In anticipation of former Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin’s visit to Houston to close out the 2011-2012 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series next Monday, Inprint Executive Director Rich Levy chatted with Rob Casper, who serves as Head of the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress, about one of the nation’s most unique and mysterious “jobs” —the position of U. S. Poet Laureate.
Rich: Rob, how is the U.S. Poet Laureate selected?
Rob: There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Poet Laureate selection, but really it’s quite simple. For the past two years I helped the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, in the selection process for the Poet Laureate Consultant of Poetry (the official title). The Librarian has a Congressional mandate to select the Poet Laureate.
I didn’t work at the Library of Congress when William Merwin was selected; however, from what I can tell the process worked roughly the same as it did last year, when Dr. Billington selected Philip Levine. (The Poet Laureate serves a one-year term, although several have served additional consecutive terms.) First, I contacted 30 editors, scholars, critics, and nonprofit literary administrators, as well as 10 former Poets Laureate, for nominations. We received 60 nominations in total—half with more than one vote. Dr. Billington and I discussed each nominee in the latter category, and I made several packets with selections for him to review. We spent a number of months looking at batches of poets, and when Dr. Billington decided on a group of finalists he asked me to follow up with two former Poets Laureate, a prominent arts director, and a person of my own choosing for a final review. Right after I provided the results from that review, we had a short discussion and Dr. Billington made his selection.
The above process relied upon input from a variety of experts in the field; however, in the end the decision was Dr. Billington’s. He was very thorough, and his great knowledge of poetry (especially Russian poetry) was more than matched by his openness to new voices.
Rich: What criteria are used to make the selection?
Rob: The only real criterion for a nominee is “literary merit” (as Congress mandated). Almost all the celebrated poets of our time—the poets who have won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, have been awarded MacArthur “Genius” grants and served as Academy of American Poet Chancellors—were on the list. That’s a starting point, though Dr. Billington really needed to respond to the poetry himself. I have to say, it was a great honor to assist the Librarian with the selection process, and to hear his thoughts on poets and poems—he is a remarkable reader, for his sensitivity and his generosity to the work (as well as his ability to respond simultaneously on an emotional and intellectual level).
I have to say, it was a great honor to assist the Librarian with the selection process, and to hear his thoughts on poets and poems—he is a remarkable reader, for his sensitivity and his generosity to the work (as well as his ability to respond simultaneously on an emotional and intellectual level).
Rich: Once on the job, what are the primary responsibilities of the Poet Laureate? I’m guessing it’s not just reading poetry all day.
Rob: The Library of Congress keeps to a minimum the specific duties of the Poet Laureate in order to afford incumbents maximum freedom to work on their own projects while at the Library. The Poet Laureate gives an annual lecture and reading of his or her poetry and usually introduces poets in the Library’s annual poetry series, the oldest in the Washington area, and among the oldest in the United States. This annual series of public poetry and fiction readings, lectures, symposia, and occasional dramatic performances began in the 1940s. Collectively, the laureates have brought more than 2,000 poets and authors to the Library to read for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature.
Rich: What are some of the projects of past Poets Laureate?
Rob: Each Poet Laureate brings a different emphasis to the position. Kay Ryan launched “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy” in 2009-2010, a project that focused on the poetry being written by community college students. The project included visits to various community colleges and a poetry contest on the campuses. For more information, visit www.loc.gov/poetry/mindsjoy/.
Earlier, Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms. Maxine Kumin started a popular series of poetry workshops for women at the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks met with elementary school students to encourage them to write poetry. Rita Dove brought a program of poetry and jazz to the Library’s literary series, along with a reading by young Crow Indian poets and a two-day conference titled “Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora,” featuring panel discussions, readings and music. Robert Hass sponsored a major conference on nature writing called “Watershed,” which continues today as a national poetry competition for elementary and high school students, titled “River of Words.” Robert Pinsky initiated his Favorite Poem Project, which energized a nation of poetry readers to share their favorite poems in readings across the country and in audio and video recordings. Billy Collins instituted the website Poetry180 which brought a poem a day into every high school classroom in all parts of the country via the central announcement system.
More recently, Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column, at www.americanlifeinpoetry.org, that features a brief poem by a contemporary American poet and an introduction to the poem by Kooser. Donald Hall participated in the first-ever joint poetry readings of the U.S. Poet Laureate and British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion in a program called “Poetry Across the Atlantic,” also sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Charles Simic provided tips on writing at www.loc.gov/poetry/ and taught a master class for accomplished poets at the Library of Congress.
One thing left unmentioned in the above description is our Witter Bynner Fellowship—our Poets Laureate select the Fellows, and it is a lovely experience for all involved.
Rich: Thanks, Rob. Mystery solved!