Devil In Memphis and the Idiocy of Our Times

I received the following from a friend of mine, who sent it to his local paper as well. I’ve asked his permission to post it here, in its entirety. It concerns an issue which, while we may hope represents an unfortunate part of our history long outgrown, still rears its viperous and virulent heads in the present day.

Why are the West Memphis Three Still in Prison?
by Brooks Caruthers

Fourteen years ago Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, the notorious West Memphis Three, were convicted of murdering three eight year old boys: Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers.

Almost immediately, the case against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley was exposed as a hollow sham, a travesty of justice. But after numerous appeals, careful examinations of evidence old and new, and international attention brought about by hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, two documentary films, and at least one very well-researched book, the West Memphis Three are still in prison. Why?

I’ve only heard vague answers. Third hand rumors. (My friend says there’s stuff that wasn’t reported, stuff that wasn’t in the trial…My friend knows someone who has seen things…My brother knows someone who heard things…my sister knows someone who was there, who knows things, who is positive Echols and them are guilty.)

What “things”? I have yet to hear one. So far the only tangible “thing” I’ve heard was, “I know a lawyer who says the bite marks on the body matched their teeth.”

Which is interesting because the exact opposite is true. The teeth marks found on the bodies DO NOT match the teeth of Miskelley, Echols, or Baldwin. That’s been known since 1998.

Now, in 2007, as announced in a press conference given by Damien Echols’s defense team, it has been shown that the teeth marks found on the bodies were not even human. This is the opinion of more than a half dozen forensic pathologists and forensic odontologists. In their opinion, almost all of the horrible wounds found on the three victims, including the genital mutilations, were the result of post-mortem animal predation, i.e., animals trying to eat the dead bodies. Furthermore, it is the opinion of the experts that none of the wounds on the bodies was caused by a knife. This is important, because in the original case the prosecution tried very hard to convince the jury that the body wounds were made by a serrated knife…a knife just like one found in the watery area behind Jason Baldwin’s house.

Three of the forensic consultants were at the November 2nd press conference. The odontologist, Dr. Richard Souviron and the pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, stated clearly that none of the marks on the bodies were made by a serrated knife and that none of the wounds were consistent with any kind of knife. (There was also no evidence of sodomy or forced oral sex, another part of the prosecution’s narrative that has been disproven for some time.)

New DNA evidence was also revealed at the press conference. Forensic serologist Thomas Fedor stated that none of the DNA found at the crime scene matches the DNA of Baldwin, Echols or Misskelley. However, the DNA of a hair found in one of the ligatures that bound Michael Moore roughly matches DNA of Steven Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs. Another hair found on the crime scene matches a friend that had been hanging around with Hobbs on the day of the murder.

It may not be Hobbs’s hair. And even if it is, that doesn’t mean he’s the murderer. But even back in 1993, without the DNA evidence, Hobbs, a family member, would have been a far more likely suspect than three teenage strangers.

But almost from very start of the investigation, the Crittenden county authorities were convinced they were looking at some sort of ritual Satanic human sacrifice. All the evidence they found was viewed through that filter. If any promising lead or piece of evidence didn’t fit the narrative of Satanists doing evil in our midst, it was ignored.

The local media fueled this frenzy, reporting damn near any crazed, unsubstantiated rumor. Then the coerced and contradictory “confession” of Jessie Misskelley was made public, and newspapers fell all over each other to report all the lurid details of Satanic ritual sodomy and murder.

Misskelley was a borderline retarded teenager who had been a casual friend of Echols and Baldwin. His confession was the result of hours upon hours of abusive interrogation by Crittenden County’s finest. The full text of his two “confessions” is riddled with contradictions and factual errors that reveal his story to be a complete fabrication. But the media didn’t report any of that. They only reported the “good” parts. (For an in depth look at how the “Satanic Ritual” theory was developed and how the Misskelley “confession” was created, see Mara Leveritt’s book THE DEVIL’S KNOT.)

This brings us to another revelation of the November 2nd press conference: the discovery of private notes by jury members indicating that Misskelley’s “confession” was a major consideration in their guilty verdict. That’s a problem because the confession was never officially entered as evidence. Jurors never got to see the whole thing in all its absurd contradictory glory. Instead, they were considering only the lurid confession highlights presented in the media.

Sound like a fair trial to you?

The focus of all this attention was the alarmingly named Damien Echols. He looked and acted like everyone’s ultimate nightmare of a teenager. He was the perfect villain for a “satanic panic”. It was easy to sentence him to death and lock him away where the sun doesn’t shine.

I mean that quite literally. Since 2004, when Echols was moved to Varner SuperMax, he has not seen the sun.

I’ve never met Echols. I’ve met his wife, Lorri Davis, and I know people who have corresponded with him and and even visited him in person. If you knew the things I knew, if you’d heard the things I’ve heard…you might decide he’s a pretty nice guy. Smart. Quiet. Buddhist.

Still, I was a bit reluctant when my wife handed me a book called ALMOST HOME: MY LIFE STORY, VOL. 1 by Damien Echols and told me I should read it. I mean, I still had the mental image of the teenage heavy metal villain in my head. And the book was printed by iUniverse…which means that it’s self published.

To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one day. Dude can write! His style is clean and matter-of-fact, with a nice undercurrent of ironic humor and occasional poetic turns of phrase that lightly ornament his prose but never become overbearing. Echols has lived a life of dirt-poor poverty with long periods of dead end despair, but he never wallows in it. Instead he gives us a series of vivid, emotional snapshots: some dark, some light, some funny, some strangely ecstatic.

Now here you might argue that the fact that Echols can write doesn’t mean that he’s innocent. And you’d be right.

And you might argue just because celebrities like Margaret Cho and Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines think that the West Memphis Three are innocent, that doesn’t make it so.

And you’d be right.

And you might mention that the out-of-town producers of the PARADISE LOST documentaries had an agenda, and part of that agenda was making us look like a bunch of redneck idiots.

And I’d say, “Point well taken.”

But none of this changes the fact that the West Memphis Three were convicted on little more than an arbitrarily concocted story about a Satanic sacrifice, and that now we have evidence that directly contradicts this story, exposing it as a lie.

The official reason for the November 2nd press conference was to announce that on October 29th Damien Echols’s defense team filed a Second Amended Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. In plain English, the team is asking, in light of all the new evidence, for a federal court to either overturn Echols’s conviction or give him a new trial.

The presentation made by the lawyers was very powerful. You can watch it online at the Free the West Memphis Three website: wm3.org. (A site well worth exploring.) Or, if you read this in time, you can watch the press conference on a big screen at Market Street Cinema, along with 20 minutes of highlights from from the first PARADISE LOST movie. This event will take place on December 11th, at 7:00 PM. It is presented by the WM3 support group Arkansas Take Action!, which will also host a live Q & A.

And if you want to demonstrate that freeing the West Memphis Three is something that native Arkansans believe in, as opposed to all them crazy out-of-town Hollywood types, write letters to Governor Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel asking them to overturn the conviction of Damien Echols and expedite the exonerations of Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley. If you write the letters before December 15th and send them to Arkansas Take Action!, P.O. Box 17788, Little Rock, AR 72222-7788, they will be presented en masse to the Governor and the Attorney General on December 18th.

So far McDaniel’s response to the writ has been: “…we can say with confidence that these three men are, in fact, guilty…”

Good. Let us hear why, openly, in court if necessary.

Open up everything. Let Damien Echols see the sun again.

Can you guess the issue to which I allude?

Person in the back row, there, with both hands raised, yes? Modern witch hunts! Right on the first try.

Since the Salem Affair, we’ve wrestled with an uneasy accommodation with religious perceptions in our public life, specifically in regard to law and jurisprudence. Not that we need the presence of Satan in order to make boneheaded mistakes—sometimes all you need is a media frenzy. Combine the two, though, and we have cause number one for keeping religion out of our politics, our law, our government.

Once someone makes the claim that Satanism is involved and the general public accepts it, reason goes out the window. The explanation? Well, how can anyone rely on rules of evidence when the devil is involved, with his supernatural (or, as Ann Druyan is currently insisting, subnatural) ability to deceive? What? The maze of tunnels supposed to exist beneath the pre-school couldn’t be found when authorities dug it up? What can you expect when Satan probably filled them all in! What? The perpetrators can prove they were nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred? What can you expect when Satan can instantly transport them from point A to point B and erase memories? Once Satan gets involved, all our highly-regarded investigatory capacities mean nothing!

This is foolishness of a high order. But we fall for it from time to time, in various places. No one is immune, it seems, and those who insist that law enforcement is somehow violating its own rules and denying its own abilities are cast as witting or unwitting collaborators with the Master of Lies. How dare anyone suggest the police would deceive us? That district attorneys would hide evidence or misrepresent a case? Surely that never happens!

Unless Satan is involved.

Curious that no one ever seems to suggest that Satan might be working his wiles from the other end, by duping law enforcement and corrupting our own system so that we end up sending innocent people to prison. That the deception has to do with manipulating our own fears rather than causing someone to commit a crime. Better, isn’t it, that we be made to attack ourselves from a misplaced sense of righteousness, born out of terror at the boogie man we have not quite managed to deny? Why is it that no one steps forward to suggest that Satan may be working through children (who, in these instances, we are told NEVER lie) to cast a pall over the perfectly innocent adults around them, setting us at each others’ throats using the tools of our own legal system to do damage to our sense of security, our faith in reason, and disrupt the equitable flow of justice? How come Satan only ever can be seen present in the form of the accused?

We’ve been going though another one of those absurd “They’re trying to destroy Christmas!” things, with that issue in Fort Collins. We just can’t bring ourselves to draw a hard and fast line. And it does seem ridiculous when it comes to a holiday. What’s wrong with a little nod to an informing cultural myth? What harm can it do to make a small accommodation to a traditional belief?

We ask this question legitimately, and perhaps some people do go too far in their quest to be rid of the religious in our public lives. These zealots seem like crackpots to most people. Grinches.

But then something like this happens. This is the flip side of that same coin.

It’s not the subject of the belief that’s the problem—it’s that we don’t seem able to defend ourselves from the insanity of our own embrace of that belief.

Admitting to this, though, means that maybe there’s a very good reason to separate out the religious from the civic. And if there’s a very good reason for that, maybe there’s a very good reason to rethink the whole thing.

Being rid of Christmas decorations in state buildings and so forth may mean a little less holiday cheer for a lot of people, and that’s curmudgeonly.

On the other hand, it might also mean we never let Satan be a cause for wrongly imprisoning innocent people. Hmm. I’m having a hard time seeing that as a bad thing.

On Values And Victims

Listening to a talk show at work yesterday, I heard some fall-out from the recent suicide of the young girl who had been “duped” on MySpace.  When I first learned of this tragedy, I ran through a series of thoughts about the dangers posed by the interfaces we use these days, which put us often too early and unprepared into contact with things in another era we would simply have had no opportunity to encounter.  This girl was a casualty of the wavefront of experience that comes now in new forms and through media that never before existed.

I never once thought it was her fault.

How could you?  She’d been deceived.  Inexperienced, unwitting, she invested a bit too much, and it put her over the edge to discover that what she thought was “real” was in fact a deception.

History is full of examples of people committing suicide over things with only marginal reality.  Especially among adolescents.  We’ve learned in the last decade a great deal more about brain development than ever before, and one of those things is that adolescence is the time of some of the most intricate and fragile growth–physically–within the brain.  The hormone storm that is unleashed at the onset of puberty, the growth spurts visible in every other part of the body, the physiological changes of emergent sexuality and secondary sexual characteristics, all have their equivalent in cognitive development.  It makes perfect sense after the fact, but for a long, long time we blithely assumed that adolescents were more or less just like adults.  Instead we find that, because of the rapid and complex changes they are going through, teen-agers who appear out-of-control, impulsive, overly-sensitive, clueless, clumsy–in short, borderline insane–really are all those things and it is the responsibility of the adults around them to set guidelines and provide aid to get them through this period to the other side and (hopefully) “normality” and sanity.  (When this fails, we have all manner of screwed up adult.)

Which is why holding a teenager responsible for not behaving like an adult is absurd on its face.

And consequences of this journey can run the gamut from perpetual clumsiness to neuroses to schizophrenia to manic-depression to suicide.

It is one of the challenges of our new awareness of these things to take actions to mitigate the worst effects and to do what we can to ensure a healthy mind in the emergent adult.

Something like this tragic suicide occurs, though, and when we listen to what comes after we discover how unlikely that is for some people.  Many people emailed this talk show to express their opinion that the dead girl “got what was coming to her.”  It was somehow her fault.

When we tease through this senseless reaction, we come to the bottom line opinion that what she was doing on MySpace was something she shouldn’t have been doing, something that is to some people Bad.  In fact immoral.  Evil.  That she reaped the rewards of an inappropriate indulgence.

This is pathetic.  But rather than condemn it outright, maybe we ought to take a look at this and see where it comes from.  This echoes similar responses to other events, like rape.  “She shouldn’t have been out that late, she shouldn’t have been with Those People, she shouldn’t have been dressed Like That.”  We’ve heard all this.  After enough of it, you’d think the poor rapist had absolutely no choice but to attack That Female.  It was all her fault, she brought it on herself.

Blaming the victim.

This happens to men, too, but in less obvious ways.  Job situations, traffic incidents, fights in school or elsewhere…if a negative consequence results, somehow, for some people, it is the victim’s fault.  (One of the most frustrating comments I used to hear during the heyday of student demonstrations in the Sixties and Seventies was, in the aftermath of police crackdowns, “if they’d all been in class studying where they were supposed to be, none of them would have been hurt.”)

Take this line of reasoning far enough and the perpetrators of crimes should get off scott free, since they themselves were the dupes of the seductive and taunting actions of morally suspect victims.

Partly, this kind of thinking seems to come from the way in which our public discourse is driven by value judgments.  Nothing seems to be value-null, that is without a moral aspect.   Back in the Fifties there were people who condemned hoola-hoops because they were immoral.  That hip-movement, especially in young girls, was licentious.

But especially when bad results.  MySpace must be immoral because its use by this girl resulted in her suicide.  We don’t seem to know how to just take things at face value in the “Shit Happens” mode of value judgment.

A meteor falls out of the sky and crushes the house of someone certain people don’t like.  Judgment from god?  How dare the man put his house right there.  He had it coming.

Silly?  Perhaps, but we probably all know people who would pass such judgments.

The other aspect of this is that we humans, even when we don’t know how to do it, try to find reasons for everything.  Things don’t “just happen.”  There must be a reason.  The entire Why Me? ethic is based on this quest for causality.  As if at some point along the way we might have done something to avoid the tragedy.

What complicates this is that in some instances it’s true.  Prophylactic living is not a stupid idea.  If she had stopped smoking she might not have gotten cancer.  If he had stopped drinking he might still have a liver.  If they had kept up their insurance premiums, when the meteor hit the house it might not have cost them all they had.

But there are things that go beyond the power of anyone.  If he hadn’t driven down that street at  that hour, he might have missed being hit by that bus.

Reason, as much as I value it, only extends so far.  Sometimes bad things just happen.

And it is never the victim’s fault.

A woman should be able to walk naked down any street anywhere and be free of the threat of molestation.  Anyone ought be able to park their expensive new car in any neighborhood and not worry about it being stolen.  We should be able to leave our doors unlocked and windows open and not be victim to unwanted invasion, robbery.  If we suffer harm as a consequence of any of these things, it is not our fault.

However.  If you goad the dog behind the fence with the Beware sign on it and it bites you when you stick your hand in, that’s on you.  The owner of the dog should not be made to compensate you for your stupidity (or cupidity).  If you make that upcoming curve at 20 or 30 miles over the recommended speed limit and total your vehicle and maybe kill someone, that’s on you.  If you break into someone’s home to rob it and get shot by the owner, that’s on you.  The owner should not be made to compensate you for your hospital time or be sued by your family should you die.

Between those two sets of examples, however, is a whole range of actions which do not lend themselves easily to value judgments, and the only thing that can be done is to perhaps pay more attention to each other and what we do and how we respond.  Especially kids, who are still learning about the cruelties and senseless perversity of the world.

I think it is safe to say that the unfortunate suicide of a young girl, triggered by the revelation of a deception against which she had no defense, was not the consequence of one thing.  For her to have been that fragile, that susceptible, other factors must have been involved, and the only tragedy there would be that she never told anyone she was having trouble, that she was confused or frustrated or in pain, and no one got the chance to intervene before the triggering event pushed her too far.

But it was not, in any formulation I can think of, justice.  She did not “have it coming” as some ignorant, intolerant–and probably frightened–people would claim.

The future is frightening.  But it is also inevitable.  It’s like the front line of a battle.  You can drop down and bury your head in the dirt if you want, but when you look up and find that the person next to you took a bullet, you can’t blame him or her for looking into that future.

In Charge

What if I were In Charge?

Dangerous idea, that.

If you were in charge–if you were King–what would do? What would you fix? What would you ignore?

The Socratic ideal is the philosopher king, whose first act upon accession to the throne is to abdicate. The idea being that a truly ethical thinker would refuse to accept the responsibility to rule a nation.

Pity the world doesn’t work that way.

The problem with such systems (though I use the term “system” lightly, since abdication implies there would be a lack of any system)–and there are many, including those proposed by certain self-proclaimed Libertarians–is that human nature refuses to cooperate. There’s a kind of Malthusian coefficient involved–population growth always outstrips the potential for ideal behavior. All such utopian systems are based on one fallacy that keeps gumming up all the works of any system anyone cares to name.

The fallacy is that We’re All Alike.

It’s a widely touted formula–the things that we have in common outnumber those that divide us; underneath we’re all the same; people are people. The Libertarians believe as an article of faith that if government got out of everybody’s way, we’d all be fine because people basically know what’s best for themselves and their immediate circle of intimates. Socialists believe (mostly) that without class structures, everyone would get along quite nicely. Communists like to assume avarice is an aberration that can somehow be bred out of the species.

If only.

The fact is, we come in all shapes, sizes, talents, capacities, points of view, prejudices, and predilections. The closest we get (for the purposes of this essay) to being alike is that we seem to be different in exactly the same ways. We’re not the same in precisely those areas that make such blue sky hopes for the self-responsible, self-actualized, self-controlling individual a reality. Government ends up becoming a default necessity to keep us from each others’ throats as much as keeping the whole thing working in something resembling order.

Do governments go too far? Sure, often. Government is an imprecise tool, a blunt instrument. It’s reactive more than proactive. It makes huge blunders, overlooks details, stumbles along an ill-perceived path. In frustration–or under the same illusion that people are all basically the same (or should be)–many governments become autocratic, despotic, fascistic, tyrannical, brutal. They squeeze tighter on the reins in the futile attempt to force a population to conform to certain standards. Combined with a fervent belief that only They know what’s best for their country, you have all the ingredients for classic botched jobs.

Then there are those times and places where someone–a Hussein, a Khaddafy, a Stalin, a Hitler–does end up In Charge and sets about actually remaking the country according to their ideas. From the outside, occasionally, things look like they’re working quite well.

There is Order.

Misery doesn’t have to be loud to be real.

But the hypothetical I put as the title applies to us all to some degree, because it is true that rulers rule by the consent of the ruled.

Ultimately, when people–the euphemistic, legendary, all-but-mythical The People–have had enough, a ruler or ruling class just can’t keep them on the farm no more. France boasted one of the most autocratic, absolute despotism in modern history and look what happened to poor Louis XVI. Bad haircut day, one where the barber missed by several inches.

So. If I were in charge, what would I do differently?

First off, being an American, I would declare one day a year in which all classified documents would be declassified. For a day. Let the free-for-all start. Get in there and find what you think is there (or not) and gloat over being right or crawl back into your niche when you find you’re wrong. Whatever slipped through the fingers of those hungry conspiracy theorists, the press, the general run-of-the-mill paranoiac–tough. Gotta wait till next year.

This would allow for release, for breathing space. Illegal, hidden things would still go on, but imagine the safety valve such a day would have! Miss your chance one year, just wait till next year. It would provide a format in which those who openly distrust the system would have their say. Of course, it could not be a cheat. It would have to be real. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. I give as an example–an outre one, to be sure, but classic–Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s program to deal with UFOs. A look at the history of it shows that they shot themselves perpetually in the foot by not declassifying everything. The fringe maniacs who really believed they were hiding something could continually point to the things not revealed and make a quasi-legitimate claim that there, indeed, were the relevant revealing documents. As it has turned out, there never was anything that actually threatened national security, but because of the habitual inability of government to let go, they created (or at least provided unlimited fuel for) the present day UFO frenzy–and its related groups, like those folks who believe the UN has a clandestine bunch of storm troopers who can kidnap people…

Anyway. That would be the first thing.

Second thing, I would feed people. America has always grown a surplus. Food prices are kept high artificially. We can sell to other countries, but Americans should eat. Give it to them. Not candy, but real food. (I would also make this a part of welfare–no food stamps and no exceptions for the junk people buy. You come into the supermarket with foodstamps and then produce cash for alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, and so forth, the food stamps are not to be accepted.) Give it to everyone, though, not just welfare recipients. The guy in the mansion should have access as well as the single mom laid off from her job and living hand-to-mouth. (I guarantee the guy in the mansion won’t use it–too embarrassing. That’s why you rarely see people from rich counties shopping at Save-A-Bunch–they prefer spending more at an upscale store because it keeps them apart from the scruffy and impoverished.)

Third thing, I would federally fund schools at the primary and secondary level and keep them open 24/7. Classes would go on all day long, all night, all week, all year, for students to attend when they chose. They would also be staffed in such a way as to provide safe havens for children. Yeah, you’re doing the physics class with Dr. So-N-So, the experiment will take three months, you can sleep over. They would also have clinics attached to provide everything from first-aid to birth control to psych counseling. School should be the place where you mature, get healthy, learn, become what you want to become.

Fourth, taxes would be changed from income tax to purchase (or sales) tax, with exemptions for food, clothing, medicine, and books. Property tax should be assessed purely on a square-foot basis, regardless what’s built on it. (Second floor, more square feet, and so on, but the “improvement” of the property would have no bearing.) Business taxes would be altered to an annual licensing fee–your business does X dollars per year gross income, this is how much the license is. Period. Adjustments could be made over time, but I really do agree with Libertarians on this–a tax just because you make a certain amount of income is unethical, probably immoral, and retrograde. Tax what people spend, that’s different–except for necessities.

And retired people should be exempt from taxes. You hit retirement, leave the work force, taxes end. Period.

Between high school and college, there will be a year to two year long program everyone will participate in of public service, what the courts now term community service.

Everyone. Rich, poor, whoever. If you want to avoid it, join the military, which will be exempt from conscription. Everyone will give a year or two to helping the poor, forest management, urban renewal, charity work. The time will count toward student loans to underwrite college. But for one or two years, everyone will be part of a Peace Corps type program, working in communities that need help, doing all the stuff that needs doing, learning what it means to be a part of the community at the most basic level. Essentially getting your face rubbed in the real world so we can begin to minimize the myths surrounding poverty and work which poison so much political discourse in this country.

I would issue stringent requirements for people wanting to get married. It should be hard to get married. People do it for all the wrong reasons, all the time, and make a mess of it, and all it does is make money for lawyers, courts, and, at a certain level, the yellow press/tabloid market. It should be hard to get married, easy to get divorced. (Certainly you can live together, but there would be no palimony suits allowed and whatever legal arrangements a couple–or more–would want would have to be done through a lawyer via legal instrument. Marriage is a whole ‘nother ballgame.)

No children except for those willing to go through the byzantine machinations of getting married.

Which leads me to possibly the most controversial program.

Upon puberty, all boys would have a quantity of sperm harvested, all girls would have eggs harvested upon menarche. Once banked and filed, boys and girls would be “fixed”. No more teen pregnancy, no more pregnancies to blackmail people into relationships, no more unwanted babies. Later, after maturity, if two people really want a child, they have to make a CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO DO SO–because it will be done not in the heat of sexual congress, but thoughtfully, with the aid of a councilor, at the clinic, when they sign off to withdraw sperm and egg and actually MAKE A BABY. I fervently believe that too many children are born unwanted, even if from the outside they seem to have good home lives. People do things for reasons having nothing to do with the requirements of the thing done and I’m sorry, but just “But I want it!” is insufficient reason to be allowed the opportunity to fuck up another human being’s life.

That’s some of what I’d do if I were In Charge. Doubtless everyone has a list, but I thought I’d offer mine just for the sake of discussion.

Probably a good thing I’m not In Charge. Or likely to be.

Still, it kinda makes you wonder.

Doesn’t it?

__________________________________________________

The above is intended purely for the purposes of a Thought Experiment and are not intended to be taken as anything more than that.  I am not, nor would I ever wish to be, In Charge.

A Poet Laureate For Missouri…

The state of Missouri has never had an official poet laureate.  Like many people, I didn’t know that, although unlike many of those many people, I should have.  One of the hats I wear is as the president of the Missouri Center for the Book.

What, you may ask, is the Missouri Center for the Book and what, furthermore, does it have to do with state poets laureate?

I’m so glad you asked.  The Missouri Center for the Book (hereafter known as MCB) is the state affiliate to the Library of Congress Center for the Book.  All 50 states have such an institution now, and we are all as different in our structure and specific goals as those states.  The common thread is that we are all dedicated to promoting what we call the Culture of the Book.  This includes authors, certainly, but also publishers, editors, reviewers, literature teachers, schools.  We see all these things as inextricably part and parcel of that culture, though obviously authors are the most visible part.

We do not do remedial reading work.  There are other agencies that do that and do it far better than we could.  That’s not our mandate.

In our heyday, the first several years after our founding in 1993, we did all sorts of things to promote the idea of books and reading, mostly through the mechanism of conferences which addressed certain themes.  We had notable guests, lots of writers and publishers, an open forum.

And then, as happens in such things, funding slipped away and we did smaller and smaller programs.

Among the things we do is administer the state Letters About Literature contest, which is a very cool program for three levels of students, primary to secondary, in which a student writes a letter to the author of a book that has had a significant impact on that student.  We select the best, the winners go on to a national contest.  Some of these letters, even from very young students, are tremendous.  They give me hope for the future.  Quiet hope, a confidence that we have a chance, that the young are not dumber than their parents or grandparents, but are generally smarter.

As president for the past three years, I’ve been reorganizing and rebuilding the MCB.  We have plans to relaunch the conferences.  We intend to rebuild our website, which contains an author database which was, when it was instituted, the first of its kind in the nation.  We intend that it be made interactive.  That’s going to be a bit pricey, but once done it will be a great tool.

There are other programs we’d like to do.

But one thing we’ve been working at for the last eight years, doggedly and consistently, is the creation of a state poet laureate.  I won’t go into the details of that effort, they would bore you.  Mostly the work consisted of letter writing, long conversations with “influential” people, planning the structure of the post, often just being a pest.  MCB itself could not do this—for it to be “official” it must come from either the governor or the legislature.  Most states, it is an appointment of the governor.  It boils down to convincing the governor to do it.

Governor Blunt has decided to do it.  Last month we received word that the position would be created and the first poet laureate will be named in mid-December.  MCB has been named the agency which will administer the post and work on selection.

Warning:  what follows is an unapologetic promotional request for financial support.

I canvassed a number of states about their poet laureate programs.  There are about 8 or 9 states that do not have the position.  Among the others, the post is largely honorary, with no funding.  From the beginning, we thought the post should have some money behind.  It is incredibly difficult to make a living as a writer, triply so as a writer of poetry.  Besides, we intend for our laureates to travel the state, speaking on the matter of the literary arts.  That shouldn’t come out of the laureate’s own pocket.  But we’ve already learned that Missouri’s laureate post will also, as far as the state government is concerned, be honorary.

So I am asking for donations.  MCB’s future programming efforts will be built around the poet laureate–not specifically so much as thematically.  Missouri is stepping up to the plate, symbolically, to declare that literature, that reading, that authors are actually important.  In order to move forward and take advantage of the very public opportunity this is giving the Culture of the Book, we want to put some teeth behind it.

You can go to our website– books.missouri.org –and read a bit more about us.  Mind you, the site as it stands is going to be changed in a year or so, but there’s still worthwhile content.  If given the chance and the support, we intend doing a job of elevating the stature of the written word in Missouri.  So if you are so inclined, please send your tax deductible donations to:

Missouri Center for the Book
600 West Main,
P.O. Box 2075
Jefferson City, MO 65102-2075,

or call 573-751-1821

MCB is a 501c3 nonprofit organization (which receives no money from state or federal sources).

As I said, I am unapologetically, unabashedly, unashamedly asking for money.  We want to pay our poets laureate a reasonable honorarium and we want to fund programs that will do for books what PBS does for documentary film or NPR does for radio broadcasting.  Granted, on a more modest scale, but still.

The governor has decided to announce this before Christmas.  Seems like a good time to give a present to the state and to make a stab at doing better for one of the things we all love and need so much—good books.

Thank you for your time and attention.