Poetry magazine comes under fire for publishing work by convicted sex offender

‘We recognise the life-shattering impact of violence and denounce harm,’ the magazine said in a statement

Rachel Brodsky
Los Angeles
Wednesday 03 February 2021 18:29 GMT
Poetry magazine comes under fire for publishing work by convicted sex offender
Poetry magazine comes under fire for publishing work by convicted sex offender (Poetry Foundation)

Poetry magazine, a prestigious US outlet published by the Poetry Foundation, has defended a controversial decision to run a poem by a convicted sex offender.

In its new issue focusing on work by “currently and formerly incarcerated people”, their families, and prison workers, Poetry published a piece by former English professor Kirk Nesset, who was released from prison last year after serving time for possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography in 2014. At the time of his arrest, Nesset had been found to have more than half a million images and films containing child sexual abuse.

When questioned why the outlet opted to publish a piece from Nesset, Poetry magazine said that its guest editors “didn't have knowledge of contributors' backgrounds”, as "the editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people”.

"We recognise the life-shattering impact of violence and denounce harm,” the magazine wrote in a statement on Twitter. “People in prison have been sentenced and are serving/have served those sentences; it is not our role to further judge or punish them as a result of their criminal convictions. As editors, our role is to read poems and facilitate conversations around contemporary poetry.

“We maintain that these poems are an expression of a human experience and that poetry is a force to advance human engagement and critical self-reflection. We hope the poetry in this issue facilitates deep and empathic reading and extends our discourse.”

In a statement posted to Twitter, guest editor Tara Betts said that she and her fellow editors had not been aware of the charges brought against their contributors.

“I can say that I had no intent to perpetuate further harm,” she wrote. “I’m going to be honest about my life. I barely escaped being a survivor myself. I’ve counselled many friends, family members and former students who are survivors, including incarcerated people. I’m heartbroken about hurting anyone or making them revisit their pain. I’m also devastated by policing and prisons and how these are overtly racist and classist systems that protect property over people. What happens when those hurts overlap?”

A petition calling for Nesset's work to be removed by the magazine has gained more than 700 signatures. “Time served does not equate to the lifetime of emotional, physical, and psychological trauma victims of child pornography and sexual assault endure,” it said in a statement.

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