Tell the Poetry Foundation to be Accountable to its Community

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Update 6/03


When we launched our petition asking the Poetry Foundation for financial relief for those poets and poetry allies impacted by the pandemic, we had no idea how much deeper the crisis would grow two months later.


For those who are new to this campaign, on April 4th this petition was launched asking the Poetry Foundation to establish a $5 million dollar fund to assist poets, publishers, bookstores, and other literary organizations who were being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Poetry Foundation has a $250 million dollar endowment, which they have grown by $4-5 million more than they have spent every year.

This petition was endorsed by 1,800 poets and supporters. The Poetry Foundation responded by saying they couldn’t afford to support any new initiatives, and so a subsequent open letter was sent, endorsed by about 200 poets, countering the Foundation’s narrative of financial difficulty and calling for greater organizational transparency.


Now, the pandemic rages on, and an additional, deeply rooted crisis has unfolded after the horrific police murder of George Floyd. 


Yesterday, the Poetry Foundation issued a statement “in solidarity” with those who are fighting against systemic racism and police brutality. The language was vague, brief, and couched. No commitments, financial or otherwise, were made to do anything to actively support those whom the Foundation claimed to support.


For two months those who have supported this petition have tried to persuade the Foundation to demonstrate accountability via their vast resources and unique position in the poetry community. It saddens us that we no longer have faith in the Foundation’s board and President to be good stewards of their organization’s mission.


Therefore we are updating our petition to ask for the following:

1. The immediate resignation of Henry Bienen, President of the Poetry Foundation

2. The resignation of the Poetry Foundation board and the assembly of a new board that:

  • Is principally composed of actively publishing poets, working artists, and individuals with a proven history of organizing or contributing to community arts programs
  • Is majority POC
  • Embraces a diverse array of perspectives re: gender and sexual orientation
  • Is composed of no more than 20% cisgender white men

3. The immediate establishment of a $5 million dollar fund (in addition to the COVID relief fund) to support the efforts and livelihoods of POC writers, presses, and literary institutions, to be overseen by members of those communities.

4. A commitment over the next 5 years to make the staff reflective of the racial demographics of the City of Chicago.

5. A commitment to avoid working with or contracting with the Chicago Police Department indefinitely.

6. A commitment to hire an additional full-time editor of color at POETRY Magazine.


We ask all poets and poetry allies to leverage these requests by canceling your subscriptions to POETRY Magazine, no longer visiting the Poetry Foundation website, and withdrawing your work from the Foundation’s publications. 

We stand behind those whose voices need to be heard. Thank you to the folks who have collaborated on and informed the writing of this update. Further feedback and suggestions welcome at editors@spectbooks.com

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Update 4/29: In addition to this petition, we are seeking cosigners on our recent open letter to the Foundation, which was written in response to their indirect statement on this petition.

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Poets and their allies are being hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Readings and events have been canceled. Bookstores are closed. Publisher supply chains, offices, and production and distribution services have been shut down. Many writers and publishers have already lost their jobs, healthcare, and are at risk of losing a lot more.

The Poetry Foundation manages about $245,000,000 in total assets according to their most recent (2018) tax filings, most of which appears to be investment capital.

With their uniquely deep pockets, it would be amazing to see the Foundation step up with innovative initiatives to support at risk writers in this difficult time.

The Foundation has already signal boosted Pen America's Writer's Relief Fund. We'd like to see them go further. 

To that end, we suggest the Foundation set-up a fund that would directly subvent the writers of poetry and their allies, like small presses and bookstores. An allocation of even just 2% of their net capital, or $5,000,000, could meaningfully support the livelihoods of hundreds of writers and literary workers who need it most.

The Foundation's mission commits it to fostering a more vigorous presence of poetry in our culture. This is their opportunity to not only grow poetry, but to help safeguard it from the myriad of challenges and dangers our community is navigating.