“It was a miracle of rare device: / A sunny Pleasure-Dome with caves of ice!” —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”
In September 2005, when Poetry Foundation president John Barr announced plans to establish a “national home for poetry” in Chicago, trustee Rudy Rasin objected. It wasn’t that the foundation didn’t have money enough to build itself a headquarters, with offices for its fabled magazine, Poetry, and a new think tank called the Poetry Institute. It was awash in the stuff, having received a $200 million gift from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. But this decision was rushed, Rasin said in a statement to the board. With a $700,000 study of poetry’s place in American life in progress and a $1 million Web site not yet launched, the foundation should wait, Rasin argued, pay rent for a few years more, see how the study and the site pan out, and develop a detailed strategic plan. Maybe they didn’t need a building with an auditorium—or a think tank.
But last month at a luncheon at the Arts Club Barr unveiled plans for a $21.5 million facility, already under construction at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Superior, introducing it as the “end of an odyssey” and as a metaphor for poetry itself, revealing itself “line by line.” Designed by Chicago architect John Ronan—celebrated for his brightly striped Gary Comer Youth Center at 7200 S. Ingleside—the new home for poetry might also be a metaphor for the foundation. Seen from the front, the 22,000-square-foot, two-story structure will offer a view into a tree-graced courtyard that will be dramatically lit at night. But from other angles, caged behind a metal screen-wall, it’ll be an inscrutable black block.
There wasn’t any hint at the luncheon of the matters that rankled Rasin—now an ex-trustee—and several of his former colleagues on the board. In December 2008, Rasin and then-trustee Peter Minarik informed Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan of possible conflict-of-interest and governance issues that they thought might put the Poetry Foundation in violation of the laws regulating nonprofits. Minarik—a former chair of the foundation’s audit committee and, in his day job, director of the southern region of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—wrote in a letter to Madigan, “I believe . . . the Foundation may be engaged in self-dealing and is in violation of its by-laws.
“Specifically, among other numerous management matters,” Minarik wrote, “I believe the Foundation in apparent contravention of its own adopted policy regarding the employment of ‘disqualified parties’ has allowed the president, a voting Trustee, to employ his wife to manage a significant program of the Foundation. His wife has publicly acknowledged that she is not qualified for the position.”
According to documents provided to Madigan, Barr—a poet, investment banker, and founder of the Natural Gas Clearinghouse (now Dynegy) who was hired by the foundation in 2003 because of his rare big-money-and-poesy background—envisioned a role for his wife, Penny, from the beginning. And despite questions raised by some trustees, she was eventually hired as a paid consultant to run the foundation’s program for young children. Her duties included managing the appointment of a children’s laureate, a new post she’d suggested be added. After raising hackles by describing herself in a 2007 New Yorker story on the foundation as “not versed in poetry,” she switched to volunteer status. But some trustees continued to question whether she was the best person for the job—since no search had been conducted—and why this program, which had been identified as critical, should be left to a volunteer.
Minarik believes these challenges weren’t well received. He notes that both he and Michael Goodkin, his successor as leader of the three-person audit committee, were removed from their chairmanships after they objected that hiring Penny Barr looked like a conflict of interest. He also says the demotions were followed by attempts to dump them from the board. The move was unsuccessful in Minarik’s case. But Goodkin, a board member for 35 years, didn’t fare as well. Informed in August 2007 that he wouldn’t be nominated for another term, he resigned. Minarik hung on until his term expired in 2009.
In a letter of his own to Madigan, Rasin also cites the election of a longtime friend of Barr’s to the board, by trustees he says were unaware of the friendship, and the appointment of that friend to the audit committee at a time when the committee was investigating “these conflict of interest charges involving John Barr.” The committee subsequently found that “no violations of Foundation policies took place,” Rasin wrote.
Goodkin’s resignation letter is among the documents Rasin submitted to Madigan. It lays out a list of concerns, addressing governance and program issues in detail—including his impression that “management runs the Board rather than vice versa.” Goodkin also argues that the foundation should “be more open to assisting existing organizations that have programs that are working”—noting that the Academy of American Poets, for instance, runs events, a magazine, and a comprehensive Web site on a “modest amount of money.” Goodkin writes that the foundation still lacks an inventory of what’s already being done by other groups, and that there’s an “overwhelming need to mend fences” because of a manifesto published in Poetry magazine in 2006, in which Barr maintained that MFA programs produce poetry that’s “neither robust, resonant, nor—and I stress this quality—entertaining: a poetry that both starves and flourishes on academic subsidies.”
Princeton professor Danielle Allen and audit committee member Nicole Williams also resigned from the board in 2007; their resignation letters, citing issues with governance and management, are included among the documents presented to Madigan.
Poetry Foundation media director Anne Halsey said, in a written response to a request for an interview, that the issues “have been thoroughly aired. . . . We have been assured by outside counsel that the complaints are without merit from a legal perspective, that there was no wrong-doing, and that the Foundation is in full compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations, as well as with its own bylaws.” A spokesperson for Lisa Madigan’s office said last week that they’re “reviewing the allegations.” The process is ongoing, she said, “but we’ve not found any violations at this juncture.”
In another development earlier this month, the foundation shut off public comment on its blog, Harriet, at poetryfoundation.org, turning it primarily into an aggregator. In an announcement on the site, the editors explained, “it is time for Harriet to move on from this discussion model.” But not to worry: she’ll “begin a new life on Twitter.”