by Chuck Rybak/@chuckrybak
The Next Next Poet Laureate
It is common knowledge that The Library of Congress hangs on my every word. If there’s a week that passes without someone over at the LoC calling me up and asking for direction, then I certainly don’t know about it. Still, it appears that James Billington, the actual librarian of Congress, has gone ahead and named Charles Wright the next Poet Laureate of the United States—without checking with me.
Now, this post isn’t about Charles Wright’s work–it’s about the position of Poet Laureate and how that might connect to the fact that the majority of U.S. citizens could give a fat frog’s ass about poetry. Maybe, just maybe, the Poet Laureate could help alleviate that deficiency in some way (which is why Natasha Tretheway’s being named to the post was so encouraging). Here’s the deal: you need more than a decorated poet for the honor; you need a poet who can enthusiastically attract people to poetry as both creators and audience.
So what’s up with the process? This sentence from the New York Times gives us a behind-the-Congress look:
Explaining his choice, James Billington, the librarian of Congress, said that as he read through the work of a dozen or so finalists, he kept coming back to Mr. Wright’s haunting poems, many of them gathered in a Dante-esque cycle of three trilogies known informally as “The Appalachian Book of the Dead.” (Emphasis mine)
I have to ask: why limit consideration to the page? If you’re looking for someone to spread the word and proselytize, wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to the work? Instead of reading the published poems in a quite room as a form of deliberation, why not go to the poetry as it is performed? Could a ‘slam poet’ be named the U.S. Poet Laureate? Why not?
So, as a way of facilitating this process (and, one time only, I will do this free of charge), I will now name the next next Poet Laureate: Taylor Mali (or someone just as dynamic).
First, the man works with young people for a living. Second, he is an amazing performer. In all the years I’ve been teaching creative writing, the day that students first hear Taylor Mali is always a watershed. Jaws drop. The excitement he generates is tangible, and he’s one of the few poets whose work I hear discussed in social circles outside of poetry. If you don’t know Taylor Mali’s voice, the audiobook Conviction is where I got started, and the follow-up Icarus Airlines is also very strong. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve likely encountered viral repostings of Mali’s work, such as “What Teachers Make,” “The Impotence of Proofreading,” “Voice of America Voiceover,” and my personal favorite, “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior.”
Listen to any of the above titles at the provided links. I dare you to not be captivated.
So, picker(s) of Poet Laureates, let’s try to acknowledge that poetry exists beyond the page and finds life in the human voice. A little populism wouldn’t hurt. In other words, Library of Congress, don’t make me come down there.
With that service performed, behold: