Dear Bill,

We never thought it would require saying, but Emily Post-Avant (who’s given us permission to respond on her behalf) writes a poetry personal-advice column, which tends, and rather heavily, toward the camp, satirical, and burlesque. That’s one of the reasons, in these times of P’s and Q’s poetic politesse, that she’s become rather popular in some circles. It seems very strange, then, that you would upbraid Emily for failing to buttress her tetchy case with Social Science-style stats. Unlike Timothy Yu, whom you oddly praise for providing careful, empirical “facts.”

We fear your comparison/contrast in that regard approaches the status of bunk (to wink at the title of a dreadful book by Kevin Young, which you brilliantly panned last year).

Emily, we’re sure, will continue to speak her mind based on her gut and principles, and without saddling her sense of humor with portions or percentages. That is to say, she will continue to be a provocateur and piss people off as she pleases. We are glad to have her.

But let us, since the stats are key for you, and before addressing your argument in broader purview, suggest with some expanded facts and figures that Yu’s cherry-picked Pulitzer numbers in no way make a credible case.

And that is because the Pulitzer Prize is far and away the least “up-to-woke” major poetry prize in the land, decidedly pulling up the rear compared to the vast majority of prize-giving establishments. (And by the way, you can’t really be serious that “woke” is a “right-wing” term? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woke).

It is not pleasant to descend from poetry into statistics, but in this case we have no choice, given Yu’s affection for percentages and his penchant to misrepresent them. We did a little quick counting from major Po-Prize websites. Looking first at the other two major prizes of the legendary Ashbery trifecta, here is what we found. Since 2008 (Yu’s chosen starting point for his Pulitzer stats), 34.6% of winners and finalists of the National Book Critics Circle Award have been poets of color. The POC percentages, of course, have been growing markedly in more recent years, where, starting with the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2013, a concerted, collective push has been afoot among leading poetry institutions to undertake a rapid political correction (see the recently formed, corporate-bankrolled Poetry Coalition https://poets.org/academy-american-poets/poetry-coalition): The past five consecutive winners of the NBCCA have been poets of color, as have 9 of the last 20 non-winning finalists. Since 2008, seven of the eleven NBCCA winners have been poets of color, far higher than the Pulitzer. The 2019 longlist has not yet been released, though POC poets, if growing trends hold, will no doubt constitute a major portion of the candidates.

Since 2008, 43.6% of winners and finalists of the National Book Award have been poets of color. As with the NBCCA, the POC percentages have been growing markedly in recent years: Three of the past five winners have been poets of color, as have 13 of the 20 finalists. Since 2008, five of the eleven winners have been poets of color, a good deal higher than the Pulitzer. The 2019 longlist choices have not yet been released, though POC poets, again, if trends hold, will no doubt constitute a significant portion of the candidates.

Needless to say, if one were to include white women winners and finalists on these lists (as Yu, referencing VIDA stats, suggests we should), the percentage of straight white male Hicok-type winners and finalists over the past six years goes into markedly smaller demographic-quota territory. If one includes white gay males in the winners/finalists mix for the past six years, the Hicok-types start looking, increasingly, like quasi-tokens.

But the NBCCA and NBA, as a matter of fact, barely begin to represent the trend in question. A survey of other major awards over the past six or seven years (and more) will find that poets of color have significantly greater representation there than they do with the two classic prizes mentioned above. This is decidedly the case with the various prizes and fellowships awarded by major bodies like the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the Poetry Foundation. Since 2011, for example, Poetry Foundation prizes such as the Ruth Lilly Award (five of the six past winner have been poets of color), along with the coveted Lilly/Sergeant Fellowships for younger writers, have been won overwhelmingly by non-white poets (see, for example, the current 2019 long list of the latter, which has been dominated for years by younger POC poets). The same can be said for a wide range of other prizes, contests, and fellowships. The Kingsley Tufts Award, for example, one of the world’s most lucrative prizes, has awarded five of its seven prizes to poets of color since the watershed year of 2013; its companion Kate Tufts Discovery Award has awarded, since that year, six of seven awards to younger POC poets. No further statistics are necessary here (we’ve provided now much more of them than Yu does). People can easily enough verify the recent, indisputable racial correction-trends at various poetry award sites.

Tim Yu’s selective use of the Pulitzer stats, in other words, is disingenuous, Bill. The fact is that since the radicalization and uprising that began six or seven years back, in wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, poets of color have come (and very much as the lovably maudlin Bob Hicok senses) to outrank straight white male poets within the institutional prize and Corporate/State-fellowship pecking order.

And as far as we’re concerned, and as we’ve said before, that’s a perfectly fine and long-coming development, in principle. Better poets of color at the top of the heap of the Institutional Verse Infrastructure [IVI] than straight white male careerists (lots of white male gays, too, actually) lording it over everyone thanks to a naturalized racist and sexist state of affairs. No, the essence of our unease lies elsewhere, and it is the same thing we have been saying since we launched Dispatch #1, which you can read here, if you want to know or remind yourself what Dispatches from the Poetry Wars stands for: https://www.dispatchespoetrywars.com/about/

You see, the problem is not that poets of color have made advances inside the IVI, with its encompassing siren song of gigs, grants, prizes, pubs, prestige, and power. Of remunerative professorships, professional conferences, arts management jobs, and government largesse… It’s that Institutional Verse Infrastructure remains untouched and unchecked by this rapid, amenable absorption of formerly relegated poetic groups into its operations. The faces change; the system stays well-oiled and unchallenged. The theoretical term, if we recall correctly, is “recuperation.”

All in all, we are now in a period that is profoundly different from the 50s, 60s, even the 70s and 80s, when autonomous, insurgent poetic groups flourished, not least the inspiring, anti-capitalist formations led by writers of color. They seem quaint now, though, in these times of the Placid Big Poetry Tent, The Land of Happy Bards, when you can sign onto the Doom Program and make it on the inside, just like the good old white boys have long done. All you have to do is learn how to write poetry approved by The Poetry Foundation and/or The Buffalo Poetics Program, and align yourself with the seamlessly connected, retooled array of rewarding institutions, happily sanctioned by the Neo-Liberal State and/or Munificent Capital.

Given the evident, escalating insertion of State and Corporate interests into U.S. poetry culture, especially since 2013 (see the above mentioned Poetry Foundation, Academy of American Poets, and Poetry Society of America), it is stunning that almost no one seems to be asking if the sudden “liberal-woke” largesse of such interests might be guided by certain non-poetic designs of its own. Designs perhaps drawing lessons, ironically enough, from the spectacularly successful attempts of the Mexican and Canadian ruling classes (with some assistance from the CIA, in the first instance), in wake of the massive radicalization of the 1960s, opening the money valve to pacify the mounting militancy of the student movement–extending the State’s financial tentacles into the most intimate spaces of cultural resistance, and establishing a nationwide crash-program of arts and literature projects. Many thousands of former left activists ended up having comfortable and rewarded careers in those institutional cocoons, most spending much of their time consumed with petty cultural and campus politics. Nothing like a little dough to distract the distractible, who, it turns out, are legion. They are still distracted. Yu himself, incidentally, is objectively assisting Trump’s reelection as we speak, leading a UW/Madison campaign to enable idiotic student disruption and shut-down of any invited speaker the kids deem insufficiently correct (Emily hadn’t used the term “neo-Stalinism” lightly!). If the above graph sounds exaggerated, a review of U.S. State and Corporate Cold War cultural policy, from not so long ago, would be in order.

Finally, Bill, you ask, “But what about the poetry, Emily? Does that matter at all?”

It’s an important question, and we’d like to turn it around and send it back to you, making clear– though it’s hardly necessary to do so–that many of the new stars in American poetry are clearly brilliant, even as some are greatly overrated (sometimes the most prominent ones), which is how it always is, of course, regardless of color or station. By the way, in reaction to your author list, for what it’s worth, we’d propose that one of the most thrilling American poet-geniuses alive is the genre-obliterating Renee Gladman, though she goes relatively unmentioned, while everyone keeps talking about Claudia Rankine, for instance.

So, with appreciation for your good-faith letter, we’d like to turn the question around in this way: In the modern era, what poetries have tended to matter more, in the main, across time and place? The kind that are written from autonomous zones that resist the official Institutional Verse Infrastructure, or the kind that are written from within that Infrastructure, in complacent toleration of its patronage? (Virgil doesn’t count).

Time usually has the answer, and it will likely have it again, in regards our own complex, multilayered conjuncture.

–Dispatches