For the last 35 years, Poets House has been a rare haven for lovers of poetry. Researchers and poets alike frequented its 70,000-volume library in Manhattan, one of the most comprehensive independent poetry collections in the country. Co-founded by Stanley Kunitz, the nation’s 10th Poet Laureate, and Elizabeth Kray, a devoted supporter of poets in New York City, the foundation’s roots ran deep. The original mahogany desk of the revered American poet e.e. cummings is housed in its building, and the organization prides itself on “striving to make a democratic and pluralistic space for poets and the public.”
For some of the now-former staff members of Poets House, which announced a temporary suspension of operations this Monday, November 16, those words may not entirely resonate. All nine staffers were laid off during a Zoom meeting that day, moments before the announcement was made public. Although leadership attributes the closure to pandemic-related financial stress, the move followed months of staff-led organizing to hold management and the board accountable for “frequent complaints of workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and exploitative labor practices,” says a statement authored by ex-staff in response to Poets House’s announcement.
The news also came just a day before November 17, the deadline for Poets House to respond to the group’s union petition, filed two weeks prior.
“While we recognize the dire financial situation that arts organizations across the world are experiencing, we believe the closure and layoffs are a direct, retaliatory response to our efforts to form a union at Poet’s House with UAW Local 2110 and to address discriminatory and exploitative practices at the institution,” reads the workers’ statement, penned by a majority of the laid-off staff and released Wednesday.
Poets House rejects the workers’ claims. “We understand and empathize with the staff’s sense of loss,” a spokesperson told Hyperallergic. “Poets House worked hard to avoid reaching this point and in fact maintained full salary and benefits for all employees from the point when we had to close our facilities and go to remote work in March through November 16. It is simply not the case that Poets House, a vibrant organization for the last 30 years, would shutter due to staff complaints or the staff’s desire to be represented by a union.”
Laid-off staff will receive two weeks of salary in lieu of notice, as well payment for unused vacation time, severance of one week’s pay for each year of employment, and extended healthcare benefits, the spokesperson noted. (Employees’ severance letters include a non-disparagement clause, Poets House confirmed.) The organization projects a reopening in late 2021, if and when the coronavirus pandemic is under control.
“Poets House closed when it did so that there would still be funds to compensate the nine staff members, three of whom had been at the organization for more than ten years,” says a statement from the organization in response to the ex-staff letter.
In interviews with Hyperallergic, six former staffers, all of whom have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, shared similar stories of impunity for inappropriate comments and behavior by higher-ups at Poets House, including board members on whom the organization was financially reliant.
— Jim Behrle (@JimBehrle) November 20, 2020
During one of the organization’s winter benefits, in which poets are invited to do readings, a prominent Black poet known for her performative style read one of her works on stage. “As people were leaving, a donor with a lot of money went up to the poet and said, ‘Your poetry is okay, but you don’t need to be so angry all the time,’” a former worker told Hyperallergic. “A staff member saw this happen, saw the poet get incredibly upset, and told management, because that’s something they should be aware of.” The worker does not believe that management spoke to the donor about the incident.
One worker recounted a board member approaching them during a holiday party last year. “I was with a group of three staff members, an intern, and [Managing Director] Jane Preston, and a board member who was drunk said, ‘I just find poets so sexy. I’ve had sex with these poets, and these are poets I would love to have sex with. What poets would you have sex with?’” When they approached Preston about it, the worker says, she claimed not to remember it happening.
“One time, a white board member approached me, also a white person, and said, ‘I would have graduated last in my class if it wasn’t for all the Joses,’ implying Latinx people are dumber than white people,” said another former staffer. “My boss [Executive Director Lee Briccetti] saw this happen. She pulled me into her office and said, ‘I know this board member says things that aren’t okay sometimes, but he gives us a lot of money, so please don’t talk about this with anyone.’”
“She constantly asked younger female staff to dress like it was their first date, whenever we were meeting with the board,” they added.
At the helm of Poets House for the last three decades, Briccetti has spearheaded several of the organization’s programmatic cornerstones. She established Poetry in The Branches, a long-running poetry mentorship program for public library systems, and created the Poets House Showcase, a free, annual exhibition of the year’s new poetry books. But she frequently emerges in workers’ testimonies for her difficult management style.
“Working with Lee is like rolling the dice,” one worker said. “There have been times when she has screamed at me. I have been blamed for her mistakes. Every time she raises her voice, and says something demeaning or insulting, she adds, ‘I’m not a great speaker, so read through my tone, find my intention.’ This is a very familiar gaslighting tactic that Lee uses.” Another former employee described Briccetti as “a master manipulator.”
Part of the problem, another worker said, is that there was no formal system in place to handle workplace incidents.
“That’s part of the reason why we wanted union backing. We have never had a formal complaint procedure. Every complaint, no matter who it’s about, goes through Lee Briccetti and is handled verbally,” they told Hyperallergic. “So if there’s a complaint about her, there’s no other way to do it. And we are also specifically forbidden from speaking to any board member without written verbal concern of Lee Briccetti.” A former employee who said they felt especially silenced as a BIPOC staff member decided not to come forward when the husband of a well-known poetry translator groped him under the table during a dinner.
“I didn’t say anything to management because we didn’t have a grievance policy. I didn’t feel like coming forward, because of the culture,” they told Hyperallergic.
According to the ex-staff’s statement, workers first voiced concerns of a “hostile workplace culture” in February, before the pandemic hit. Their charges were followed by a meeting on August 20 between staff, management, and the board, mediated by Mark Pearce — the former Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under President Barack Obama, brought in by staff.
Pearce drafted a memo, reviewed by Hyperallergic, outlining the major issues raised by workers; namely, a failure of leadership to hold board members, donors, and presenters accountable for “repeated complaints of racism, transmisogyny and sexism against staff and interns,” and the absence of a grievance system to address the complaints properly.
In an email following the meeting, outgoing Board President Nicholas Potter thanked workers for their candor and said the discussion “surfaced an urgent need for both self-reflection by governance and immediate action.” Poets House hired an independent investigator to investigate allegations, though the statement by ex-staff notes that they did so without their input, bypassing promises to include workers in hiring decisions. In its statement, Poets House said that the investigator’s report “demonstrated that the claims were insubstantial and recommended training and updated personnel policies.”
A committee was established with representatives from different facets of the organization to select a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) consultant to lead trainings and develop a complaints procedure by January 2021. A spokesperson for Poets House said plans to implement those processes were in place and “will resume when Poets House reopens.”
In the months leading up to Poets House’s closure, the majority of its staff had begun meeting with representatives from United Auto Workers Local 2110 — which represents workers at the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and The Shed, among others — and signed union support cards. On November 4, they filed a union petition with the National Labor Relations Board and informed leadership of their intent to unionize. They sought “a seat at the table,” in the words of one ex-staffer: more influence to fast-track the DEIA initiatives and increased financial transparency, especially during the pandemic.
“After August, they started talking to us about grants we were getting and the spring calendar and programming they were already planning. So in the last three months, there was no indication that we were anywhere near closing,” a former staffer told Hyperallergic. (Contrarily, Poets House’s statement says that staff members “were aware that the financial situation had put jobs in jeopardy” by the time they filed the petition.)
“And then, after we submitted our petition to unionize, I personally did not hear from Lee and Jane between then and November 16. I sent them emails; I was prepared to go to every staff meeting. Each staff meeting was canceled.”
Two weeks later, the day before the petition response deadline, staffers were apprised of the closure and layoffs simultaneously during a staff meeting.
“Do I know for a fact that this was union-busting? Did they say that they were firing people because of unionizing? No, but the timing is pretty damning, especially considering how long we had been talking to them about these issues,” the worker continued.
Key among those issues, said former staffers interviewed, was management’s willingness to let inappropriate behavior by board members slip.
Leadership’s leniency in such instances may indicate the organization’s overwhelming dependence on private philanthropy for survival, a systemic problem in the arts and wider nonprofit community. But staffers pointed to larger dysfunctions related to workflows and finances.
“I was in charge of doling out payments to the poets who came to teach, read, lecture — and we were often late on payments. I was in the uncomfortable position of telling people ‘the check is in the mail,’” said a former worker. “I remember once asking for a check for a poet and being told by management something to the effect of ‘She has money, she’ll be fine.’ The way we maneuvered felt disorganized and ethically shifty.”
This employee eventually quit the organization, feeling “unsupported, infantilized, and blocked by higher-ups.”
All of the workers Hyperallergic spoke to, however, did share one positive sentiment: a profound belief in Poets House’s mission and a desire to see it return, under new leadership. There has been an outpouring of support for the organization on social media, and expressions of solidarity for its workers.
“I love Poets House and the good work that it does, and I know that much of the dysfunction comes from the frenzy of worry about funding and keeping that good work alive — especially now,” said one worker, who quit their job at Poets House over the last year. “But I don’t think the current leadership model is working, especially of late, and I hope some significant, clear, and meaningful change can emerge from this difficult time.”
“We’re not doing this out of anger, we’re not doing it out of malice,” said a former worker who helped author the ex-staff letter. “We want to stand in solidarity with other nonprofit art workers who are being treated poorly by executive management under the guise of all arts nonprofits being good. We are doing this for our interns, setting an example, because we know that they will one day be arts professionals dealing with these same issues.”