Angry poets scold Belfast councilor

Posted Jan. 05, 2011, at 7:48 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — The poets were peeved and not afraid to use plenty of descriptive language to show it.

A week of simmering controversy over the selection of Belfast’s next poet laureate came to a boil at Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting, with one person accusing Councilor Michael Hurley of going “rogue” and others calling for his censure.

The controversy began when Hurley was quoted in the Dec. 29 edition of the weekly newspaper The Republican Journal about his dissatisfaction with the process of choosing a poet laureate for the city, calling it a failure and an “honorarium that a small club passes around.”

Barbaria Maria, who had been appointed poet laureate on Dec. 21 by the City Council, told the council Tuesday that she felt “blindsided” by Hurley and the article. She declined the official, though honorary and unpaid, post during a New Year’s Eve ceremony at the Colonial Theatre.

“I am asking for help tonight,” Maria, a longtime poet and teacher, told the council during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “The matter of the public record is a very serious one … With lots and lots of experience, I’ve never run into anything even close to this. It’s a professional issue for me.”

Maria said that she hadn’t been interested in applying to be poet laureate before, but that she felt honored when local artist David Estey began trying to nominate her to the post, a quest which gained support from people around Belfast. Fourteen of those people sent letters in support of Maria to the nominating committee, and in the end she was the only poet to submit a letter of application.

“It’s your own community recognizing you as a longtime hardworking poet and artist,” she said Wednesday. “Nobody else was nominated, so I decided to step up. Had I not, there just wouldn’t be a poet laureate right now.”

In the Republican Journal article, Hurley questioned what had occurred.

“This should be something spirited and something lively,” he told the Journal. “Instead it’s become anything but.”

Kathryn Robyn of Belfast took offense at those words.

“Mike’s remarks border on slander,” she told the council. “I want to know what the City Council has in place when one of its members goes rogue. Is there protocol in place to censure somebody who goes out of line?”

Some of the comments in support of Maria and the process inspired short bursts of applause from the indignant poets in the audience.

Hurley listened to the points made against him and said that he did not intend his words to be a reflection of Maria.

“I’m very sorry if it’s taken like that,” he said, adding that he had written her a letter of apology.

Belfast was the first Maine community to have an official poet laureate, Hurley said Wednesday. During his tenure as mayor in 2007, he petitioned the City Council to create the formal position.

At that time, he wrote the council that the only criteria for qualification included being literary-minded, being a city resident and being able to “help us see, make us think, be Belfastian.”

Poets who have unofficially or officially worn the wordy mantle include Bern Porter, Bob Ryan, Elizabeth Garber, Karin Spitfire and outgoing poet laureate Linda Buckmaster.

Garber, Spitfire and Buckmaster spoke on behalf of Maria and the selection process Tuesday night.

“I just want to say publicly, I stand by our work,” said Buckmaster, who was on the selection committee.

Councilor Marina DeLune took the opportunity to thank those who have served as poet laureate.

“It’s a hard job,” she said. “It’s been a job that people have taken on whole-heartedly and devotedly.”

Hurley, who was not censured by his fellow councilors, said Wednesday that he hoped the situation could be resolved and soon. The council reaffirmed its decision to name Maria poet laureate at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.

“It’s up to her,” Hurley said.

But his dissatisfaction with the poet laureate process has not lessened, he said.

“I did feel that it was bordering on the edge of ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ It’s not a popularity contest,” Hurley said. “I’d like to see an avenue for younger, lesser-known poets to somehow feel that they can apply to this position.”

Maria said Wednesday that she wouldn’t rule out accepting the poet laureate position.

“All I need to go forward is that the true facts be available to the public instead of that mess,” she said.

Before the controversy began, Maria said that she had been looking forward to doing some poetry events as the laureate.

“I’m always walking around with ideas,” she said. “It would be fun to do some of those.”

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