US gets a new Poet Laureate, but headlines mislead on ‘Native American’ aspect

Billy Collins autographed poetry book 'Nine Horses'

Yesterday I think there were (at first) two people in the country who questioned a headline featured at many different media outlets. I was one of those two. The other person is a poet I’ve admired for quite some time. The headlines stated the new US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, is the nation’s first Native American to serve as US Poet Laureate. That statement is misleading and a fact check is in order.

Billy Collins autographed poetry book 'Nine Horses'
When I interviewed Collins, he autographed my book, inscribing it as “Kate.” We had a grand old time at that party. (Photo: Indie Art South)

William Jay Smith whose heritage included Choctaw ancestry served as ‘consultant in poetry to the US Library of Congress’ from 1968 to 1970.

Perhaps the LOC is distinguishing between poets who served as consultant to the LOC and those who served as poet laureate consultants after the title of the office was changed in 1986. The LOC has an explanation about the title change:

“In 1936 philanthropist Archer M. Huntington provided an endowment for the “maintenance of a chair of Poetry of the English language in the Library of Congress.” The position has existed under two separate titles: from 1937 to 1986 as “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” and from 1986 forward as “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” The name was changed by an act of Congress (Public Law 99-194), which states that the position “is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.”

So the title changed, not the position. I noted the LOC described Harjo as the 23rd Poet Laureate, perhaps in order to shore up the ethnic aspect of the Library’s description of her. This is very troubling. Even Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on the office upends the count of 23—there have been far more than that.

For the life of me I can’t imagine why the LOC would dismiss the work of a poet like William Jay Smith or discount his ethnicity. The Poetry Foundation, authority on all poetic matters, has this in the foundation’s entry on Smith:

“Smith drew upon his Native American heritage—he was part Choctaw—for The Cherokee Lottery: A Sequence of Poems (2000). In the work, Smith recounts a tragedy of American history: the forced relocation of five Native American tribes from their homelands in the southeast to Oklahoma territory, an ordeal now known as “The Trail of Tears.” “Smith accomplishes a remarkable poetry of fact and documentation … one whose art is artfully concealed,” noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. Patricia Monaghan, reviewing The Cherokee Lotteryin Booklist, called it “moving, unforgettable, humane.”

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several of our poets laureate—Allen Tate, James Dickey (my professor in college), and Billy Collins. I interviewed Collins a couple times, and I’ve long admired his work, not only on the page but in the office of laureate. Collins’ Poetry 180 Project, a poem a day for American high schools, elevated awareness of poetry across the land. At a time when most poets received little attention, Collins packed an auditorium at Florida State College.

I recall one student coming up to Collins, an armload of books in hand, for autographs. Collins asked the young man what he planned to do with all those autographed books.

“Sell them,” he said.

“Great,” Collins responded with a smile.

When Collins signed my book, he wrote my name as “Kate.” I didn’t correct him because he signed it after I interviewed him and I didn’t notice it until I got back to my hotel room. When his event ended, he invited everyone in the room—I think there were around 800 people there—to the reception. It was glorious. I did two different articles about him, one for a lit journal and one for the print magazine The Writer (before that magazine changed hands).

In my opinion, Poetry 180 is the best project a laureate has done in my lifetime.

While I’m on the subject of Native Americans, I am currently reading Indigenous, a book of poetry by Jennifer Reeser. It’s astounding. I’ll review it sometimes next week once my travels are done.

As for the fellow who, like me, was perplexed by those headlines, his name is Michael Juster who writes as A. M. Juster. Michael tried to correct the record, but I don’t know if media responded.

The LOC has an announcement up about Harjo.

While the title of the office did change, Harjo isn’t the first Native American to serve the LOC as poetry consultant or laureate or whatever name it may morph into in the future. That fact should’ve been pointed out by the LOC and by media who ran with the story no one apparently questioned.

The Poetry Foundation summed up the office succinctly:

“Poets in this position were called “Consultants in Poetry” through 1986, when the title was officially changed to that of “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.”

Joseph Auslander was the first to hold the office, from 1937-1941.

(Kay B. Day/June 20, 2019)

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