In the literary world, Poetry magazine, published by the almost staggeringly wealthy (by literary world standards) Poetry Foundation, is considered the publication of record for the industry. Its struggles to include voices not belonging to white people, specifically those not belonging to white men, have also been well-documented. Most recently last summer, when 1,800 people called out Poetry and the Poetry Foundation for its tone-deaf and superficial commitment to “engaging in this work to eradicate institutional racism” as a response to the police murders of Black people and nationwide protests against the ongoing violence. Perhaps as a misguided attempt to make good on whatever that promise was, Poetry dedicated its February issue to elevating the voices of the incarcerated, among them a white male professor and sex offender who recently served time for possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography.
In 2015, Kirk Nesset, a former literature professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, pled guilty to storing “half a million images of child pornography, child erotica and child modeling on his computer” following an FBI and state police investigation, resulting in a six-year and four-month sentence. He was released in September and now can boast a byline in one of the biggest poetry publications in the world—one that accepts just 12 percent of the poems submitted by hopeful writers the world over—not in spite of but because of the fact that he stored hundreds of thousands of images depicting child torture and got caught. Understandably, subscribers to the magazine as well as people interested in de-platforming pedophiles were unhappy with the decision. Nearly as baffling, Poetry decided to issue a statement on the matter with a four-message reply to a tweet from an account with less than 200 followers:
“People in prison have been sentenced & are serving/have served those sentences; it is not our role to further judge or punish them as a result of their criminal convictions. As editors, our role is to read poems & facilitate conversations around contemporary poetry,” lectured one message.
Whoever was posting on behalf of Poetry went on to explain that editors did not know that the poet was a convicted sex offender in the interest of fairness or something:
“The editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison & to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against & barriers for incarcerated people. As such, the guest editors didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds.”
However, this response does not touch on the fact that once the poetry was chosen, there was ostensibly a team of seasoned magazine editors who were privy to the names of the authors slated for publication. And those editors either did not check to make sure none of the poets had committed crimes pertaining to the sexual assaults of hundreds of thousands of children or did not care.
The goal of Poetry’s issue focused on incarcerated voices could have been noble, and many of the poets featured either have family members who have been trapped in a historically racist, classist, and abusive approach to criminal justice that has been the shame of America for hundreds of years or have first-hand experience with the prison industrial complex for offenses that do not involve child rape. Publishing Nesset’s work side-by-side with that of Justin Rovillos Monson, a PEN America writing for justice fellow who is currently serving 13-40 years for armed robbery attempting to examine both his punishment and his crime through poetry, with no context actually does the opposite of “bearing in mind biases,” suggesting that Nesset’s and Monson’s circumstances deserve equal consideration. Kirk Nesset has already been given opportunities many could never dream of, including a scarce, secure job at a university, a pretty light sentence for directly contributing to assaults on children, and now a chance to include a publication in Poetry on his CV. It truly begs the question: What the fuck does a white man have to do to fail?
Jezebel has reached out to the Poetry Foundation for comment and will update with any response.
Update, February 5, 2021: The Poetry Foundation has released a statement apologizing for inadequate preparation and promises to be “more thoughtful” in the future, whatever that means:
“In publishing an issue focusing on incarcerated writers we accepted that submissions would come from poets who have harmed others. We apologize that we were not prepared to adequately respond to and support survivors upon release of this issue.”
Oddly, they did not apologize for the poor understanding of incarcerated people they displayed in the apology. But maybe next time. Read the full statement here.