RCAH Center for Poetry, Lansing Poetry Club making the bid for Michigan Poet Laureate

April 17, 2016 - Kelsey Block

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” –Mary Oliver

On Thursday, March 31, the Historical Society of Greater Lansing hosted “Michigan, My Michigan,” a celebration honoring the contributions of the Lansing Poetry Club. The evening ended with a call to action by Center for Poetry Director Skeen and Lansing Poetry Club President Ruelaine Stokes for the creation of a Michigan poet laureate.

Michigan is one of only five states without a poet laureate. California was the first to establish the post in 1915, and Ohio added their own last year. The laureate’s duties and compensation vary from state to state.

“Usually the duties are broadly outlined, and involve the central mission of promoting the reading, writing, and an appreciation of poetry among the general public. While occasional poetry readings and other events may be required, laureates otherwise tend to fulfill their missions as they see fit. Leading poetry workshops, organizing and participating in reading series, visiting local schools, and organizing conferences are some of the ways laureates typically fulfill their duties,” Skeen said.

In July 2015, House Rep. Sarah Roberts introduced House Bill 4763, calling for the establishment of a Michigan state poet laureate. The bill, which can be viewed here, proposes that the poet laureate be appointed by the Governor, and receive no compensation other than reimbursement for “his or her actual and necessary expenses incurred in the performance of his or her duties as assigned by the governor.

This isn’t the first time a poet laureate has been proposed. According to the Library of Congress website, Michigan had a poet laureate in the 1950s. Edgar Guest served as the laureate from 1952-1959. In 2005, the Senate passed Bill 0181, but the House did not approve the bill.

The current bill has since been referred to a committee. House Reps. Bradford Jacobsen, Michael Webber, Andrea LaFontaine, Tim Greimel and Sam Singh are on the committee. Three of the five committee members are needed to get the bill out of the committee and into a hearing.

Skeen gave a speech at “Michigan, My Michigan” that explained the value of poetry.

“Poetry builds bridges – between individuals, communities, racial and ethnic groups, those with different sexual orientations, between the young and the old, between those who read and perform, and those who simply listen,” Skeen said.

Skeen also noted the healing power of the arts in times of political, economic and societal tensions.

“When we are facing the disasters of global warming, poverty, unrestrained access to firearms, racial violence, restrictions on women’s rights, voting rights, gay rights, where are the voices that can reconnect us with our humanity and unite us in community? Poets are doing this day in and day out in weekly newspapers, literary magazines, open mike events, spoken word performances and national events such as Poetry Out Loud where high school students all over the country interpret, memorize, and deliver poems with intensity and passion.”

For more information on poets laureate or to help establish the position in Michigan, please contact Center for Poetry Assistant Director Laurie Hollinger at hollin53@msu.edu or Lansing Poetry Club president Ruelaine Stokes ruestokes@gmail.com.