Poet Laureate of Alabama

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The Poet Laureate of Alabama is the holder of an unpaid honorary commission to represent the State of Alabama through the composition, performance and promotion of poetry. The position, popularized in Great Britain in the 17th century, makes reference to the honors (laurels) granted to poets in classical Greece. Poets Laureate have in the past been called upon to mark important events with new poetic compositions. More recently those holding the position have been expected to make appearances to promote the form itself in visits to schools and libraries.

Samuel Peck, a Tuscaloosa poet who achieved notable success with an 1885 publication of Cap and Bells and whose father, Elisha had served as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court during Reconstruction, was recognized unofficially as the state's "Poet Laureate" in the early 1890s. In May 1893 Birmingham's Weekly Age-Herald reported that, "The life of Samuel Minturn Peck, Alabama's poet laureate, is being made miserable by autograph fiends, says the Tuskaloosa Times. He is in daily receipt of letters requesting his signature, many of them coming from distant countries beyond the seas. Much of his time is given up to such correspondence."

Some time after its founding in 1923 at the Alabama College in Montevallo, the Alabama Writers' Conclave began discussing the establishment of a Poet Laureate position. Founding member Mary Ward was a prominent proponent of the idea. The group voted at its 1930 meeting to honor Samuel Peck with the formal office, which he assumed on June 12 of that year. At the same time, the Conclave lobbied the Alabama State Legislature to add the state's imprimatur to their selection.

Under the terms of the law, sponsored in the Alabama State Senate by Richard Holmes Powell of Tuskegee, the members of the Conclave may elect a nominee at any annual meeting, after which the Governor of Alabama may issue a formal commission bearing the Great Seal of Alabama. The term of the commission was left indeterminate. Poets Laureate are entitled, by the law, to wear, "a small gold medal, simulating in design an open book, upon which may be inscribed the title of the office, the name of the incumbent and the date of the commission issued by the Governor, said medal to be provided by the Alabama Writers' Conclave from its own funds." The Conclave has since adopted its own requirement that nominees must have resided in the state for at least 15 years.

Act of Alabama No. 1931-92 was signed into law by Governor Benjamin Miller on March 5, 1931, and Peck's formal commission bore that date. He held the title until his death in 1938. The Conclave did not nominate a successor until 1954, when they chose Mary Ward. She held the position for four years and was succeeded by Elbert Henderson in 1959. Henderson held the title until his own death in 1975, at which time the Conclave chose William Elliot of Leeds as Poet Laureate.

In 1983 the group nominated Carl Morton, also a native of Leeds to take over the honor. The Conclave also voted that year to institute a four-year term, which could be renewed by renomination. Sue Walker served two consecutive terms from 2003 to 2012.

In practice, the group now known as the Alabama Writers' Cooperative, forms an independent nominating committee which issues a statewide call for nominations, which include information about the poet's background, works, and public involvement. The committee chooses their nominee for a vote of the full cooperative at their annual conference.

Poets Laureate


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