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Pennsylvania may re-establish its poet laureate position

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania is one of only a few states without a poet laureate.

But if the General Assembly acts, one could reappear in the commonwealth.

Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Easton, has proposed House Bill 2308 to re-establish a Pennsylvania Poet Laureate to conduct official readings at the governor’s inauguration, the opening of the legislative session, and to serve at other official commemorations.

In the 1990s, then-Governor Bob Casey appointed Sam Hazo as poet laureate, but Gov. Ed Rendell terminated the position when he took office in 2003. Reviving it matters, Freeman argued; a laureate could “draw on the rich heritage we have, the rich cultural and artistic community we have here in Pennsylvania.”

“Poetry is a written art form that can inspire people, can be very instrumental and a symbol of our cultural and artistic background,” he said.

Massachusetts, New Jersey, and South Carolina are the only other states that don’t have a poet laureate. New Jersey, for a brief time, had one — but abolished the position in less than four years after poet laureate Amiri Baraka sparked controversy with an anti-Semitic poem.

“Arts have a very important role to play in our culture, they define us,” Freeman said. “They give us a chance to be inspired by beauty and thoughts of beauty. They can be inspirational from a civic standpoint, too.”

Cultural endeavors, he argued, could drive tourism and out-of-town interest, be it for a concert or local festival or otherwise.

Pennsylvania, if it establishes a poet laureate position, would do it on the cheap. A poet wouldn’t get a stipend, but they would be reimbursed for “necessary traveling and other expenses incurred in the performance of official duties,” according to Freeman’s bill.

New York provides a $10,000 stipend to its laureate; Ohio, $5,000; West Virginia, $2,000; Maryland bars its laureate from compensation, but reimburses up to $1,000 in expenses annually; Delaware’s is an honorary position and state law makes no mention of any compensation.

Though lacking an official position, the commonwealth has a de facto laureate in Philadelphia’s poet laureate position. The city gives a poet $5,000 as a stipend, and its officeholder routinely gets awarded a $50,000 fellowship by the Academy of American Poets Laureate. Those fellowships often go to writers in major cities and poet laureates, and Philadelphia’s poet laureate has received one in 2019, 2021, and 2022.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, poet laureate programs have been established in Allegheny, Blair, Bucks, and Erie Counties, along with Milford Township, Lancaster, and York (though Allegheny’s is a program of the City of Asylum, a non-profit organization).

Freeman also introduced HR376 to declare April 2024 as National Poetry Month in Pennsylvania, which passed the House 196-4.

He thanked constituent Helen Behe, an MFA graduate from DeSales University in creative writing, for proposing the poet laureate position be re-established in Pennsylvania.

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