Michelle T. Boone, a former Chicago City Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, was named President of the Poetry Foundation nearly a year after the previous president resigned in Justice.
Boone, selected through a national search, brings a résumé of community engagement and service to several major Chicago institutions, including Navy Pier, where she currently serves as the Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer. As Commissioner for Cultural Affairs under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she led the development of the city’s 2012 Cultural Master Plan and organized more than 2,000 programs and special events, including the new Chicago Architecture Biennial.
In a phone interview, Boone said one of her primary goals at the Poetry Foundation is to create better connections with the diverse range of Chicago residents, including those far from their modernist headquarters on the city’s upscale Near North Side.
“The work ahead is really about change,” she said. “It’s about being better and more inclusive and doing this in partnership and together with the people we want to serve here.”
Boone’s appointment follows a period of turmoil at the foundation, which has an endowment fund of approximately $ 300 million. This makes it one of the richest literary organizations in the country. Last spring, when the pandemic broke out, it was criticized for what some saw as a failure to use his wealth to help struggling poets and literary organizations.
Then, in June, its president and chairman resigned after more than 1,800 people, including several dozen foundation-affiliated poets, signed an open letter criticizing what was thought to be a lukewarm statement of support for Black Lives Matter and the foundation urged “to redistribute more of its enormous resources” to support social justice and anti-racism.
Weeks later, Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine, the foundation’s publication, resigned after a 30-page experimental poem by Michael Dickman was criticized for what some consider racist in multiple passages written from his imaginary point of view Language and imagery looked at mentally slimming grandmother. The poem was removed from the magazine’s website, and the magazine announced that it would skip a month of publication for the first time in its 108-year history as part of reckoning with “the deep-seated white supremacy of our magazine” organization. “
Since then, the foundation has hired three guest editors, all women in color, and distributed $ 1.3 million in emergency grants to individual poets and literary organizations across the country. It has also pledged to work with black historians “to extensively examine and document the debts that the Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine owe black poets”.
In this week’s interview, Boone described past complaints about insufficient resource sharing as “legitimate criticisms,” but said she was impressed with the foundation’s efforts to respond to criticism.
“The outcry represents the passion people have for the foundation. It wants them to get better and do better,” she said. “Because they took care of it, I think it offers an opportunity.”
The Poetry Foundation was established in 2003 after philanthropist Ruth Lilly, a great-granddaughter of pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly, gave Poetry Magazine a surprise gift of more than $ 100 million. A small but well-respected four-staff magazine known for its early acceptance of modernism immediately became a major cultural player. Even before last year’s outcry, however, it was criticized for what the spending priorities were and what some viewed as an island club culture disconnected from the city’s poetry scene, including youth-driven slam poetry.
Today, the foundation employs more than three dozen people and has an annual operating budget of $ 11 million that supports a number of awards, grants, and public programs such as the Chicago Poetry Block Party, an annual community festival founded in 2016 for The Personal Programming was interrupted during the pandemic.)
Boone said her own relationship with poetry was shaped by growing up in Chicago in the 1970s amid the heyday of the Black Arts movement, when the works of Chicago poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Oscar Brown Jr. were featured in the school’s curriculum and in the air were.
“The poetry was huge back then,” she said. “There wasn’t a girl my age who didn’t recite Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Ego Tripping’ in a meeting.”
“For me poetry is so connected to music, lyrics, the spoken word,” she added. “It was just always there.”