A poet laureate traditionally was a poet who was appointed for life as a member of the British royal household. Who doesn’t want a poet on staff, writing poems for every family occasion? While that may seem a bit extravagant, the appointment of a poet laureate is an honor that comes with great responsibility. In the United States, the official title of the poet laureate is “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” The title was established by an act of Congress on December 20, 1985. Prior to that, the position, which was established in 1937, was titled “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.”
I first heard the term “poet laureate” as it referred to Maya Angelou. It was after her reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration where I heard her referred to as the U.S. Poet Laureate by a television announcer. The real story is that she never served in that official position. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a heck of a poet and an accomplished author.
Natasha Trethewey was an official U.S. Poet Laureate. She served in the position from 2012 to 2014. Born in Gulfport, Mississippi on April 26, 1966, she is the author of four poetry collections and a book of creative non-fiction.
Trethewey has received numerous honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She also served as the poet laureate of Mississippi from January 2012 to August 9, 2016. If you’ve never heard Trethewey read her own poetry, jump the next chance that’s available. I heard her a couple of years ago at one of the Millsaps Arts & Lecture series events and I hung on every word.
The current poet laureate of Mississippi is Beth Ann Fennelly, the fifth since 1963. Her term began August 10, 2016. In her job serving as the official state poet, she must create and read appropriate poetry upon state occasion and state agency activities.
Appointed by Governor Phil Bryant, Fennelly must also represent the rich cultural heritage of Mississippi, help identify Mississippi poets, write poetry, and promote literacy and the arts by attending events and speaking with schools and organizations. In her position as poet laureate, Fennelly will also serve as honorary host of the NEA’s Poetry Out Loud initiative in Mississippi while also serving as a Mississippi Arts Commission teaching artist. Being a poet laureate is not for the faint of heart!
A professor of English at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly was born in New Jersey and raised in Lake Forrest, Illinois before moving to Jackson in 2001 with her husband, novelist Tom Franklin, who served as the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. “It was a nine-month appointment, but we fell in love with Mississippi!” The couple has born-and-bred two children in Oxford and purchased five cemetery plots at the Oxford Cemetery. “We call this home!”
Teaching poetry on the university level, even to those who are not pursuing it as a career or avocation is something Fennelly feels strongly about. “I love the people of Mississippi, whom I’ve found to be friendly and considerate and very welcoming. I love the different typographies of the state, from the Mississippi Hill Country to the Delta and how these different landscapes have given rise to different music and culture and traditions. And I love serving the University of Mississippi! My writing students are great! I think Mississippi people are natural story tellers, so the students come to me with an understanding of plot and detail.”
I had the pleasure of seeing Fennelly do a reading at the Cedars in Jackson earlier this year. She read poems from her book Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs and songwriter Claire Holly performed songs in a back-and-forth dynamic where Fennelly’s poems would somehow connect to Holly’s songs and vice-versa. It was a mesmerizing experience.
Poetry, I admit, has never been a favorite genre of mine. Although as I get older and wiser, and I’m exposed to more good poetry, I have learned to appreciate and even enjoy it. I suppose I’m more tuned in now. I am honored to share space with both Beth Ann Fennelly and Natasha Trethwey in an anthology called A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be, edited by Susan Cushman (Mercer University Press, 2017). We have all had a second blooming of sorts, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share my own story in the same space as these two talented ladies.