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  • Unmasking the “Gods of Poetry”: Race and the Academy of American Poets *

Editor’s Note: The following letter and essay by Fred Viebahn, criticizing the Academy of American Poets for persistent racism on its board of chancellors, were first published in International Quarterly (Summer, 1998). Although the letter and essay speak for themselves, the reactions they provoked deserve mention here.

A short editorial regarding Fred Viebahn’s essay appeared in Poets & Writers (July/August, 1998) and was followed by two letters to the editor in the September/October issue of the same periodical. One of the letters was by Asian American writer David Mura, who forcefully supported Fred Viebahn’s point of view, and the other letter was by Kathleen Norris, a former Academy of American Poets employee who attacked Viebahn without bothering to read his original statement. Fred Viebahn responded with his own letter to the editor, which was printed, in substantially abbreviated form, in Poets &Writers (November/December, 1998), accompanied by an immediate reply from Kathleen Norris and a long statement from two senior Academy of American Poets officers assailing Fred Viebahn for his “destructive, polarizing rhetoric” and “demagoguery.” Fred Viebahn responded again in early November but was told by the editor of Poets & Writers that his response would not be printed. When Viebahn protested this decision, the editor of Poets & Writers broke off all communication.

The situation took a dramatic turn on November 10, 1998, when two of the Academy’s chancellors, Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Carolyn Kizer and Maxine Kumin, resigned from the Academy’s board of chancellors in protest, citing Fred Viebahn’s journalistic initiative as crucial for their decision. At this point, the affair has made the pages of the New York Times and, subsequently, the radio waves of public broadcasting. And yet, as of this writing, no other chancellor has stood up to be counted, and the senior officers of the Academy of American Poets, both of them white men, have maintained their defensive stance, calling Fred Viebahn’s accusations “totally unfair” (New York Times, Nov. 14, 1998) and claiming that, although there has never been a non-white poet on their board of chancellors, they have minority members on their board of directors and among their staff. Callaloo’s investigation of the matter showed that there is one black member among the 26 directors of the Academy of American Poets—for a number of years the Cuban-American composer Tania Leon, who was replaced in 1998, curiously enough, by another Caribbean-American, the novelist Jamaica Kincaid.

It might be of interest here to note that until 1987—over half a century since the organization’s founding—there were neither African Americans nor Jews among the directors, nor were there ever, at least until recently, any people of color or “minorities” among the Academy’s senior members, its power brokers and decision-makers. Therefore to suggest, as the Academy’s defenders do, that “minorities” among the junior staff might help to balance [End Page ix] the ethnic picture seems no different from wealthy white families citing their relationship with their black household help as proof of racial sensitivity.

To give Callaloo’s readers a chance to draw their own conclusions, we are also printing, following Fred Viebahn’s essay, his letters to Poets & Writers, the magazine published bi-monthly by the New York-based literary service organization of the same name—and, as this issue of the journal goes to press, a final editorial statement concerning the latest twist in this saga.

—Charles H. Rowell

The following letter, originally sent by Fred Viebahn to about 50 literary friends and acquaintances, was reprinted in a sidebar in the International Quarterly essay.

February 6, 1998

Dear Stanley,

I just read an interview with you in the Fall 1997 issue of American Poet, the journal of the Academy of American Poets. I sympathized very much with what you said—it’s no secret that I have been impressed with your views and your writings since I first met you 22 years ago, on that wintry day at the Library of Congress when I and my eleven fellow writers from Germany were introduced by our State Department...

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