CHICAGO — Roughly a year after controversy roiled the Poetry Foundation and led to resignations among its leadership, former city of Chicago cultural commissioner Michelle T. Boone has been named president.
Boone’s appointment may mark a turning point for the foundation, which has been criticized as insular and slow to respond to changing times. In addition to serving as commissioner for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Boone is wrapping up her tenure as chief program and civic engagement officer for Navy Pier.
Last spring, the Poetry Foundation came under fire for its initial response to protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death as well as what some perceived as a slow response in providing financial aid to artists during the pandemic — despite having an endowment that was valued at $257 million in 2018. In June, then Poetry Foundation President Henry Bienen, a former Northwestern University president, resigned after an open letter signed by more than 1,800 people denounced the foundation for failing to do more to support Black and other marginalized artists. Since then, the foundation issued a plan to work toward long-term equity and expanded grant funding.
Boone spoke with the Tribune by phone from Navy Pier. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: How will your work as a former cultural commissioner and more recently as chief program and civic engagement officer for Navy Pier influence your work for the Poetry Foundation?
A: For me, what this opportunity presents is another way to collaborate, connect and partner with the Poetry Foundation. It’s a new way of thinking about how to expand the reach of poetry by connecting with other art forms, by connecting with the non-usual suspects, if you will, and really helping to secure, magnify and elevate the space of the foundation as a part of the fabric of the cultural community in Chicago. Having the experience of doing the cultural plan for the city as commissioner — a big part of that was just listening and going out into the community and asking people what is it that they want it in a cultural plan? That’s really how I plan to approach this: spending a lot of my time initially listening, reaching out to the poetry community here, far and wide, and saying, What is the way you would imagine this foundation and how it connects and supports artists? What is the place of the Poetry Foundation in the city? How can we collaborate? How can we partner? How can you help us elevate the mission of the Poetry Foundation? How can we expand the audience? How do we get more young people connected? How do we get all people reconnected?
Q: The Poetry Foundation has been criticized for being insular; your approach seems to be the polar opposite. How do you view the organization’s culture — and is it ready to shift to a more outward focus?
A: Thankfully, a lot of that work has already been happening. I think the board and the staff took very seriously the charge that was issued by the community: to open up and be more connected and inclusive. Lots of good work is already happening, and so it’s not just resting solely on my shoulders the honor that. It’s a responsibility that the board and the staff has taken on, and so we’ll do that in tandem together.
The passion that was demonstrated (last spring) to me signifies that people really do want the Poetry Foundation to be better because they care about it. And so, if you extend the hand and invite people in, invite people to help you do better, be better, be more inclusive, in partnership with them — that might have been what was missing before: the extension of the hand. And so, I am eager and ready to do that, as is the rest of the team and the board.
Q: Last year, members of the poetry community called on the foundation to dedicate more of its assets — a portion of which are earmarked for Poetry Magazine and outreach — to providing financial assistance to writers struggling due to the pandemic. I’m wondering how you view the distinction between the foundation’s responsibility to maintain its endowment to meet its mission, as well as more dynamic, current needs?
A: I think it was a valid concern. You know, the pandemic was something we had never experienced before, and it really turned the world upside down. And when you have significant resources and your constituent base is in desperate need, of course they look up to you for aid and support. I’m really glad to know that before I walked in the door, the foundation has now distributed I think it’s $1.3 million exclusively for emergency relief. Now that’s the first step. One of my charges is to develop a new strategic plan for the organization, and part of that will include looking at developing a more robust and more deliberate grant-making program on an ongoing basis. So the foundation has heard and responded to the immense need that’s out there. Certainly, there’s a need for a lot more, but I think it speaks volumes to the ability of the foundation to be responsive at a time when it was asked to. To provide that level of support to the field and to the sector is really admirable, I think. And again, I would say not that, you know, we’re patting ourselves on the back for that. It’s the first step in the right direction.
Q: A separate, open letter last year demanded the Poetry Foundation do more to support Black and other marginalized artists. In the wake of that, the foundation made several promises; how do you see the organization following through on that?
A: I think the first step has been demonstrated in their hiring of me. I was born on the South Side, I grew up in Gary, Indiana. I am the embodiment of providing opportunity to a voice that has not been at the table before. It’s an opportunity to bring on a new editor for the magazine. The foundation has done some work with an equity audit prior to my arrival; that includes a set of recommendations, but there’s still work to do in tandem with the staff and the board about how to honor and live up to those commitments made. It is something that is front of mind for me, and it is front of mind for the board and the staff. And I think it’s been a real cultural change for the institution, and there’s no going back. That’s over. It’s how do we get to be better? How do we move forward in a way that is more equitable?
Q: Earlier, you briefly mentioned the physical space of the Poetry Foundation. Do you have plans for how you’d like to see it transform, given your deep understanding of the city’s cultural landscape?
A: I’m a programmer at heart, and one of the things that my mind got racing on was how to open up the space and animate it. Once we are able to gather again safely, I want to see that space active with programming. I know the staff has lots of ideas. The courtyard could be another gathering space. It needs to be not just a temple of poetry, but a gathering space to bring together people sharing ideas. It’s a cultural garden. I live by the accessible-to-all rule, and I really look forward to opening up that beautiful John Ronan building.
Q: Which poets or poems resonate for you?
A: So I don’t know if I would say, I have a favorite; there are poets who have meant significant things to me at different moments in my life. When I was in college, I used to think I wanted to be a playwright, so I wrote a play that got produced that was inspired by a poem by Rita Dove. The other day, I was watching a documentary about relationship between Dick Cavett and Muhammad Ali, and he has this famous — I don’t know if it’s really his poem, but he’s credited with it — this very short poem: “Me / We.” When I heard it, I thought, wow, that is totally the way I want to think about moving forward in this role. It’s not just about me. It’s about we, together.