Saturday, January 30, 2021

Black Poets and the Academy of American Poets

On January 14, the Academy of American Poets announced that poets Natalie Diaz, Nikky Finney, and Tracy K. Smith were elected to its Board of Chancellors. The announcement received relatively little fanfare. Nonetheless the Academy is been vital for awarding several prizes to African American poets in the twenty-first century in particular.

The appointment of Diaz, Finney, and Smith also serves as a moment to reflect on how the organization shifted from an all-white, mostly male Board of Chancellors to its current status: 10 women and 5 men, with 9 poets of color, that is, three black women, three black men, two Native Americans, and one Asian American. 

The Board of Chancellors was established in 1946, but it did not start having Boards of majority non-white people until now. In 1998, a writer, Fred Viebahn, who is white, publicly criticized the Academy of American Poets for its lack of Black poets on its Board of Chancellors. (Viebahn is the husband of poet Rita Dove). 

In a letter to Stanley Kunitz, who was Academy Chancellor Emeritus, Viebhan raised a series of searing questions concerning Board meetings: 

Did the "Whites Only" question ever come up among the chancellors?  If no, how self-centered and otherworldly can twelve poets be in one room?  If yes, what kind of inane, pseudo-intellectual Jim Crow arguments were brought forth to keep this bastion of rarefied wordsmiths free from the "dark forces"?  It can't be that there were no qualified minority poets, can it?

Viebhan's advocacy and agitation prompted or was part of ongoing changes. For one, Carolyn Kizer and Maxine Kumin who were chancellors at the time, resigned from their positions in November 1998. Kizer complained at the time: "There's never been a black woman chancellor."

In 1999, the Academy appointed its first Black chancellors: Lucille Clifton and Yusef Komunyakaa. The Academy had invited Jay Wright, but he declined. In 2005, as the terms on the board expired for Komunyakaa and Clifton, Dove was elected as a Chancellor. In 2006, Carl Phillips was elected.

Between 2012 and 2021, ten African American poets were appointed to the Board: Toi Derricotte (2012), Claudia Rankine (2013), Marilyn Nelson (2013), Elizabeth Alexander (2015), Natasha Trethewey (2016), Terrance Hayes (2017), Kwame Dawes (2018), Kevin Young (2020), Nikky Finney (2021), and Tracy K. Smith (2021). 

In addition to advising the academy, since 1994, the Chancellors selected the winners of the Wallace Stevens Award (previously known as the Tanning Prize). At $100,000, the award is one of the country's largest literary prizes. So far, of the twenty-seven recipients, four have been African American: Finney (2020), Dove (2019), Sanchez (2018), and Komunyakaa (2011). 

Among various other awards, the Academy also sponsors an annual fellowship. Of the eighty-four recipients, nine have been African American, six of whom were recipients during the twenty-first century. 

During the past two decades, the increased number of African American recipients of poetry awards inevitably corresponded to the increased number of African American Board of Chancellors.   

So far, the African American recipients of the Academy's annual fellowship and the Wallace Steven  awards, notwithstanding Sanchez, are known as print-based poets. Perhaps the recent attention gained by Amanda Gorman as well as the fact that the Academy's website Poets.org acknowledged that interest in Gorman dramatically drove the highest traffic to their site might lead to support for African American spoken word artists. But I'm not so sure. 

The only way that we'll see more spoken word artists become recipients is when and if organizations like the Academy first appoint spoken word artists as judges. 


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