We received the following letter yesterday from Rob Casper, Head of the Poetry & Literature Center at the Library of Congress, which is responsible for the Poet Laureate position.
Rob's letter is in response to the Open Letter Split This Rock initiated, urging the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, to appoint a person of color as the next Poet Laureate.
The announcement will be made on Thursday this week and we don't know who Dr. Billington has chosen. Unfortunately, too, it appears that Dr. Billington had already made his choice when he received our letter. However, we're glad to have raised this critical issue and are confident that the voices of all the signatories will be heard in the future, as Rob indicates at the end of the letter.
We're putting our heads together about how to proceed and we want to hear your thoughts. Email us ideas for further activism at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks to all who signed and spread the word!
Split This Rock
Dear Sarah Browning,
Thank you for your letter to James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, about the selection of the next Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Thank you also for your public support of our two past Poets Laureate.
I wanted to reply on behalf of the Library to you and the signees of your letter. If you could, please forward this response on to them, and feel free to post this on your website as well.
I think of you and the signees of your letter as my peers, and I feel a strong connection to the work you do collectively to champion poetry across the country. The Poetry and Literature Center has recently partnered with various outside organizations to expand the poets and poetry we present. For instance, we have worked with Letras Latinas on a host of public programs as well as a series of interviews titled “Spotlight on U.S. Hispanic Writers” (online at http://www.loc.gov/poetry/hispanic-writers/). I am also proud of our new “Asian American Literature Today” series and our work with the Library’s “Area Studies” divisions―African and Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and Hispanic―and with outside organizations such as the Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa and various embassies, to feature writers from around the world. And I am thrilled we are working with Split this Rock to launch the first-ever poetry slam at the National Book Festival this August.
The Poetry and Literature Center assists the Librarian of Congress in the selection process for the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry position. The position was created by an act of Congress, Public Law 99-194, which states: “Individuals are appointed to the position of Consultant in Poetry by the Librarian of Congress for one- or two-year terms solely on the basis of literary merit.” Since I have worked at the Library, we have conducted two surveys to begin this process: in 2011 for the 18th Poet Laureate and recently for the 20th Poet Laureate, asking fifty nominators from 24 different states, including the current and nine former Poets Laureate, as well as critics, scholars, lit org directors/literary presenters, and bookstore owners. I was happy you agreed to serve as a nominator for this year’s survey. We asked nominators who we felt would put forth the widest range of poets in terms not only of race, but also of gender, sexual orientation, and class, as well as aesthetic and regional diversity from across the country.
Once we compiled a list of nominees, I assisted the Librarian of Congress as he worked to select this year’s Laureate. This law is the result of former Congressman Matsunaga’s efforts, as you say, and was signed into law by Congress―the body that oversees the Library. I feel it is our duty to follow the letter of the law as closely as possible, with the knowledge that “literary merit” can mean different things to different people. To me the term strongly but not exclusively suggests a body of work that has received the highest levels of recognition. The Librarian of Congress is ultimately responsible for the selection, and he consults other experts in the field. I can tell you that the Librarian is arguably the best reader of poetry I have met, who is not part of the field. He is well-versed in English, American, and Russian poetry, and has memorized more of all three than most poets I know have of one. He has an ear for lyricism and a keen sense of craft, and he understands the fundamental work of poetry is to challenge and expand the use of language in ways that have enduring value. He is also supportive of contemporary American poetry and receptive to the great variety of its best efforts.
Before we received your open letter, the Librarian had already selected the 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. However, I will refer to your letter, and to the results of our survey―which includes the names of some 76 poets, 21 with more than one vote―for the Poet Laureate selection process in the near future. We did this with the 2011 list, when the Librarian appointed Natasha Trethewey to the position. In my current position, with the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people” as my charge, I will continue to champion the great wealth of American poetry. I look forward to working with you and with the signees of your letter.
Head, Poetry and Literature Center
101 Independence Ave., S.E. | Washington, DC 20540-4860
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