Dear The Poetry Foundation,
We are applying for the position of President of the Poetry Foundation.
John J. Kenney, Chair
The Poetry Foundation
61 West Superior Street
Chicago, IL, 60654
May 21, 2012
Dear The Poetry Foundation,
We are applying for the position of President of the Poetry Foundation. We do not apply as a couple in the matrimonial sense, but as friends and ongoing collaborators with a shared commitment to poetry. Lacking the convenience of an employment listing despite John Barr’s announced retirement, we present in its stead this open letter.
Our application is motivated by the belief that the direction chosen by the Poetry Foundation is, at this moment of crisis for both poetry and the global political order, of paramount significance. The Foundation has distinguished itself under Barr’s leadership not through its programming, which has achieved an ascetic minimalism, but through its clarion pronouncements. It has taken a stand against the professionalization of the degree, against careerism, against specialization, and against creative writing programs. Outgoing President Barr has been firm in his statements that the necessary experience of the poet is in the daily life of labor outside academia and he has directed attention to the examples of Stevens, Eliot, Williams, as well as his own experience on Wall Street. He has used Hemingway as a frequent example, even at moments comparing his marlin fishing to the manual labor of a poet who is pouring concrete.
We too hold a commitment to marlin fishing and its concrete character, and a commitment to the fundamental virtue of a non-institutional poetry entangled in such doings of daily life. Similarly to President Barr, we are employed as “professional” poets and believe that our very institutional affiliations make us uniquely qualified to recognize and condemn institutionalization. We wish for others to avoid the insidious lure of market management, structural self-preservation, and the temptation to conjure the very sorts of careers in poetry or poetry administration that have crippled our own artistry. We know first hand the critical need to escape from debilitating dependencies on what are, in effect, little more than welfare programs for poets, assisting them temporarily while confining them in perpetuity to the airless cycle of writing programs, repeated grants, fellowships, foundations, and residencies. And we know that poetry is at its best when it escapes the self-reproducing closure of the poetry industry and aligns itself with the common experience of human struggle. We too want to empower poets to overcome the subtle philistinism of lowered expectations, while undoing the hermetic aestheticism of contemporary poetry enclosed in its own self-affirming and self-congratulatory circuits of measure.
In order to honor and realize in full President Barr’s legacy, we want to extend his reasoning to its logical conclusion. Our goal as co-presidents of the Poetry Foundation would be to set up a series of programs that would provide a push, as it were, for poetry beyond those very circuits, while obviating the need for artificial bolsters in the future. To this end, we envision a “Five Year Plan” or “New Economic Program” to share the Poetry Foundation’s two hundred or so million dollars with makers and lovers of poetry in all nations. We are committed to a newly global view of aesthetic excellence and want to support poetry-writing as a global practice. We believe this is entirely consistent with the Foundation’s stated mission.
There are many programming ideas we would like to bring to the Poetry Foundation. And we would, of course, want to spend time with the already excellent staff at the Foundation and get their input on how best to spend this two hundred or so million in the next five years. Further, many of our ideas are mutually imbricated with the already existing apparatus of Poetry magazine; we like to think of our five year plan as an extended celebration of the centenary celebrated this year by Poetry. Among our ideas are the following:
the current editorial staff of Poetry (with the exception of the managing editor and the editorial assistant) and the board of the Poetry Foundation would be replaced by poets (and by poet we mean anyone who has ever written a poem) according to global population distribution; each qualified poet will have earned last year, from whatever her or his manner of income, no more than two hundred percent and no less than twenty-five percent of the median income for her or his region.
each member of this board will be paid a wage plus health insurance; this wage will be calculated at .01% of the salary of the highest paid person at SG Securities, purchaser of SG Barr Devlin.
this editorial board will continue to accept poems for publication in Poetry at the current rate of three hundred poems per year, with the provision that no one previously published in Poetry magazine or any other journal with a circulation of more than one thousand will be eligible; also, poets may be published in Poetry only once in a lifetime.
of the resultant three hundred poets published in a year, some will be chosen at random (but so as to continue to respect the income and global population distribution requirements) to replace the current board in the next year.
the remainder, in addition to the outgoing board, will be paid to teach a course in the year following publication in any matter of their choosing, perhaps in marlin fishing, perhaps in pouring concrete, perhaps even in line breaks or rhymes.
further, the Poetry Foundation will pay students to attend these courses, nine each, with the understanding that no degrees will be granted and no tuition will be charged; students may participate for one year only.
thus there will be three hundred teachers and 2,700 students in each year (total for five years: fifteen thousand) who will be paid the global median income plus comprehensive health care, which at current prices should exhaust most but not all the Foundation’s endowment (estimated cost of this program at present values: $165,000,000).
at the end of each year, any remaining funds from that year’s “depletion-adjusted” fund will be given as literary prizes; each award will be .01% of the salary of the highest paid person at SG Securities, purchaser of SG Barr Devlin.
We understand that idealistic goals such as these do not have an immaculate record, that there is a real historical tendency for any such program to, in the end, decline to abolish itself and instead reproduce itself and its practices such that it affirms the very closure and institutionalism that it originally means to unmake. In order to avoid this outcome, we realize that we must work swiftly and ambitiously to expend all of the Foundation’s monetary resources and abolish our own stewardship. We are prepared for this task. Our project here is in every way about dead presidents. We are committed to a vision of poetry in motion, and in the words of the great poet Rakim Allah, nothing moves but the money.
But we confess, our desire is not to just spend through the Poetry Foundation’s endowment and thereby free poor writers of poetry from the disabling rescue fantasy such a hoard allows, that of a sort of Fort Knox of the general intellect. We hope that other foundations with deep reserves would want to join us in this ambitious programming built around mutual aid in which those who love poetry support each other without ever becoming professional poets. We will be reaching out to the well-endowed, such as the MacArthur Foundation ($5,500,000,000), the Guggenheim Foundation ($250,000,000), the Lannan Foundation ($200,000,000), and the 92nd Street Y ($70,000,000); and as well to the less well-endowed, such the Academy of American Poets ($8,000,000) and the Poetry Society of America ($3,000,000). We hope they will be inspired by the example of the Poetry Foundation and begin to more freely spend their endowments in train. And we hope that news of these sorts of programming initiatives will also stimulate fund raising for the Poetry Foundation, allowing us to extend this new economic program as broadly as possible during its duration.
For reasons that should by now be clear, we are putting ourselves forward for the presidential position without any request for compensation. That said, it would be nice if the Foundation could cover at least some of our travel costs to Chicago. We are fine with economy seats.
Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr