Poets criticise poetry foundation’s statement on black lives matter

A man sleeps on a bench in front of Black Lives Matter protest signs near the White House in Washington, US, Jun 10, 2020. REUTERS
More than 1,800 people have signed on to an open letter criticising the Poetry Foundation’s response to the protests sweeping the United States, pledging not to work with the organisation until it meets demands that range from replacing its president and board chairman to redirecting funds to anti-racism efforts.

The Chicago-based foundation is one of the nation’s wealthiest literary organisations, with an endowment that exceeds $250 million. The letter, posted online over the weekend, was issued by 30 poets connected with the foundation, including Ocean Vuong, Eve Ewing and Danez Smith. It was prompted by a brief, four-sentence statement the foundation issued June 3, expressing “solidarity with the Black community” and declaring faith in “the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair.”

Almost immediately, the statement drew criticism and ridicule on social media. In the letter, the poets called it “worse than the bare minimum” and an insult to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African Americans whose deaths in encounters with police prompted the protests.

“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,” the letter said. “Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.”

The letter called for “an official, public response” within a week. On Saturday, the foundation issued a statement by its board chairman, Willard Bunn III, pledging to “honour that timing” and offer a detailed plan of action.

“It is clear that our organization has a lot of work to do,” Bunn, a former bank executive, said in the statement, which appeared on the foundation’s website below a link to a poem by Marcus Wicker called “Reparations Redefinition: Bond.”

“We must reflect as individuals, and as an institution, on how we can participate in and support the nationwide call for dismantling white supremacy,” Bunn said.

Since the protests began, there have been many statements of solidarity from predominantly white arts groups, along with petitions and pointed calls for change from artists of colour in various disciplines, like a recent online letter signed by more than 300 prominent theatre artists calling American theatre “a house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy.”

The letter to the Poetry Foundation stands out both because of its direct riposte and the extent of the demands, which range from the specific (diversification of the foundation’s staff, more support for poets from marginalised groups) to the sweeping.

“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 labour amassed those funds,” the letter declares.

The call for broad reparation also stands out because of the size of the foundation’s endowment, which is not mentioned directly in the letter but has long been a source of conflict.

In 2002, when Poetry Magazine received a headline-making gift of more than $100 million from Ruth Lilly, a great-granddaughter of the pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, it was a small but respected journal with a staff of four.

Today, the foundation has a staff of more than three dozen and annual expenditures of more than $4 million on prizes, fellowships and public programs like the Chicago Poetry Block Party. The block party, founded with Ewing and Nate Marshall (another poet who spearheaded the letter) in partnership with the foundation, is an annual event held in neighbourhoods well beyond the city’s wealthy enclaves. In separate Twitter posts, both Ewing and Marshall said they would no longer participate.

The letter is not the first time the foundation has come under fire in recent months for its spending priorities. In May, a small publishing house circulated a petition demanding that the foundation establish a $5 million emergency fund for poets and poetry groups affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

© 2020 New York Times News Service