New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu has abandoned his pick for state poet laureate, amid growing criticism of the man’s work and how he was selected.
Daniel Thomas Moran, a retired dentist and former poet laureate of Suffolk county, New York, was never formally nominated for the New Hampshire post. But Sununu, a Republican, had chosen him.
Even before the discovery of a sexually suggestive poem Moran wrote about former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, some said he was not qualified.
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On Friday, a spokesman for the governor said he would soon put a new name up for a vote.
State law requires the directors of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire (PSNH) to submit to the governor “the name or names of persons whom they deem to be worthy” of being poet laureate. The governor is not required to follow the recommendations.
Moran read a poem entitled New Hampshire at Sununu’s second inauguration in January. He was one of 12 poets whose names were given to the committee by the poets themselves or supporters.
The PSNH selection committee recommended Jennifer Militello of Goffstown, an award-winning poet and founder of the New Hampshire Poetry Festival.
Sununu put Moran’s name on a list of upcoming nominations in March but held off on asking for a vote by the executive council, which approves state contracts and nominations. In June, the governor met with PSNH members and asked for additional material on alternative candidates.
Then on Thursday, an excerpt of Moran’s poem referencing Rice was published by Slate.
According to Slate, the poem, entitled White on Rice, read in part:
Condoleeza are we
not the lucky ones,
Happier than a
barrel of nuns.
Like impetuous kids
we would have our fun
In the lavatory
on Air Force One.
“White on Rice,” Slate reported, “appears in The Book of Moran, a 2007 collection published by Asinine Poetry, whose website says it is devoted to ‘mostly kinda funny’ poetry.”
Sununu’s spokesman said the governor was only recently made aware of the Rice poem and “finds it offensive”, but had chosen Moran based on the entirety of his work.
“Governor Sununu nominated Daniel Thomas Moran, who has published 11 books, due to his extensive experience and impressive credentials, as well as to bring a fresh perspective to the role of poet laureate,” Benjamin Vihstadt said. Hours later, Vihstadt said Sununu would nominate someone else.
Don Kimball, president of the PSNH, said the members urged Sununu to make a different choice during the June meeting.
“We said: ‘We understand that you’re the governor and you have the right, but is it the right thing to do?’” Kimball said.
Like Sununu, the committee was not aware of Moran’s poem when it vetted candidates, Kimball said. But Marie Harris, a former poet laureate who served on the committee, said Moran failed to rise into even the top half of the field based on his work, vision, connection to the poetry community and ability to serve as its ambassador.
Harris, who called the Rice poem and several others “a travesty, really, of what poetry is meant to be”, said the controversy goes beyond the state. She noted New Hampshire has produced five national poet laureates.
“We have a national reputation of being a fine place for poetry, and this makes a mockery of that,” she said. “And it also taints the process going forward because why would anyone put up a nominee if all the qualifications in the world didn’t count?”
Both Harris and Kimball said their chief complaint was not with Moran, but with Sununu’s decision to circumvent a well-established process.
This was not the first time, however, a governor bypassed the PSNH. In 1999, the society’s then-president criticized Democratic governor Jeanne Shaheen because she picked Harris instead of the group’s choice, saying she had broken a long tradition of keeping politics out of poetry.
Harris said her case was different. That year, newcomers to the society put forward someone who was not qualified, she said.
Shaheen nominated her after consulting with the state council on the arts, she said. And the controversy ultimately led to a revamping of the vetting process, including the creation of a committee that includes outsiders interested in writing and the arts and a detailed rubric for evaluating candidates.
Moran did not respond to phone or email messages.