As many poets are by now aware, Timothy Donnelly, BK Fischer, and Stephania Heim, Poetry Editors of the Boston Review—long a prestigious venue for poets of innovative bent—have just resigned in protest against the journal’s decision to retain the Pulitzer Award winner Junot Diaz as Fiction Editor. In the past number of weeks, Diaz has been accused by a group of women of sexual harassment and assault. Diaz has admitted to “improper” behavior, but has apparently not issued a public apology, choosing to locate his abusive adult actions within the framework of his sexual victimization as a child.
The Boston Review’s cringing letter of justification for keeping Diaz on the payroll (signed by Deborah Tressman and Joshua Cohen) has been taken apart, mocked, and roundly condemned by hundreds of writers on social media. Large numbers have cancelled their subscriptions, and calls for a boycott of the journal have been issued. Unless the BR chooses to change course, it seems entirely possible the publication will not survive.
And here’s the rub: A totally analogous case of abuse has been known in the poetry world for some time. Within the past couple months, Dispatches has released a handful of statements and article links relating to repeated cases of abuse carried out by a well-known poet in “avant” circles. It has, in fact, been the only poetry venue to so far bring the matter into discussion.
Dispatches chose to offer itself as a venue for discussion of the issue after hearing that numerous victims of this poet had attempted to contact a range of poetry organizations and publishers, only to be met with jaw-dropping silence and disregard.
A few days ago we published a guest Open Letter by some of those personally involved. The letter highlights the fact that a disturbing institutional blackout continues: In wake of the articles at Dispatches and a feature story at the widely read The Outline, the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets have removed content related to this poet, but they have not yet released any public statement affirming zero tolerance for such behavior–a not secondary expectation, given the Boston Review’s apparent willingness to in fact tolerate acknowledged abuse under “certain” circumstances. Organizations like the Poetry Foundation, PennSound, Wave Books, and Omnidawn (all of them directly contacted by the victims) have made no public mention whatsoever of the matter, either. Even worse, these last four institutional powerhouses of “avant” official verse culture have continued to maintain links and promotional pages for this poet at their sites, as if nothing had happened.
Dispatches proffers the following questions: What is going on? How is it possible, when every other branch of the culture is actively coming to terms with predatory behavior inside its ranks, that poetry institutions seem incapable of saying a word? How is it possible, on the one hand, that when the fiction-writing world blows up in outrage at a decision by an influential publication, that poets, on the other, seem so disposed to cover their mouths in face of the tacit complicity of their institutions? Are poets really more cowardly than other artists? Are they really so cautious in the management of their “careers” that they can’t bring themselves to speak out until their institutional benefactors give them permission to do so?
To repeat the simple question: What is going on?