Saturday, March 18, 2017


In 1981 I received my second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Grant for Poetry. It was the start of the Reagan Era and the right-wingers were encouraged to start dismantling government programs that didn't directly benefit the wealthy and corporations. So two rightwing Republican Congressmen got up on the floor of Congress and called for the elimination of the NEA, and used my grant as their main reason for what was wrong with the federal government supporting the arts, saying it rewarded "pornography" because of my poem "My Life"—a ten page list of aspects of my life so far which included some graphic and at that time "deviant" sexual terms and what some consider "foul" language.

The problem with their subsequent campaign to use my poem as the impetus for outrage was that the parts they objected to were censored in newspapers and magazines and bleeped out on radio and TV, so no one could ever actually get what they were objecting to. Which is why the following year they used the visual arts to condemn the NEA, in particular the photo of a crucifix in a bucket of alleged urine. It was easier for people to use their imagination when they saw the image and become outraged, if they objected to the idea.

I had moved to L.A by that time and was called by the NEA to ask if I'd be willing to testify before a Congressional committee, but when they heard I was now on the other side of the country, they decided to save the expense of flying me back and putting me up and went with some East Coast visual artists and performing artists instead. But I remain proud and a little guilty at the fact that it was a poem of mine that was first trotted out to discredit the NEA. And by the way, my first grant from the NEA was in 1974 and was based on an earlier series of poems called "The South Orange Sonnets" that a Democratic Congressman praised on the floor of Congress and got mentioned in the Congressional Record where he called me "a major American poet."

Different strokes, as they used to say.

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