Whiteout at Poetry Society

Well, it’s a blizzard and a snowstorm all up and down the East Coast and into New York where the Gramercy Park area, and especially the building housing the Poetry Society of America, has been hit by a further kind of self-inflicted whiteout — vide the appended open email-letter from Fred Viebahn that came in overnight. Its criticism is totally justified, though I wish Viebahn had given other examples than just mentioning his wife, Rita Dove — because, from Amiri Baraka to Harryette Mullen, from Quincy Troupe to Jayne Cortez, from Tracy Morris to Nathaniel Mackey, the richness of current African American poetry is amazing and, as the French would say, incontournable, i.e. it not only cannot be avoided (snow-job comes to mind) but has to be acknowledged and celebrated.

From: Fred Viebahn
To: Alice Quinn
Sent: Tuesday, February 09, 2010 10:14 PM
Subject: Poetry Society of America: insensitive, clueless, or just plain racist?

To: Alice Quinn, executive director, Poetry Society of America

Dear Alice,

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. 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.

All best,
Fred Viebahn

P.S.: I am taking the liberty of copying this e-mail to interested parties.

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2 Responses

  1. Randall says:

    Thanks for posting this Pierre. And I agree about the wide rage of poets that should be represented…how can you leave out Mackey or Mullen???

  2. I don’t suppose there are any photos of little boy poets in drag?

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