A Bensalem author and Bucks Community College alumna will be the next Bucks County Poet Laureate.
Laren McClung rose above 88 entrants in the contest’s 40th year. She was honored during a ceremony at Bucks’ Newtown campus last Sunday with a poetry reading and reception.
“I thought about it for many years,” McClung said of applying for the position. “My work has demanded a lot of me before, but right now, I feel at home and I have the time to do it.”
Originally from Philadelphia, McClung moved to Bucks County as a teenager. After earning a B.A. and M.A. from Arcadia University and an M.F.A. from New York University, she now teaches expository writing at NYU, commuting from her home in Bensalem.
“For most of my life I’ve identified as a Philadelphian, but I’ve come to realize how much Bucks County has become a part of my psyche,” she wrote in an email to the Times. “I’ve internalized the external landscapes — the wide open spaces here — and that space inside me is a place from which I work.”
She will follow Tyler Kline of Chalfont, who at age 22 was the youngest person to ever represent Bucks as poet laureate.
McClung sees the role as an opportunity to engage communities with her work.
“My work embraces the idea of witness, that the poet bears witness,” she said. “Poetry addresses realities and it helps the larger world understand what is usually silent.”
That approach to poetry is part of the reason she was chosen. The primary judge, poet Amy Small-McKenney, and final judge, poet J.C. Todd, had high praise for the 10 poems McClung submitted.
“These astonishing poems enact a kind of re-incarnation, retrieving histories of the natural and the built world, of ancient ritual and of language so they come alive again to mingle in the present world, palpable in the continuous present that creates art,” Todd wrote of the work.
Runners-up were Jenny Isaacs of Doylestown, Steve Nolan of Newtown and Kyra Juliet Spence of Newtown, who were also invited to read at the reception, along with Kline.
In addition to her poetry work, McClung is editor of the forthcoming anthology Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees. She also wrote a book of poems called Between Here and Monkey Mountain (Sheep Meadow Press), largely inspired by conversations with her father, a Vietnam War veteran.
“I grew up with the complexities of understanding how war affects households,” she said of the work.
Her newer material, she said, is less narrative, the language more refined.
“It leaves the personal and goes into the world,” she added.
The role of the laureate is loosely defined by Bucks County Community College, which runs the program. The traditional role of a poet laureate is to compose poems for special events and occasions as well as promoting the medium as a form of communication.
McClung can take it wherever she wants to.
“Past laureates have come from all lines of work – postal worker, marketing consultant, copy editor, artist, television producer, actor, teacher, farm worker, prison counselor – and from all ages – from 22 to 75,” said Dr. Christopher Bursk, co-director of the poet laureate program. “Some have (been) published widely before being chosen laureate, some only rarely. What all have shared is a commitment to their craft and a delight at being able to serve Bucks County as its laureate.”
Below is a sample of McClung’s work:
In the dead of winter they keep coming back in the half-
light of the east window, Tyrian purples & deep pink
centers open like the mouths of forest animals,
their tendrils pushing away from the thick stegmata
swollen with its own internal spring. But spring
seems far now as branches shake in the wind on Bleecker.
You say the genetic blueprint must root back to the orient,
the Manchurian where Sika deer, gorals, & panda
feed, where the medicinal petals are harvested for Shi-Hu,
blessings for the kidney or liver, but I know the flowers grow
below the equator or above in the mystery of the arctic.
Perhaps, I sometimes think, it must be the atmospherics,
the blustery air that drifts through the apartment.
Yet in my dreams the monocots twist themselves
into a rapture beckoning & they are thirsty. You know
they say the Orchidaceae are punished ghosts
undeserving of the beauty wrongdoing becomes.
Even in this reincarnate they lure & reach,
& if you stand too close, know they will ravish you.