Stop Censoring Your Artists: Open Letter to the Visible Poetry Project and Fractured Atlas
"Every year there are films the board ultimately chooses not to release."
Sofia Bannister, Managing Director, Visible Poetry Project
If I had known that my poems would be subject to board scrutiny, I would not have submitted my work to the Visible Poetry Project. I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Tova Beck-Friedman's film was deemed so controversial as to be banned from the VPP Festival. The banning of this film is what compels me to write to you today.
To the Board Members of the Visible Poetry Project and Fractured Atlas, (Names on VPP website include only: Michelle Cheripka and Alex Max).
In this particular historical moment when a deadly pandemic is ravishing the globe, killing people daily at an unprecedented rate, I find it particularly shameful to be censoring artists, in this case, artists who produce political work. Especially now.
In several emails I have implored you to reconsider your position. Trust me, it gives me no pleasure to write this letter. I do so in hope that you might reconsider your censorship practices in future. Otherwise, I want to alert poets and filmmakers that your organization is not acting in good faith. Nowhere in your material can i find language stating that you will pull commissioned work from the festival.
In September 2019, when I submitted my poems to you, I understood (from all the materials on your website) that if my work were selected, I would have the opportunity to be paired with a filmmaker who would create a film based on one of my poems.
Success! I was excited to learn I had been selected by a panel of esteemed poets and that my work would be passed onto the chosen filmmakers (who had also been vetted by VPP). I became even more pleased when I was told that the filmmaker, Tova Beck-Friedman had selected my poem,"Pregnant with the Dead" as the inspiration for her film. Given that this poem is meant to honor my ancestors and its subject is intergenerational haunting, I was especially thrilled.
"30 Poets / 30 Filmmakers / 30 Days," is the tag line for your organization. I was intrigued with the elegance of releasing one film per day during National Poetry Month. What a great idea! In none of the emails I received nor in the Film Resource Packet was there any mention that the final product would be subject to the scrutiny and to the oversight of your organization. What art organization controls the art the artists produce? My work has been honored with many grants and awards, no organization has ever reneged on their agreement, until now.
It never occurred to me that the art you commission would be subject to censorship. The panel of poets and filmmakers you chose acted in proxy for the organization. My poem was chosen, I talked with my filmmaker and we were off and running.
You supplied us with a wonderful producer for our project, Mia Shelton, who I believe works for VPP. Mia kept us on track with permissions and budgets; she also screened an early cut of the film. Her comments state that the interplay of dancer and archival footage was very effective. This was during production, and so Tova continued her work.
It wasn't until March 31st that we learned something was very wrong. I received an email from Sofia letting me know that "Pregnant with the Dead" had been cut from the line-up and would not be shown as part of the VPP Festival scheduled to open the next day. The message that was sent to the filmmaker and myself that night was polite but obtuse. Here is an excerpt.
I am so sorry to tell you that we are unable to release Pregnant With The Dead this April. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we've had to restructure our programming for National Poetry Month, in an effort to bring the community of Visible Poetry Project together during this time of crisis. I know this news is very disappointing. Please know that we too are disappointed not to be releasing your film, and we hope you will understand our decision to hold onto your film until a later date.
I reread the email several times wondering what this note could mean. At first, I thought the festival had been delayed but this was an on-line film festival; why would it be affected by COVID-19? When I visited the VPP website the festival was still there. Finally, I understood that our film being cut "in response to COVID-19," was simply using the pandemic as an excuse. There has been no further mention of finding anywhere else to screen the film.
If the film had featured images of death or widespread illness, I could have understood the argument (not agreed but understood) however the film shows moving footage of people living ordinary lives in pre-war Europe. The dancer is clothed, her movements in keeping with contemporary modern dance gestures. The message of the poem, if a poem's message needs to be distilled, is one of hope across space and time.
Finally, after four requests for clarification on why we were cut (each one offering a different reason for dropping the film) Managing Director, Sofia Bannister, asked the board for a detailed response. The following gives the most salient details outlining your concerns.
After viewing Tova’s final cut, and having concerns about the overlay of the dancer being detrimental to the gravity of the piece, the board consulted a professor whose doctoral studies were in Holocaust cinema and who has helped us with programming in the past. She expressed extreme discomfort with the piece. This is just to say - the deliberation did indeed include someone who lost family members in the Holocaust and whose expertise on artistic depictions of the Holocaust far exceeds our own…Because, in an assembly of six people, three of whom have ancestral legacy with the Holocaust, all six found the video offensive, we determined that ratio would likely be reflected in the general audience as well.
After consulting with a professor of Religious Studies and Holocaust Studies, we are both "troubled that people who have an "ancestral legacy" with the Holocaust are thought qualified to pass judgement on a work of art." Isn't art supposed to make the viewer uncomfortable? Isn't a collaboration commissioned by an organization meant to be supported by that organization?
Tova Beck-Friedman's film was submitted more than a month before the deadline, why did you wait until the night before the festival to pull her work?
A final note, from the professor quoted above, "tomorrow night is Yom Hashoah, Israel's annual Holocaust Memorial Day, observed also in many Jewish communities in the Diaspora. It is ironic and sad that on the eve of this historic date, decided upon by the Israeli Knesset years ago, (y)our own contribution to the artistic response to the Holocaust has been silenced."
If there were ever a time to support each other, that time is now. The best art pushes and challenges us to the point of discomfort. We may even find it "offensive" in the tradition of Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party or Allen Ginsburg's Howl. This discomfort is how you as board members of an arts organization reacted to Tova Beck-Friedman's film. What a pity that you weren't aware enough to recognize its power.
With the sincerest hope that you reconsider your policies for next year and that no other artists find themselves in this untenable position. Please either stop censoring your artists or make it clear in your materials that there is an agenda that the art you distribute must follow.
Poet and Activist