Protest Shakes the Poetry Foundation

When a literary liberal such as myself finds some value in an opinion piece in National Review on a topic related to poetry and poets, it is clear that the times are out of joint.

It seems the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, and promoter of all things poetry (and quite wealthy thanks to a very generous gift from pharmaceutical philanthropist Ruth Lilly) issued a statement in support of “the Black community” after numerous protests around the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and police brutality in general. But this sympathetic statement by the Poetry Foundation was found to be insufficiently lengthy, most un-militant and lacking in actual activism according to more than 1,800 signers of an open letter to the Foundation; some of the signers are prominent poets of color with fellowships granted by the Foundation. Here is a small part of the poets’ letter addressing the statement in solidarity from the Foundation:

“As poets, we recognize a piece of writing that meets the urgency of its time with the appropriate fire when we see it–and this is not it. It is an insult to the lives and families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other victims of the racist institution of police and white supremacy. It is an insult to the lives of your neighbors who have been targeted, brutalized, terrorized, and detained by the Chicago Police Department in the past week, including many Black youth. Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence. We demand that the Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine do more and do better. This is one step in a much larger global fight against racism, anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy, but it is an important step because of the space the Poetry Foundation occupies within the poetry landscape.”

Let’s explicate one sentence: “Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.” Police brutality towards African-Americans and other people of color has been all too common, but to equate acts of violence by individual cops with “genocide” and to claim that the Foundation’s statement, however brief and mild, is a form of “violence” against African-Americans is poetic license gone too far. In standing against injustice, we all must use language carefully and fairly, lest we find ourselves speaking and acting unjustly. The right these poets assert “as poets” to be the ultimate critics of Poetry Foundation prose and to demand what they see as the proper politicization of a literary organization says a lot about the specialized, political industry that poetry has become in academia and on social media. The poets of the open letter are demanding that there be only one thing the Poetry Foundation should now be focused on (protest against racism) and only one way to do it (their way.)

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If you are unfamiliar with “the poetry landscape” and the Poetry Foundation, you may be wondering what the official mission of the Foundation is. Is the primary mission of the Poetry Foundation to combat racism and police brutality? No. Here is a bit from the Foundation’s “About Us” web page:

“The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.

The Poetry Foundation works to raise poetry to a more visible and influential position in our culture. The Foundation seeks to be a leader in shaping a receptive climate for poetry by developing new audiences, creating new avenues for delivery, and encouraging new kinds of poetry.”

The poets’ letter to the Poetry Foundation calls for the immediate resignation of the Foundation President and the Board of Trustees Chair because the poets feel that this literary organization has not done enough to decry racism and support poets of color, as if the Poetry Foundation is the NAACP. And, shockingly, the poets got their way, as President Henry Bienen and Board of Directors Chair Willard Bunn III were forced to resign. According to the Chicago Tribune, Bienen in a statement said,

“I have lost respect for the staff who did not defend themselves or the Foundation from attacks they knew to be false. It was their work not mine that they found they could not stand up for.”

To this distant observer, Bienen’s statement seems fair and on point. The “poetry landscape,” as the letter-writing poets put it, is a very diverse landscape that of course includes the poetry of protest in all its forms. But the ecology of poetry should not be reduced, whatever the immediate urgency, to one subject or group or political persuasion. If a group of poets in, say, Ukraine demanded more Foundation attention and money to be focused on effects of the Russian invasion and Ukrainian poetry in translation, how would the Poetry Foundation react?

On June 12 the Poetry Foundation, after booting its two highest leaders, issued another statement more in keeping with the demands of the poets of color, though it is addressed to “our community.” Here is most of what the staff of the Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine had to say:

To our community of contributors, subscribers, partners, and visitors which includes, but is not limited to, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Asian, trans, non-binary, and queer people, undocumented and other immigrants, people with disabilities, and those struggling financially: we apologize for our silence in the face of crisis amid the call to dismantle institutional racism.

We wish to express our deep gratitude and reverence to the authors of the community letter, to every person who signed in support, and to those who have spoken up in the past. Through our acceptance of institutional silence to questions and concerns raised, we have let you down.

We acknowledge that we are predominantly white, and occupy other privileged identities. We also acknowledge that working at the Poetry Foundation is an extraordinary responsibility. We believe it is our duty to better serve the poets who entrust us with their work, creative or otherwise, and serve audiences who find solace, joy, insight, catalysts for change, and more in poetry.  

So the Poetry Foundation staff felt the need to apologize not for being racist (they are not) but for “our silence in the face of the crisis,” as if it is the job of the Poetry Foundation to issue proclamations condemning all that is rotten in our nation. Of course, as we know, the Foundation did release a statement in solidarity with victims of police violence, however inadequate according to the fiery taste of the poets; this was clearly not silence on the Foundation’s part, nor was all the prior support by the Foundation for poetry written by various minorities and the minority poets themselves. It was good of the Foundation staff to acknowledge their whiteness and other privileges, though, as far as I know, none of the white, privileged staff offered to resign, perhaps admitting to themselves that neither their whiteness nor their privilege is their fault.

Finally, we learn that the Poetry Foundation will now implement some “Immediate Actions” in response to the poets’ letter, including donating $750,000 dollars “to organizations fighting for social justice, and working to advance racial equity in poetry and affiliated art.” Who can argue with any organization supporting social justice? Not I. And who can argue against racial equity in poetry and art? No one, really, though how racial equity is to be actually quantified by editors and publishers is difficult to say. But the purpose of the Poetry Foundation is to promote the art of poetry and to publish the best poetry available, not to be the mouthpiece of activist poets, however just the cause may be.

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