This February’s issue of Poetry magazine is meant as a statement. The magazine is filled by poems and artwork by incarcerated people, former prisoners, and the relatives of prisoners. These are people whose work isn’t typically seen in literary journals, and Joshua Bennett, one of the issue’s three guest editors, is upfront about his aims in publishing the work of incarcerated writers: The issue is dedicated, Bennett writes in his introduction, “to the abolition of interlocking systems of capture and control which seek to limit their life chances.”
The issue went online Monday. Within days, it was embroiled in controversy, as readers found among the poets a former English professor at Allegheny College, Kirk Nesset, who was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography in 2015.
A petition was launched—it currently has been signed by more than 1,000 people—to urge Poetry to remove Nesset’s poem, “One Place Is as Good as the Next,” from the site, and to apologize “to Nesset’s voiceless victims, their readers and subscribers, and victims of sexual violence everywhere.” “That such an established publication would use their widely-read and highly selective platform to further the work and career of a predator cannot be labeled an oversight, nor defended,” the petition reads. “It is an offensive and a destructive misuse of power.”
This struck me as absurd. It is clear that Kirk Nesset did terrible things—the prosecutor in his case told reporters that Nesset’s computer held “the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.” But any arts program focused on prison populations, as a matter of course, is going to interact with—even support the work of—people who have done terrible things. They’re not all going to be Jean Valjean. But they are all people.
This is a standard point in arts programs for imprisoned people. “We don’t want to see them as their crime,” Robby Henson told me. “We want to see them as a human being.” Henson is the director of Voices Inside, a theater-in-prisons program run by the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, Kentucky. Henson says that he, and other volunteers with the program, generally tries not to ask participants about the reasons for their imprisonment.
Poetry took the same tack in creating its special issue, which has been in the works since 2017. The three guest editors—alongside Bennett, there’s Sarah Ross, a co-director of Chicago’s Prison + Neighborhoods Arts/Education Project, and Tara Betts, a poet who’s worked with PNAP—were given blind submissions, without identifying information attached about the writers’ crimes. Betts writes in her introduction to the issue:
The contributors, who are often no longer perceived as people in the non-incarcerated world, are indeed human. Many of them have partners, families, friends, and try to help other people. Some of them have made mistakes. Some have faced cycles of violence and abuse themselves. I hope that people come to this issue with open minds, and I’d like to underscore that openness by saying that poets are not members of the jury. No one undertook this project to declare a verdict on any of the contributors therein.
In response to Twitter users identifying Nesset, though, Betts seemed to have second thoughts. “As a Guest Editor, I have contacted the staff to make them aware of the issue,” she tweeted. “I do hope that this does not detract from the many other contributors.”(I reached out over email and Twitter DM to the guest editors of the issue but received no response. The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, responded that it had no one available to speak with me Thursday but would keep me updated.)
Many of those protesting Nesset’s inclusion took pains to make clear that they did not oppose the project of the special issue—only Nesset’s inclusion. “I feel for the other poets,” says one representative tweet, “who do not deserve to be lumped in with this Kirk Nesset.”
But prisons do lump all those people in with this Kirk Nesset—that’s one of the points of the carceral system, and to pretend otherwise seems disingenuous to me. One reason, Henson says, that he strives not to learn about the crimes of the prisoners he works with is that he doesn’t want to start worrying about whether one prisoner is less worthy of outreach than another. Where do you draw the line? Child pornography is terrible, but is it more terrible than rape? Murder? I don’t feel qualified to answer those questions, and I don’t know that I want a poetry journal addressing them either. “These programs are not about drawing lines,” Henson said. “They’re about letting incarcerated writers tell their story.”
The poet Paisley Rekdal made a delineation on Twitter that seems crucial in understanding what it is that many find objectionable about Nesset’s appearance in the issue. “In prison education programs you never ask about people’s pasts,” Rekdal, who has worked in such programs, wrote. “But prison education (you can argue) is a fundamental human right everyone should have. Publishing in Poetry is not.” But Joshua Bennett, who initiated the project at Poetry, believes that the issue is a statement “about what the literary world owes to the incarcerated,” as he writes. “Publishing, and working to continuously cultivate, the writing of incarcerated people the world over should be absolutely central to the mission of present-day literary institutions.”
It’s not unusual for arts-behind-bars initiatives to garner angry responses. Henson, director of the theater-in-prisons program, recalls that, about eight years ago, a relative of one of Voices Inside’s imprisoned writers found a Facebook post about the program and angrily replied, “Do you know what this person did?” “The first time you’re confronted with this,” Henson said, “you do, like all liberal people do, you start to question yourself. What am I doing? Am I causing pain to people? But I tried to remember: There are programs out there that help victims. That’s not our program. We’re trying to do our thing.”
In this particular imbroglio, it seems clear to me that two cultural waves are crashing against each other: from one direction, the growing visibility and acceptance of the prison abolition movement, and from the other, the rising understanding of how damaging sexual abuse is and how often privileged abusers escape punishment. Nesset—white, educated, repugnant, directly connected to the academic English community that makes up much of Poetry’s audience—becomes the perfect nexus for those two issues. (It’s notable that with just a few minutes of Googling, I learned that a different poet in the issue was convicted in a terrible case of child molestation, but thus far, no outrage has collected around him.) You could argue that Nesset’s mental illness, the crux of his defense in court, makes him another victim, in his way, of America’s carceral system; you could argue, as the petition does, that his five years in prison do not come close to remedying the damage he’s done to his victims. You’re right, in both cases, and you’ve come no closer to answering the question of whether he “deserves” the things that other prisoners deserve.
You could also argue that an issue of Poetry dedicated to highlighting voices outside the mainstream blew it by publishing someone with a Ph.D., no matter how many years he spent in prison. That’s at the heart of the problem the poet Reginald Dwayne Betts has with this special issue. “I think the equity issue is real,” Betts (who has no relation to the Poetry guest editor Tara Betts) told me. “Should this person have been published anyway? Probably not. But the way they published this issue is bullshit.” Betts, the poetry editor at the New York Times Magazine, served eight years in prison for his role in a carjacking when he was 16. The problem here, he said, is that the blind submission perpetuates the same inequities that are always present in Poetry’s selection process. “Poetry already privileges access and opportunity. Blind submission? It’s gonna privilege folks that have more access to that skill development, whether it’s an MFA or a prison program. The inclusion of this cat is more evidence that the process didn’t work.”
Betts takes a dim view of the online outrage about Nesset and thinks it intersects poorly with the abolitionist opinions many of the same people espouse. “It’s easy to be righteous in the anger at his crime,” Betts said. “This guy was a pedophile. But shit, I carjacked somebody! If I was in that issue I could see the person I did that to asking, ‘Why the hell is this guy in here? In fact, the only reason he’s in here is because he carjacked me and went to prison!’ That’s why the outrage seems false, because they’re only willing to do it on this case.”
Betts views Poetry’s willful blindness to their writers’ crimes as a mistake. “I think that we don’t get rid of our issues of incarceration by allowing people not to name the crimes that they committed,” he said. “We deal with those issues by being really thoughtful about the crimes they’ve committed.” He thinks Poetry ought to have identified those crimes and then made a decision as to whether they would draw some line in the sand, or take an affirmative stand that every prisoner, regardless of their crime, deserved to be in the issue. “And you say, if Jeffrey Dahmer is Homer, we’re gonna publish his poem. Or you say, no way, Jeffrey Dahmer cannot be in the issue.”
Poetry has defended the issue, and the process behind its creation, on Twitter. “We recognize the life-shattering impact of violence & denounce harm,” said the statement. “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.” (Update, February 5: Poetry magazine has issued a statement about the controversy.)
But Betts thinks that ignoring the crimes the writers have committed robs the issue of meaning. “They’re not doing a special issue on, like, people who wanted to be astronauts but quit before they finished. This is a special issue on people who are incarcerated.” If you’re specifically highlighting writers who have been in prison, he said, it makes sense to take a stand about their crimes. “Violence and crime are so essential to the project of incarceration,” he said, “that you can’t avoid talking about it.”