More than 200 poets, translators, artists, editors, and scholars have signed an open letter to the board of the New York nonprofit Poets House, which abruptly suspended operations and fired its staff last month, asking for “a full and transparent accounting of what happened and why.”
On November 16, all nine employees of the beloved literary center and poetry library were laid off during a Zoom meeting without prior notice; moments later, Poets House publicly announced a temporary closure “due to budgetary issues caused by the coronavirus.” In a statement issued that week, however, ex-staff said the layoffs came a day before the deadline for leadership to respond to their union petition. Since February, workers had been organizing to address workplace dysfunction at Poets House, including “frequent complaints of workplace discrimination,” and establish a formal grievance system to hold leaders and board members accountable.
Caroline Crumpacker, Rachael Guynn Wilson, and Rachel Levitsky of Belladonna*, a collective founded in 1999 to promote the work of women and feminist writers, penned the open letter with help from the poetry community. Belladonna* was closely involved with Poets House, hosting one of its first public events there in 2004; the week of the layoffs, the two organizations had planned a panel discussion with poet and scholar Lyn Hejinian that was canceled.
The letter, reproduced in its entirety at the end of this article, urges the board to “reconsider and reverse the firings” and “commit to dignified working conditions” as well as offer clarity on the rationale behind the closure and layoffs — which to some remains murky.
“We love the mission of Poets House and recognize the tremendous amount of work, love and generosity that Lee Briccetti and Jane Preston have put into its development in their many years of leadership,” the letter begins.
“However, we are saddened and deeply unsettled that, through whatever combination of financial and intra-staff/management crises, the organization has fired its entire staff in an abrupt, unkind, and otherwise questionable manner,” it continues. “The press release issued by the Board and management does little, by our read, as people deeply enmeshed in poetry organizations, to assuage the appearance of anti-union, anti-whistleblower retaliation around the timing of this extraordinary move.”
The group also inquires whether Poets House considered all available options for weathering the pandemic, such as implementing pay cuts; increasing board giving; and decreasing overhead, “before firing staff in a time of nearly unprecedented difficulty for families and individuals,” and asks why they were not furloughed instead.
A lack of transparency about these decisions has intensified allegations of union-busting and retaliation, which Poets House staunchly denies. The nonprofit maintains that it closed when it did so that there would still be funds to compensate the nine discharged workers. (Laid-off staff will receive two weeks of salary in lieu of notice, as well payment for unused vacation time, severance of one week’s pay for each year of employment, and extended healthcare benefits, a spokesperson told Hyperallergic.) Poets House projects a reopening when the coronavirus pandemic is under control, possibly in late 2021.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Crumpacker, Levitsky, and Wilson said the intention of the letter is constructive, to help shepherd a conversation already happening in the nonprofit arts community that extends beyond Poets House.
“The issues that led up to the desire to unionize are not specific to this organization,” said Crumpacker. “Lots of nonprofits with wonderful missions have these problems, but a reckoning hasn’t really happened.” She added that Poets House’s longtime female leaders, Executive Director Lee Briccetti and Managing Director Jane Preston — who some ex-staff charge with perpetuating workplace dysfunctions — have also likely faced sexism and other forms of discrimination in their own careers.
“Maybe they’ve just become so inured to it that they don’t recognize it needs to be addressed and called out,” Crumpacker said.
Belladonna*, said Wilson, was founded on a commitment to anti-sexism. “We honor Lee’s work and recognize her as a strong woman leader,” she said. Another core piece of Belladonna*’s mission, however, is “caring for the material lives of writers.”
“The important thing is that the staff didn’t call out the organization and attack their leadership. They unionized,” Wilson said. “They chose proper, responsible, due diligence — and they were punished for it.”
Read the open letter, in full, below. Signatures can be added to the letter here.
* * *
December 1, 2020
To the Board of Poets House,
We are writing from a place of interest and concern. We love the mission of Poets House and recognize the tremendous amount of work, love and generosity that Lee Briccetti and Jane Preston have put into its development in their many years of leadership. We respect many of the Board members of Poets House as people and professionals, and we honor the Board’s commitment to sustaining Poets House during a profound national crisis. However, we are saddened and deeply unsettled that, through whatever combination of financial and intra-staff/management crises, the organization has fired its entire staff in an abrupt, unkind, and otherwise questionable manner. The press release issued by the Board and management does little, by our read, as people deeply enmeshed in poetry organizations, to assuage the appearance of anti-union, anti-whistleblower retaliation around the timing of this extraordinary move.
All nonprofits and many businesses have been damaged by the many ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. We mourn the diminishment and loss of many wonderful organizations, and hope that those able to continue operating will find the support they need to stay afloat. We assume that Poets House availed itself of the many sources of assistance available (from PPP support to EIDL loans etc.) and considered ethical options such as staff and management-wide pay cuts, increased board giving and decreased overhead, before firing staff in a time of nearly unprecedented difficulty for families and individuals. Is there a reason that the organization did not opt, as most have, for furloughs, if there was in fact an intention to reopen in several months? Did Poets House doubt that, had it allowed its staff to stay on and construct an impassioned community-wide fundraising campaign, the wider community would not dig deep and pull through for our beloved space?
Without pretending to be versed in the full specifics of institutional culture at Poets House, the grievances we are reading about are familiar to us: a personality-driven system of management; exploitative wage labor structures that use the poverty of poetry to take advantage of committed workers, who are often young; desired donors actively being protected from having to reckon with or curb their racist and transmisogynist habits. These are dishonorable and corrosive practices that your staff was correct to call out — for their own workplace environment and for the larger causes at hand.
During the uprisings this past Spring, many corporate and non-profit organizations embarked upon deep reckoning and examination as to how discriminatory bias pervades institutional cultures and structures. To do so, to dive deep and reimagine, is not to disappear but to become more alive, participatory, engaged and sustainable. We applaud your staff for providing you with the opportunity to grow, for offering leadership through a move toward institutional accountability and equity—a gift for which you appear to have summarily and brutally punished them.
To what end?
What is being protected?
Why squash opportunity for change, growth and new possibility?
We feel confident there are better options.
As a community that loves and supports Poets House, we are asking for a full and transparent accounting of what happened and why. We are deeply concerned at the apparent lack of care for a staff that is clearly competent and committed. We assume that management will draw full salaries during the transitional period while staff receive three hours notice that they are fired from modest-wage positions. Urging you to reconsider and reverse the firings that took place on November 16, we ask that you commit to dignified working conditions and that you allow the emergence of a collective bargaining unit. As your community, your supporters, and your audience, we want our Poets House to be on the right side of this conversation and this cultural moment. Anything less than will be interpreted as a closing of ranks, a commitment to business as usual, and a willingness to lose the vitality earned from the vibrant relationship that Poets House has had with poetry communities and beyond all these years. Of course, meeting the staff’s concerns will be difficult. We believe your mission and our poetry community are worth the effort.
We want to support an organization that shows trust and faith in its staff and a willingness to take on racism and sexism within its community. We want other organizations to learn by your example (take note) because they are no different. There is no poetry in exploiting workers and protecting power. We ask you for an honest engagement with your community. We ask you to commit resources not to lawyers and stonewalling but to positive change. We ask you to accept the need to change and respond ethically, with care for all concerned. We are here to support that effort however we can.
Rachael Guynn Wilson, Belladonna* Collaborative member; Managing Editor, Litmus Press
Rachel Levitsky, Founding Editor, Belladonna* Collaborative; Professor of Writing, Pratt Institute
Caroline Crumpacker, Belladonna* Collaborative member, poet
Celina Su, Belladonna* author, Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies, City University of New York
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Belladonna* Author, Artist, MFA of the Americas, Stetson University
Kimberly Alidio, Belladonna* Collaborative member, Belladonna* author, poet
erica kaufman, Director, Bard College Institute for Writing & Thinking
Jennifer Firestone, Associate Professor of Literary Studies, Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School
Emily Skillings, Poet; Belladonna* Collaborative member; Lecturer in English, Yale University
Stacy Szymaszek, former Director of The Poetry Project, poet.
Marcella Durand, Belladonna* Collaborative member, poet
James Loop, Program Coordinator, Belladonna* Collaborative; Poet
Barbara Henning, poet and Professor Emerita, Long Island University, Brooklyn.
Erica Hunt, Poet, Bonderman Visiting Professor of Literary Practice, Brown University
Maryam Parhizkar, poet, Belladonna* Collaborative board member, Ph.D. Candidate, Yale University
Tonya M. Foster, Poet, Lisa Goldberg Fellow, Radcliffe Institute; George and Judy Marcus Endowed
Chair in Poetry, San Francisco State University (2021)
Sarah Riggs, Poet and Translator of Poetry, Founding Director of Tamaas /Earth Arts Justice
Carla Harryman, Belladonna* author; Professor, Eastern Michigan University; Member, EMU-AAUP
Dawn Lundy Martin, Toi Derricotte Chair in English, Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, University of Pittsburgh
Saretta Morgan, Belladonna* Collaborative Member, Poet, Faculty Associate Arizona State University
William Mazza, painter, digital and print designer, former Belladonna* Collaborative board member
Emilie Clark, Artist, Executive Director of the NY Arts Program, Belladonna* Collaborative board member
Ariana Reines, Poet, Founding Director, INVISIBLE COLLEGE, MDiv 2022, Harvard Divinity School
Christina Davis, poet and curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University
Zoe Tuck, Poet and literary Jill-of-all-trades
Asiya Wadud, Belladonna* Collaborative member, Writer
E. Tracy Grinnell, Litmus Press Founding Editor & Director, Poet
Farid Matuk, Poet, Associate Professor, University of Arizona
Susan Briante, Writing, Professor, University of Arizona
San D. Henry-Smith, Artist, Poet Omar Berrada, Poet, translator, and curator Matvei Yankelevich, Ugly Duckling Presse Bob Holman, Bowery Poetry Club HR Hegnauer, Belladonna Collaborative Member, Senior Book Designer, Poet
Kyle Dacuyan, The Poetry Project, poet
Andrea Abi-Karam, The Poetry Project, poet
Cathy Linh Che, Executive Director at Kundiman, Poets House Fellow, Poet
Quentin Ring, Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center
Mahogany L. Browne, Bowery Poetry Club
Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, Unterberg Poetry Center, poet and translator
Wo Chan, Poets House Fellow, Poet and Performer
Ricardo Hernandez, Poets House Fellow
Christina Olivares, Poet and Educator
Tongo Eisen-Martin, Poet
Roberto Montes, The Poetry Project, poet
Annabel Lee, board member The Poetry Project, publisher Vehicle Editions, poet
Nicole Wallace, The Poetry Project, poet
(A complete list of signatories can be found here.)
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.