PRIVATIZATION - Portland councilors suck up to special-interest group

A group of southern Maine residents has appointed themselves the task of naming Portland's "official" poet laureate. Which is odd, not just because two of them don't even live in Portland.

The term "poet laureate" is usually used to designate someone chosen by a government body to represent that body (and its constituency) poetically - not, as this group is trying to do, a person chosen by private citizens and then foisted on the government as a fait accompli.

Also, Portland already has a poet laureate - the poet laureate of the state of Maine, Betsy Sholl, a Portland resident who teaches at USM. She, like all Maine Poet Laureates since the mid-1990s, was chosen by an advisory group created by the Legislature, and appointed by the governor.

Let's be clear - a poet laureate title is a figurehead as it is. Any private group can create its own figureheads whenever it wants to (see: the DNC and Howard Dean). And there's nothing really wrong with them trying to get the government to give their decision the stamp of approval.

What would be wrong is for the government to go along with it, since this type of selection is hardly representative of anything but the very small number of people involved. And even though it's an unpaid, figurehead position, the move would approve of a small special-interest group's claim to represent the wider public - which isn't quite the ideal of democracy. (This doesn't seem to faze the Portland City Council, who have already told the group they'll approve of the selection at Monday's meeting.)

This new group of eight (six Portland residents, and one each from Westbrook and Kennebunkport) got together and decided that Portland needed its own poet laureate. So they called themselves Maine Poetry Central (no Web site yet), created the "Portland Poet Laureate Board," sought out "nominations" from various people, and got together to pick a winner, whom they have already named "Portland's Poet Laureate."

(He's Martin Steingesser, who has won various awards and been published in a number of outlets, both poetry-specific and not. He seems to be a nice guy and a decent poet; the "process" by which he was "chosen" to "represent" the "public" is what's in question here.)

Maine Poetry Central will apparently try to do this same private-selection process in other towns around Maine, with Brunswick, Augusta, and the Rockland-Camden area as specific early targets. Will those local governments cave as fast as Portland's? Place your bets now.

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