The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue

A Library Alone Is Not a Poets House

Every time I write the name “Poets House,” I expect there to be an apostrophe, as though the poets possessed the house. For almost 30 years, as a dedicated member and supporter of the organization, I’ve allowed myself to entertain the idea that this is indeed a house by and for poets. Since the abrupt closure and mass firing of the Poets House staff by the organization’s Board of Directors on November 16, however, I’ve come to believe that the apostrophe may in fact be missing on purpose.

Last Saturday, I went out to protest the capricious decision and stand in solidarity with the ill-used staff, who, with their families, were suddenly thrust into a precarious future just as they had taken the final steps towards unionizing. On that cold, overcast, November afternoon on the edge of New York Harbor, we were a small but mighty crew. A sign read, “Union busting is not an art,” as poets stepped up to read protest poems by Danez Smith, Diane DiPrima, and others. As someone who, as a young poet, was stirred and awakened by the ethos of Poets House founder Stanley Kunitz, I brought a poem written that morning for the occasion and read it:

No house will be in order
if our Poets House is not in order.

No house will protect workers
if our Poets House doesn’t protect its workers.

Every house will be owned by the careless rich
if our Poets House is owned by the careless rich.

Poets House is now a house with no doors.
Poets House is now a house with no windows.
Poets House is now a house with no foundation.
Poets House is now a house with no roof.

Poets House is now a house with no poets
so no better than a hole in the ground.

A library alone is not a Poets House.
A library alone is not a Poets House.
A library alone is not a Poets House.
A library alone is not a Poets House.

Poets House without poets
is a hole in the ground.

In writing the poem, I realized that the reason I was so angry was that I loved Poets House. When I came to NYC in 1993, I went straight to the former location on Spring Street, feeling proud, and maybe a bit amazed, that my new city had, not just a space, but a house for poets. I grew up as a poet and indeed as a reader of poetry, which is to say a human, because of access to the poetry library, to all the free readings and exhibitions. Back in ’95, I was able to take a modern poetry class with Michael Heller and last year I took my second workshop with one of my favorite poets, Fanny Howe.

To return to Stanley Kunitz: the other day I entered his name and “Poets House” together into an internet search engine. I didn’t land on the Founders page as expected, but on another page titled “From the Archives: Stanley Kunitz on Poetry in a Time of Crisis.” Kunitz died in 2006 at 100 years old, so I wondered which time of crisis he was referencing and what this unexpected link might reveal. His piece is an address, given in 1989 to poetry teachers, and after noting that “the American myth belongs to politics and power, not to poetry,” he ends by valorizing the poets who “resisted oppression” and brought down the tyrants of Eastern Europe with poetry. He never lets us forget that those poets “kept alive the image of a free and just society through the dreadful years.” In this moment, this time of crisis, when the wealthy are growing wealthier, while the economy tanks, I, as a poet in 2020, recognize the tyrants of America are the careless rich. Courage insists on poets bringing out our poems to topple them.

We can start by siding with the staff and bringing the fight to the front door of Poets House, to make it Poets’ House. The next protest is December 12th at noon, in front of Poets House (10 River Terrace, at Murray Street).

– See you there!

For more information on the situation with Poets House and its staff, click here.


E.J. McAdams

E.J. McAdams is a NYC-based poet and artist. He is the author of five chapbooks, the most recent of which is Middle Voice from Dusie Kollectiv: McAdams--MiddleVoice.pdf.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

All Issues