Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Open letters, closed minds, yellow bellies, red herrings: The dying art of arts advocacy

Where indeed. Attacking poets who responsibly and
intelligently advocate for our art is gatekeeping,
 pure and simple. It's also mean.
Photo by Flickr user hunter.gatherer.
I was going to just tweet about it and let it die: "Open letters are the bunnies of the written word--they just keep making more of themselves."

But I got really upset and figured the most productive thing to do was to pledge my grievance, take my fight to the one place where it makes the most sense, where people will really poor neglected blog.

Womp womp.

Poet Sandra Simonds did it better. She wrote a much-needed and increasingly publicized open letter to the Poetry Foundation asking, in a nutshell, for them to step up and help poets in economic need.

You know, to do its job, the one it purports to do bigger and better than anyone else.

Simonds' letter was published on the Best American Poetry blog, and ended up lighting a fire under enough people to spawn a 1,000-signature-strong petition and a Facebook group.

But guess what else it did.
It got somebody all upset. Got somebody all huffy and making with the logical fallacies. Got the ire up at, where else, HTML Giant.

Anonymous (it's always Anonymous. That guy is a jerk.) posted an open letter in response to Simonds open letter. The gist was: Hey Sandra Simonds, you're privileged and I hate you.

Always productive.

Jerkonymous' letter also makes the brilliant (#sarcasm) leap from Simonds' asking the PF to "contribute to [the] effort" of assisting poets in need by condescendingly remarking, "I wonder how this is any more heartbreaking than the millions of other Americans struggling financially to make ends meet."

Dude, please read up on red herring fallacies, ok? If I'd been a philosophy major, this post would be called "A breakdown of the first 11,000 logical fallacies Anonymous used in his open letter to Sandra Simonds' open letter to the Poetry Foundation." As it is, I so do not have time to explain them all to you.

Because I'm too busy trying to wrap my brain around the heart of Anon's attack: "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."

Someone please help me out here. Someone tell me what other resources, what other organizations, what other outlets poets are supposed to take advantage of if not the effing Poetry FOUNDATION; what else are poets supposed to do when they need help but WRITE? Who can we expect to support and care about our causes if not OTHER POETS?

I'm sorry for the all-caps, but this poet-on-poet hate has got to stop.

It's said letter-writing is a lost or dying art. That what we think is activism is really slacktivism. Then what do you call Anonymous' letter? What possible purpose in hell does it serve? From where I'm sitting, it endeavors only to stir the pot, shame the bitch*, and keep the gate.

Yes. Keep the gate. Gate-keeping. Usually the only people who rail against those who rail against The System are those who directly benefit from said system, and are therefore invested in its stagnation, its glacial pace for reform and change.

Because come on. When people use the word "handout," or respond with venom to someone's suggestion that a large organization "share the wealth," they are probably old, white, and drinking the tea. While hiding under their tables from socialism.

Fortunately, Sandra had the good sense not to write another open letter in response to this guy. Fortunately, another poet beat her to it. Emotions can get out of control in situations like this. It's hard to keep one's cool while intelligently responding to ad hominem attacks on one's character (Jerkwadanonymous calls Simonds privileged. OK. Yeah. Working poet moms across the land, didn't you get the memo?! We are the haves! Rejoice!). Maybe Simonds is better at keeping her cool than I would be. Either way, someone else stepped up to defend her, and defended her well.

Erin Lyndal Martin wrote an open letter in response to Jerkapotamusanonymous' open letter in response to (stay with me here) Simonds' original open letter. To HTMLG's credit, they posted this one, too, so thanks to them for presenting both sides.

I wait with the proverbial bated breath to see whether Jerkfacekillahnonymous** will wax epistolary in sequel. Not really.

Ms. Martin, in her letter, immediately re-hoisted what was to me the most glaring charge levied against the Poetry Foundation by Simonds, and which was completely ignored by Anonymous as a viable reason for letter-writing, for Simonds' appeal:
Last year the Poetry Foundation’s income was over seven million dollars and the foundation’s total assets are well above 150 million dollars. I was disappointed to learn that the Poetry Foundation gives only around $7,500 annually to poets in need. It seems appropriate that since Mrs. Lilly’s endowment came from pharmaceuticals, the foundation would commit some portion of its vast resources to underwrite the cost of health insurance for the poets she so admired.
Rather than even address the legit, argument-bolstering numbers Simonds cited, Jackwagononymous wagged his finger at her for, I don't know, being a girl and doing math, I guess. She should be writing to her state rep. to complain about her "qualms with the current financial/healthcare system," he claims--even though Simonds had literally one short paragraph in which she even mentioned the economy and uninsured/broke poets. But he pounced on that bit of getting real, that appeal for humanity and compassion Simonds has for living poets, while the only bit of compassion he could muster in his own letter was for, um, the deceased Ruth Lilly.


I could rip the anonymously-penned letter for days, but that's not the point. Attacking is bad; I put my coupla cents in about the logical fallacies and invented some righteous nicknames, and have calmed down now. The point is, can we just agree that of course Simonds was within her rights to appeal to THE poetry organization for help for poets? That in fact, there is no other MORE appropriate place to go with her grievances than the Poetry Foundation? That of course PF should be doing more to help poets than building a fancy brick-and-mortar hub?

But this is old hat, right? As Martin rightly points out in her letter, people who attack those who rage--or in this case, politely push back--against the poetry machine "seem to forget that poetry is work." I could link to a dozen articles on the adjunct crisis or the dire numbers about the humanities job market. But I'm not an academic, so I'm not necessarily qualified to speak on that topic, only to register my complaint against the increasing aversion to paying people for the work they produce, even if that work is--gasp--art. (Daniel Casey at Gently Read Lit was kind enough to direct me to blogging and commentary on this topic by tweeps @chroniclevitae, @NewFacMajority, @josh_boldt, @sarahkendzior, and @pankisseskafk, and suggests you check them out, too.) 

And this isn't a plea for poets to be compensated fairly. Not now, anyway. I've mouthed off plenty about that topic, and even tried my hand at open-lettering. This, though, is a response to Jerkanon's ridiculous claim that Simonds shouldn't complain to the PoFo in an attempt to make things better for poets.

Now on the flip side, I see where turning to one, shall we say, corporation, for help when your larger, broken, corporate whoring, art-blind system is failing you is not necessarily ideal. (As one HTML Giant commenter noted, "i would say, that if you think MORE institional support for poetry will make better poetry, i think yr full of shit.") But the PF's willingness to dole out more money to Poets in Need, as Simonds suggests, could be a fine start:
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.
And that's really all she's asking: that of the .00005%**** the PoFo gives annually of its assets, more of it could and should go to poets who face economic hardships. Even after all of the above, if you still fundamentally disagree with her reasons for doing so, instead of calling her lazy and privileged, shouldn't you, if you call yourself a poet, consider thanking her for at least attempting to go to bat for you with a well-written letter to the one place where it might make a difference?

I mean, what else is a poet to do to make a change?

*SS, you are not a bitch, but Anonymous likely thinks you are, and bitch-shaming is a thing, and it's a thing he's doing to you, ya feel me? But you have tons of support, so keep on bitchin on. 
**Why do I keep calling him names? Because he*** didn't sign his name. Talk about asking for it. And I refuse to call him Buzz Poet. It sounds like Buzz Lightyear, which is too cool a name. Plus, how do we know he's a poet? He doesn't even know what a red herring is.
***Why do I assume he's a he? Because he's probably a he. But what if he isn't a he? Gate-keeping is bad news Bears regardless of the keeper's gender. This topic could be a friggin dissertation. Future blog post would be called "Hos before corporate bros: What if Anon isn't male?" Worth considering.
****$7500 "given annually to poets in need"/150,000,000 PF "total assets," per Simonds figure above. I did math, yay! 


  1. Replies
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  2. Yes, thank you so much for this response. I so much appreciate you taking the time to write this. It really articulates so many of the thoughts and feelings that I had when reading anon's letter. I don't know what else to say besides thank you.

  3. Hi! I just saw this and it made me smile. Rock on! :)

  4. Stacia - I also just saw your amazing entry here. (Zany, two of us in one end-of-year day). You always shed clarity and remind me to take the time.

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