The Poetry Foundation announced on Wednesday that its president and board chairman are resigning, several days after an open letter signed by more than 1,800 poets and others criticized the foundation’s recent statement on the Black Lives Matter movement and called for them to be replaced.
The president, Henry Bienen, a former president of Northwestern University, resigned, effective immediately, according to a statement. The foundation’s board chairman, Willard Bunn III, a retired bank executive, will also be stepping down.
The Chicago-based foundation is one of the nation’s wealthiest literary organizations, with an endowment that exceeds $250 million. The letter, posted online over the weekend, was issued by 30 poets connected with the foundation, including Ocean Vuong, Eve L. Ewing and Danez Smith. It referred to “numerous critiques” of what it characterized as the foundation’s failures to support poets from marginalized communities, and called on it to “redistribute more of its enormous resources” to social justice and antiracism efforts.
The letter was prompted by a brief, four-sentence statement the foundation issued on June 3, expressing “solidarity with the Black community” and declaring faith in “the strength and power of poetry to uplift in times of despair.”
Almost immediately, the statement drew criticism and ridicule on social media. In the letter, the poets called it “worse than the bare minimum” and an insult to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African-Americans whose deaths in encounters with police prompted the protests.
“As poets, we recognize a piece of writing that meets the urgency of its time with the appropriate fire when we see it — and this is not it,” the letter said. “Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.”