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Nassau's unofficial poet laureate says formal county post remains needlessly unfilled

Mario Susko of Mineola is Nassau County's unofficial

Mario Susko of Mineola is Nassau County's unofficial poet laureate, as deemed by the Nassau County Poet Laureate Society. The group formed after the 2007 controversy as a way to still recognize writers — and since has named four poets to two-year posts, including Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. in 2007, Gayl Teller in 2009 and Linda Opyr in 2011. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Mario Susko is Nassau's "undocumented" poet laureate.

The Mineola resident, author of 32 poetry collections, has the poet laureate title only from his peers, but is on an urgent campaign to get the county to finally name a person to its formal post -- something it has failed to do for nearly eight years.

"We know that, right now, we are the laughingstock of both Queens and Suffolk County," Susko lamented recently.

Hundreds of municipalities across the nation, including Suffolk and New York City, along with the U.S. government, have poets laureate. The artists-in-residence have few official responsibilities, other than promoting and encouraging poetry in their local communities.

Nassau's poet laureate is authorized by the county charter. But officials never filled the unpaid two-year post after their attempt in 2007 to name an inaugural appointee resulted in a political controversy.

Freeport poet Maxwell Corydon Wheat Jr. was to receive the designation, following his recommendation by a panel chosen by county lawmakers. But on the day of his expected approval, lawmakers expressed discomfort with Wheat's works protesting the Iraq War and voted down the nomination.

"I don't care what his politics are," the late Republican Peter Schmitt, then the legislative minority leader, said at the June 5, 2007, meeting. "But you don't condemn the men and women who answer this nation's call and put on the uniform."

Wheat, that day, said he was saddened by the 6-1 vote against him: "I was looking forward to it very much," he said.

Since, the legislature hasn't appointed anyone poet laureate, and the topic wasn't often discussed -- until Susko raised it at an October public hearing.

"Only in Nassau County would this become a major point of discrimination," said Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who supports restoring the official post. "This is a wonderful thing to let people understand there's a value to the English language. It's really a shame that we don't have it."

Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), who could call for a poet laureate appointment, said Friday that it was something she "was very interested in," but because of other matters, "is just not concentrating on right now."

In Suffolk, the two-year poet laureate post has been filled without controversy. The current holder of the title, Pramila Venkateswaran of Setauket, is a college professor whose work has been published widely.

Last May, a legislative committee approved Venkateswaran unanimously, after having her state her plans for mentoring middle and high school students in creative writing programs, and having her read a poem. One began: "I stand in my teal bathing suit in the pale dawn light skimming the still water of Walden Pond."

Susko, 73, an English professor at Nassau Community College, is the current poet laureate, at least, in the eyes of the Nassau County Poet Laureate Society. The group formed after the 2007 controversy as a way to still recognize writers -- and since has named four poets to two-year posts, including Wheat in 2007, Gayl Teller in 2009 and Linda Opyr in 2011.

"These are not people who have a couple of poems published in this or that magazine. They have books," said Susko, who has served as a Croatian translator for prominent American writers and spent years in Eastern Europe, including during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. "They could all represent the county quite well."

Paula Camacho, president of Nassau's poet laureate society, said a formal county acknowledgment would bring attention to her poets, who participate in community events and have established a small scholarship for high school students.

"My feeling is we have a poet laureate for the county, whether or not they're sanctioned by the legislature," Camacho said.

Susko, whose society poet laureate stint expires in June, said the official designation from Nassau is not something he seeks for personal reasons.

"What do I gain? A piece of paper?" he said. "We would not gain anything. The rest of the county would gain something."


Mother will sit at the table

in the cold white kitchen,

waiting for me to bring her

my book in which I write

how I dug up her bones

to take them back home.

She'll be there, reconstructed,

like the faces of the houses,

with me wondering which tree

in the park that will never sprout

twigs again was her coffin.

My hand will smell of dirt

and rotten leaves as I turn

the pages looking for some proof

which is not a painted-over truth.

Knowing where she truly is perhaps

I'd forget where I must be.

She'll say, I've never understood

any of your poems, and I'll see myself

closing the book gently in her lap,

pretending I have the wrong page,

the wrong house and the wrong city.

From: Life Revisited: New and Selected Poems by Mario Susko, 2006.

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