How to Become U. S. Poet Laureate

April 19, 2012, by

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.

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Another Kingdom

April 14, 2011, by

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Kay Ryan’s reading last night. I’ve been immersing myself in her poetry for over a month, so I felt that I had a good handle on the way her poetic mind works, but that’s a far cry from the way a person presents herself onstage. And that’s not even to approach the dire fact that great poets can be horrible, utterly disastrous readers of their own poetry.

Poets are not actors, after all.

But, if you’re lucky, a poet can be personable and completely charming, and so on the ball that each poem is surrounded by laughter even though – as you know, if you’ve been reading these blogs – the poems themselves are darkling meditations on life and thought and the pitfalls of human interaction.

One of the points that Kay Ryan stressed throughout the reading is that poems that other people have responded to as depressing – such as “Crustacean Island” and its depiction of a human-less land – Ryan actually finds hopeful, or peaceful, or beautiful. And on stage she may say that she’s somewhat misanthropic, but her personality belies her statement. She delights in play and willful misinterpretation, and those qualities can only be fully expressed in the presence of others.

It’s that sense of play mixed with her utter seriousness with regards to the art of poetry that allows Ryan to take chances with her reading that would derail another poet. How else does she get away with interrupting her own poems repeatedly without harming the integrity of the poem?

There are two things I’ll take away from that night.

The first is Ryan’s quip about the importance of the art vs. the importance of the artist. That if she and her book were on a life raft and another Kay Ryan was helming the rescue craft (admittedly, we’re clearly into the world of Ryan’s own poetry here) that was only big enough to save either Ryan or her book, she’d save her book.

The second thing is just this quote about poetry, what it does and what it is. “It is a roomier place that words create. It is another kingdom.”

Luckily, you have the key to that kingdom before you. All you have to do is open the cover and read.