ER '20

Beyond the Poetry Foundation

In light of so many controversies, we need to look further to decolonize the canon.
by Ishani Synghal

Ishani Synghal (MFAW 2021) is passionate about hybrid lyric essays, higher education, naps, and old pictures.

Illustration by Ishita Dharap

For most writers of color, poetry is political. Nas nas mein hai, I can hear my ma saying. It’s in the veins. Every word, every letter is a call for action and we don’t have the luxury to hide from that. When you live in a country that doesn’t want you, that refuses to see you because of the color of your skin, how can your words be anything but that? Poetry is not a luxury, as Audre Lorde stated, it is survival. A notion that I’m not sure our white counterparts can truly understand.

So why do we only see a surge of appreciation for BIPOC poetry when something so triggering happens that it outrages the whole country and mobilizes them to demand justice? Why do we have to wait for the deaths of Black people, or Indigenous People fighting to keep their land, to be in the news to read Black and Indigenous poetry in our classes and see it highlighted by traditionally racialized institutions such as the Poetry Foundation?

The answer, I think, is the power of what is being called “outrage culture,” or “outrage campaigns” — in other words, BIPOC and others finally feeling like they can raise their voices against blatant racism and actually be heard. The rage has always been there, the only difference is that it has shifted now to an online platform that creates power in numbers much more quickly and easily. Let’s zoom out a bit.

The Poetry Foundation was established in 2003 upon the receipt of a major gift from philanthropist Ruth Lilly. It evolved from the Poetry Magazine, which itself was founded in 1912. The Poetry Foundation boasts its magazine as “the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world.” “The English-speaking world” can easily be translated to “white people” and this still holds true today.

They first came under fire in 2018 for the poem “Titan/All is Still” by Toby Martinez de las Rivas, who was accused of using the imagery of a black sun to promote white supremacist and fascist ideals subtextually through his work. Back then, Poetry Magazine decided to stand by the author, and allowed him to pen an explanation of his work to try and mitigate the outrage. This only made things worse.

More recently, the ninety-word statement the Poetry Foundation released in solidarity with Black Lives Matter was a weak attempt at protecting their reputation from cancel culture. It was too little, and too late, even with the president and a board member stepping down. In “being committed” to engaging in the work required “to eradicate institutionalized racism,” they decided to publish “Scholl’s Ferry Rd.” by Michael Dickman in the print edition of Poetry Magazine. This poem spans 30 pages of the issue and centers the “we” as whiteness and “they” as non-whiteness. The two scenes in the middle of the poem that use racialized terms such as “nice negress” followed by “oh they are always changing what they want to be called” and the entire next page: “A river of Japanese businessmen cross in front of the car / ‘Step on it, / Wendy’ / The City of Roses,” are blatant examples of racism.

While the word outrage may have a negative connotation, it is important that we recognize that the rage BIPOC feel has always been there, it is just on a digital platform now. In response, The Poetry Foundation published this community letter of commitment, Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine stepped down, and the poem by Dickman was addressed in this statement

Why are we trying to gain a seat at this table, instead of turning to tables that our predecessors have created
for us?

Even with these examples and countless others, emerging BIPOC writers as a whole still compete and pray to have their poetry recognized by the Foundation and Magazine. Its long history, although white male-centering, holds an enormous amount of prestige and power. The question is: As aspiring and emerging writers of color are we doing ourselves a disservice by aiming only for positions in foundations that are primarily white?

In the last couple months there has been lots of talk of not only decolonizing our minds but also a renewed call to do so in all sectors of life, including the world of art, in which museums feature white artists primarily, schools teach texts squarely within the accepted cannon. White poets and writers get their work published and get accepted to internships that result in full time jobs at publishing houses more often than their BIPOC counterparts. Lee and Low books’ diversity survey in 2019 showed that the publishing industry was over 70% white, cis, straight, and able-bodied. 

In the world of emerging poets, we are encouraged by MFA programs and institutions to value primarily white publications. It is that table we are still trying and struggling to get a seat at. Why are we trying to gain access to this table instead of turning to tables that our predecessors have created for us? How can we value our poems as spaces of decolonization if we are still begging to be accepted by white poets, editors, and publishers? This letter from Phillip B. Williams, a Ruth Lily fellow from 2013, is an important read. How are we supposed to break into this industry if it’s still done in solitary acts?

As an emerging Indian-American poet, these are things that have been on my mind. In writing this piece, I invite you to join me in doing the work of shifting our focus to organizations that center BIPOC lives and voices. So what are some organizations producing work centered around BIPOC writers? 

Two of the biggest ones are Cave Canem and Kundiman. Cave Canem, A Home for Black Poetry, was founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996 to represent African American poets in the literary landscape. They strive to create a physical and intellectual space for Black students and writers where they can write free from censorship. Cave Canem is responsible for uplifting countless revered poets including Cameron Awkward Rich, Jericho Brown and SAIC’s very own Krista Franklin and Christian Campbell. In the spring of 2016, I was lucky enough to attend a Cave Canem reading at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in New York City where Cameron Awkward Rich emphasized on how transformative his experience with Cave Canem had been thus far. 

Similarly, Kundiman has been doing some amazing work as well. Kundiman was founded in 2004 by poets Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi, who “bonded over challenges they encountered as students and writers, and sought to create a nurturing yet rigorous environment for Asian American literature.” It was modeled after Cave Canem’s retreat-centered programming and guided by their founders in its early days. Since its inception, they have had over 250 fellows and a dozen esteemed faculty members continue to enhance the community. Their core values include generosity, inclusion and courage, and they have incredible authors who they have centered and celebrated including, but not limited to, Franny Choi, Monica Sok, Sejal Shah and Fatimah Asghar. Franny Choi often talks about her experience at Kundiman and what the community means to her in “The VS Podcast” which she hosts along with poet Danez Smith. 

Countless hours of work goes into the specific programming for these foundations. Being a part of these communities gives emerging BIPOC poets a community to lean on and write with, a safe space. Here is a list of all fellows from Cave Canem and a list of all fellows from Kundiman. In addition, you can find a list of organizations that center POC created by Kundiman here which includes Canto Mundo, Project X, and Mizna, to name a few. Both organizations have extensive programming and opportunities to get involved including internships. In Chicago we are also lucky to have Young Chicago Authors and in New York, Winter Tangerine.

How do we work to see these places as equals to the Poetry Foundation? We need to perpetuate this shift, to be in spaces that nurture us instead of making us constantly explain ourselves with questions like: What’s that red dot on your mom’s forehead? Why do you always have to use Hindi in your pieces? Why don’t you try writing a poem that isn’t political?

Emerging BIPOC poets and writers, if there’s only one thing you take away from this movement, let it be the active choice to turn to the communities that will accept you wholeheartedly and will support you in raising your voice as we dismantle white oppression. I myself am on this journey too. Let’s work in solidarity to find our people, love them, love ourselves, and let everyone hear our voices. It is time. It is what is meant to be. f

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