Concerning the Petition to the Poetry Foundation

Thursday, June 11, 2020

I heard about a petition concerning the Poetry Foundation’s incredibly tepid response to George Floyd’s murder from a tweet by Ron Silliman. Three days after the petition began circulating, it actually seems to have had an initial impact. I can only say that I’m flabbergasted. Since when does a list of names in and of itself impel some organization to address legitimate grievances?

The NY Times reports that the resignations demanded by the petition’s organizers have actually taken place. However, perhaps the resignation are just a case of offering some token appeasement. The demands that would have the most consequence go much further than the window dressing of administrative figures. To attain those goals, it’s quite possible that only a massive presence at the building housing the Poetry Foundation will generate the other demanded expenditures.

If you haven’t signed the petition, please consider doing so, for it will take much more support from the communities of poets across the country to make the Foundation respond to the other demands, which don’t use the word “reparations,” but that is indeed what is at stake.

Onward!

THE PETITION CAN BE FOUND AT THIS LINK:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf4u5Ns8Blz0gutuanOHF6I026Xi0dE9lT36HQtg5pDKeT5uQ/viewform

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf4u5Ns8Blz0gutuanOHF6I026Xi0dE9lT36HQtg5pDKeT5uQ/viewform

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf4u5Ns8Blz0gutuanOHF6I026Xi0dE9lT36HQtg5pDKeT5uQ/viewform

Letter to the Poetry Foundation from Fellows + Programmatic Partners
06.06.2020

To the Members of the Board and Staff of the Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine:

We write to you, as poets who have had associations with the Poetry Foundation as awardees, fellows, contributors, or collaborators, at a time when the centuries-long crisis of American profiteering at the expense of Black life is again made acutely visible. On June 3, 2020, the Poetry Foundation released a vague statement that you “stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.” This non-substantive, four-sentence statement—which contained no details, action plans, or concrete commitments—was the Foundation’s sole response to the ongoing state-sanctioned murders of Black people by police and the current wave of violent state repression of those protesting these killings. For years, your constituents have been calling on the Foundation to redistribute more of its enormous resources to marginalized artists, to make concrete commitments to and change-making efforts in your local community and beyond. We find this statement to be worse than the bare minimum.

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.

This is not the first time that the leadership of the Poetry Foundation has revealed itself to be woefully unfit to respond to the crises of our times. Though we can’t detail everything within the space of this letter, we refer you to the numerous critiques made in regards to the Foundation’s failures to support—or even appropriately acknowledge disparities as they relate to—Black and Indigenous poets, Latinx poets, trans and queer poets, disabled poets, poets of color writ large, and artists struggling economically. As it is clear that the Foundation’s leadership is unable to show up responsibly to the demands of this moment, we call for the immediate resignation of both President Henry Bienen and Board of Trustees Chair Willard Bunn, III.

In addition, we have the following demands.

1. The President must be replaced by someone with a demonstrated commitment to both the world of poetry and the project of creating a world that is just and affirming for people of color, disabled people, trans people, queer people, and immigrants.

2. The Board of the Poetry Foundation must write a meaningful statement that details the specific, material ways it plans to “work to eradicate institutional racism.” What are the tangible actions the Foundation will take towards supporting racial justice initiatives?

3. In addition to providing a meaningful, well-researched acknowledgment of the debt that the Foundation owes to Black poets, this statement must also include a specific acknowledgment of the harm done in recent years to Latinx poets, trans poets, disabled poets, and queer poets.

4. Ultimately, we dream of a world in which the massive wealth hoarding that underlies the Foundation’s work would be replaced by the redistribution of every cent to those whose labor amassed those funds. As we work toward that world, we thus demand a significantly greater allocation of financial resources toward work which is explicitly anti-racist in nature and, specifically, fighting to protect and enrich Black lives, in and outside of Chicago. As a group unified by urgency but diverse in our visions, we imagine a range of ways that such reallocation of funds might manifest–from much more robust local programming, to large contributions to organizations such as Assata’s Daughters, Brave Space Alliance, and Project South, to more and deeper partnerships with spaces that support artists from marginalized communities. However it looks, we demand that the redistribution of wealth toward efforts fostering social justice be significant and long-lasting.

5. As an extension on the above point, currently, the Foundation programming which engages most meaningfully with Black people and other historically marginalized populations is largely coordinated by the department of Community and Foundation Relations. This department is overtaxed and managed by a staff of two women of color. We demand a significantly greater allocation of staff and financial resources in this area. More broadly, we demand that the staff of the Foundation more adequately reflect the demographics of the city of Chicago. We believe that as long as the Foundation’s staff and leadership remain overwhelmingly White, it fundamentally limits the Foundation’s ability to ever be an organization rooted in anti-racist practice.

Until these demands are met, we will not be submitting any work to the magazine, nor will we participate in any future partnerships with the Foundation. We are invested stewards in the future of poetry, and so the onus is on us to push those with institutional capital to use it for good. We call on those poets who feel comfortable doing so to stand with us in this pledge. We acknowledge that material privileges make it such that individuals vary in their ability to make a pledge like this, and we extend love and solidarity to those poets for whom agreeing to this would create a situation of material precarity.

We recognize, for instance, that Poetry is one of the few reasonably-paying poetry journals. Ultimately, we dream of a world in which there are more sustainable ways for poets to support themselves that do not require them to engage with institutions that may not share their values. Indeed, for many of us this is a moment to reflect on the ways in which, while the awards or opportunities conferred by the Foundation may offer material benefits, they also involve forms of extraction, harm, exploitation, or even trauma. For instance, what does it mean for the Foundation to publish one’s work, to partner on various programs, or to see the Foundation use one’s likeness on promotional materials, but to feel unwelcome or unsafe in the Poetry Foundation building?

Some of us have formed long-standing relationships with members of your staff, and we are grateful for those in your midst who have served as powerful supporters and allies while they themselves have had to contend from within with the Foundation’s harms. At the same time, we are in agreement with Justin Phillip Reed, who wrote in his June 3, 2020 letter to you: “Poetry Magazine continues to be legitimized by the divergent experiments, experiences, and dissenting voices of people whose lives are made precarious by the very acts and exploits that have aggrandized the inherited positions of these trustees.” We can no longer participate in this legitimizing project.

We request an official, public response by no later than one week following receipt of this letter.

Signed,

Kaveh Akbar, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2016, Ours Poetica Consultant

Fatimah Asghar, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2017

Sumita Chakraborty, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2017

Jos Charles, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2016

Cortney Lamar Charleston, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2017

Franny Choi, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2019; VS Podcast Co-Host

Safia Elhillo, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2018

Eve L. Ewing, Poetry Incubator & Chicago Poetry Block Party co-founder

Roy G. Guzmán, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2017

Jane Huffman, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2019

Daniel Kisslinger, VS Podcast Producer

Paige Lewis, Ours Poetica Curator

Nate Marshall, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2015; Poetry Incubator & Chicago Poetry Block Party co-founder

Angel Nafis, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2016

Hieu Minh Nguyen, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2018

José Olivarez, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2019

Alison C. Rollins, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2016

Erika L. Sánchez, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2015

Sam Sax, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2018

Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2018

Danniel Schoonebeek, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2016

Safiya Sinclair, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2015

Danez Smith, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2014, VS Podcast Co-Host

Paul Tran, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2018

Ocean Vuong, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2014

Michael Wasson, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2019

Jamila Woods, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2015

Wendy Xu, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2014

Emily Jungmin Yoon, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2017

Javier Zamora, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, 2016