In the wake of learning of the decade-plus history of abuse carried out by a well-known American poet, as described in a feature at Dispatches from the Poetry Wars (A Troubling Update on Allegations of Abuse in the Poetry Field) last April, and later in Rebekah Kirkman’s article from early May in The Outline (“The poet Joseph Massey’s disturbing history of abuse”), we’re appalled by the silence emanating from institutions that have supported this person and granted him platforms from which to extend his predation.
Why have the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, Omnidawn, PennSound, Wave Books, and Wesleyan University Press failed to issue public statements denouncing the aforementioned abuse? How is it that these organizations haven’t asserted that anyone who engages in abuse will not be promoted on their organizational sites, or given space in their programming and publications?
In this case, the abuse was no secret. Some of these organizations were contacted months ago by a number of this man’s victims. And now that it’s clear the abuse took place over at least 12 years—that one person used poetry as a vehicle through which to hurt so many women—these organizations won’t stand up to him? These organizations full of people won’t stand up to one person?
We should note that during the period in which this letter was written, both the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets removed the poet’s pages from their organizational sites, and it appears that Omnidawn’s organizational site no longer promotes the poet. Though this is a step in the right direction, we still fail to understand why these organizations can’t bring themselves to denounce abuse.
It seems that poets and arts managers, who are usually very vocal and quick to align themselves with #MeToo and other social movements, are cowards when it comes to confronting a known predator in their own ranks. Most poets we know like to think themselves progressive. But when it comes to truly engaging with the issues of psychological, physical, and sexual assault, many are reverting to worn out tactics: deny the severity of the issue, blame victims, dig up dead writers in order to attempt a moral equivalence between actions of the past and today, or simply shut up and hope people won’t notice.
Old power structures are beginning to crumble, and a new paradigm in which a multiplicity of voices and identities hold authority is emerging. Poetry has amazing transformative and healing power, and we cannot allow it to be held hostage by those who are complicit in abuse.