If “Carla Hayden” is not a household name, I understand. And, if you don’t know a lot about our Librarian of Congress, I understand that as well. But in these days of dangerous mayhem and destructive hate speech, Ms. Hayden and her title give me hope and comfort. I only began paying attention to that job and to Carla Hayden’s execution of it when I read a couple of years ago, that our new poet laureate was,Tracy K. Smith. After beginning to read Smith’s evocative poems, I began wondering how the poet laureate is chosen. Turns out that person is appointed by the Librarian of Congress. So, then I began wondering who the Librarian of Congress was who had chosen this wonderful young black woman to be our laureate. Once I had Carla Hayden’s name in my head, I began wondering how the Librarian of Congress is chosen: Was the person elected by some group of librarians? Was s/he appointed by some subcommittee of the Congress? After a lot of false tries at “Googling”–I think I ask too long questions or something–I hit gold. The Librarian of Congress for these United States is appointed by the President of the United States, and Carla Hayden was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Finally, I learned that once someone has been named to this post, s/he cannot be removed or “fired.” Rather s/he serves until wanting not to or until health intervenes or the person dies. So Carla Hayden can conduct business as she sees fit. In my view, she has done three amazingly creative things to foster diversity around who becomes our Poets Laureate. By choosing Tracy K. Smith initially, she picked her proposal (possible candidates submit proposals for how they will spend the money they get for their year as laureate) because Smith said she wanted to go to rural and small towns where we are not hearing poetry by inhabitants in these locations. So Hayden wanted “diversity” to apply not just to skin color but to who would be found as poets. So Smith spent her year going to places like Blue Earth, MN, and delighting in what she found. She staged poetry slams near farms or in high school gymnasia, and she encouraged and listened to young people who aspire to be writers without living in a big city. So Carla Hayden decided to let Smith have a second year as laureate–totally unprecedented. When I learned this, I rejoiced for all the additional people who would be exposed to Smith’s own work while finding out their work mattered to someone with a lofty title.
Now, Ms. Hayden has pleased me for the third time by named Joy Harjo to be our current poet laureate. Harjo is a Native American writer whose work has moved and delighted some of us for decades. Sadly, she has not received the press acknowledgement she so roundly deserves. So for her to now carry this mantle is, as the British like to say, “not before time.” A new book of her poems is just out and her travels will bring her audiences both indigenous and non-indigenous. And we’ll all be the better for it..
Thank you and brava, Carla Hayden.