The staff and board of directors of the Poetry Foundation have published an open letter to Foundation membership in response to an ongoing controversy at the organization sparked by an open letter sent to the Foundation last week by a group of its fellows and programmatic partners. The letter from the Foundation follows the resignations, also last week, of Poetry Foundation president Henry Bienen and board of trustees chair Willard Bunn III, as was demanded by the original letter.
The initial letter condemned a June 3 statement issued by the Foundation, which said the Foundation stands in "solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism." In the letter, the Foundation's critics wrote that "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."
Among a number of other demands, the initial letter called for the replacement of the president with "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" and a "meaningful statement that details the specific, material ways it plans to 'work to eradicate institutional racism'" from the board of directors." The letter was signed by more than 1,800 individuals, although some poets have spoken out against the effort in an effort to criticize certain ways in which it was handled.
In its open letter responding to the initial letter, the Poetry Foundation staff apologized "for our silence in the face of crisis amid the call to dismantle institutional racism" and pledged "ongoing action in response to the call to dismantle white supremacy." Among actions pledged by the staff are the following:
- the donation of $250,000 to the Artist Relief fund to aid individual poets and writers and a further $750,000 to organizations fighting for social justice and working to advance racial equity in poetry and affiliated art, as approved by the Foundation's board of directors
- redirection of resources "to develop and implement ways for audiences who have primarily engaged with the Community and Foundation Relations Department programs to be welcomed into and find meaningful content across all editorial and program areas"
- "seeking to partner with an individual or team of Black historian(s) to research and document the debt that the Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine owes to Black poets in extensive detail"
- "researching important out-of-print books by Black poets and the archives of Black presses, in partnership with Black organizations, scholars, publishers, and writers"
- "reassessing our building policies and physical space, magazine editorial decisions, digital programs, and programmatic decisions across all departments of the Poetry Foundation"
- "calling on senior leadership and trustees to donate to local, grassroots organizations fighting for social justice"
- "publishing a list of resources of local action groups and funds, and amplifying social justice efforts by poets, on our website and social channels with input from the community."
In addition, the Foundation's board acknowledged, in the letter, that "we must do more to examine whether the Foundation is a welcoming place for staff and all of our constituents," and to provide "a conduit for Poetry Foundation staff and the poetry community to provide critical feedback." The board also committed to "begin an immediate process that reevaluates all aspects of the Foundation" and to "institutionalize equitable policies," an effort the board says will "start with an equity audit of all Foundation policies, practices, and structures." It added: "This audit will be comprehensive, transparent, and take time to reshape the structure and culture of the Foundation so as to create a broadly welcoming environment. A strategic planning process between the board and the staff will follow this audit."
The board has also formed an "Equity Oversight committee" to begin the process, and to "recommend to the board changes in practices and programming, and grantmaking that can be quickly implemented to better serve poets and audiences in a more equitable manner." In addition, the board pledges to "develop a broad and diverse applicant pool of candidates who share a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and building a culture of inclusion as well as the expansion and enhancement of poetry" when it begins its search for a new president and board chair.
The conversation surrounding the Foundation follows on the heels of a Change.org petition put up earlier this year, which asked the Poetry Foundation to dip into its deep pockets to spend $5 million in support of poets and independent publishers who are struggling economically because of the pandemic. That mission of that petition has since been changed to hold the Foundation "accountable to its community," a change made "in solidarity with this new open letter and petition from the Fellows and Programmatic Partners of the Poetry Foundation."
The Poetry Foundation was established in 2002 after a $200 million donation made by Ruth Lilly, an heir to a fortune built by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, to Poetry magazine. The Foundation's guidelines mandate that the organization never spend more than 5% annually of the total market value of the endowment in a given year.