No one ever says, “When I grow up, I want to be U.S. Poet Laureate of the United States.” But in college, that’s exactly what I wrote in my journal.
Yeah, it would be nice to win a Pulitzer or a MacArthur. But the idea of a laureateship is always in the back of my head when I write a poem, go to a reading, or buy a new poetry book. I think to myself, “Why not?” And, “What am I waiting for?”
It feels strange to admit that I want to do more than write for myself. I want people to like my work. Next to being a successful wife and mom, being a successful poet is at the top of the list. And as much as I enjoy writing for me, I really appreciate the acknowledgement of a job well done. You’re probably reading this to yourself saying, “Duh! Isn’t that why you blog? Well, yes, it is. But I came from a generation of writers who would never admit to wanting success. Have you ever heard of a poet talk about being ambitious? Have you ever heard of a poet talk about poetry as a business? Probably not.
So for me, the pinnacle of success as a poet is a laureateship. Not that the position will bring me greater financial security. The poet laureate’s position pays a stipend of $35K, paid for by an endowment (no public monies used). I believe poets are nominated to and selected by the U.S. Library of Congress’ (LOC) laureate committee, and then the nomination is ratified eventually by the U.S. Congress. The poet laureate has to give a public reading and be instrumental in setting up the reading series. There's an office somewhere. Maybe there's an assistant ...?
(Here’s a link to the LOC’s poetry pages, with great info about the position and other poetry-related content, including Web casts. Check it out!)
In more recent years, the laureates have done some really cool things for poetry in this country. Rita Dove (1993-1995) gave poetry readings to high school students. Robert Pinsky (1997-2000), a three-time laureate, expanded the position with the creation of the Favorite Poem Project. Billy Collins (2001-2003) created Poetry 180, a project to encourage reading poetry in high schools. Ted Koosler (2004-2006) created a free, weekly newspaper column called American Life in Poetry. And soon-to-be Poet Laureate Donald Hall has talked about creating a cable TV show or satellite radio program on poetry. Imagine that?
As a poet, who wouldn’t want to follow in those footsteps? Imagine all the different ways a poet laureate can reach people. Deep down, I’d like to think that my words and your words affect change. That if the right advocate is in place, everyday people will clamor to read poetry. They again will believe in the power of words. And maybe, just maybe, the right words in the right ears will make health care universal, make stem stell research legal and well-funded, and make poverty a distant memory.
Again, I say, “Why not?” And, “What am I waiting for?”