Verse averse: State poet laureate pick nixed after criticism
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — There are poetry slams, and then there are slammed poets.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu abandoned his pick for poet laureate on Friday amid growing criticism of the man’s work and how he was selected.
Though he never formally nominated him, Sununu, a Republican, had chosen Daniel Thomas Moran, a retired dentist and former poet laureate of Suffolk County, New York, whom some say is not qualified. And the surfacing of a sexually suggestive poem Moran wrote about former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only intensified the criticism. A spokesman for the governor said Friday he will put a new name up for a vote soon.
State law requires the Poetry Society of New Hampshire’s board of directors to submit “the name or names of persons whom they deem to be worthy” to the governor, but the governor isn’t required to follow recommendations. Moran, who read a poem titled “New Hampshire” at Sununu’s second inauguration in January, was one of 12 poets whose names were given to the committee by the poets themselves or supporters. Moran did not respond to phone or email messages Friday.
The society’s selection committee recommended Jennifer Militello, of Goffstown, an award-winning poet and founder of the New Hampshire Poetry Festival.
Sununu put Moran’s name on a list of upcoming nominations in March but held off on asking for a vote by the Executive Council, which approves state contracts and nominations. In June, amid growing concerns, he met with members of the Poetry Society and asked for additional material on alternative candidates.
Then on Thursday, an excerpt of the poem referencing Rice was published in a Slate.com article. Sununu’s spokesman said Friday the governor was only recently made aware of the poem and “finds it offensive,” but chose Moran based on the entirety of his work.
“Governor Sununu nominated Daniel Thomas Moran, who has published 11 books, due to his extensive experience and impressive credentials, as well as to bring a fresh perspective to the role of Poet Laureate,” Benjamin Vihstadt said in an email.
Hours later, Vihstadt said Sununu would be nominating someone else soon.
Don Kimball, president of the poetry group, said the members urged Sununu to make a different choice during the June meeting.
“We said, ‘We understand that you’re the governor and you have the right, but is it the right thing to do?’” Kimball said in an interview Friday.
Like Sununu, the committee wasn’t aware of Moran’s poem when it vetted candidates, so that wasn’t a factor in its decision, said Kimball. But Moran failed to rise into even the top half of the field considered based on his work, vision, connection to the poetry community and ability to serve as its ambassador, said Marie Harris, a former poet laureate who served on the committee.
Harris, who called the Rice poem and several others “a travesty, really, of what poetry is meant to be,” said the controversy goes beyond who will be the next poet laureate. She noted New Hampshire has produced five U.S. poet laureates.
“We have a national reputation of being a fine place for poetry, and this makes a mockery of that,” she said. “And it also taints the process going forward because why would anyone put up a nominee if all the qualifications in the world didn’t count?”
Both Harris and Kimball said their chief complaint isn’t with Moran, it’s with Sununu’s decision to circumvent a well-established process.
This wasn’t the first time, however, a governor bypassed the poetry society. In 1999, the society’s then-president criticized Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen because she picked Harris instead of the group’s choice, saying she had broken a long tradition of keeping politics out of poetry. Harris said her case was different.
That year, newcomers to the society put forward someone who was not qualified, Harris said Friday.
Shaheen nominated her after consulting with the state council on the arts, Harris said. And the controversy ultimately led to a revamping of the vetting process, including the creation of a committee that includes outsiders interested in writing and the arts and a detailed rubric for evaluating candidates.
Patricia Frisella, a former president of the poetry society who helped enact the changes, said she thinks the governor gave too much weight to Moran’s previous time as a county poet laureate.
“We would look at that, and it would be a check in their favor, but by itself, it’s not enough,” she said. “Nobody in the poetry world from the bottom up had any idea who he was.”