Nepotistic American Poetry

Nepotism has a long history in American letters, but this year’s Best American Poetry (Scribner) anthology tests the boundaries of what even the most jaded among us might expect from the literary establishment.

Founded by poet David Lehman, who remains Series Editor, Best American Poetry has been published annually since 1988. Before addressing the nepotism represented in this year’s volume, Lehman’s foreword merits attention. In the foreword, Lehman appears not merely out of tune with the times, but profoundly incognizant of the real offense of cultural appropriation. He militates against those poets of color who were offended by Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “How To,” which was published in The Nation in 2018 and was the subject of widespread criticism — criticism that Lehman calls a “firestorm” and describes as “shrill and shaming.” Written by a white author, the poem appropriates Black American dialect. Regardless of the young author’s intentions, the poem was justly called out as the literary equivalent of blackface. The poetry editors at The Nation, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, issued an apology in response to the criticism. Lehman, echoing voices in prominent opinion pieces, dismisses their apology as “craven.” I would argue, on the contrary, that the ability to acknowledge a mistake and to learn from it are acts of honesty and bravery rather than cowardice. Does Lehman truly think that editors ought to stand by every decision they’ve ever made, even in light of legitimate criticism, as if editors were immune to making errors of judgment? How absurd and ill-thought-through. (I hope he apologizes for this.)

Each volume of Best American Poetry is compiled by a Guest Editor invited by Lehman — this year, Major Jackson. In his introduction, Jackson describes his selection process for the volume: “I carefully read, with deliberateness and resolve, thousands of poems in hundreds of online and print journals, newspapers, and magazines.” But Jackson’s portrayal of his selection process as tireless, wide-ranging, and impartial simply does not line up with the contents of the anthology in terms of the poets and the venues represented. Jackson not only includes a poem of his own, but also one by his wife, Didi Jackson, and one by David Lehman, the Series Editor. (It is worth noting that John Ashbery, Guest Editor of the inaugural 1988 volume, included a poem of his own as well as a poem by David Lehman. What began in nepotism and self-interest clearly continues in the same spirit.) In his introduction, Jackson describes the contents of this volume: “The best poems evince such authenticity in language, form, thought, and emotion that they leave us breathless, with the very air around us somehow changed. It’s that moment when we stand mouths agape, hands above us in disbelief, at the courageousness, elegance, and purity of magical utterance.” That is quite a high opinion for him to hold of his own work.

As if including himself, his spouse, and the person who invited him to edit the volume were not enough, Jackson also includes poems by six former Best American Poetry volume editors: Robert Hass, Terrance Hayes, Edward Hirsch, Paul Muldoon, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young. What’s more, Kevin Young selected a poem by Major Jackson for the 2011 volume of Best American Poetry, as did Terrance Hayes for the 2014 volume and Edward Hirsch for the 2016 volume. How the favors are given and returned!

Two of the former Guest Editors published by Jackson also number among the five NYU colleagues of his in the volume — including his boss, Deborah Landau, the Director of the creative writing program.

In reading those thousands of poems and hundreds of periodicals, Jackson clearly was on the lookout for authors in his circle of family and colleagues. Given the obvious nepotism of these selections, one can’t help but wonder how many other poets included in the volume have close personal or professional ties with Jackson, and how he stands to benefit from doing them favors.

I should acknowledge that a poem by Vievee Francis that originally appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, a literary journal where I serve as Senior Editor, is included in this volume. I’m grateful that a poem from our pages is one of the few from small, independent literary magazines. As per usual, the majority of the poems are reprinted from major, mostly New York City-based periodicals, such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, The Paris Review, The New Republic, American Poetry Review, Poem-a-Day (Academy of American Poets), and Time — as well as the UK’s Times Literary Supplement. (One has to wonder whether The Nation would have granted reprint permission had they known the content of Lehman’s foreword.) There are, for instance, eight poems from Poem-a-Day, five from The New Yorker, five from American Poetry Review, and three from The Paris Review. Five poems are also included from The Kenyon Review — one of the better-known literary magazines in the country. These statistics call into question the supposed depth and breadth of Jackson’s reading in selecting the contents.

Lehman asks a telling question in his foreword: “Does the image of a great Alpine mountain, firmly fixed, with a wide base to accommodate the many and an apex to signify hierarchy, still apply to American poetry today?” The evidence certainly suggests that both Lehman and Jackson believe in that hierarchy. Both the poets and the venues that get the lion’s share of attention in Best American Poetry represent that mountain apex — and far too many of them have very close ties to Major Jackson. Did he think no one would notice, or care? Did neither Lehman nor the publisher consider the level of nepotism represented in this volume? Well, then it’s left to those of us much farther down the mountain slope to call attention to such obviously unethical editorial practices.

I’m the founder and editor of Orison Books, Senior Editor at Asheville Poetry Review, and the author of several books (poems, essays, and translations).

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