West Tisbury Poet Laureate
The position of West Tisbury Poet Laureate was the brainchild of Cynthia Riggs, a longtime town resident and author. Cynthia’s mother, Dionis Coffin Riggs, was a widely published and beloved local poet who often heard herself called the “West Tisbury Poet Laureate.” Dionis bristled at this, however, protesting that Poet Laureate is not a lighthearted sobriquet; it is an officially conferred title. She died in April of 1997, and the idea became dormant but never quite forgotten. Nearly ten years later, in spring of 2006, Cynthia Riggs petitioned the town to put an article on the Annual Town Meeting warrant establishing the position of Poet Laureate.
The idea was just fanciful enough, after a long, quiet winter, to catch on. The editors of the Martha’s Vineyard Times were inspired to create an “Unofficial West Tisbury Poet Laureate” poetry contest that elicited numerous wonderful poems from the community and proved once again that our town has never lacked for bards.
The position of Poet Laureate officially came into being on April 11, 2006, by a voice vote at the West Tisbury Annual Town Meeting http://www.mvtimes.com/news/2006/04/13/west_tisbury_town_meetings.php. Soon afterwards, at the recommendation of an advisory committee formed by the West Tisbury Library, the Selectmen appointed Daniel Waters our town’s first Poet Laureate (http://www.mvtimes.com/news/2006/06/22/west_tisbury_dan_waters_poet_laureate.php). Technically, Poet Laureate is a municipal appointment with a term of one year (renewable up to three). Officially there is no budget, no salary, no benefits and no power.
What practical purpose can a Poet Laureate serve? Just as a town has common property — the town library, the town hall, the town parks — there is a common human landscape inhabited by all whose lives are rooted in a place. It’s a landscape of history, attitudes and common experiences. Without someone striving to weave the community into words, a town’s identity remains the unexamined sum of fleeting moments.
Whether or not one agrees with the Poet Laureate’s words, they can help to crystallize the town’s view of itself. The Poet Laureate holds up a mirror so the town can see itself. And it is a reflection of West Tisbury, sometimes called “The Athens of Martha’s Vineyard,” that ours is one of only a handful of towns in Massachusetts to formally acknowledge and honor the importance of poetry in everyday life.
The West Tisbury Poet Laureate is asked to write one poem per year to be printed in the Town Report, and to present that poem at our Annual Town Meeting. Beyond that, the job is left to the poet’s individual imagination.
What Is a Poet Laureate?
In the weeks leading up to the 2006 Annual Town Meeting, lobbying for her idea of establishing a Poet Laureate position for the Town of West Tisbury, Cynthia Riggs wrote this letter to the editors of Island newspapers:
To the Editor:
If West Tisbury voters approve an article at the annual town meeting in April establishing a poet laureate, West Tisbury will be one of the first communities in the Commonwealth to do so. In fact, despite its rich heritage of poets and writers, Massachusetts is one of only 11 states that have no state poet laureate.
Thirty-nine other states have that position. Worldwide poets laureate include those in England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, South Africa, and the United States. The United Nations has a poet laureate. So do U.S. cities such as Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, San Francisco, San Ramon, Duluth, Denver, and Carrboro, North Carolina. Carrboro’s population, at 16,000, is roughly the same as the Vineyard’s. Suffolk County, Long Island, has a poet laureate, as does Queens, New York. California gets credit for the first state poet laureate, named by governor’s proclamation in April 1915. Colorado followed four years later. The position of United States Poet Laureate wasn’t established until 1937, almost twenty years later.
A poet laureate is usually, but not always, appointed by the government. The position is honorary, commonly is unpaid, and often is for a period of less than five years. England’s Poet Laureate originally was appointed for life, now the office is held for a ten-year term. The U.S. Poet Laureate serves less than one year, from October until the following May.
The title, poet laureate, dates back to the ancient Greeks, when poets and heroes were honored with crowns of laurel leaves. The word “laureate” survives in academia’s baccalaureate degrees. As early as 1341, Francesco Petrarch, famous for the sonnets he wrote to the fair-haired, blue-eyed Laura, was called Poet Laureate. In England, the Poet Laureate was the official poet of the monarch, a position created in 1617 by Charles I for Ben Jonson. As such, Jonson was responsible for writing poems to celebrate birthdays and marriages, coronations, military victories, and a New Year’s ode. The poet was attached to the royal household. Queen Victoria changed the position to recognize achievement, with no particular duties. The nineteen English poets laureate to date include John Dryden; William Wordsworth; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and John Masefield.
The U.S. Poet Laureate position was originally unpaid. Because of a gift from Archer M. Huntingdon, a founder of the Central Pacific Railroad, our poet laureate now receives a stipend of $35,000. The stipends of poets laureate vary from nothing up to several thousand dollars. The stipends of early poets laureate traditionally included alcohol. In addition to a pension, Ben Jonson received an annual “terse of Canary wine.” Dryden, “a butt of Canary wine.”
The U.S. Poet Laureate is entrusted with raising the status of poetry in the everyday conscience of the American public, but has few official duties. The laureate gives one annual lecture and a poetry reading. Each is free to pursue an individual agenda. Joseph Brodsky introduced poetry into airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms. Gwendolyn Brooks encouraged children in elementary schools to read and write poetry. Robert Haas organized a “Watershed” conference to unite writers and poets.
The duties, remuneration, and terms of poets laureate vary from state to state and community to community. New Hampshire’s governor appoints the poet laureate to a five-year term with no compensation and no specific duties. Santa Fe’s first poet laureate was appointed to a two-year term with a $5,000 annual stipend funded by private donors. The poet is supposed to make four annual appearances at city functions. The poet laureate of Cheshire County, England, has decided to put Cheshire on the map, using poetry to create an on-line map of the region.
Poets in general can be troublemakers. Poets laureate are no exception. California’s poet laureate stepped down after it was discovered that he’d falsified his college degree. Amiri Baraka, the poet laureate of New York, resigned after writing an allegedly anti-Semitic poem.
The Lake Superior Writers Group of Duluth, Minnesota, has taken the initiative to make Duluth the first city in Minnesota to have a poet laureate. The group has made the position a tough one. The two-year appointment carries an honorarium of $2,000 a year. Aspirants must have authored at least one published volume of poetry of 48 pages or more and must be recognized by his or her peers in the literary community as having made significant contributions. The poet laureate is expected to: “raise public awareness through readings, appearances, workshops, and other public displays; arrange for poet-in-the-school appearances; write monthly poetry columns with reviews of books and poems; organize poetry workshops at local libraries; create poems for specific occasions; help organize an annual city-wide poetry event; select poems for display on local city buses, billboards, and postcards; and be available for a meal-a-month in local restaurant.”
In Queens, New York, 28-year-old Ishi Yi Park beat out 75 other borough bards including Joseph (Rev. Run) Simmons, an internationally known rapper, who was disqualified because he lived in New Jersey. New Hampshire has decided to host “Poetry and Politics.” At least two dozen state poets laureate have been invited. Why “Poetry and Politics”? Because, the press release says, “poets have always played a role in civic societies as the voices of both tradition and dissent, the source of new ideas, or the expression of thought not otherwise expressible.”
The first poet laureate of Carrboro, North Carolina – the town with roughly the same population as the Vineyard – was recently named to a one-year term. “The only town in North Carolina (we think) ever to appoint a poet laureate,” said the chair of the appointing committee.
Will West Tisbury be among the first towns in Massachusetts to officially honor our poets? We’ll know after the April 11 town meeting.
At its Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, April 11, 2006, the Town of West Tisbury voted to establish the honorary position of Poet Laureate. This position carries no stipend. The individual so honored is to be selected by a committee comprised of two full-time West Tisbury Free Public Library librarians and a community member. Final appointment is by the Town Selectmen. While serving his or her last year, the current Poet Laureate will function as the community member on the Library committee.
Criteria for selecting the West Tisbury Poet Laureate:
1. Must live year ’round in West Tisbury, Mass.
2. Must be a published poet.
3. Must be willing to help raise public awareness of the importance of poetry to our Island community.
Duties of the West Tisbury Poet Laureate:
1. The West Tisbury Annual Report shall publish a poem written by the Poet Laureate.
2. The West Tisbury Annual Town Meeting shall open with a reading of a poem by the current Poet Laureate.
3. The Poet Laureate may determine his or her own program to help raise the Island community’s awareness of the importance of poetry in our lives.
When a vacancy occurs, the West Tisbury Poet Laureate is selected as follows:
1. The length of service offered for the Selectmen’s consideration is to be decided by the Library committee, the Library Trustees and the Poet Laureate, but shall not exceed three years.
2. When a vacancy appears, candidates for the Poet Laureate position may be self-nominated or nominated by another person.
3. Nominations may be submitted as early as January 2nd, before the deadline of February 1st. The Library will display the nominees’ poems, attractively framed, on the art wall or other suitable space at the Library during the month of February. The poems will also be posted on the Library website.
4. Nominations should consist of the name, address and telephone number of the candidate being submitted, a sample of poetry and any other supporting documents.
5. The Poet Laureate selection process will begin with an announcement and an explanation at the November West Tisbury Library Community poetry reading. The Library committee will meet shortly before the reading to organize the details and the timetable of the selection process.
6. The Library committee will consider the candidates and make a recommendation to the Trustees of the West Tisbury Library at their March meeting. The Trustees in turn will make a recommendation to the West Tisbury Selectmen who will make the final decision by April 1st. The newly-appointed Poet Laureate will be introduced at the Town Meeting and celebrated at a West Tisbury Library poetry reading, held soon after the Town Meeting.