The S.C. poet laureate position has been unfilled for close to two years. (Photos by Bridget Frame)
It’s been 922 days since a South Carolina poet laureate has been in office, and the creative community of Columbia is tired of it.
The position has been vacant since 2020; there has been no new laureate appointed since. The state poet laureate is appointed by the governor.
The most recent laureate was Marjory Wentworth of Charleston, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford. She resigned in 2020, when McMaster was in his first term.
McMaster has had the names of nominees for the position since April 2021, according to the S.C. Arts Commission.
Len Lawson, a poet, activist and professor at Newberry College, hosted a rally at the Statehouse to rouse support.
April is National Poetry Month, and the timing of this rally was intentional, according to Lawson.
Various poets, activists, creatives and supporters of the movement came together on Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. They read poetry, made speeches and called for McMaster to appoint someone to the position.
Lawson wanted to show that a laureate isn’t just for poets.
The position is “someone who can bring poetry out of the classrooms and out of academia into communities and to show people that it’s not just for people who have a degree,” Lawson said. “It’s really for people who just like to read, to read and to write it.”
He has been campaigning for a new laureate to be named in a variety of ways. In a letter to the editor of The State newspaper, Lawson wrote a plea for an appointee.
He said, “It is unfortunate that this literary arts tradition has been left neglected by our state’s officials. Poets reveal and examine the things in our world that we struggle to grasp or understand.”
Other poet laureates from S.C. cities came to express their support.
Charleston poet laureate AsiahMae, who uses they/she pronouns, is only the second poet to be given the title in the city of Charleston.
During the rally, they read their own poetry and even read a statement from Wentworth, who wasn’t able to attend the event.
They were mentored by Wentworth, and that makes the issue all the more important to them.
”I felt the need to be here today to represent myself in Charleston as a city, but also to represent her (Wentworth) as the former poet laureate and what she’s been able to produce,” AsiahMae said.
Across the state, poetry matters, speakers said.
“Poetry naturally happens in the South,” said Willie Kinard III, a rally attendee. “It’s one of the most fertile places that always exists at any given time. You drop anything in the ground, it can grow the next day. Poetry is like that, too.”
Kinard also teaches English and poetry at the University of South Carolina.
Al Black, a poet and host of the weekly open mic event “Mindgravy” in Columbia, was one of the last speakers. His words and poetry intended to inspire those attending to keep poetry alive.
Black told the crowd South Carolinians should choose their own poet laureate if McMaster doesn’t.
“Poets are truth tellers,” Black said.
Len Lawson read some of his own poetry and spoke on the importance of having a state poet laureate.
A crowd of supporters and speakers watched and filmed the poetry readings.
Cassie Premo Steele, a Columbia poet and author, read some of her poetry about why the art form is important.
Al Black ended his speech by saying South Carolinians should choose their own poet laureate if Gov. Henry McMaster does not name one.