A bedrock principle of the prison abolitionist movement is that you don’t ask an incarcerated person what they’re in for. It’s more than etiquette. To eschew the identity that the punitive state assigns — which could be false — is to see someone whole. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson. Even a murderer is somebody’s baby.
That’s the way guest editors Tara Betts, Joshua Bennett, and Sarah Ross — poets, abolitionists, and educators behind bars and in the free world — approached the submissions to “The Practice of Freedom,” the February 2021 issue of Poetry magazine. The issue features the work of people who are or were incarcerated, their families, and those who work in “carceral spaces.” The contributors had already been judged and punished; the editors would judge the work, no rap sheet attached, not its makers.
And this is how a poem by Kirk Nesset made it into the pages of Poetry. Nesset, a 63-year-old former Allegheny College English professor, pleaded guilty in 2015 to possession, receipt, and distribution of ch**d *****graphy; he was sentenced to 76 months in federal prison and released this fall. He is now on the sex offender registry in Arizona.
From the moment the issue came out, sexual violence survivors, victims’ advocates, and assorted feminists began raining angry tweets, blogs, and public statements on Poetry and its publisher, the Poetry Foundation. A Change.org petition demanding that the magazine remove the poem and apologize to “Nesset’s voiceless victims, their readers and subscribers, and victims of sexual violence everywhere” gained over 1,600 signatures in a week. By then the story had spread as far as New Delhi.
The editors responded kindly to their critics but did not take the poem down. “I’m heartbroken about hurting anyone or making them revisit their pain,” Betts tweeted. “I’m also devastated by policing and prisons and how these are overtly racist and classist systems that protect property over people. What happens when those hurts overlap?”