At the Poetry Foundation headquarters at 61 West Superior, there’s a sensation of fresh air. There is a new guest services staff, to welcome visitors. And there are new ways to experience poetry—besides the physical issues of Poetry magazine, there are poems that literally climb the walls and windows. One wall has a poem about a skyscraper in the shape of a skyscraper. A white tabletop begs visitors to “please touch”—so that you can look at poems through Viewmasters, or on sky charts, or on Tarot cards.
Fred Sasaki, creative director of the Poetry Foundation, says that, in his twenty-year career, there has never been more oxygen at the Foundation than there is today. Michelle T. Boone became the Foundation’s president last year after a long career in arts organizations. Starting at Gallery 37, she later served as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events as well as at Navy Pier as Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer.
Last spring, after a national search, Adrian Matejka was named editor of the 110-year-old Poetry magazine. Former poet laureate of Indiana, Matejka has published several collections of poetry. Both Boone and Matejka are Black and the first persons of color in their positions.
Boone and Matejka arrived after the Foundation went through a period of controversy. After the murder of George Floyd forced the nation to face, once again, its history of racism, a coalition of poets criticized what they viewed as the Foundation’s inadequate statement of solidarity, and demanded that it commit more resources to marginalized artists. This disagreement, plus the publication of a controversial poem, led to the departures of both the Foundation’s former president, Henry Bienen and the magazine’s editor, Don Share.
I interviewed Boone, Matejka and Sasaki by Zoom, in person and by email. This Q&A is a melding and condensation of these conversations. All three say they see the Foundation and the magazine as more open to a variety of voices and they look forward to connecting with the greater community.
What does it mean to the Foundation and the magazine that persons of color are, for the first time, in charge?
Boone: I’m struggling with answering the question because I’m a person of color, but I’m also just me… I’m the first woman, and that resonates more for me, given that the magazine was started by a woman, Harriet Monroe. There have been very few women in leadership positions… What it has meant for the Foundation is that it was a signal to the community that they were being responsive when the charge was made, “You don’t have people of color at the table.” What is that perspective, what is that sensibility that I could bring to the table, to leadership, to management, to my place in the city, that probably didn’t exist before? I would like to think that it’s not just about them hiring a person of color for the role. I came to the role with a lot of experience, twenty-plus years of experience in arts management, a variety of experience beyond nonprofits, well-connected to the cultural community, locally, regionally and nationally. So it’s checking a lot of boxes. There’s a network of other Black women leaders I meet with and there are a lot of us in Chicago right now. Was the impetus what happened with George Floyd? Maybe. I’m just glad it happened. We all had the qualifications, the training, the background, the experience, but the consideration to open the door to make room, to allow us to come in, maybe that door wasn’t always as open in the past or as it should have been in the past. If I’m part of the revolution and kicking the door down, cool. Let me in!
Regarding former foundation presidents, have you had the most experience in terms of arts organizations?
Boone: Of past presidents, most of them came out of academia. So it is a big difference, particularly being grounded in the local cultural community. The Foundation wasn’t connected to the cultural community in the way it could be or should be.
So you bring a lot of perspectives that are new to the Poetry Foundation.
Boone: I’m not carrying the weight of poetry on my shoulders in the way some of the others have. The first line of my cover letter was “I am not a poet.” I don’t need to be one. We got a lot of people here with expertise in poetry. What I am is a really good administrator. And I got some ideas about how to manage and lead, and that’s what I bring.
I wanted to be sure to give credit and acknowledge the contributions of past leadership. Despite the growing pains or unpleasantness the Foundation experienced in the recent past, those guys should be credited with getting us to where we are now—in a strong place financially, with a beautiful building in the heart of Chicago, and a monthly poetry publication that continues to thrive. I imagine it would have been an enormous responsibility to be the steward of such a massive gift when all eyes are on you, but the end result is we are here, in better shape today than ever before, and my predecessors have everything to do with that. While I have worked to establish a different or new tone for the Foundation today, it wouldn’t be possible without all that work from the past.
So I just wanted to be sure I didn’t come across as some sort of savior to the Poetry Foundation—I’m merely the next chapter in the history. I aim to honor the work of the past, build on the best parts of that history, and hopefully, lead us into a brighter, more inclusive and welcoming future.
Sasaki: Michelle really shows up. She’s so grounded in the work. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to have someone who understands how this all works, can actually come to the table and recommend artists and knows how gallery shows are put together.
Matejka: I was not especially interested in this job at first, then I talked to Fred and met Michelle and saw there was a completely different vision for what this space can be used to do, what kind of work the magazine might be allowed to do. I did work with the Foundation in the past, and it’s just different, it’s a completely different perspective and it starts with Michelle. The staff and the editors here have been enabled to do the work we really want to be doing, to be outward-facing and connect with the community and share with them the opportunities we have here.
You’re the first person of color to be editor of this magazine. You also come from a unique background, born in Germany, and growing up in Indianapolis. What does your presence bring to Poetry magazine?
Matejka: To be clear, when I say I wasn’t interested, I meant I was an endowed professor at a university. I had a job that allowed me a lot of space to write. One of the questions I needed to answer was how can I continue to be a poet while being editor of the oldest poetry magazine in the world. That’s one of the things that may make my perspective a little bit different. I’ve been editing this whole time but I was a poet first. I was doing editorial work as part of my community outreach and trying to figure out ways to create spaces for other people. Now I’m flipping that, I’m trying to make the space first while also making room for my own writing.
I don’t know if I have a particularly unique point of view because of where I came up. I know I have a particularly unique point of view from who I am. The poets who inspire me, the poets who move me, they’re all in the same part of the marginalized communities that I come out of. That’s where the energy is. But it’s not always been the space that got highlighted in literary magazines, not just poetry. Other literary magazines have also had a similar reckoning, [a] come to Jesus over the last four or five years, they had to really think about who was in the room when decisions were being made and how that’s affecting the poems on the page. Just by being here, the people I’m excited about, who I bring to the editorial meetings from submissions, are different.
You mean where the energy is now, or always?
Matejka: I think it’s always been that way, but the question is whether those poets had access in American poetry. The innovation. That’s where the great political statements have been happening, the reimaginings of form. That’s all coming from marginalized communities. I’m excited about being able to be here and keep the door open for those poets. They’re in the magazine now, and I want to make even more room for them. One of the poets we’re highlighting is Carolyn M. Rodgers, who is one of those people who are just transcending space and time. I think her aesthetic is emblematic of the people who were here needing to be heard and just weren’t being given the space.
Sasaki: What does it mean, when people visit, when they see the editor, see the creative editor and they can understand that this is a welcome place for me, too?
Boone: It reminded me of an interview I read of Toni Morrison, when she was an editor at Random House, what that signaled was people were comfortable with submitting their manuscripts, because they felt that the work was going to be read in a way that the receiver would get it, would understand. The external representation for whatever it means in having an editor that is African American might signal to a whole range of poets who may have felt disconnected to the magazine, that they’ll never publish anything by me, because of my perspective, my point of view, may now be motivated to send that work in, because they may be encouraged that there’s going to be somebody on the receiving end that gets it.
Matejka: And would treat it with compassion, instead of “I’ve got five minutes to read this poem.” There’s a kind of openness in the editorial room. It’s important to recognize that a space is being created. I was on book three before I submitted to Poetry magazine. I thought there wasn’t any space for me. It turned out there was. But only room for one. There was a version of this magazine that existed once that was deeply rooted in European culture and tradition and form and if you weren’t writing that way you didn’t have a path to get in. It’s not what it is now. You can write that way and still get into the magazine, but you don’t have to write that way.
Fred, you’ve been here twenty years. What kind of changes have you seen, in terms of bringing in the non-European point of view?
Sasaki: I feel like there’s a lot more oxygen in the room and there’s so much more freedom to speak about all these things, that maybe was unspoken or we didn’t know how to talk about. Even being able to name white supremacy. It’s also shifting our understanding of other people, what the work is, what human capacity is.
Matejka: Part of how white supremacy perpetuates itself is building out impossible goals that are made possible because your parents went to that school, or made possible because you have this generational wealth. How do you get past that? There are different kinds of learning. It doesn’t matter how you got here. It matters how you take advantage of it.
Sasaki: You used to hear a lot of times people say, “That’s not poetry.” How many times have I heard that, early on in the magazine? Now I feel like we’re hearing, “This is poetry, too.” A video, a picture, a question. Cool.
What do you see as the future of poetry? Online? Slam? Performance? Video?
Boone: Yes, yes, yes. And all the things we don’t know yet.
What would [Poetry magazine founder] Harriet Monroe think? Would she recognize this as poetry?
Boone: I think so. Please! This is a woman who loved poetry so much she walked away from her job at the Tribune to dedicate her life to it. She was really driven to share it with folks and wanted to be a platform for all kinds of poets. I think she’d be really, really pleased, amazed, astounded by the many, many ways there are for the delivery, creation, expression of poetry today.
Matejka: Absolutely. That open-door policy was so radical, even today. I think that’s what we’re doing—we’re enacting it in a twenty-first-century way. We’re making the pages available to whomever writes the finest poetry, and the finest gets redefined every day.
Is the form of the magazine going to change? Is it going to be beyond print?
Matejka: We’re talking about that right now. It is already. But we’re trying to figure out ways to push that even further.
How do you have the openness and yet have the curation?
Matejka: I think openness isn’t in opposition to rigor. A lot of it is trying to figure out how to frame, inside the magazine, on the website, in the podcast, in the gallery, trying to show people how to read the poem because the poets are trying to show us how to read them. The job of the editors is to put people in conversation next to each other. Every month, we have a curated space, and a conversation.
Sasaki: It makes me think of all the conversations we’re having about what is good, what is best—
Boone: And changing the rotation of who’s reading. Not having the same person responsible for the curation of the work, but that you’re making room for lots of folks to be able to read, interpret and make recommendations for what work gets printed.
Matejka: We have a guest-editor program [since 2020]. It’s a wonderful thing. We’re deferring to the guest editor. Right now our guest editor is Esther Berlin, she’s a Navajo poet, a translator and an editor. The issues she’s put together are phenomenal.
Boone: We’ve had five or six guest editors so far and each one has done three issues. It’s been really diverse. They’ve done phenomenal work.
Matejka: I don’t feel like I’m doing anything by myself. What I want in the editorial room is to have an actual conversation. We all defer to each other. In the end, it’s really about how we take care of the poem the best. We have a roomful of people who really love poetry.
Sasaki: Poems have never been read as many times as they are now.
Matejka: We all read the poems multiple times, in the editorial meetings, we read them out loud. There’s not been a moment where I wondered “What am I doing?” I can’t believe I get to come in here and work with the people here and read poems and talk about poems and make opportunities for other poets.
How are you going to make this more of an open center?
Boone: The first step is just to extend the hand and offer the invitation. And then also do the work internally to make sure we’re prepared to welcome folks here. How do we make sure we’re extending a hand not just to audiences but to potential program partners? There are lots of people who are doing really great work who could really benefit by having this platform to share their work with their audiences. You don’t have to do everything, let’s open it up and invite others to bring their work and they in turn bring their audiences. We have programs Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons. It’s a variety of things, it could be people reading poetry, it could be a music performance, it could be a talk. The library is open Wednesday through Sunday, free to the public. There are programs for young audiences as well as adults. We’ve expanded the programming team to be able to do more of that work.
We started doing more grant-making to support the field. We have $9 million committed over the next three years. We’re in the process of reviewing applications
I always give a little push back and say, what else can we do besides giving out money? So we’re looking at doing space grants, opportunities, how do we build out a calendar where we could say X number of days a year we want to make our space available to other literary organizations or poets? What would that look like? What’s the structure to allow people to come into our house, and have the internal infrastructure to make sure that experience is a good one, that we’re being good hosts? One thing we learned from the strategic-planning process was the repositioning of the Foundation and magazine from one as being viewed as a gatekeeper to one that’s much more a partner, that we are in lockstep with our community and not so consumed with the notion of being a leader and out in front. We’re part of a greater whole.
Sasaki: [Under the Teacher’s Institute program], Chicago Public School teachers are invited into the space to learn about poems and introduce them to their own students. It’s stopping the cycle of clobbering people over the head with poems. It can be fun. You can enjoy this.
Matejka: I think about this all the time—what would have happened if somebody would have shown me Gwendolyn Brooks when I was coming up, instead of Shakespeare? I am so happy to read Shakespeare now, but that’s after a long process of figuring this out. Part of the Institute’s mandate is how to share work that’s contemporary.
You need a wedge, sometimes, with poetry. If they’re not going to dig Shakespeare, maybe they’ll dig Brooks…
Boone: There are so many points of entry into it. You can pick up the printed publication, you can go on the website, you might find some cool video on one of our social media platforms. You might be here with a friend, coming to a program in the building, you might accompany your small kid on a field trip, coming here for a Poem Time. We create these multiple points of entries so you can find your way in.
How do you bring poetry to the people of Chicago?
Boone: One person at a time. We don’t bear full responsibility. There are lots of people bringing poetry to Chicago. How do we help them help us do that?
Sasaki: Part of it is just loving and caring for poems, as individuals, as workers, as an organization. The root of “curate” is to care. We value, we care, we treat the work with beauty and respect.
Matejka: There are more poets writing right now than there have ever been. There are more people reading poetry right now than there have ever been. It’s so vital to have the door open in that way to make room for all those new voices and perspectives. There’s not a more twenty-first-century model for art than poetry. It’s compact. It’s emotionally resonant. It’s imagistic sometimes. It’s descriptive sometimes and it’s quick. It’s digestible. It should be everybody’s go-to in the morning and it will, if we do our work right.
How can poetry serve people in these times?
Matejka: Poetry can serve multiple purposes when things get rough. It helps them to see that they’re not alone, that there are possibilities out there. I think writers are hyped to have these things to write about. So many things are building up and building up and poetry can help.
Boone: Poetry is art. Art in general helps us make sense of times that are confusing, oppressive—you’re trying to find a better way to understand it. So thank God poets and writers are out there to help find a way to understand it and interpret what we might be feeling emotionally, to give us a different way of processing what’s happening…
Matejka: Art is a way to carve out a safe space.
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”