More Than 2000 Poets Boycott The Poetry Foundation for Censoring Pro-Palestine Voices
Date: 
December 13 2023
Author: 
blog Series: 

On Nov. 1, Joshua Gutterman Tranen revealed that the Poetry Foundation had indefinitely shelved his review of Sam Sax’s PIG. They did not want to be perceived as "taking sides" by publishing the work of an anti-Zionist Jewish critic writing on an anti-Zionist Jewish poet. This was relayed on Oct. 8, right on the cusp of Israel’s escalated bombardment of Gaza. What is the function of criticism, if not to situate art in its broader context? And what context could be more pertinent for this work than the moment when anti-Zionist Jewish activists in the U.S. find themselves being  arrested for opposing the genocide of Palestinians?

Immediately, writers expressed their disappointment with this act of censorship. The Foundation's tepid response  failed to instill confidence. In a letter to the foundation, magazine contributor Lena Khalaf Tuffaha highlighted the hypocrisy of publishing June Jordan's words: 

In times of crisis…Poetry Foundation uses these writers’ work as pull quotes on the site. June Jordan comes to mind, a poem of whose is featured in the November issue of the magazine, entitled: “Intifada Incantation: Poem #8 for b.b.L.”...declares: 

‘I SAID I LOVED YOU AND I WANTED 

GENOCIDE TO STOP’ 

What might the good people of the Poetry Foundation imagine these lines to be about? Is June taking a side? Or is it that such clarity as hers can only be published after the fact, long after the writer and the event have passed?

“Long after the writer and the event have passed” succinctly points to a common tactic of delay, to which the Foundation is no stranger. 

In 2017, following The Annual VIDA Count, which highlighted the dearth of work by trans and non-binary poets in the pages of POETRY magazine (and across the literary world), an announcement was made about a special issue of exclusively trans and gender-nonconforming writers. However, after critiques of the issue’s handling, it was put on hold. The VIDA count for non-binary contributors at POETRY increased to 36 in 2018. 

This material support is important as we consider our current moment amid book bannings across the U.S. aligning with anti-trans legislation. It is no coincidence that censorship goes hand-in-hand with increased state violence. When discussing the issues the literary world faces, it is not solely about book bans; rather, it involves recognizing what censorship paves the way for. When poets are imprisoned for daring to articulate their circumstances, will the institutions that house their work name their captor, or just circulate it for web traffic? 

To publish the work of artists who carry marginalized identity markers or hold certain politics is not enough. In the statements collected in #beyondspecialissue, writers note that they did not request a special issue. Surveys are intended to alert editors to the gaps in their practice and, ideally, to inspire normative, sustained inclusion in paying markets. 

I present this example to highlight how institutions often present a facade—attempting to include marginalized voices without genuinely listening to what their communities need will inevitably lead to further missteps or violence.  It also underscores the interconnectedness of these struggles. The relationships between marginalized artists and institutions are tenuous. Values can never be determined simply by the table of contents that opens the newest issue of a magazine. We must be explicit, and we must take action. Thus, a boycott of the Poetry Foundation was launched, led by Noor Hindi, George Abraham, Omar Sakr, and myself. The demands are as follows: 

  1. Take a stand against Zionist settler colonialism of Palestinian land and the genocide of the Palestinian people;
  2. Commit to supporting, instead of censoring, Palestinians and anti-Zionist voices;
  3. Commit to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

To find aesthetic pleasure or competence in Palestinian art is not synonymous with valuing Palestinian life, nor does it honor Palestinian resistance against settler-colonialism; this is made evident by former POETRY contributor Mosab Abu Toha’s tweet

“I feel utterly shocked that the Poetry Foundation has not said a word about my unfair detention a few days ago. I published two poems with them 2 years ago, one of which is the title of my award-winning collection. During this war, I even got a rejection from them.”

Therefore, until such demands are met, we call on writers to withhold their artistic labor from the Foundation and refrain from participating in the various programs it hosts. 

Included in the Jordan folio is “Moving towards Home,” with the energizing and iconic lines “I was born a Black woman / and now / I am become a Palestinian”; Jordan’s “costly allegiances,” as Solmaz Sharif refers to in the introduction, articulate and affirm our joint struggle. Asking writers to sever their relationship with such a monied institution is not a light request, but it is our art that gives these institutions meaning. For the institution to strip that meaning away through their actions is a disservice to our work. 

Over 2,000 writers have committed to this boycott, some pulling their forthcoming pieces or canceled upcoming projects; the slate of events for the rest of the year has been canceled due to withdrawals, as indicated on the Foundation’s website. 

Ajanaé Dawkins and Brittany Rogers, the hosts of the VS Podcast, acknowledged the boycott in a recent episode and expressed their positions plainly. Dawkins says: 

"As contracted employees of the Poetry Foundation, and the absence of them taking a clear side, we feel like it was important for us to make our stance clear. And that stance is that Brittany and I unequivocally and wholeheartedly stand with the Palestinian people. We're in solidarity with the call for a ceasefire now and the fact that land needs to be restored to the Palestinian people immediately."

The role cultural institutions play in stopping this genocide has been evident, with steps laid out since 2004. As of Dec. 12, over 18,200 Palestinians have been killed in the past 67 days, and over 1.5 million have been displaced. Palestinians are not objects to be pulled out when convenient; those who love us are not tools to populate the archive. To honor our art is to honor our people, to honor our people is to fight for us to live. Do not stand for anyone who collects our art but does nothing to stop those who intend to kill us. 


Read the full text of the boycott letter and sign your name here

About The Author: 

Summer Farah is a Palestinian American Writer from California. She organizes with the Radius of Arab American Writers and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her chapbook, I could die today and live again, is forthcoming from Game Over Books. She encourages you to join PACBI

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