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October 22nd, 2013 / 6:30 pm
Behind the Scenes & Events & Random

Erin Lyndal Martin’s Response to the Anonymous Letter Addressed to Sandra Simonds in Response to Her Open Letter to The Poetry Foundation

Dear Buzz Poet,

This is an open letter in response to your letter addressing Sandra Simonds’ open letter to the Poetry Foundation.

One basic fact missing from your letter is that you seem to forget that poetry is work: “The difference between poets and the general public is that some of us, like you, Sandra, are fortunate enough to have an audience and a platform to reach them. In today’s rocky economic climate, one governed by debt and political deficit, I do not think it is in the best interest of your audience or the poetry community to model such irresponsible behavior in asking for a financial handout from the Poetry Foundation to support the poets you hold in such romanticized esteem.”  Simonds has an audience and platform, mostly from within the literary community, because she has worked hard to build those connections through her work and social networking. Much of the work associated with poetry is thankless and unpaid; Simonds’ audience includes many of her peers who face her same financial reality. They may put in hours editing literary magazines that don’t make a profit, or they may write countless unpaid book reviews in an attempt to garner support and audiences for other poets.   They publicize and promote poetry.  Is it, indeed, a “handout” when one is asking to receive support from a foundation for forwarding the same work as that foundation?  The Poetry Foundation’s website says that they are “committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.” Is Simonds, who writes, teaches, and reviews contemporary poetry not furthering the same agenda?

One question that lingers for many poets who founder without the support of the Poetry Foundation or similar arts organizations is what those organizations do with their money if not support poets.  In President John Barr’s 2011 Year-in-Review letter posted on the foundation’s website (no similar letter for 2012 seems to be available), Barr is directly evasive: “Not all of the ‘hard metal’ that nurtures and contains the poetic energy at the Foundation is visible to the naked eye. The strategic plan, the annual forty-page operating budget, managing the endowment.” So why not make it visible to the naked eye? Why not publish the budget or the strategic plan? And why is the latest Audited Financial Statement from the foundation posted on their website from 2010?  No one is arguing that it costs money to run a major organization—or that the Poetry Foundation needed a new, permanent headquarters—but did it have to cost $10.2 million to build said headquarters?  In short, if the foundation is getting money to further poetry, why not make their use of funds more transparent?  Why not step forward and justify the design and construction of such an expensive building?

In an interview with Barn Owl Review, Simonds, discussing one of her poems, says,” “It cost me $523 dollars to write this poem[…]The $523 is the amount that I spent on the supplemental daycare for the week.”  $10.2 million would cover a lot of daycare.  For Simonds, a working  mother, it is doubtful that even with daycare she was able to spend that week writing the kind of progressive verse the Poetry Foundation claims to forward via financial awards.  How are those poets who are not already financially privileged expected to gain the education, social contacts (the platform that Buzz Poet seems to assume Simonds magically manifested), etc. that poets need in order to gain enough recognition to even be on the Poetry Foundation’s radar?

Buzz Poet states that Ms. Simonds was “lazy” and misdirected in airing her grievances to the Poetry Foundation instead of her State Representative. Given her initiative to write the letter and receive flak like yours, it’s hard to see how “lazy” can be a fitting adjective (plus, please let us not forget that we are talking about a working mother who is also trying to make a career as a writer here). Moreover, you lament your own lack of healthcare but are writing open letters to poets instead of lobbying your own State Representative, a charge you levy against Simonds.

But I wanted to speak to the claim that Simonds was misdirected in asking the Poetry Foundation for support.  People in many professions have organizations that are there to look after their quality of life.  My mother, a veteran schoolteacher, knows that she can count on at least being heard by her local chapter of the NEA when professional concerns arise. No, they don’t pay her salary, but they make it easier to do her job.  Unionized workers have union reps who can be consulted.  Poets have…other poets on Facebook?  When Sam Hamill launched poetsagainstthewar.org in 2003 after Laura Bush canceled a poetry symposium, the Poetry Foundation came neither to the aid of Hamill nor the cause of free speech in poetry. Even after Hamill collected over 20,000 poems in his anthology, his work went unrecognized by the Poetry Foundation, who seems plenty able to find the time and money this year to display a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress at a forthcoming November event.  Is this disparity because President Barr (who wrote about the necessity of moving American poetry forward–not backward to Dickinson’s time– in “American Poetry in the New Century,” available on the foundation’s website) believes, as he states in that same essay, that “the responsibilities of the public to poetry are nil” and the responsibilities are “all on the part of the American poets?” To return to the schoolteacher comparison, is it a high school teacher’s fault if a scant few teenagers show up on their own to a math class (especially if it were as elusive to attend math class as it is to get involved in a poetry community)?

Essentially, you seem to have misunderstood Simonds’ main point.  You write, “You say in your open letter that ‘it is heartbreaking when poets you have admired for years are forced to ask for help with basic necessities,’ and I wonder how this is any more heartbreaking than the millions of other Americans struggling financially to make ends meet. How do the struggles of everyday Americans differ, and to what degree, from those problems faced by the poetry community?” Simonds is not asking for special treatment, nor is she claiming that poets deserve it above everyday Americans.  She is simply asking that the Poetry Foundation live up to its purported mission of supporting poets and poetry.

To Success, Health, and Support for All,

Erin Lyndal Martin

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