In 2002, Ruth Lilly left two hundred million dollars to the Poetry Foundation, which has used the money for endowments and to create a truly exceptional database of poets featuring sample poems and clips of the poets reading their own work. They also built a headquarters featuring a poetry library and an exhibition space.
But poet Sandra Simonds thinks they should do more. She wrote an open letter to the Foundation earlier this month, the nut of which is here:
Many poets and I are concerned about the welfare of the many poets facing unprecedented economic challenges in this unstable economy. In the last year or two, a number of poets, old and young, established and emerging, have asked for financial assistance on social media and through email for healthcare costs, rent, and even utilities. It is heartbreaking when poets you have admired for years are forced to ask for help with basic necessities. The poetry community is strong. We help each other when our members are in need, and many poets have answered those calls for assistance. We are asking you to contribute to this effort.
A petition to urge the Poetry Foundation to "make a strong financial commitment to aid poets in need" now has almost a thousand signatures. On the other hand, an anonymous author wrote an open letter for HTMLGiant arguing against Simonds:
How do the struggles of everyday Americans differ, and to what degree, from those problems faced by the poetry community? As poets, we make a decision at some point or another to devote as much of our life to our craft as possible. In dong so, we must acknowledge that to identify as a poet (or artist in general) is a privilege in and of itself; one that comes at certain costs. Primarily, a life of potential financial hardship. But I ask you, Sandra, what American today does not face similar uncertainties facing their financial future?
This is tricky business. Obviously, nobody should be financially imperiled because of their health situation. But if the Foundation devoted more resources to poets in need, how would they determine who was enough of a poet to warrant their help? There will be hundreds of open mics around the country tonight featuring people who would call themselves poets. Do all of them deserve financial support from the Poetry Foundation if they're in need? Or do only published poets warrant this kind of help? What about self-published poets? Does a poet have to be famous before they get help?
One could argue that the Poetry Foundation is less a project in service of poets than a project in service of readers of poetry. It makes poetry available for free to anyone with an internet connection; that's an invaluable service. Is it possible for the Foundation to be a health care provider for poets in need and (arguably) the most important American resource for poetry in the digital age? Is that goal even realistic?