

The Library of Congress states the following concerning the position of national poet laureate:

"The Laureate receives a $35,000 annual stipend funded by a gift from Archer M. Huntington. The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library."

It is absolutely asinine for such a position to have its duties kept to a minimum. The term for national poet laureate runs from October to May. This is not even a full year. Will someone explain to me how such a noble position that holds a term running less than a year needs to be minimized? That position pays $35,000. The position of Minnesota poet laureate has no stipend. How much time will this volunteer put into the needed work?

And who will be made the noble volunteer of Minnesota poetry? The names tossed about are Robert Bly, Bill Holm, and yes, even Garrison Keillor (can you hear me banging my head on my desk?). It's not that these gentlemen are not a valid face of Minnesota poetry (though I believe they are not), but the point is that Robert Bly will promote Robert Bly, Garrison Keillor will promote Garrison Keillor. The person who takes up the role of Minnesota poet laureate must not promote himself during his term. He must focus solely on poetry, with no regards to himself or his own work. He must work tirelessly to promote poetry in this state. He must initiate programs and make endless appearances. His time during his term must be devoted to poetry in the state and as a representative of the state. Notably, his time must not be his own. And, here's the kicker, it must be done despite the absence of payment. That's what a true poet laureate is. It is about poetry. It is not about the person in the position. Just because it does not happen on a national level does not mean it cannot happen in this state.

When Governor Pawlenty first vetoed the bill, he said that if he were to allow for a poet laureate then all the other arts would come out of the woodwork wanting a laureate; the painters would want a painter laureate, the sculptors would want a sculpting laureate, and so on. This was a ludicrous statement as far as tradition and precedence go. But now Governor Pawlenty has done the right thing and we are given an incredible opportunity. Nominations are being accepted through October 31, 2007 at www.minnesotahumanities.org.

So who will we nominate? Naturally everyone who ever composed a rhymed couplet will nominate themselves. Let's move beyond that list. Think carefully. Here is an opportunity for Minnesota to rise to the occasion. Here is an opportunity for someone to properly promote poetry as the highest art form. And here is a chance for someone to do it for the glory of poetry without accepting a dime and without existing as a walking advertisement for his own works. The Minnesota poet laureate can make a mark that the national poet laureate never has.

Shady Dealings challenges this state to find a poet laureate whose intentions are for poetry alone. I believe we will nominate a face that will accomplish nothing. The challenge is out there, Minnesota, to break that tradition. Take hold of this opportunity. I'll be watching.

2007 by D. Garcia-Wahl.


D. Garcia-Wahl's first novel, Ashes of mid autumn, was published in 2004 and his first full collection of poetry, All that does come of madden'd days, hit the bookstores recently. He is currently putting the finishing touches on three more novels and another collection of poetry.