Wanted: Oregon poet laureate

The Oregon Cultural Trust is recruiting for a new poet laureate. By poet standards, the job pays handsomely: $10,000 a year plus travel and expenses. Admittedly, that's not competitive by Wall Street standards, but it looks pretty good when the typical poet's reward for a personal appearance is a bagel and some appreciative murmurs from the audience.

The title of poet laureate is given to a poet who best captures the spirit and beauty of his or her home through poetry. It was first used for Petrarch of Rome in 1341. Through the centuries, many countries, states and some cities have bestowed the honor.

Oregon's first poet laureate was Edwin Markham in 1921. Historically, duties mainly included writing poems for dignitaries or special events, but today the job is much more interesting. The modern laureate shines a light on poetry, shows anyone willing to listen how it can change us, or effect change, or just be fun. Oregon's poet laureate, above all, shares the best aspects of poetry and connects it with the best aspects of Oregon. That may sound easy enough, but previous laureates have set a high bar.

Oregon's fifth and current poet laureate, Lawson Fusao Inada, is just finishing up his second two-year term. During his tenure Inada said he saw his mission as that of an ambassador for poetry in the state. "I was busy, let me tell you. I traveled all around the state visiting schools, libraries and communities. The work and the pleasure of it is in promoting poetry everywhere you go," he said.

Inada added that the job is definitely time consuming. "There were lots of poetry readings and discussions. It's funny, the guidelines called for between six and 20 readings and public appearances a year. I did that the first week."

Inada, who lives in Medford, is an emeritus professor of writing at Southern Oregon University. He has published five books, including the multiple award-winning "Legends from Camp," and was editor of the acclaimed "Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese-American Internment Experience." He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is currently serving as the Steinbeck chair for the National Steinbeck Center.

Inada filled the position in 2006 after it had been vacant since William Stafford's tenure in 1989. The stature of recent laureates is a good indication that it is not easy to become Oregon's poet laureate. The successful candidate must be a current Oregon resident, have lived here for 10 years, have a significant body of published work and be publicly recognized as a poet. Having some awards on the shelf wouldn't hurt either. Finally, there's a catch: candidates aren't allowed to apply for the post; they must be nominated by someone else.

For the lucky job-seeker who passes the Trust's rigorous screening process, the outgoing laureate offers this career advice: "Be who you are and get the poetry out to the people."

Inada adds that here in the Rogue Valley we take access to art and poetry for granted. "This is a great place. We have so many writers and poets. Heck, if you walk outside your front door and throw a rock, you'll hit a poet. We have open mikes and readings, and the wonderful Chautauqua events where we bring poets from other states. We're lucky. A lot of the region doesn't have that. I'd like to see the next poet laureate organize public readings like we do in Ashland, not just show up and be the big shot."

Oregon is loaded with talented and qualified writers, many of whom live right here in Ashland. If you know a fabulous poet who would be the perfect laureate, go to www.OregonPoetLaureate.org and enter your nominee. After the governor names a laureate, he or she will serve a renewable term of two years. The new laureate could take office as soon as March 2010, but aspiring candidates might want to hold off giving notice to a current employer. Even if you're sure you'll get the job, it's best to wait until it's official.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and freelance writer Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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