MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY.
I'm Madeleine Brand. New Hampshire poet Donald Hall has been named as the next poet laureate of the United States. He is in poetry's big leagues. For all those poets who were not named, though, it is not time to give up hope.
Small towns like Three Oaks, Michigan are choosing their own laureates. Like other rural towns, Three Oaks economy was decimated by farm consolidation and factory shutdowns, but an influx of artists has given it new life. They are fostering an unlikely and sometimes cantankerous rebirth.
Three Oaks recently chose its fourth poet laureate from some 35 candidates. Producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister listened in on the selection process and they have this story.
Mr. ALAN TURNER (Chairman, Poetry Board): Here's what we're going to do. We're going to go through each of them and what we do is get down to, you know, the top - whether it's three or nine - and then look at those closely.
I'm Alan Turner. I'm chairman of the poetry board and also chairman of the board at Columbia College. I have a farm in Three Oaks and have been involved in the life of the town for the 14 years I've been here.
I think we have some good entries here and I think we'll come up with a very good person, and so I'm really happy about this. The genesis of this, was this idea I had, which I betted with Billy Collins, who was then poet laureate of the United States. And I said, you know, this little town of Athens, in southwest Michigan, would rather have a poet laureate. And he said, why not. And so, I said why not. So here we are.
So going through number one - Ken Clark I noticed you like number one a lot.
Unidentified Man: No, he gave it a one.
Mr. TURNER: You gave it a one. Well, is one good or bad, Ken?
Mr. KEN CLARK (member, poetry jury): I thought one was the bottom.
Unidentified Man: One for me was the top.
Mr. TURNER: I can see I have work to do here.
They get $500 in an honorarium. They must do two things, one poetic and one not. The poetic thing they have to do is write a poem for Flag Day, and a winter holiday poem. And then, the second category of things, you have to ride in the Flag Day parade with your melon.
Mr. MAX WESSLER(ph)(member, poetry jury): This is number four.
“A Civil War Soldiers Bill of Fare. For breakfast, coffee so thick you could float an iron wedge. So rife, you might skin the weevils, though they had no distinctive flavor. This to wash down sloosh, cornmeal fried in bacon fat, then roasted on your ramrod.”
My name is Max Wessler. I direct the writing program at Saint Mary's College. I've been a part of the jury since its inception four years ago.
“Then at days end for those coming back, turned by scraps of festering meat and decanted into thimbles, a liquor known as popskull.”
I was first attracted to Three Oaks by its wonderful butcher shop, Drier's, and, you know, the greatest hot dogs that anyone's ever had to eat.
Mr. JOHN CRAMER(ph) (Trustee, Three Oaks, Michigan: My name's John Cramer. I'm a masonry concrete contractor. I've been on Trustee on the Village Council for 20 years now, and I've lived in Three Oaks all my life. I was born and raised here. I'm 61 years old. When I first got on the council it was still more like when I was growing up, a sprig, small, lazy town attitude.
Mr. WESSLER: And then an art theater opened here - movie theater. And I got the feeling, after a while, of Three Oaks as a kind of Renaissance town.
Mr. TURNER: Five - people did not seem happy with five.
Mr. JOHN VICKERS (member, poetry jury): And anything that sounds like a Hallmark card I throw out right away.
My name's John Vickers. When we opened the theater in 1996, there were a number of businesses that were closed and vacant storefronts. Today, for the most part, the downtown right now is very vibrant.
Mr. TURNER: Three Oaks is growing, very rapidly. It's a lot of Chicago influence, a lot of art and entertainment influence.
Mr. VICKERS: There is the Acorn Theater. There are a number of galleries in town.
Ms. KIM PRUITT (Owner, Dawning Gallery): My name is Kim Pruitt, and I own Dawning Gallery in downtown Three Oaks, Michigan. I do paintings and clay sculpture. I moved here from Chicago. When I first moved to Three Oaks, I went to a town meeting and it was my very first one. I just thought I'm going to go see what's going on. And they were announcing the poet laureate that night, so I was like, wow, a village meeting with a poetry reading, I'm in the right place.
Mr. CRAMER: My first reaction was, why do we need a poet laureate. We've, you know, survived here - I've been here for 60 years without a poet laureate and I got along well - why do we need one.
Mr. TURNER: Nineteen is another Three Oaks poet. I like number 19.
Ms. PRUITT: I submitted one, Memories Connected.
Mr. TURNER: Well, I think it's really interesting that there are so many from Three Oaks, because that was not the case.
Unidentified Man: No, it was not.
Mr. TURNER: I mean, these submissions really have some kind of stature to them.
Unidentified Man: “Memories Connected. A chilly party event. A farmhouse stripped naked. Bearded ladies pushing shopping carts through five blocks of snow.”
Mr. RICK TUTTLE (Owner, bookstore, poet): I am Rick Tuttle, I own a bookstore in downtown Three Oaks. We moved here about three years ago from Chicago, in order to live the life we wanted to live. There's a lot of people here I don't know now. Back 20 years ago I knew everybody. U-turns in the middle of town and the hustle and bustle that you find in Chicago that I wasn't used to in Three Oaks. It's just a faster pace, you know, and that's I guess a negative.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: I like any poem that starts, why didn't you tell me you were in the throes of your madness. I…
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3: With long time residents and new residents, there's been some friction.
Mr. TUTTLE: The funny thing to me is that people think Chicagoans are coming in to change the town but I think the Chicagoans who have moved here object to changing the town more than locals do. The people who have lived all their lives in Three Oaks, they see how the economy ran down at one point and how it now maybe the economy is coming back, but it's not coming back in a local way. It's not like somebody local opened a manufacturing business or something, which I'm sure many of them would have preferred.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #3: The Dalai Lama resigns. Chosen at two, I never wished to be more than I was. I am tired of listening to your hopes and fears. I am weary of putting on a happy face of fake ears and buffoons.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #4: You know, maybe there's some embarrassment on the council that Three Oaks has a paid poet. Now, how does that look when you're doing the budget or when you're trying to express that publicly to your community. And even though they don't pay the honorarium that comes from Allen Turner, it's a town with a paid poet, you know, when there are maybe potholes in the streets. I mean, how does that look?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #5: I might even want to roll my eyes, poet laureate, you know, not knowing anything about it, but I don't think anybody rolls their eyes now intentionally at the issue of having a poet laureate or Al Turner presenting $500 to them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1: A note from Tom Elliott(ph), the still points of the turning world is axel, friction, and grease. The liturgy of heaven, pretending that I do not have to dance. The still point of this turning solar system is fire and gas, dancing and turning on itself.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #5: Perfect love is constant exertion and constant exertion is the only unconflicted path existing in this maze, amazing me. I will turn.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #6: I think they had a great free verse poem.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #7: Yeah, that sold me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #6: There's a kind of thoughtfulness there, this, he's got something to say.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #8: I certainly agree.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #5: So now we have chosen number nine. And number nine was submitted by Rick Tuttle, Three Oaks, Michigan. He is a person with a love of words and a love of books.
Mr. TUTTLE: The poem ends with, perfect love is constant exertion and constant exertion is the only path existing in this maze, amazing me. And being in this town, I would imagine will be constant exertion. There's always going to be someone who doesn't especially like me. But it's like, I'm here to make something and that requires effort, requires constant effort.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #9: Let's call the meeting to order. We'll stand and do the Pledge of Allegiance please.
(Soundbite of crowd saying Pledge of Allegiance)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #10: This is the day in which the village of Three Oaks officially honors the new poet laureate, Rick Tuttle.
(Soundbite of crowd clapping)
Mr. TUTTLE: I don't think any community ever stays the same. All communities are in transition. A lot of the locals want to leave to get better jobs, better education, and the people who wanted to involve them are the people who will change it and make it whatever it's going to be. And I want it to involve me, that's all.
I'd like to say that I am honored to live in a town that does this, a town that has a poet laureate is a town I want to live in. And I thank you all, all of you. It's a very wonderful thing.
(Soundbite of crowd clapping)
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BRAND: That story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions in association with Chicago Public Radio.
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