Oregon poetry for the people

After 15 years without a state poet laureate, Oregon is looking to fill the gap.

When, in early 2005, Willamette Week held a contest to nominate an unofficial Oregon laureate, a robust public outpouring selected Portland poet and memoirist Judith Barrington.

Now the State of Oregon is preparing to officially fill the position. Mary Oberst, the wife of Gov. Ted Kulongoski, is chairing a committee that will identify an official laureate within the next few months.

"The Willamette Week thing was nice, but this is better," Barrington said. "The arts have taken so many hits over the years – it’s great that the state is finally understanding that poetry is important in the lives of ordinary people. It’s a great thing for Oregon."

"Poetry isn’t just about writing poems," said Michele Glazer, a prize-winning poet and associate professor in the Department of English at Portland State. "It’s all about engagement, self-expression and the need to understand the world through language. It’s amazing how many people write secretly, giving shape to their lives."

The post of national poet laureate was created in 1937. Originally called "consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress," the title was changed to poet laureate in 1985. The current U.S. poet laureate is a Nebraskan, Ted Kooser.

Thirty-seven states also have state poets laureate. Oregon established a laureate position in 1923 and has since had four appointees: Edwin Markham, Ben Hur Lampman, Ethel Romig Fuller and the widely adored William Stafford, who served for 15 years.

The public adoration of the latter is evidenced by the large number of William Stafford birthday parties held annually around the state.

"It’s scary to think of anyone trying to step into William Stafford’s shoes," Barrington said. "They’re big shoes. No one’s going to be able to fill them. We’re going to have to start anew."

Senate Bill 1018, introduced during the 2005 session, spelled out the qualifications for the laureate-to-be. According to the bill, the position honors resident poets "who have been responsible for capturing the beauty and spirit of Oregon through the medium of verse."

Oregon’s incoming laureate must be an Oregon resident and have lived here for 10 years. He or she must be highly regarded and have a significant body of published work.

What will it mean to have a poet laureate in Oregon? "A lot will depend on who that person is, and how they stain the position with their own temperament," Glazer said. "It can only be good, because it can only increase interest in poetry."

"Several poets in Oregon could fill the role with distinction," Barrington said. "I think it’s important that the poet laureate be at a place in their career where they have the time to devote to the position."

The new poet laureate will serve a two-year term, with an option for a second term.

"They’ve not only created the poet laureate position. There’s going to be a salary, and that’s important, Barrington said. "After all, who’s in a financial position to spend that kind of time without some funding?"

Modern laureates are traditionally given free reign and are encouraged to use the position’s time and financial support to put their own ideas to work.

"I’d like to see that person engage not just the obvious academics or large cities or children, but also older people, nursing homes, retirement communities, reservations and rural areas," Glazer said.

"There are people secretly writing poetry everywhere, cowboys out in Joseph and Enterprise, people involved in all kinds of labors," she said. "It makes sense to have a laureate who represents them."

"Oregon needs a poet laureate that speaks for the whole state, someone who will recognize the poets who are already writing in those small, remote communities and will help them be heard," Barrington said.

"I worked for more than12 years in Oregon Arts and Education programs," she said. "It was enlightening to see how appreciative and receptive the smaller communities were to arts projects coming into their midst. There was a hunger for it."

Many poet laureates concentrate on reaching into the public school system.

"The schools are important, but that’s what people always think of first," Barrington said. "I’d like to see the laureate reach out to people who aren’t already connected to the state’s poetry events. Local poets could put on readings and lead activities in Oregon’s more distant locales with the support and publicity of a poet laureate."

"What I wouldn’t want to see would be a position where the laureate was just trotted out to write commemorative poems for state occasions," Glazer said. "That would be a disservice to poetry and to human beings."

Glazer suggested an even more potent role for the new laureate. "At a time when language is often used to egregious ends, we need to pay special attention to what’s truly being said."

"A poet laureate would draw attention to the importance of language, the imagination and the human need to somehow express the inexpressible," Glazer said. "Implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, the poet laureate may be a voice against the Orwellian misuse of language."

"You see poetry in times of great stress," Barrington said. "After 9/11 there was an outpouring of people finding comfort in poetry, both reading it and writing it. It’s an art form that has a unique ability to help people through the difficult times and to help them celebrate the good ones. A poet laureate will help us do that, and more."