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Last week, an “open letter” from Fred Viebahn, Rita Dove’s husband and ballroom dance partner, arrived in my email box with this startling subject line: “Poetry Society of America: insensitive, clueless, or just plain racist?”
Twelve years ago, I’d seen another open letter from Fred, this one calling attention to the the fact that not a single poet of color was included among the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. The 1998 letter sparked the resignation of Carolyn Kizer and Maxine Kumin from the Board of Chancellors, and was followed soon after by the Academy’s restructuring the Board with a larger number of Chancellors.
I read Fred’s letter with interest, thinking about race, politics, power, and what has changed and hasn’t changed in the poetry world over the last dozen years. I had just come from some extended discussions about diversity at the MFA program I direct and was freshly aware of the importance of open discussion of differences and our response to them, newly reminded that a safe place is not a place where risks are not taken, but a place where honest and respectful risk-taking is safe, is treated with respect.
Because I think of the Poetry Foundation as a central forum for issues affecting poetry in the United States, a safe space where the “great audiences” Harriet herself dreamed of can be cultivated through vigorous and honest discussion, I invited Fred to come to my Harriet space as a sort of “guest blogger,” to hold a discussion of his open letter with the poetry world at large. I am turning over this blog post to Fred, first to post his open letter in its full context, and then to facilitate discussion about it.
Open Letter from Fred Viebahn:
Last week, while doing research for an article on the latest developments in the U.S. poetry scene (to be published in the German literary print magazine “Matrix” as well as on the immensely popular German political website www.achgut.de — I’m a regular contributor to both), I took a closer look at the Poetry Society of America’s website. Front and center was a two-part photo gallery entitled “When They Were Very Young”, featuring childhood portraits of about 30 American poets; the exhibit had been up on the website for over a month. What struck me immediately was the total lack of African-American poets — not a single one was depicted, nor was there any explanation for this omission, nor any assurance that African-American poets would be added in the future. If one were to extrapolate from the evidence presented in the PSA photo array, one might surmise that either there were no African-American poets worthy of inclusion or that African-American poets had no childhood pictures (and possibly no childhoods worth speaking of). One thing was crystal clear, however: In the PSA online vision of contemporary American poetry, African-American poets were simply invisible.
I was incensed and took immediate action by writing the following open letter to the PSA’s executive director Alice Quinn with the subject line: “Poetry Society of America: insensitive, clueless, or just plain racist?”
In researching an article about American poetry for a German publication, I just happened upon the Poetry Society of America’s online exhibit “When they were very young”, of which the Society has now published two parts showcasing childhood photos of American poets. What struck me immediately is the total lack of African-American poets among the 28 depicted! I’m not only incensed by such stunning insensitivity but dumbfounded by the Society’s obtuseness. Wasn’t the PSA embroiled in a controversy just a couple of years ago, when the Frost medal was awarded to John Hollander, a poet whose most recent claim to infamy had been a number of arrogant racist remarks? Have you learned nothing from that tawdry little episode (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/27/books/27poet.html)?
But here we go again. Watching this kind of ethnic brutishness crop up again and again over the more than thirty years I’ve been in the United States is disheartening, to say the least, especially when it involves people who pride themselves on their poetic perceptiveness. Please don’t add insult to injury by telling me there are several African-American poets on a future roster but that you haven’t gotten around to digging up their childhood photos yet. I’m sure it can’t be too difficult to find youthful pictures of prominent African American poets. For example, here’s an easy one: All you had to do is check my wife Rita Dove’s readily Google-able and accessible website, where you could have found a-plenty: http://people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/1952-1957/index.html & http://people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/1958-64/index.html. But maybe a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate doesn’t meet the standards of a Society that honors people like Mr. Hollander, who believes that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today”?
Gazing at the assembled photos in the Poetry Society’s exhibit “When they were very young”, I am baffled and profoundly saddened. What else but plain racist is this exclusionary spectacle? Intentional or inadvertent, the message is clear: We are most certainly not living in a post-racial America.
P.S.: I am taking the liberty of copying this e-mail to interested parties.
Alice Quinn responded the next morning, as follows:
I wish you would go to www.poetrysociety.org and on the home page beneath the photograph of James Wright, tap the link to Jill Krementz’s photo essay of the exhibit. I was thrilled at how easy it was to represent the glory of African American poetry in the 20th century and beyond in that show. That essay will give you a truer sense of the range and quality of the exhibit.
We had a beautiful oil painting of Langston Hughes, wonderful portraits of Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Robert Hayden, Countee Cullen, Alice Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucille Clifton (our Centennial Frost Medalist), Nikki Finney, Ai, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, and more, including a wonderful picture of Rita dancing in your studio. I love the work of Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and we had splendid pictures by her in the show.
We put that corner of the show, Portraits of Poets in Childhood, together rather hastily and close to the opening, and I asked poets nearby to contribute–among them, Elizabeth Alexander and Cornelius Eady, and after the show was up, a number of poets who came to it, including Patricia Spear Jones, but they didn’t get to it. Cornelius suggested I track down a picture of him, but I was overwhelmed with the task of hanging the show in two days and didn’t have the time to get to the bookstore to do that. I know the representation in that
corner of the show is poor. We had a wonderful picture of Terrance Hayes, and I would love to have had more. We also hope that the show will travel to Boston in the fall, and that will give me time to reach out to more poets for portraits of themselves in childhood. I’d love that. The exhibit was a great joy for us, a splendid launch for our Centennial year, and it would be great, I agree, to have every inch of it be as wonderfully representative as most of it was.
I would appreciate your circulating my letter to those who received yours. Please do look at our site and view Jill’s photo essay. Our readers on opening night were Richard Howard, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, Galway Kinnell, and Sapphire, and Jill took great pictures of them all that evening.
With warmest wishes to you and Rita,
Over the next couple of days — during which I was travelling — I received an avalanche of e-mails from friends and acquaintances, but also from numerous people who had been copied on my letter by others. Several respondents pointed me to Facebook entries where the discussion had taken on a life of its own. Except for one or two detractors, the response was overwhelmingly supportive. Upon my return home last Friday, I wrote the following to Alice Quinn:
Thank you for your response. It seems to me that you’re missing the point, however, since I was not referring to the Poetry Society of America exhibit and reading and its documentation by Jill Krementz (which, by the way, appears to be posted on a non-PSA site). I referred solely to those two showcases of poets’ childhood pictures which are prominently displayed on the PSA’s own website and show a total lack of African-American representation.
I had hoped you’d be able to rise above bunker mentality when your actions are challenged — that you would be capable of asking yourself a few hard questions and face the hard answers so you can learn from them, instead of complaining that you’ve been misunderstood and misrepresented. You and the Poetry Society might have the best intentions, and I’m sure there is neither institutional malice nor personal selfishness involved (in contrast to the Academy of American Poets scandal a dozen years ago); nevertheless, those two photo exhibits — and now your defensive response — demonstrate an ethnic insensitivity (if not blindness) that I will continue to attack wherever I notice it. I find it deeply troubling that one still has to be vigilant against such thoughtlessness.
I’m not the only one who is disappointed in your reaction, by the way. There’s been plenty of indignant headshaking going on in cyberspace over the past couple of days, and I’ve been deluged by an outpouring of supportive e-mails. [At this point I inserted a quote from a well-known white poet; since it was taken from a private letter and I wish to respect the poet's privacy, I will refrain from repeating it verbatim in this public forum. It summarized pretty much the opinions of a number of other correspondents, who were equally taken aback that Alice Quinn didn't seem to understand the real issue. These correspondents felt strongly that the only proper response would have been to admit to the snafu, apologize unequivocally, announce an immediate remedy and promise to be more mindful in the future.]
Over the weekend Alice Quinn posted an entry on the PSA site in which she basically admits her blunder and promises to fix it. As of today (Wednesday, February 17) however, the childhood picture exhibit remains unchanged.
What do you think? Was this just a harmless oversight, an exception, no big deal? Alice Quinn claims that she asked the one or the other black poet to contribute childhood pictures before these showcases went online; is that a valid excuse, or is it immaterial? If the poets she asked more or less haphazardly could not deliver, wouldn’t a responsible curator cultivate a bit of patience and persist in her pursuit instead of getting into hot water with a rush job, especially in the volatile area of racial sensitivities? Do good intentions count, especially when they are revealed only after a bad reality has been exposed? And last but not least, I’m curious to know if you agree with my going ahead in writing an “open” letter, or if you think I should have kept it a private nudge, trying to shame the PSA into quietly correcting the omission?