Poetry magazine well-versed in criticism
As it nears an important anniversary and prepares to move into a lavish new home, Poetry magazine is enjoying a moment in the sun. But that moment is clouded by enduring criticism of the magazine and its parent foundation.
Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, at his office on Michigan Avenue. The magazine will be moving into its new offices a few blocks away. (Alex Garcia/ Chicago Tribune)
So saidW.H. Auden.
Who never lived in Chicago.
Or knew Don Share. Share is the senior editor of Poetry magazine, the venerable Chicago-based literary institution. It turns 100 next year and has seen far more than nothing happen, particularly in the past decade. Share arrived at the magazine four years ago, hired away from Harvard University, where he was poetry editor of Harvard Review. Soon after arriving, he received what he calls a "threatening phone call."
It came from a famous novelist whose name he won't say, but the message to Share was this: You really don't want to find yourself alone in the same room with me. "He couldn't believe we rejected his poems," Share said of the man. "When you work in poetry all day, it's internal. People get shaken. I was shaken."
Poetry magazine started in Chicago in 1912, and during the ensuing century, the magazine's history and the history of American poetry often were joined at the hip. It published an unknown T.S. Eliot, gave early support to Langston Hughes, discovered Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Gwendolyn Brooks. What Poetry rarely had was a history of picking fights, rising blood pressures or heated controversies.
Until the money arrived.
In 2002, Ruth Lilly, an heir to a fortune built by Indianapolis pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, donated $200 million to Poetry magazine, which then had a modest circulation of 10,000 and annual budget of $700,000. "I was one of those people in an arts organization who thought, 'Wow,'" said Tree Swenson, executive director of the New York-based Academy of American Poets. "That's a lot of cash for one group. So out of proportion to the scale of the magazine. In one swoop, it basically made them the largest poetry organization in the country."
To administer the gift, the magazine set up the nonprofit Poetry Foundation and created a raft of initiatives to promote poetry. Today, the foundation has a budget of more than $6 million. The magazine gets $1.5 million a year, and $2.2 million goes to educational programs. Poetry's website alone receives a hefty $1.2 million, a point of contention in literary circles. Then there's $1.3 million for administrative costs, including salaries for the 20-person staff. "We have a guideline that forces us to never spend more than 5 percent (annually) of the total market value of the endowment," said John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation.
"But poetry is not a moneymaker," he added. "And so the grand experiment here was to throw money into this art form that had no history of making money and see if poetry would be OK at the end of the day."
The answer is complicated.
Right now, Poetry magazine is having a moment. A decade after the gift was announced, circulation is up, to 26,000. Under Editor-in-Chief Christian Wiman, Poetry is arguably smarter than it has been in years: "I read it immediately when I get it," said Alice Quinn, who runs the Poetry Society of America and was poetry editor at the New Yorker. "That's a sign of vitality." The National Magazine Award judges agreed: Last spring Poetry won best literary magazine — beating the Paris Review — and an award for best podcast.
And this weekend, after seven years of planning, the Poetry Foundation opens its $21.5 million River North home at the corner of Dearborn and Superior streets with a celebration that is drawing a who's who of American poetry.
Nevertheless, a decade after the donation was announced, the magazine and foundation, which many in the poetry community find impossible to separate, are often regarded as a distant, powerful monolith. A number of people contacted for this story would only talk off the record — the foundation has become so entwined in the poetry world, few would risk offending its players. Michael Hanson, co-editor of the Chicago Review, itself founded 75 years ago, sees the foundation as "extremely well-funded and underproducing," so large that it has inadvertently divided the poetry world into a "foundation-approved community" and everyone else. "In Chicago? They seem disconnected, almost a commercial enterprise, walled off from the scene."
For years, what had been playing out at the foundation and magazine sounded like a multi-act play about the consequences of winning the lottery. Barr, a former Wall Street investment banker with several books of poetry to his name, was at the center, hired in 2004 to guide the foundation. He immediately rubbed much of the poetry community the wrong way: He announced plans for a building (which some foundation trustees considered wasteful and unnecessary), briefly put his wife on the payroll (drawing cries of nepotism) and was accused of an anti-education approach to outreach. The more benign critics wondered if poetry's stature could be raised by marketing campaigns; the more damning — including more than half of the dozen trustees who resigned or said they were forced out by Barr — cried allegations of mismanagement.
This led to an investigation by the Illinois attorney general's office, which handles the oversight of nonprofits. The investigation is ongoing, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said, and has the full cooperation of the foundation.
On top of this, in 2007, Wiman published an essay in American Scholar revealing he had been diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood cancer; he declined to discuss the details but said he seems fine.
His announcement came as the magazine had begun to establish itself in the literary community as an unlikely provocateur, shaking up poetry circles, fielding outraged calls from famous writers. The magazine had run harsh criticism of Garrison Keillor (despite funding Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" on National Public Radio), tore into acclaimed, normally untouchable Pulitzer Prize-winning poets such as Robert Hass, and simply wouldn't publish the submissions of others, including Pulitzer winner Franz Wright, who wrote angry letters to Wiman — which Wiman published. "It was clear the magazine was trying to wake people up," Share said. "That isn't always appreciated. It's often easier to stay asleep."
"The old argument was that the magazine was too safe, too tweedy," said Kevin Stein, Illinois' poet laureate. "But that's certainly not the argument anymore. It's generated real electricity, and shown a willingness to fail." Even Peter Minarik, one of the trustees who quit (and, like many of the others, stands by his criticisms), said "the building may be a monument to John Barr, but Poetry is a fabulous magazine again."