On Poetry, Prestige, and Power
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Thoughts in the Wake of Uprisings and the Poetry Foundation Controversy
In a revolutionary time, the role of the poet can be exposed in difficult ways. When direct action is in full swing, the indirect, mediated work of language on a page feels almost irrelevant. And commentary on the institutions that surround this work seems even more so. And so I begin here by acknowledging that all I have to say below is rightly eclipsed by the vastly more important fight for Black lives and for the abolition of police and prison; and by the continued calls for justice for Breonna Taylor, James Scurlock, Robert Fuller, Malcolm Harsch, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, and so many others. I have been in awe of the protests leading to the dismantling of the Minneapolis Police Department; to the emergence of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone; and to continued calls for justice and revolution across the world.
If anything, in what follows, I hope to carry some of this revolutionary momentum into the insular world of poetry and its institutions. And I have been encouraged to see that, in recent days, others have already begun this process. For poets, the most significant upheaval has occurred within the Poetry Foundation. In the wake of what was effectively a "poet's strike” led by the Ruth Lilly Fellows, president Henry Bienen has been pushed out, the board is promising to audit their financial structure, and they have pledged more funds toward supporting Black poets, artists in need, and social justice. Further, in the publishing world more broadly, change is signaled by open discussions online revealing enormous disparities in pay, leading to questions and demands that may acquire greater momentum. The National Books Critics Circle has nearly collapsed. And on a near-daily basis, it seems that new abuses and inequalities are brought to light in writing communities. So I think it is absolutely time for poets and writers to drastically rethink our institutions and practices, and to refocus our energies in light of this historical moment, applying pressure and realizing that—although many of us are barely scraping by—our work does have an economic function that can be leveraged for change.
However, many poets may first need to reconceive how they relate to these institutions and the prestige they confer. Also, it will require some to break free of the consoling illusions of liberal politics. For it is all too common for poets, both inside and outside the literary-academic system, to have a blind-spot about their own virtue and autonomy—one which is reinforced by the liberal humanism that is more or less the norm in creative writing programs. In fact, it was even stated quite recently that poets are not often on the side of power. And I suppose to some this may seem sensible enough. After all, poets are generally sensitive people who simply love language, and they often come across as underdogs in a world that doesn’t much want to connect with their work. However, under such illusions, and especially when aligned with institutions, poets develop serious blind-spots that can help perpetuate real harm. So we badly need to reconceive of how poets relate to power, and we need to be rigorous in critiquing and working to transform or even abolish the institutions that we so often turn to for support. And while anti-racism and anti-sexism are absolutely at the heart of all this, so too is anti-capitalism. We can’t afford to be confused about our economic function any longer. We need to educate and organize ourselves, and this will begin by working in active repudiation of the lures of institutional prestige.
As stated, these and many other concerns have been roiling in the wake of Poetry Foundation’s seeming implosion. The Ruth Lilly Fellows' letter and the discourse surrounding it seem to be a step forward, finally centering something that so many of us have been grumbling about in the margins. And I’ll admit I was amazed to see some of the candor that emerged around this, and I hope good material changes begin to occur in how the foundation accounts for and distributes its money. However, I was frustrated that some of the reflections and observations made by poets associated with the letter still preserve in tact certain politically compromised elements of the literary-academic system—a system of prestige and professionalization for which PoFo was more or less the figurehead. While there was considerable discussion about the fairness of judging contests and selecting prize winners ethically, I saw next to no one saying, “Maybe we should quit doing prizes altogether.” To my mind, the very practice of creating “winners” and paying them large sums of money is a major part of the problem. It teaches poets that their work is dependent on garnering prestige from authorities, and these authorities, more often than not, belong to institutions and sources of centralized wealth that are simply incapable of delivering the change we want to see.
So can we envision a poetry world that simply does not focus on prizes and the prestige granted by institutions? After all, it was the supposed benefit and value (cultural, artistic, and financial) of such prestige that allowed so many to rationalize and even defend the hypocritical and exploitative system the foundation represented. To my mind, institutional prestige is inherently compromising because it entangles art with an entire apparatus of authority, power, and capital—all of which create environments prone to abuse, if not outright founded on it. Further, systems of power that elevate some at others’ expense are unethical in most cases, but they are especially so when dealing with something as contentious and subjective as poetry. Ultimately, prestige and the illusion of meritocracy create a class system within the world of poets, and the prestigious class comes to identify with or at least excuse those granting prestige. Thus, blind-spots are created. Careers are made and unmade. Abuses occur, again and again, and people are led into excusing and rationalizing it because, well, they want their share (not a pun on Don).
Put bluntly, prestige effectively turns poets into advertisements: for an aesthetic meritocracy, for the lure of “success,” for the specific institution giving the prize, for the literary-academic system itself, etc. And seeing the allure of these ads, more young poets are compelled to invest in the system by submitting to contests, applying to schools, taking out loans, paying tuition, etc. As I’ve noted in another essay, poets play an economic role in this system that is almost wholly incidental to the production of poetry, and much of this turns on the production of debt. And poets’ failure to confront this economic role allows them to offer a useful shield for the ruling class. This gets compounded when poets buy into lies that they are inherently radical and revolutionary, or inherently against the status quo. In fact, this often leads poets to (sometimes unconsciously) become unwitting propagandists, perform state functions, and administer cultural diplomacy (see Juliana Spahr’s Du Bois’s Telegram for an excellent account of this through recent history.). And so we have to understand that the university, the publishing industry, and the prize-giving organizations and foundations work to effectively launder capital and power through poets’ psyches, thereby neutralizing the more radical possibilities of our art and its culture. And if we want to avoid repeating this scenario forever, we need to radically confront our attitude toward prestige and recognize its role in the nexus of patriarchy, racism, and capitalism.
So what do we do to actually transform the way we create, publish, and promote one another’s poetry? How do we really change the culture and practices and not just reshuffle the deck? How bring an end to institutionalized hierarchy and power differentials that so often lead to abuse? From my perspective, as a poet who is against capitalism, racism, and fascism—an aspiring traitor to my class and race—I hope to promote a genuine socialist practice for poetry on a material level. And toward that end I suggest the following:
No more contests, prizes, and awards.
Replace merit-based fellowships with need-based funding.
No more required degrees.
Total transparency in how money is handled by foundations, non-profits, presses, journals, etc.
No more best-of lists.
Destigmatization of self-publishing.
The robust pursuit of presses, journals, and collectives that work co-operatively and try to build economies of solidarity.
Accountability to community and networking with mutual aid groups to lead the work of poetic production into more conscious and direct engagement with non-literary political activity.
Whether these changes were adopted by all (unlikely) or by a determined few in opposition, a central aim would be to stop creating "poet-celebrities." As the primary promotional figures of the system, these prestigious poets are an essential element in the institutionalization of poetry. Sure, certain poets will always distinguish themselves, and this is perhaps inevitable; but to link this distinction to a system of payment, professionalization, institutional power is something we should work to dismantle.
Of course, to suggest doing away with contests and prizes may seem to suggest the impoverishment of poets and the forsaking of opportunities by those for whom such opportunities would be life changing. But I want no such thing. This is not about blaming those who have fellowships, funding, prize money, etc.; and this is not about shunning those who, for personal financial reasons, feel they need to apply for such funding in the future. Rather, this is about working together to change the culture and its distribution of resources so that a person is no longer forced into having to choose between their political convictions—or the forming of political convictions at all—and their need to pay the bills as a writer. This is about forming economies of solidarity among poets and other writers, as well as other non-literary groups, so that we can perhaps establish a legitimate, anti-racist, class-conscious cultural front. But to get there, we have to give up on the desire for prestige that has been engrained in so many of us from the first time a teacher gave us an A+ or a poet we admired said our work was good.
Additionally, in the bullet list above, I mentioned the need for poets and writers to align with non-literary groups. Of course, this is not a new idea, and there are others who can surely speak to its presence and persistence in communities today more effectively than I. Additionally, we can look to the examples of John Reed Clubs, the Black Arts Movement, June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, Sonia Sanchez's workshops, and Mark Nowak’s work as detailed in Social Poetics, and many others. However, my own conviction that community engagement is essential comes largely from having seen the flaws of its absence—an absence that was, quite often, replaced with an individualistic drive for prestige. For in graduate programs (where much prestige is cultivated and manufactured), poetry mostly exists for itself and for the university, which is perhaps the dominant site for poetic production. But what I am interested in now is reconceiving the relation between poets and the non-literary, non-academic communities to foster a vital collaboration. After all, it does absolutely nobody any good for poets to simply look out for themselves alone—not even the poets. And I can assure you, from experience, that poetry can badly isolate one, especially when their education and career pursuit sends them all over the country, never being able to maintain a social group or put down roots in a physical place. But if poets expanded their engagement in the ways I’m suggesting, and in the ways that others already are doing, they would not only raise their own and others’ consciousness, but also be of real use while also expanding the economy of solidarity that they need to sustain their art.
Ultimately, we need to disabuse ourselves of the illusion that “just being poets” is enough or that the aim of poetry should have anything whatsoever to do with institutionally conferred prestige. We need to stop looking to prizes and “wins” as the only marker of “success.” In fact, we need to stop looking for “success” at all—at least not the kind that works on a CV. We need to educate ourselves about the economic context for our work, and to strive toward mutual aid and economies of solidarity—effectively, building socialism for poets. And what’s more, that socialism will intersect with and become useful to other socialistic and liberatory political activity, and this can become a united front capable of effecting change to our cultural institutions as well as our material circumstances—for poets and non-poets alike. And so this is a call to organize poets of a like mind and to convert those who are not. This is a call for socialization of the means of poetic production and toward greater autonomy for the arts. This is a call to sever ties, revolutionize, or abolish institutions whose wealth has been extracted through exploitative practices and upheld within our institutions. And this is an argument for the need to identify our common enemy: capitalism, intersected as it is, inextricably, with racial and gendered violence.
And so I end by asking that you begin thinking of yourself as an organizer among the poets. Spread the word. Propagandize and educate and critique. Take these ideas and build on them. And use all of it so we can move forward with our art and organizations, and away from the hierarchies which compromise the world-building potential of poetry.
And don’t forget: Poets can strike. Pass it on.
 It must be said that, although the Lilly fellows led this effort, poets have been agitating and critiquing the PoFo for several years, often at great personal cost. In particular, poets Jamie Berrout, Isobel Bess, Jay Dodd, and Kamden Hilliard have been cited for having sounded the alarm years ago when poets were still almost uniformly supporting PoFo.  I want to distinguish here between the recognition of excellence—which seems inevitably bound to the appreciation of art—and the type of recognition which institutions grant, which I am calling “prestige.” What I want is for such recognition to be separated from institutions, entangled as they are with capital and hierarchical power. Still, the larger question of how such recognition should function is a difficult one, and I do not have room for it here. I'll return to it in another essay.  It must be acknowledged that, as a white, cis-het, male poet, I experience these problems, and especially the conscription of my art by power, quite differently than poets who are BIPOC and LGBTQ+ (and esp. those for whom these categories intersect). And I acknowledge that the Poetry Foundation controversy was experienced very differently—more painfully and more personally— for those who are not white. And if my thoughts carry less weight on this matter because of my whiteness, I understand. Poets who look like me have monopolized power for far too long and continue to act as agents of conscription of others (as has been shown in this very PoFo controversy). And as we all know, poets who look like me have frequently made poetry very shitty along the way from inside our “all white rooms,” and in my youthful MFA days, my role in this was often naïve and unquestioned. But I have long been trying to educate myself and see into my blind-spots, and I can only hope people will see that I am writing here in good faith and trying to offer support to others who are already doing this work.  Admittedly, “community” is a term that can easily slip into vagueness. We all participate in a variety of different social formations, and which ones we deem a “community” is not always clear. And not all communities are inherently good. But I insist on it for now as a contrast with “institution” in asserting that we should ground our communities outside of institutions. No one needs expensive credentials to belong to a non-institutional community.