Poetry Society of America, Don't You Like Black Babies?

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Y’all, the Poetry Society of America is now the talk of the Colored People Poets of America today. Apparently, writer Fred Viebahn, the husband of poet Rita Dove, has sent an email of protest to the Poetry Society of America’s director, Alice Quinn about their gallery of baby pictures of poets. There are no African American/Black/Negro/Biracial of African Descent poets anywhere in this baby picture gallery. Here’s Poet Gallery One and then Poet Gallery Two. See for yourself.

I have included Mr. Fred’s letter below. (Hat tip to a Fabulous Poet Diva for sharing this email with me. I don’t know if she wants me to mention her name, so I won’t for the time being.)

But before I do share this particular new letter, I gotta tell you that this is NOT the first time Mr. Fred has exposed these sort of “unconscious” racially exclusionary tactics of nearly all-white creative writing organizations that also grant money.

Twelve years ago, Mr. Fred forced a national conversation about the fact that the Academy of American Poets had NO BLACK POETS OR POETS OF COLOR on their board. And when I say “national,” I mean, it was on NPR and everything. I tried to find the link to the audio, but I couldn’t. (If anyone can find it, please email me with the information). So here’s the link to the article about it in The New York Times.

Also, there’s another NY TImes link in the letter but it doesn’t seem to be working. So you can click THIS one and it will take you to the article that Mr. Fred describes as the “tawdry little episode.”

Now, read how Mr. Fred is still dropping dimes and taking names in the 21st century.


To: Alice Quinn, executive director, Poetry Society of America

Dear Alice,

In researching an article about American poetry for a German
publication, I just happened upon the Poetry Society of America’s online
exhibit “When they were very young”, of which the Society has now
published two parts showcasing childhood photos of American poets. What
struck me immediately is the _total_ lack of African-American poets
among the 28 depicted! I’m not only incensed by such
stunning insensitivity but dumbfounded by the Society’s obtuseness.
Wasn’t the PSA embroiled in a controversy just a couple of years ago,
when the Frost medal was awarded to John Hollander, a poet whose most
recent claim to infamy had been a number of arrogant racist
remarks? Have you learned nothing from that tawdry little
episode (http://www.nytimes.com/200 7/09/27/books/27poet.html)?

But here we go again. Watching this kind of ethnic brutishness crop up
again and again over the more than thirty years I’ve been in the United
States is disheartening, to say the least, especially when it involves
people who pride themselves on their poetic perceptiveness. Please don’t
add insult to injury by telling me there are several African-American
poets on a future roster but that you haven’t gotten around to digging
up their childhood photos yet. I’m sure it can’t be too difficult to
find youthful pictures of prominent African American poets. For example,
here’s an easy one: All you had to do is check my wife Rita Dove’s
readily Google-able and accessible website, where you could have found
a-plenty: http://people.virginia.edu/~rfd4b/1952-1957/index.html
<http://people.virginia.edu/%7Erfd4b/1952-1957/index.html> &
<http://people.virginia.edu/%7Erfd4b/1958-64/index.html>. But maybe a
Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate doesn’t meet
the standards of a Society that honors people like Mr. Hollander, who
believes that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets

Gazing at the assembled photos in the Poetry Society’s exhibit “When
they were very young”, I am baffled and profoundly saddened. What else
but plain racist is this exclusionary spectacle? Intentional or
inadvertent, the message is clear: We are most certainly not living in a
post-racial America.

All best,
Fred Viebahn

0 thoughts on “Poetry Society of America, Don't You Like Black Babies?

  1. (this comment was censored from the comment stream at harriet, thought i’d try it here…)

    ja, not sure why you would think the comments weren’t censored. harriet frequently censors comment streams that don’t resemble warm fuzzies. i’ve been censored myself on this site. it’s not something i find intellectually or constitutionally endearing at all.

    now, mr viebahn, with all due respect, though i don’t know her at all, based on my reading of her very awkward yet professional response to your very public accusations, i sincerely doubt alice quinn is a racist. if the omissions in question were insensitive or clueless, then you should have given ms quinn the chance to remedy this situation in private. if you were not satisfied with her response to your keen and correct observations, then sure, let’s go ahead publicly smear this woman with a headline or two.

    in other words, if ms dove were my wife and i noticed her absence from the project in question, i would have privately back-channeled ms quinn the darling photo you’ve shown us here. if, for some reason, ms quinn did not respond positively to your suggestion for inclusion of a former poet laureate of the united states of america, then once again, i would say publicly off with her head; but you’ve got to give people a chance, particularly on the internet where things do progress at a much more rapid and less careful pace. most people really have no clue, these days, about what they are doing–and to whom. i do, however, and that’s why i’m frequently censored by myself and the warm fuzzy people.

    regardless, i do hope you get the desired result from this situation, and i hope this wasn’t just some kind of publicity stunt to attract attention to the poetry society of america. i mean, really, besides you, who are they attracting to their site?

    also, one last thought of course: i’m wondering how ms dove actually feels about the exhibit’s apparent lack of diversity?

    1. Hey there SassJemLeon:

      I’m a little concerned about the “off with her head” comment concerning Alice Quinn, but I’m going to assume this is metaphorical.:-) I don’t censor comments on my blog unless people just act completely crazy–that hasn’t happened yet.

      Take care,

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