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Anonymous Response to Sandra Simonds’s Open Letter to The Poetry Foundation

To Sandra Simonds,

This is an open letter in response to your request that the Poetry Foundation make a strong financial commitment to aid poets facing financial crises and a lack of adequate healthcare.

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? As poets, we make a decision at some point or another to devote as much of our life to our craft as possible. In doing so, we must acknowledge that to identify as a poet (or artist in general) is a privilege in and of itself; one that comes at certain costs. Primarily, a life of potential financial hardship. But I ask you, Sandra, what American today does not face similar uncertainties facing their financial future?

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. Poets are people just like everyone else, Sandra. Suggesting that poets deserve compensation simply for the fact of being a poet is insulting, and furthers our reputation for being elitist and disconnected. As a community, I would hope that we had a little more gumption to solve our financial predicament rather than taking the easy route by asking the Poetry Foundation for a handout. I support poets by buying their books. Maybe we, as a community, can figure out how to get our art to a wider audience before we so hastily throw in the towel.

I find the ease with which you speak for the dead presumptuous. Ruth Lilly’s endowment may have come from pharmaceuticals, but let me remind you that she trusted the Poetry Foundation with her donation. I believe it is in the best taste to respect the wishes of the dead. And the Poetry Foundation does allocate funds to poets by way of prizes and fellowships—funds doled out and determined by the merit of work. While these prizes and fellowships are few and far between, I must apologize, Sandra, for informing you that it is a competitive marketplace, no matter what your profession. Life is unfair. Sorry.

Your approach here is lazy and misdirected. Your qualms with the current financial/healthcare system seem issues best directed to your State Representative, not the Poetry Foundation. I want to make it clear that I struggle. I do not have healthcare and I am barely able to keep up with rent, let alone feed myself and my family. I do not wish to deny any person, artist or otherwise, the opportunities to succeed financially and have access to adequate healthcare. I’m simply stating that the poetry community is not alone in our struggle for survival, and that I believe there are more creative ways to thrive other than depending on the support of the Poetry Foundation.

To Success and Health,

Buzz Poet

44 Comments

  1. Daniel Beauregard

      Would have been nice to see a name behind this post. Also, you spelled “doing” wrong and wrote “dong.”

  2. Elizabeth Clark Wessel

      Wow, way to miss the point. So it was a “choice” that these poets made that landed them in financial straights? Now they’re “asking for handouts”? And stupid little Sandra doesn’t know that “life is unfair”? What she’s doing is in bad taste? What a bunch of condescending neo-liberal b*llsh*t. Did Mitt Romney write this?

  3. M. Burford
  4. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I definitely hate the bootstraps rhetoric, but I think maybe there is a valid point to be made that individual grants to poets would not address the root case of issues… whether you think that’s the destruction of the social safety net in this country, our culture’s devaluation of arts and artists, or both… I have a hard time as a former grantmaker imagining my ever supporting a grantmaking initiative aimed at funding individuals vs. some more systemic response to poverty.

  5. rawbbie

      the author of the article is right on a few points:

      1. being a poet is a priveledge
      2. being a poet is a choice

      things get fuzzy and shitty after that.
      i would say, that if you think MORE institional support for poetry will make better poetry, i think yr full of shit.

  6. Elizabeth Clark Wessel

      I don’t see this as an either/or argument. I think institutions that are in a position to lead can and maybe even *should* be expected to lead. Edited to add, that there are other ways to address these problems besides grants (think SAG, etc).

  7. Quincy Rhoads

      Sounds rather ~ Republican ~ to me. I don’t blame the author for remaining anonymous, though. He’d be eaten alive at AWP.

  8. Quincy Rhoads

      I need y’all to know that i didn’t mean to upvote my own post. it’s my dang tiny screen on my cell phone

  9. Mark Cugini

      But the SAG is a labor union. The Poetry Foundation is an arts advocacy.

  10. Elizabeth Clark Wessel

      I’m not saying they should turn into SAG (bad example), more that they could contribute to something like a SAG for writers if such a thing existed or just Poets in Need as the original letter suggested. I’ve worked for a foundation whose main goal was giving grants to grassroots level organizations involved with a specific set of (women’s) issues, so it’s hardly novel. Why shouldn’t issues surrounding the health of poetry in the US not also include the health and well-being of poets? Ultimately, they can do whatever they want with the money, it’s their money, blah blah blah, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, and it doesn’t make you a selfish, whiny lady poet either (which seems to be the subtext of the original letter, and what I found so infuriating about it).

  11. Mark Cugini

      I do agree that the tone of this letter is…aggressive. But I’m with Tim in that this feels like a systematic issue and not an individual one. Sandra said that there were “a number” of poets who have asked for financial assistance on social media. But what about the ones who didn’t? Isn’t that number in the thousands? A donation (even a large one) to Poets in Need wouldn’t underwrite the cost of health insurance for the poets, which (I think) is what Sandra was arguing for.

      I don’t think Sandra is being selfish, whiny lady poet. I’m just confused as to the scope of what we’re asking for. I’d just like some clarification here.

  12. JosephYoung

      you can’t ask a poetry foundation to support poets? because, all that money is going to be spent on poetry, right? unless the foundation decides to give it to the children’s defense fund or something not-poetry. cugini seems to think the plan as it stands is debatable, and i trust (know) he knows more about than i do, but the premise that a poetry group shouldn’t help out poets because nonpoets are poor too seems kinda weird.

  13. Mark Cugini

      naw, i know nothing, which is my issue here. i am all for asking the Po’Fo to support poets in need. But I still don’t know what “in need” means.

  14. Mark Cugini

      oh, and let’s not get it twisted–Po’Fo ain’t Narrative Mag. Po’Fo already supports THE FUCK out of poets.

  15. Elizabeth Clark Wessel

      I thought her open letter was very specific:

      “Perhaps the Foundation would consider inaugurating a funding opportunity to enable established organizations such as Poets in Need to broaden and deepen the range of their assistance to poets. A substantial renewable Foundation grant to such organizations would show compassion and make a meaningful difference to those poets who might otherwise be without resources.”

  16. Elizabeth Clark Wessel

      From what I know, the criteria for “in need” are established by the organizations dealing directly with the problem (i.e. income, age, etc). In general though, in need means much more than just “can’t get health insurance.” It’s code for abject poverty in a lot of conversations about social justice.

  17. Donald Dunbar

      Well, the infuriatingly condescending tone makes me think anonymity was a good choice on the author’s part. I just wish he or she (but really, who could be simultaneously so self-righteous, so smug, and so simplistic but a mid-20’s dude?) had made the good choice not to publish this.

  18. Mark Cugini

      Oh, jeez. I must have somehow misread this while I was reading (on my walk to work). I can get behind this, probably.

      Good thing I got all worked up, though.

  19. Robert Cole

      Don’t scientists need grants to do their work? Oceanographers? People who want to study the mating habits of tree lizards? Why was the poetry foundation put together anyway if not to help writers and poets who need help? It’s so strange, this letter. It’s saying “Do not ask the poetry foundation to perform its function, it’s a selfish thing to do.” Unless you’re a professor of creative writing at Jim’s Big University, or a super successful writer, chances are you aren’t making money. It never was about the money anyway. It’s about working full time, writing and still struggling to get by. Nobody WANTS to accept a “hand out.” This anonymous letter is horse shit. The writer is out of touch, apparently unwilling to confront his/her own inability to pay bills and feed his/her family. I was given a grant by Poets in Need several months ago. I NEEDED that grant and, since they were offering it to writers, I applied. I was able to buy groceries, visit my doctor, keep my apartment and continue writing. If I was a birdwatcher with financial problems, and there was a grant to apply for, yea you’re damn right I’ll apply for it.

  20. Garett Strickland

      One is even more self-entitled when pointing to someone’s situation and making the claim that they’re privileged.

      I don’t know if being a poet/artist is a choice. It’s more like being anemic. My own situation, personally, is hindered by my ideals & principles, and I live in a state of constant destitution — but it’s better than the damnation that results from pulling against what one knows is right.

      I should be payed simply for being. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it. Whether that money comes from an institution or a lone benefactor doesn’t make a lick of difference.

  21. Garett Strickland

      Life is only “unfair” because of assholes like you insisting that it can’t be better.

      A competitive marketplace is what’s ruining not just the field of creative expression, but also the entire economy and the notion of economy. Look, for example, at how ruined your thinking has become.

  22. Owen Kaelin

      Considering the aggressively ad-hominum approach, it would’ve been only appropriate to sign this under his/her own name. Since they didn’t, this comes across as not just ideologically driven but cowardly.

  23. William VanDenBerg

      After reading this, the image of Dick Cheney bathed in the glow of a CRT monitor while typing the words “Buzz Poet,” popped into my head.

      But seriously, the repetition of the Sandra’s name is incredibly condescending. The author of this piece chose not to argue with her (and I agree with TJY, there’s a valid argument to be made), but rather made their point in dismissive, insulting tone. What I liked about Simonds’s letter is that it felt like the starting point to a conversation. The letter from Buzz Poet has none of that.

  24. Earl Stamper

      Does poetry do anything worth money? What service does it provide that is worth money in the way that other things are worth money in society?

      I’m also not sure what poetry is.

      Poetry, if there is such a thing, seems useless compared to other things that are given monetary worth. I’m not saying it shouldn’t make money, but it seems like money is an illusion that buys illusions, and if the role of an artist (if there is such a person/thing) , like Henry Miller says, is to “inoculate the world with the virus of his disillusionment”, then it makes sense that what supposed artists supposedly make/do is ‘undervalued’ or ‘under-supported’.

      Poetry, whatever it is, seems unstable, like life, so it makes sense that it doesn’t have much of a demand in the marketplace, because included in most products sold is the assumption/illusion of stability, permanent happiness/satisfaction.

  25. Quincy Rhoads

      All the more reason to support poets. Because no one else is.

  26. Cultural Arbitrage

      The question of whether social connections are going to direct financial assistance or merit seems pretty valid. Whether fund should go to particular poets or poetry in general? Reasonable.

  27. Jeremy Hopkins

      We all know the difference between humbly making a request and actually expecting a handout. I think Simonds’s letter is mostly the former. I think she was asking on behalf of others. I think the PF should act in accordance with its purpose the best way they can, whatever that is.

  28. Earl Stamper

      I had diarrhea this morning. It was like a half-diarrhea, not full-on diarrhea. Usually I can feel minor discomfort which foreshadows the diarrhea, but this was unexpected. After I had diarrhea I decided I was going to become a poet. People have been caring about me ever since.

  29. Quincy Rhoads
  30. Earl Stamper

      Fuck I just spilled bell pepper seeds all over my desk. They’re so spread out!

      That thing you linked is funny to me.

      Love you Quincey.

  31. rawbbie

      its totally a choice. next time you think about making an art or a poem, just do something else, like watch Star Trek, masturbate, or get some bros together and smoke a lot of cigarettes/drink beers/do drugs. then youll have decided not to be artist/poet and heres the crazy part: NO ONE WILL HAVE NOTICED.

  32. Owen Kaelin

      Well, if people want poetry, which they obviously do (considering all the poetry journals and the fact that people buy chapbooks and, very basically, the number of poets in the world), then I’d assume it has a purpose. Obviously it’s not useless. If one is a capitalist, then I’d assume one could calculate that need on monetary terms. Yes, poets don’t write with money as an essential goal, they write out of their own personal motivations. But people enjoy reading others’ poetry as well, and just because poets are not driven primarily by monetary reasons does not mean they should not earn monetary support for their efforts. As we say: the writer should get paid.

      If you want to get into existing marketplace values, then this is a different and much deeper & more complex issue, because the marketplace — let’s face it — is manipulated and formed by a great variety of forces. To outline just one problem: while the marketplace is not based solely on consumer demand but also on the desire of businesses (especially large ones) to push particular products, these pushes by businesses also manipulate the consumers and modify their desires. There are also, of course, a great deal of other factors that go into what drives demand for any particular product at any given time.

      So… what is the broad monetary value of poetry? I don’t know. But if poetry were Apple™, I suspect it’d sell better.

  33. Earl Stamper

      People obviously want haircuts considering all the haircut stores and the fact that people buy scissors, and, very basically, the number of hair cutters in the world. Hair cutting has a purpose. Obviously it’s not useless.

      I don’t know if something is useful/purposeful by virtue of it being desired.

      I mean, yeah, I wasn’t saying that poetry shouldn’t make money. I was just pointing out that it makes sense that it doesn’t really make all that much money. It’s utility seems limited to entertainment at best, or worst, or whatever.

      I mean I think if there’s work that’s true it can lead you to God or Truth or Beauty or [word about something in experience] or feeling your own feelings as human being. So that could be a purpose there. But that’s a pretty nebulous thing I think.

      If poetry were Apple . . . yeah, but, poetry can’t ever be Apple. It’s just too close to the happening of life to be commodified successfully.

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  35. deadgod

      Agree: many millions of Americans are struggling financially in the same way that many poets are. Those poets are a subset of the everyday Americans experiencing 30+ years of economics-denial transfer payments from the middle classes and working poor to the rich and superrich.

      Agree: poets decide to write poetry in the knowledge that there’s little $–and for few poets–in writing poems.

      Disagree: poets do not have an audience and a platform that the general public does not — unless nobody calling in to talk-radio or posting on twitter and Facebook is part of the general public.

      Disagree: today’s rocky economic climate is not only suitable for poets to argue that a “poetry” foundation support the physical lives of poets qua writing poems, but is the most suitable climate to agitate for such.

      Disagree: arguments by poets that a “poetry” foundation support poets qua writing poems insult nobody and have no relation to those or any poets being individually or collectively or communally disconnected from ‘America’.

      Hope: fuck yes, poets are elitists.

      Disagree: there’s nothing necessarily presumptuous about connecting the source of a donation with a just disbursement of it.

      Disagree: no wishes of the quick or the dead are automatically respectable.

      Disagree: allocation of prize and fellowship money is not reliably merit-based.

      Strongly disagree: Simonds’s goal is to keep poem writers alive and writing poems qua poem-writing itself. Shifting the conversation to meritocratic or market-based (??) debates is not rational. Arguing that poets are not worth supporting qua writing poems because poem-writing itself is not worth doing… well, okay: I’d listen to a defense of that position.

      Partly agree: healthcare-system criticisms are well-directed–sort of–to political figures, but arguing that “poetry” foundations support health care for poets qua poem-writing itself is not less well-directed.

      Posit: if one does not understand that Simonds is not recommending taking away from some general fund to ‘give’ health care only to poets, but is petitioning a “poetry” foundation to support poets’ health care, that person’s criticisms are likely lazy and misdirected.

  36. Cultural Arbitrage

      Poetry is the invalid of the arts family and in a way the excitement of the discussion seems to confirm it. This reeks of a familiar pattern, those of a dying industry trying to perpetuate something no longer confirmed by reality under the vagaries of culture or heritage.

      Maybe the financial desperation could inspire some work? As if a writer enjoys screenplays to pay the bills? Poets can write and throw as many stones as they want but why not take on economic martyrdom and embrace full on like the canaries in the coal mine their creative purpose: putting beauty into suffering.

      Injecting a welfare institution, usually created for the general good into an insular community? You people are not Native Americans but all those who cannot deal with the great compromise of artistic endeavor: freedom of thought and expression at the cost of a typical life: physical, social or economic.

      Of course I’ve not read enough and still use poetry as it is most apt; At one in the morning on a bar napkin where the last dactyl gets one laid.

  37. deadgod

      –a valid marshaling of dactyls! And the fact that craft can (help to) attain this goal is an intimation of why there is poetry at all in every case.

      The proposal to the Poetry Foundation is not for a subtraction from a general welfare institution, but rather, for an expansion of responsibilities of, as it were, a trade corporation. Were the Poetry Foundation to commit some tens of millions of dollars to a poet’s-insurance scheme of some kind, nobody anywhere else would be deprived of any medicine.

      What evidence would convince you that poetry as an institution is “confirmed by reality”?

  38. Cultural Arbitrage

      Not arguing against poetry. It simply appears that it is not a self sustaining art. Its audience may exchange monies but never create a viable economy outside fellow academics, dabblers and prosters all digesting well thought non-sense.

      There is obviously a lot of passion in this community and occasionally things worth reading. It’s just a bit upsetting to see them all training their theory and language to dissect each other rather than go for it.

      Was it really that inspired if your friends had to read it on a nice acid free rag cotton paper? Why don’t these poets test their validity on regular people? Why don’t they prove their form and just possibly save it? It’s so infuriatingly easy to say it is all academic and theory and all the rest but fcuk it is pathetically obvious.

      Grapple with the world, what! Say something that the smartest and dumbest among us can enjoy. Walk that line without explaining it! Say something that stands athwart our age and might just be remembered.

      It is a depressing thing to see so much potential and intelligence running around in arguments amongst themselves.

      Slice your way back into the culture. Social Media. Whatever! Leverage every person that means something to you, every person that will listen whether twitter, Facebook, etc. but say something larger and have a little fun with language by loosely referring to yourself as fascist, the sticks that became and Axe! Wage total war of words!

      Or just accept your choices, be a martyr and hope on your deathbed that some dear friend will make a Kafka of your work.

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  40. Matt Spitzli

      I agree with the anonymous letter writer. Poetry is simply not read anymore, except by students and other poets. What relatively low demand there is for it is manufactured, the result of an incestuous circle. Hence one cannot reasonably expect to attain anything resembling financial security from it. I love reading and writing poems, but come on–we must seek our livelihoods elsewhere. “Poet” is not a profession; it’s more like an affliction.

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  43. Cultural Arbitrage

      Could not agree more. It has been the art of elites for over a hundred years. The motives for most of the folks who become poets is to grasp at the realm of distinction. So many have done so that there seems to be more styles, theories and schools than actual human experience to describe. If it gets them laid and/or in a loving relationship than it has worked at a fantastic cost. Otherwise, use your life up like a limited number of pens and papers and feel glad that if there is a god, you sit in the restless, relentless, and passionate until the end column.

      Of course there is the “Professionalization” of everything notion. The common thread of it, across industries and careers from merchant seamen to these poets is the paying for a certification to say that you can do something. Money making exercise with the corrosive effect of reducing the ability of the people paying and hiring from distinguishing between factor inputs. Standardization of human inputs so there need not be any difference. I’m rambling and I never revise. See ya round.

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