Tabu Hazel, also known as Peggy Logan, performs her spoken word poetry at a local poetry event, Mind Gravy. (Photos by Bridget Frame)
The South Carolina poet laureate position has been vacant since early 2020, as Gov. Henry McMaster has yet to choose a new appointee.
Poets and fans of the arts in South Carolina are concerned about the implications of the delay, fearing it’s an indication that poetry isn’t appreciated in the state.
“What’s taking so long?” asked Jennifer Bartell, the city of Columbia’s new poet laureate. “His silence on it is loud. And it’s showing how much he values, or doesn’t value, rather, poetry.”
The state poet laureate is selected from a group of applicants by the governor to represent the state at special government gatherings, such as inaugurations.
This began in 1934. The most recent was Marjory Wentworth, who held the position from 2003 to 2020. Wentworth stepped down after she considered moving out of South Carolina with family. The position has been vacant since.
The governor has the final say about who is appointed after the South Carolina Arts Commission submits finalists. Wentworth was appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford.
McMaster has had the names of recommended applicants since May 2021, according to arts commission spokesman Jason L. Rapp.
The Governor’s Office has not responded to requests for comment from The Carolina News & Reporter.
The lack of answers is making the creative community in South Carolina restless.
This isn’t a South Carolina governor’s first controversy involving a poet laureate.
For former Gov. Nikki Haley’s 2015 inauguration, Wentworth was expected to prepare and read a poem, One River, One Boat. But before she had finished writing, Wentworth was told there would be no time for poetry reading.
“I wasn’t allowed to do the poem, but I wasn’t even invited to the inauguration,” Wentworth said.
The poem reads, in part:
“Because our history is a knot
we try to unravel, while others
try to tighten it, we tire easily
and fray the cords that bind us.”
Marjory Wentworth, poet and writer of One River, One Boat (Photo courtesy of Marjory Wentworth)
The decision from Haley’s office has been criticized by many as it came while Haley was under fire for seeking cuts to state arts funding. Others simply saw it as a snub to Wentworth.
The smoke and mirrors of the office has left many questions unanswered.
“Is there a lack of transparency on purpose?” said Cassie Premo Steele, a Columbia poet.
Now, she wonders if the need for poetry is being reduced.
“I think, ironically, that we’ve just come through a collective trauma in our nation,” Premo Steele said. “And people turn to poetry in times of trauma and loss and grief and mourning, and the state certainly suffered, under the COVID pandemic.”
Premo Steele writes poetry centered on nature and her emotional connection to it. Her poem “Ruin” explains this.
The poem reads, in part:
“And if life were a vertical journey
I would spend my whole life going down.”
Premo Steele echoed the sentiment of many poets that having a poet laureate provides a voice for the people.
“It would’ve been nice to be able to have a poet who could speak to that loss and also help people around the state with what they were feeling and how to move forward with resiliency and joy,” she said.
Fans of the arts in South Carolina are holding out hope for a new laureate to be chosen this year, to have someone to speak for them.
Len Lawson, a Columbia-area author and poet, wrote a letter to the editor of the The State newspaper with his concerns about the empty position.
He ended his plea for a decision with: “Gov. McMaster, please select the new S.C. Poet Laureate. It matters not who is chosen from the qualified pool of finalists; only that one is finally chosen.”
The poet laureate is an ambassador for poetry, the state and its art culture, Lawson said in an interview.
“There needs to be a face to the craft,” he said. “You know, if you think of other arts, there are people that are faces of that particular craft, and that you identify the craft with that person. So, to have one person to do that is monumental, especially in a state that is lacking (any) sort of recognition in the arts.”
While the state poet laureate position has been left vacant, city poet laureates have been doing work to bring more verse to the people.
Columbia’s Bartell, who teaches at Spring Valley High School, began her term in January 2022 as the city’s second poet laureate, following Ed Madden.
Bartell hopes to bring the art of poetry to a younger generation.
“I really love bringing poetry to young people,” she said. “A lot of the times, poetry seems to be this thing that students don’t think they can write or something that they can do.”
Bartell wants students to see poetry as new way to express themselves.
“Their voices are so important, and I feel like poetry is the perfect genre to helping them express those things,” she said.
The Columbia poet laureate position has been known for its public poetry works. Madden, a professor at the University of South Carolina, created many city-wide projects to put poetry in the public eye. Projects such as “Poetry on the COMET” took city-wide submissions of poetry and stenciled them on the interior of city buses, and then had the writers read the work aloud to passengers. He also helped stencil sidewalk poetry that was only visible in the rain.
The projects sprang from a desire to make poetry accessible to everyone.
There are other Capital City outlets, too.
Local spoken-word events such as Mind Gravy, a poetry and open-mic event run by Columbia poet Al Black, provide a forum for artists and locals who want to read their work to other creatives and poetry fans.
“There’s a reason that poems are read at weddings and funerals,” Wentworth said.