The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Poetry Society of America—Free Speech in Peril

Literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.
—Chief Justice William O Douglas


Alice QuinnThe following open letter was sent on 28 January 2008.  Nobody responded.  Evidently, those at Poetry Society of America are not proponents of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy.  They are proponents of corporate-friendly, established-order poetry.  After the letter follows an interesting NY Times article regarding the society.  Depicted as a prostitute in the watercolor to the right is Alice Quinn, the society's executive director, a former New Yorker editor. 
Open Letter to the Poetry Society of America
Dear Brett Fletcher Lauer, Managing Director& Awards Coordinator, Robert Casper, Programs Director, and Anita Naegeli, Poetry in Motion® Director & Membership Coordinator (,, 
This email is addressed to you since Alice Quinn, Executive Director, has chosen not to include an email address on the PSA website.  Please share it with her. 

Is there anyone at all on the Poetry Society of America staff that would be interested in a case of blatant censorship/banning of a poet by the Academy of American Poets ?  Or is the PSA thickly entwined with the latter?  Is there any room at all for dissidence in the ranks?  Does PSA possess a statement regarding censorship, the First Amendment, and vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy?  In vain, I tried to interest the chancellors of the AAP.  Only three responded and all were clearly in favor of censoring anybody deemed impolite.  Of course, impoliteness is quite subjective and any proponent of democracy and free speech would never agree to permit it to have priority over vigorous debate, especially in academe and the literary milieu.  Details of the incident, as well as the entire uncensored transcript can be found at  Hopefully, one of you will prove interested in this case. 

On another note, though really the same note, do you think the PSA and AAP do not at all favor vigorous debate (hardcore criticism), especially when instigated by someone like me from outside the academic/literary established order milieu, who does vocally question and challenge the canon, its institutions and icons, and generally stands in direct opposition to the accepted/acceptable (careerist) poets of the milieu.  As an example and to test the waters of democracy in the milieu, I sent out a questionnaire regarding censorship, amongst other things, to over 130 high-end literary journals, including Poetry, Kenyon Review, and Prairie Schooner.  Only a handful deigned to respond and only one of them actually filled it out.  (No time?  But no time for vigorous debate and democracy?)  Also, I’d sent out a highly critical essay on the subject to over 50 high-end literary journals.  Only several responded.  The essay was eventually published by two non-academic journals, one paying $150 for it. 

Finally, do you believe that the fabrication and promotion of poet icons like Muldoon, Collins, Pinsky et al serve poetry well, or should ideas be more important than celebrities?  Shouldn’t people be encouraged to question and challenge the verse and behavior of such icons, rather than blindly admiring it and them?  Wouldn’t that too better serve poetry?  In fact, what precisely does “distinguished poet/scholars” (the term is yours) often imply, if not high-networking careerists who played the poetry game carefully, making sure never to perturb, offend, or otherwise make waves and go against the literary established-order grain?  Is PSA at all open to poets not of that ilk?  If so, why doesn’t it invite dissident poets in the context of its “Branching Out” program (those without three good letters of recommendation, tenure, inbred titles and prize credentials)? 

Why is vigorous debate seemingly absent in the milieu, which has taken on a kind of liberal fascist air?  Why has networking for poets become so much more important than truth telling today?  Will this very email render me persona non grata at PSA, as I am today at AAP?  Do you perceive it as a definite example of impoliteness?  And that is probably the key question in this “open letter.”  Your silence will certainly be worth more than one of those pictures worth a thousand words. 

BTW, why not reserve a little corner of your website to hardcore criticism of PSA and established-order poets?  That would certainly give you greater credibility and even permit you to more fully abide by the federal 501 c3 nonprofit regulation theoretically compelling you to offer a forum where all sides of issues are permitted voice so that the public be fully informed and be able to judge for itself.  You could place this letter in such a corner.  Who knows?  It could even provoke a little unorthodox vigorous debate in the milieu.  Any chance of getting The American Dissident listed on your resources page?  Thank you very much for your attention.

Date:  Mon, 28 Jan 2008 07:56:38 -0800 (PST)
From:  "George Slone" <>
Subject: Query

YAHOO.Shortcuts.hasSensitiveText = false; YAHOO.Shortcuts.sensitivityType = []; YAHOO.Shortcuts.doUlt = false; YAHOO.Shortcuts.location = "us"; YAHOO.Shortcuts.lang = "us"; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_id = 0; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_type = ""; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_title = ""; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_publish_date = ""; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_author = ""; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_url = ""; YAHOO.Shortcuts.document_tags = ""; YAHOO.Shortcuts.annotationSet = { "lw_1201535806_0": { "text": "", "extended": 0, "startchar": 1203, "endchar": 1230, "start": 1203, "end": 1230, "extendedFrom": "", "predictedCategory": "", "predictionProbability": "0", "weight": 1, "type": ["shortcuts:/us/instance/identifier/hyperlink/http"], "category": ["IDENTIFIER"], "context": "the academic/literary established order milieu 1837 Main St Concord MA", "metaData": { "linkHref": "", "linkProtocol": "http", "linkRel": "nofollow", "linkTarget": "_blank" } }, "lw_1201535806_1": { "text": "1837 Main St. Concord, MA 01742", "extended": 0, "startchar": 1381, "endchar": 1596, "start": 1381, "end": 1596, "extendedFrom": "", "predictedCategory": "", "predictionProbability": "0", "weight": 0.99787, "type": ["shortcuts:/us/instance/place/us/street"], "category": ["PLACE"], "context": "academic/literary established order milieu 1837 Main St Concord MA 01742 Never miss a thing Make", "metaData": { "geoArea": "2.3885", "geoBldgNumber": "1837", "geoCountry": "United States", "geoCounty": "Middlesex", "geoIsoCountryCode": "US", "geoLocation": "(-71.347778, 42.459961)", "geoName": "Concord", "geoPlaceType": "Street", "geoState": "Massachusetts", "geoStateCode": "MA", "geoStreetName": "Main St", "geoTown": "Concord", "geoZip": "01742", "type": "shortcuts:/us/instance/place/us/street" } } }; YAHOO.Shortcuts.overlaySpaceId = "97546169"; YAHOO.Shortcuts.hostSpaceId = "97546168"; Hi again.  Would you please consider listing me on your website as an organization.  What the American Dissident does is unique for it actually encourages and offers a forum for vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy.  You list Concord Poetry Center.  Well, that Center despises such debate.  Or just call me angry and impolite and keep your doors to democracy hermetically closed to outsiders.
Date:  Wed, 26 Mar 2008 02:38:59 -0700 (PDT)
From:  "George Slone" <>
Subject: Query #2

Dear Brett Fletcher Lauer, Robert Casper, Ira Sher (Society of American Poets):
No response from you at all regarding my request to be listed on your website made several months ago.  Must I list you with other censoring literary and academic organizations, including the Academy of American Poets?  How can poets purportedly interested in literature be so indifferent to the censorship effected by their colleagues?  Will you respond?  Or do you enjoy remaining ignorant that VIGOROUS DEBATE is the cornerstone of democracy? 


The following account of life in the established-order Poetry Society of America serves as a great contrast to what The American Dissident believes poets should be.
Poetry Prize Sets off Resignations at Society
By Motoko Rich, September 27, 2007, NY Times

The cloistered community of American poetry has, in recent months, become a little less like Yeats’s Land of Faery, where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue, and a little more like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
The board of the 97-year-old Poetry Society of America, whose members have included many of the most august names in verse, has been rocked by a string of resignations and accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism and simple bad management.
The recent turmoil was driven, partly, by fierce discussion among board members earlier this year after they voted to award the Frost Medal, an annual honor given by the society, to John Hollander, a prolific poet and critic. The concern was whether it was proper to take into consideration some past remarks made by Mr. Hollander — remarks that some felt were disturbing — in bestowing the medal. Of course, as with many a board squabble, personality disputes and misunderstandings also played their part in the fracas.
Last Friday, William Louis-Dreyfus, who had been president of the board for the last six years, officially stepped down and quit the board, becoming the fifth person on the 19-member board to resign this year. This spring Walter Mosley, the novelist, resigned, and he was later joined by Elizabeth Alexander, a poet and professor of African-American and American studies at Yale University; Rafael Campo, a poet and professor at Harvard Medical School; and Mary Jo Salter, a poet and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who runs an international commodities trading and shipping firm and dabbles in writing poetry, said he resigned partly to protest what he regarded as an “exercise of gross reactionary thinking” among the other board members who left in the wake of the award to Mr. Hollander, a retired English professor at Yale.
When Mr. Hollander was considered for the award three years ago, some members raised comments he had made in interviews, reviews and elsewhere that they felt should be examined when judging his candidacy. In one example, Mr. Hollander, writing a rave review in The New York Times Book Review of the collected poems of Jay Wright, an African-American poet, referred to “cultures without literatures — West African, Mexican and Central American.” And in an interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” a reporter paraphrased Mr. Hollander as contending “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.”
Other board members said they felt that such comments were not characteristic of Mr. Hollander’s views or had been misinterpreted. Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said that even if the comments were representative, they were irrelevant criteria for judging the Frost Medal, just as he would argue that Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism should not detract from the literary appreciation of his work.
In some ways the questions about Mr. Hollander’s remarks reflect a broader debate over whether the evaluation of artistic merit should be affected by the sometimes unsavory opinions or actions of the artist. Last year, for example, Germany was stunned when Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize winner, confessed that he had joined the Waffen SS, the military branch of the Nazis, when he was 17. At the time, some people argued that he should renounce his Nobel.
At the Poetry Society the stakes are much lower, and nobody has suggested that Mr. Hollander should be stripped of the Frost Medal, which is given for “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.” Late last year, at the hastily called and poorly attended meeting where the board again discussed him as a finalist for the award, his previous remarks did not come up again.
But when an e-mail message went out to the board announcing that Mr. Hollander had won the vote, Mr. Mosley replied with his own succinct message: “My reaction to this decision is to announce my resignation.”
Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who immediately assumed that Mr. Mosley was quitting because of objections to Mr. Hollander’s previous comments, wrote a reply to Mr. Mosley that he copied to all members of the board. In an interview, Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said he objected to Mr. Mosley’s resignation because “it seemed to me to be based on an inappropriate reason that didn’t have anything to do with the quality of Hollander’s work, which is what the Frost Medal is given for.”
In an interview Mr. Mosley declined to comment on whether Mr. Hollander’s remarks had influenced his decision. He said he resigned from the Poetry Society because the decision to give the medal to Mr. Hollander “represents a conservative trend on the board that I don’t think is at all inclusive to all the elements of poetry and all the people of poetry.” Since 1941, out of 38 winners of the Frost medal, only three have been nonwhite.
Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, however, focused on what he believed were Mr. Mosley’s motives — namely, protesting Mr. Hollander’s extra-poetic remarks. “It’s as if you have to approve of the man’s politics before you can praise his poetry,” Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said. “I am terrified of McCarthyism in whatever clothes it wears.”
Mr. Mosley described Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s use of terms like “McCarthyism” as “ridiculous hyperbole.”
Troubled by Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s tone, Ms. Alexander, Mr. Campo and Ms. Salter wrote their own responses. When Mr. Louis-Dreyfus subsequently accused them of McCarthyism and reactionary behavior, they resigned from the board.
Ms. Alexander declined to comment publicly on the board’s deliberations. But in an e-mailed statement, she wrote: “Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s persistent mischaracterization of the words and intentions of PSA board members including myself surrounding the awarding of the Frost medal and subsequent private board business is disturbing. I resent his inflammatory invective and willful misstatement of events. My own life’s work is guided by and devoted to principles that are utterly anti-‘reactionary’ and counter to anything that might remotely be deemed ‘McCarthyism.’”
Mr. Campo and Ms. Salter declined to comment on the dispute other than to emphasize that they had not resigned because Mr. Hollander won the Frost Medal. “I resigned because of my displeasure at the way Mr. Louis-Dreyfus dealt with people on the board about their conflicting views on this and other matters,” Ms. Salter wrote in an e-mail message.
Similarly, Mr. Campo wrote in an e-mail message that his resignation “had more to do with how our then-President Mr. Louis-Dreyfus handled the concerns of Board members.”
Mr. Hollander could not be reached for comment.
Ruth Kaplan, who was elected board president on Friday, said that “a central part of the Poetry Society of America’s mission is to represent the rich diversity of voices in American poetry.” She added that the society sponsored programs like Poetry in Motion, which places poems in public transit and gives “voice to poets of all backgrounds,” and an annual Festival of New American Poets, which has introduced 60 poets from different cultures in the last five years.
Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said he regretted the resignations, but said, “I think that new blood is a good thing.” As for his own actions, he said, “I have no regrets, just as I would have none if I’d lived in McCarthy’s days and had not succumbed to that particular hysteria.”