Backlash over creative writing lecturer Michael Dickman’s use of offensive and violent language in a recently published poem led Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, to resign last month — one of several recent controversies surrounding free speech and accountability that have embroiled the University.
The 30-page free verse poem by Dickman was criticized for containing an offensive term used to refer to Black women and imagery, which then-editor Share called “insidious” and “particularly oppressive to Black, Pacific Islander, and Asian people.”
On July 26, the editors of Poetry issued an apology for publishing the poem in their July/August publication. The same day, Share stepped down from his position, soon releasing a statement taking “sole responsibility for publishing the poem.”
The apology came shortly after Dickman himself joined over 2,000 poets, educators, and readers in signing a letter that called for the Poetry Foundation to reallocate funds toward social justice and for the Foundation’s President and Chair of the Board to resign. Both men, one of whom once served as Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, stepped down in mid-June.
Dickman has not made a public statement regarding “Scholls Ferry Rd.” or the magazine’s response. He deferred comment for this piece to Lewis Center for the Arts (LCA) Chair Tracy K. Smith, who wrote that the LCA’s “number one goal is to support and strengthen the entire Lewis Center community.”
“And so it is important to us now to seek out dialogue with concerned students,” Smith added in an email. “Their input will guide us in developing a formalized process for addressing accountability and making reparations in situations of this kind moving forward.”
The poem’s publication came weeks before Smith joined over 350 University faculty members in signing an open letter that urged University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and other high-ranking administrators to take anti-racist action. Dickman is not listed as a signatory.
Among 48 proposals, the signatories demanded the University convene a committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”
Several faculty members have since condemned both the letter and that particular proposal. Most controversially, classics professor Joshua Katz referred to Black student activists as terrorists in an early July response. Katz’s language, a white student’s use of the n-word on Facebook, and lack of repercussions in both instances have also led some to criticize the University’s policies on offensive language and free speech.
As the national reckoning with racial injustice has reached Princeton, Dickman’s poem — and Share’s resignation — have reignited conversations about racism, free expression, and accountability.
‘Scholls Ferry Rd.’
Dickman’s poem focuses on the speaker’s grandmother, whose mental dexterity, over the course of 30 pages, declines with age. Explicit references to race do not appear until the poem’s 14th page, which begins with an offensive racial term for a Black woman. The speaker’s grandmother defends her use of the term by saying, “they are always changing what they want to be called.”
The grandmother then remarks, “[w]hat a nice Hawaiian” and, on the next page, tells her daughter Wendy to “[s]tep on it” when she sees what the speaker calls a “river of Japanese businessmen” in front of the car.
“The language used is pretty jarring,” said Brittani Telfair ’22, the treasurer of Songline Slam Poetry. “It was just kind of bizarre.”
Share wrote in his editor’s note that he originally read “Scholls Ferry Rd.” as a “condemnation” of racism within a white family. Soon after, he came to consider that view “wishful thinking,” believing that the poem “egregiously voices offensive language that is neither specifically identified nor explicitly condemned as racist.”
Several students who spoke to The Daily Princetonian, however, defended the poem’s publication. Destiny Salter ’20, who graduated with a B.A. in African American studies and a certificate in creative writing, read the poem with knowledge of the criticism it had received online. She felt the work had been “completely misinterpreted,” and its language “taken out of context.”
“I doubt the majority of the Twitter mob that is up in arms about this poem read it in its entirety,” Salter wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
For her senior thesis, which Dickman advised, Salter wrote a poetry collection that “dealt extensively with racism, white supremacy, and racial violence.” Her thesis received the 2020 Toni Morrison prize for “enlarg[ing] the scope of our understanding of issues of race.”
Maintaining that the use of “a slur or an offensive word in literature does not make the author racist,” Salter stressed reading lines in context. She felt the poem could be read as a “subtle critique” of racism, the grandmother’s language revealing a character who lives in a romanticized past and resists change.
Priyanka Aiyer ’23, who publishes poetry under the name Topaz Winters, disagreed. She felt the poem displaced responsibility from the author, critiquing “the general institution of racism without critiquing the author’s role in that.”
“It presents racism as something that kind of happens outside of the author and happens to the author and around the author rather than something that the author actually perpetuates,” Aiyer explained.
Co-president of Ellipses Slam Poetry Christina Im ’22 agreed with this sentiment, telling the ‘Prince’ that “because we get this seemingly uncritical reenactment of these scenes of racism, what ends up happening is there is a reenactment of the violence that is done through that language.”
Beyond the level of language, Im was shocked that the poem was “taking up so much space in the magazine,” which is known as “one of the most well-paying magazines in poetry.” Because of the magazine’s practice of paying by the page, Im felt the poem obstructed “potentially multiple paychecks” that could have gone to poets of color or Black poets.
“Even if the poem in terms of craft were a meaningful critique of whiteness — which I don’t think it is, but even if it were — the fact that it takes up so much space and it plays on the structural advantages that the poet has kind of negates whatever meaningful work that it could have done,” Im added.
Share echoed this sentiment in his apology, writing that the poem “centers completely on white voices, leaving room for no other presences.”
Telfair was most troubled by the brevity of those presences, how the figures of color in the poem did not in her view have “the space or the chance to say anything or be engaged with in a meaningful way and have a voice of their own.”
In Telfair’s view, by confining BIPOC presences to two pages in the middle of a poem that otherwise offers extreme detail and nuance on the grandmother and uses “dehumanizing language,” “Scholls Ferry Rd.” failed to “clearly establish the humanity of the people of color it describes” and contributed to “a larger pattern in the Western literary canon of using people of color as props that white characters can define themselves against.”
Scooter Liapin ’20, whose poetry thesis was advised by Dickman, believes any attempt at nuance in the poem reflects only “white guilt” and “morphs into a context-less parroting of what [the speaker’s] racist family members said.”
“That’s no critique; that’s regurgitating past instances of violence for an audience without taking accountability for oneself or holding one’s family accountable,” they wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
For D.M. Spratley ’07, a poet and an anti-racist educator and strategist, poets must be accountable to readers of color. She believes “Scholls Ferry Rd.” inaccurately assumes a white readership and fails to consider what “actively causes harm” to Black, Pacific Islander, or Native Hawaiian readers.
A study from 2006 and a more recent study in 2017 both found that Black Americans and other communities of color proportionally read more poetry than white Americans.
Gawon Jo ’23, on the other hand, doesn’t think poets should “be beholden to the idea that they need to consider all of the sensibilities of the reader when they’re writing something.”
“It’s a post-production thing where you should attach warnings or a clarification in case people take offense to it, but when you’re writing it, you shouldn’t have to censor yourself in that way, especially if it is personal experience,” Jo said.
Spratley finds that asking, “Should this be permitted?” unproductively frames the conversation around free speech, causing writers to push back “because they’re asking what they can say and what they can’t say.”
“Really, they can say and write whatever they want,” Spratley said. “A point that many, many folks have made: free speech isn’t freedom from consequence.”
Opinions differ, however, on what exactly those consequences should be.
Accountability or ‘cancellation’
According to Share’s statement, Dickman requested his poem “be withdrawn from further circulation,” and the entry for “Scholls Ferry Rd.” currently states the poem “will not be published online or added to the archive.”
While some view the removal of Dickman’s poem as an example of “cancel culture” — the practice of shaming an individual, often by removing them from power or discourse, for a perceived wrongdoing — Liapin disagrees.
“I personally regard the idea that established writers are under attack for getting their racist pieces rescinded as ludicrous,” they wrote. “What about the many poems from contemporary Black poets and other poets of color that could’ve taken the 30-page space that ‘Scholls Ferry Rd.’ took up? Will free speech advocates rally just as hard for them not getting their voices heard, or was it actually never really about free speech?”
To Hannah Wang ’21, a member of Songline Slam Poetry and senior writer for the ‘Prince,’ the term “cancel culture” is precariously fluid — seeming “to morph in definition depending on who’s using it, what they’re trying to say about a specific discourse.” Wang defines cancel culture as “a phenomenon of mob mentality and being unforgiving of people’s mistakes.” She does not think the response to “Scholls Ferry Rd.” falls into that category.
“When content like that receives calls for accountability, both Poetry magazine and Michael Dickman are under an obligation to respond very seriously to what people are saying about it,” Wang said. “If it did not occur to them that people would respond in this way or feel this way about reading it, then they have to pay attention and listen and take action to make reparations for the harm that was caused.”
“That is not cancel culture to me, and that is not an infringement upon free speech to me either,” she added.
Social media, especially Twitter, often serves as a battleground where calls for accountability compete with charges of cancel culture, as readers all over the world rapidly consume content and share their opinions. One early post criticizing “Scholls Ferry Rd.” received nearly 2,000 likes and retweets.
Jo, however, questioned the validity and efficacy of calls for accountability on social media. In this case, she believes many critiques of the poem’s language have been made in “bad faith,” without full context. She finds social media can lead to “personal attacks and vendettas and into outrage culture.” To her, this outrage can be unwarranted, short-lived, or divorced from meaningful action.
She was particularly suspicious of a series of tweets in response to “Scholls Ferry Rd.,” in which users stated they were unsubscribing from Poetry magazine.
“Unsubscribing is a valid way for you as an individual to stop engaging with what you consider racist texts or a racist magazine, but does it really change anything if you unsubscribe?” Jo said. “Rather than subscribing, shouldn’t you contact them? Shouldn’t you campaign to make Poetry magazine less white or to change it instead of just canceling your subscription?”
When it comes to cancel culture, Spratley finds discussions of the practice end up “inadvertently centering whiteness.” She thinks conversations about racism must consider “not just the voices we have been hearing for decades that are being challenged but also the voices that we have never had a chance to hear” by focusing on access for BIPOC and “the transformation of our concept of power to center community power rather than individual power.”
“I think often about folks who have talent, who have something to say, and who don’t have that same type of access or support. Really, it’s that the institutions are not built for them, and there was never any intention that they would have access or support,” Spratley said.
Salter agreed, calling for journals “to publish more people of color, and intentionally diversify their staff and their boards” in order to rectify an environment that “tends to be an elitist and very white space.”
“Though I do not agree with the criticism of Dickman’s poem, I do agree that the editors and boards of poetry journals need to dedicate themselves to amplifying voices of BIPOC, not just now, not just in this climate, but period,” she wrote.
Calls for action from the LCA
The conversation around “Scholls Ferry Rd.” contributes to a national discussion about making reparations for histories of racialized violence, particularly in institutions such as the Poetry Foundation — and the University. While Im wonders if the changes being made at the Poetry Foundation will improve matters, she compares the organization’s public response and concrete changes to the University’s lack thereof.
“The public silence of Princeton and the Lewis Center on this issue has been really painful for a lot of people, myself included,” Im said.
She asked the LCA to publicly articulate reparative and preventive measures and “put a little on the line by making a public acknowledgement and showing students especially that the Lewis Center cares and is listening and is working to improve.”
When it comes to internal improvements, Im wants “a process of accountability that actually ensures that Professor Dickman knows the harm that he’s done with his language and commits in some meaningful structural way to redressing that harm.”
She is wary, however, of the LCA relying too heavily on marginalized students to do that reparative work. When the LCA suggested a “listening and learning session” with Dickman and other creative writing professors, Im worried that the proposal placed undue pressure on marginalized students by asking them “to directly confront someone who is in power who has harmed them.”
“These students have already been harmed and asking them to explain why feels unproductive to me,” she said.
The LCA recently hired students from across its programs to “collaboratively develop and present a teach-in on issues of intersectional identity for LCA faculty and staff,” as described in the job posting.
According to an email sent by Silma Berrada ’22 to creative writing students, Berrada, Glenna Jane Galarion ’21, Jasmine Rivers ’23, Miles Wilson ’22, and Jacy Duan ’21 will create a presentation that aims to “share the students’ perspectives on issues of interpersonal and institutional discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, ability, and socioeconomic background as well as propose ways to make the LCA a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive space.”
The students are currently collecting personal experiences with any degree of confidentiality from certificate students in all arts programs. They will incorporate submissions into the LCA-wide teach-in.
At the University level, there have been a number recent calls for anti-racist change — between the open letter from faculty, activism from policy students, and the Black Leadership Coalition’s development of student task forces to create proposals and communicate with administrators. There has also been pushback, from Katz’s letter and mathematics professor Sergui Klainerman’s assertion that “Princeton University is One of the Least Racist Institutions in the World” to the reformation of a small but vocal student group opposing anti-racist trainings and teaching.
In late June, Eisgruber also instructed senior academic and administrative leaders to “identify specific action that can be taken in their areas of responsibility to confront racism.” These scholars and administrators are expected to submit reports to Eisgruber that “specify a set of actions that could be taken within your areas of study to identify, understand, and combat systemic racism within and beyond the University.”
When asked what changes she would like to see at the University level, Spratley drew on her experience helping nonprofit organizations build anti-racist strategies and practices and recommended “starting to build formalized codified systems of accountability [and] of powersharing, building anti-racist policy, and codifying anti-racist practices.”
While organizations often first turn to placing people of color in positions of power — a move Spratley thinks is certainly important — she also emphasized that building systems that aren’t reliant on certain individuals ensures the longevity of anti-racist changes and can prevent situations from happening in the first place.
Salter combined personnel and structural changes in her suggestions for long-term solutions. She asked for more diversity in the creative writing faculty, which featured only two women and only two professors of color teaching poetry during Salter’s time at the University. She also believes every creative writing class should “challenge hegemonic ideas and problematic paradigms,” begin with discussions of cultural differences and sensitivity, and allow authors — who are sometimes required to stay silent during workshops — to speak up in the face of insensitive or offensive comments.
“I have had experiences where I was the only black person in class, and had to deal with my white peers not understanding certain cultural references, or tell me that they don’t believe the racist experiences I wrote about were true,” Salter wrote.
Beyond the creative writing program, Salter believes the University “needs to actually listen to and respect its students’ opinions, especially the ones protesting for social justice.”
“Princeton is always the last to change, and always clinging stubbornly to harmful and nonsensical policies in the name of tradition,” she wrote. “Take slaveowners names off of buildings (especially off of the AAS building), stop sabotaging and short-changing cultural affinity groups on campus, create consequences for professors who say or do racially offensive things in class and in interactions with students. The list goes on and on. They have a lot of work to do.”
For Im, such anti-racist work is part of the work of art itself. She believes in the power of art to activate a “liberatory imagination,” allowing us to envision what the world could be and thinks artists must engage in active advocacy beyond artistic practice.
“If the art that is being made isn’t being accompanied with advocacy for actual structural change, then I just wonder what is the purpose of that work,” she said.
“If the people who are making it are not also questing to change the structures that make it hard for certain people to make art in the first place, and for certain people to live the lives that they want to live.”