New Essay: The End of the Poetry Foundation

The End of the Poetry Foundation is a short essay on just that, the need for us to reject the literary/publishing institutions that allow racial capitalism to continue in full force and, yes, destroy them once and for all. The announcement of the 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship Finalists at a moment when powerful criticisms of institutions like the Poetry Foundation were being made prompted the writing of this essay.  It seemed both that in order for us to live these institutions would have to fall away and that these institutions (investment funds and real estate companies with publishing arms) were seeking to last until the end of time by extracting support from willing poets through a patronage system. I thought I should write about that in between working on my current project, which is making a case and developing a model for and, hopefully before the end of the year, working with others to create a union for trans women writers. 

Here's the full text, in case you want to skip the PDF attached at the bottom of the page: 

The End of the Poetry Foundation
A Letter to the 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg
Poetry Fellowship Finalists
Jamie Berrout
August 2019

It isn’t fair. You’ve done the work. You’ve finally been recognized for it. You’ve got a chance to make some real money now. Twenty-five thousand eight hundred dollars—twice as much as I’ve ever made in a year. You’ve earned it. 

And yet. Maybe you’ve heard people talking about Ruth Lilly, how she made her fortune (all those hundreds of millions of dollars, some of which she left to the Poetry Foundation in the form of stocks) by being in the family that owns the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Maybe you’ve heard about Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg—well, there’s not much about her online, but her son made a lot of money managing a hedge fund and he gave the Poetry Foundation some of that cash in her name. Maybe you’ve heard the Poetry Foundation has a long history of being a home for the worst imperialists and financiers, with such luminaries as their current president Henry Bienen, ex-CIA man and former banker who helped usher in the Great Recession over at Bear Stearns (See: Sara Bess’s work on Bienen and the Poetry Foundation for more). 

But what does that have to do with you? You’ve found success. They don’t understand how rare that is for someone who’s been through everything you’ve been through. This fellowship could change things for you and the community you’re fighting for. They don’t understand everything you’ll be able to do with this fellowship. Besides, all of us do things to earn a paycheck that might be problematic—ever heard of capitalism? You’re not the first person to win this kind of award; for such a long time it was only boring white poets had a shot at Poetry Foundation money, and isn’t it time for boring queer and POC poets to cash in? So no one gets to tell you whether or not you deserve this. They don’t understand, even this whole thing of questioning your taking the fellowship is problematic in itself—yes, it must be that they’re jealous of you, these people who stand on the sidelines shouting at you without having done the work. It’s all very ugly. 

You need to survive. Yes, you have a teaching job. You have an editing job. You do readings and so on. You write. You have too many jobs, in fact, and this fellowship will make life easier for you—and for your family. 

But there goes that feeling of doubt again. The money that promises to make your life easier—what if someone else’s life was made harder so that comfort could be given to you? The hundreds of unionized janitors at Eli Lilly who were forced to risk a protest campaign a few years ago because they’d been paid poverty wages for so long or the victims of Eli Lilly’s brazen double digit insulin price hikes (and price fixing with its competitors) who chanted at a protest, “Your drug prices are homicide!”, the same company whose stocks the Poetry Foundation seems to still be sitting on, generating more and more wealth each year... 

Enough of that. 

You’re doing important work. Let’s talk about that. The fact that you’ve been named as a finalist for this honor, this thing that everyone wants and only the best of the best will ever get a chance at having, that’s incredibly validating. It means you’ve been doing the right things, you’ve persevered even when it was clear that someone like you shouldn’t be in the room. Here you are breaking barriers again because that’s what you do. Nothing can stop you. If you want to take the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, then why the hell not? If you want to shake the hand of a former CIA man who perhaps helped destabilize governments and murder people from the region you or your parents (and mine) or your friends are from, who the hell is going to stop you? If you wanted to be a CIA agent or a cop and oversee and eliminate black and brown people on behalf of the US government, well that’s your right. Right? Because if it’s not you taking that salary or that fellowship money, it’s just going to be someone else. It might as well be you. The one who deserves it. You don’t like it any more than anyone else. 

Except. What if... none of us takes Poetry’s blood money anymore? Aha ha, just kidding. Unless... maybe we could break the Poetry Foundation and undermine and survive racial capitalism through direct action and mutual aid? 

You’re not sure. 

What’s wrong with success? Well, that’s the thing. Any success that is achieved at the expense of other people’s lives, that’s no success at all. None of us want to be the cop that earns a pension after a lifetime of beating on people of color and disabled people and poor people and so on. Let’s agree on that. None of us want to be the ICE/BP agent that tears a family apart by literally separating a mother from her child and putting them into separate cages. The success of a cop that moves through the ranks by being proficient at following orders that amount to an anti-black, colonial project, that’s not success. That’s violence. That’s terror. That’s everything you’re afraid will tear out your own throat as you walk down the street. Huh. 

There is violence behind publishing, also. There is the violence of the non profit that launders capitalism’s bloodiest money and legitimizes the practice of taking years of life from the many and distributing a portion of that as life-giving assistance (fellowships or jobs or charity) for a deserving few. 

There is the violence of the fantasy of meritocracy which is used to justify the white supremacist, capitalist logic of publishing and its direction towards the subjugation of people of color and the poor, among others, as a permanent underclass. For publishing is rooted in and reproduces in every reader the idea that only certain people (richer, closer to whiteness, well-credentialed, able-bodied and mentally suitable, more accommodating of the state of things) deserve to write and be published and heard. The very practice of determining who is deserving of a fellowship or publication is itself violent. This curation must be violent when it surveys the world at a moment in time and regurgitates that same unequal world year after agonizing year. 

Finally, there is the violence of those who are admitted into the institutions of publishing, who gain by it, and identify themselves with those institutions (of white supremacy) so strongly that they lash out upon hearing critiques of those institutions. Which is also the violence of keeping tabs on people, listening in on conversations among dissidents and reporting back who is good and willing, who will never be fit  5 for entrance into these institutions, and who deserves punishment. This violence is the violence of the kapo, the prisoner who works for the jailers as a guard or functionary or supervisor with the power of life and death over other prisoners. Sound familiar? 

It’s tough. 

On one hand, being a finalist for the fellowship makes you feel seen. It’s about more than money. It’s an acknowledgement by people above you, people with real power. It means something that you are on this list—you’re going places, that’s what this says about you. 

Though, where exactly is that? 

What I’m saying is all this sounds like the plot of a horror film. They see you, but it’s only because they have a purpose for you. They, with their hundreds of millions, refuse to see all the people whose lives could quite literally be saved if they had a piece of that money. But rather than give their fortune to poor poets surviving on food stamps, poets struggling to retire from sex work, queer and trans poets of color who will never get into MFA programs, homeless poets, incarcerated poets, young poets of the immigration camps (that is, every last child in those camps), and rid themselves of the horrible burden of inaction in the face of so much suffering—they give you the thinnest slice of that money as a fellowship instead. 

Why? Because your participation helps them justify this nightmare scheme. They could not have a 20 million dollar headquarters and millions more in real estate holdings if they didn’t have the support of respected and promising poets. They wouldn’t be able to increase their fortune every year and still (still!) raise more money in the form of 100% tax-deductible donations if they didn’t have your support. They wouldn’t be able to continue promoting a neoliberal, palatable, god-awful version of poetry and suppress radical, subversive, indignant voices if they didn’t have your support. 

They intend to possess you. 

I’m not going to tell you what to do. This is not a plea for help for any particular cause. I am not asking for a portion of the blood money about to fall into your hands. I speak to you from the common grave—my work in organizing with other trans women writers towards revolution will continue no matter what you decide to do. But I want you to know the Poetry Foundation will be brought to an end within our lifetimes. The institutions that are fixtures of the literary and publishing scenes in America will end, and this is not a reference to climate collapse or some inevitable crisis. What I mean is there are many of us who are fighting for the end of this world in which you and the Poetry Foundation are finding success. We know we will not survive unless this world is transformed, so we are in a struggle to the death. You can have your fellowship. You can have your success. But it won’t last. And if you won’t help us tear these institutions apart, soon enough you’ll find the floor has disappeared beneath you. 

What remains in the end is you and your fear. The thought that you cannot afford to miss this opportunity, whatever the cost. And if that is indeed the fear that stops you from doing something—organizing, rejecting success and meritocracy, pursuing radical, non-hierarchical forms of publishing, kindly plucking Henry Bienen’s eyes from their sockets—eventually you’ll realize you were afraid of the wrong thing all along.

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