Carolyn Kizer: Cultural Czarina at NEA


by Marian Janssen

Carolyn Kizer (1923-2014), feminist poet and founding editor of Poetry Northwest, became the first and formidable Program Director for Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This story starts in Seattle, after she had returned home from her stint as Poet-in-Residence in Pakistan from 1964 to 1965.

“Loyal to United States:” The FBI Investigates

Respected as a poet and highly regarded in field of literature, she is described as flamboyant, temperamental, strong-minded, outspoken, a dynamic personality who can be very caustic at times. She irritates many because of her abrasiveness, has wide circle of acquaintances, few close friends. “Poetry Northwest”, a University of Washington publication termed second best in its field, her creation and development. Attended Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, and University of Washington. Married to STIMSON BULLITT, 1948-1954; three children. In period following divorce, University of Washington professor and author [David Wagoner] was frequent visitor to her home and often spent night. She considered loyal to United States although non-conformist. [1]

This is, in bureau-speak, the conclusion to an investigation by the FBI into Carolyn Kizer, who was considered for the prominent position of Program Director for Literature at the NEA, signed into existence by President Johnson at the end of September, 1965. From the hundred or so pages released under the Freedom of Information Act, it is clear that Carolyn underwent a full field investigation, lasting months, going all the way back to her student days, for the Cold War was on and Carolyn was an anti-Vietnam left-liberal. Consequently, her allegiance to the United States, career, character and love-life all underwent serious scrutiny. Teachers and college classmates at Sarah Lawrence, landlords in New York City, colleagues at Washington University and neighbours in Seattle were all interviewed. One of those complained that Carolyn “spent a good deal of time during warmer weather sitting or working in her front yard scantily clad” which was “improper and illustrated [her] unstableness.” The FBI’s final verdict was, however, affirmative.

“At the Top of Her Form:” Knock Upon Silence

After having been waited upon hand and foot as Poet-in-Residence in Pakistan, Carolyn found it hard to readjust to domesticity and being a single mother. She therefore spent the summer of 1965 with her two oldest children in Europe. Back in Seattle, she found the first copy of her second collection, Knock Upon Silence (1965), waiting for her, but there was nobody to celebrate with. She wrote to her friend Robert Peterson: “Ted [Roethke] dead, Ann [London Scott] in Buffalo for God’s sake, you there, and everybody else everywhere else. I tried to find one little poop of a poet so at least I could buy him a drink but even that didn’t work out.” Seattle was as disappointingly dreary as it had been before her stay in Pakistan. Although she had refused to trim her poetry to anybody’s whims, she assured her publisher she was willing to do “anything, including a little selected prostitution, to sell copies of the stuff” and read at ten Southern colleges in two weeks. Always witty and often wise-cracking, Carolyn, known as “White Fang, the fastest tongue in the West,” was a top hit (Poetry Northwest Papers). Upon her return, she attended a function for eminent British literary critic Frank Kermode, who gave the most brilliant lecture Carolyn had ever heard. Its aftermath, however, was typical for a University of Washington party: “a weasel” sidled up to Carolyn and joked that her book was nicknamed “Knocked Up in Silence.” She gave at least as good as she got, though, because when Wagoner, whom she bitchily described as “an old lover of mine who used to be a good poet,” was “puffing about the fact that he is making full-professor,” she retorted that “that was the most depressing news I’d had in some time.”

“Cultural Czarina:” Program Director for Literature

Carolyn could afford to feel schadenfreude because she had just been offered the directorship of the NEA’s literature programme. Over Thanksgiving, she had won over theatre producer Roger Stevens, who had just been appointed as chairman of the NEA by President Johnson. “One guess as to who got [the meeting] for me,” Carolyn noted, referring to Abe Fortas, who had been her lover when she was married to Stimson Bullitt. As Johnson’s right hand man and fixer, Fortas was one of the most powerful men in the country. With the promise of a brilliant job and the knowledge that this would be her last holiday season in detested Seattle, Carolyn got terribly drunk, but, to her relief, did not behave scandalously, for she was sure that she was in the middle of a check by the FBI and that “little green men” were following her about (Ann London Scott Papers, Schlesinger Library). She was right.

Before her appointment became official, she sent in her resignation from Poetry Northwest to the head of the English department, Robert Heilman, because the New York Times had gotten wind of it. “U.S. Arts Council Picks 3 Directors,” it headlined on January 7, 1966, commenting they were “not the stuffy, predictable choices you’d expect from an official body.” “Of course I resign from Poetry Northwest with real regret. It is rather like resigning from one of the children,” Carolyn let Heilman know. “But it will be seven years this June since its founding, and as I have long held that editors should [then] be bodily removed, or else shot … the least I can do is take my own advice.” “How can a minor prosaist meaningfully praise a major poet?,” Heilman responded. The University of Washington had come to realise that in Poetry Northwest they had “a big thing going here, and that you were the big brain—and the big heart, really . . . that made the journal large and bouncy and lively.”

I am taking “this mad job working for the government,” Carolyn informed Hayden Carruth. “I am through with poetry for awhile … so I might as well be a cultural czarina, and try to help writers who need help.”(Carruth Papers.) “[F]rom now on flattery gets nobody no place,” Carolyn told her daughter Ashley, knowing that as she had about three quarters of a million dollars to hand out, everybody would fawn over her. In today’s context, Carolyn’s appointment as the Program Director for Literature seems obvious. Not only was she a well-known poet, but she had also proven herself in possession of administrative acumen and stamina. She was the founding editor of Poetry Northwest and by hard work and sheer persistence had made it a resounding international literary success. She was one of the powers behind ALMA, a colourful collection of opinionated editors of little and not so little magazines, with extremely diverse – and often contradictory – aesthetic and ethical goals. As one of the very few women in a male-dominated, misogynistic literary world, she had been elected ALMA’s director and had succeeded in keeping this motley crew on course. Carolyn knew everyone who was anyone in the world of poetry: through Poetry Northwest, her involvement in the Northwest Poetry Circuit and annual trips to the East Coast. Though strong-willed and not sycophantic in the least, she had proven in Pakistan that she fit in with diplomatic, bureaucratic circles. Still, in spite of her indisputable qualities, in 1965 she had one big disadvantage: she was a woman, taking the rightful place of a man.

“What a Life!:” Working at the NEA

The NEA was established to create and sustain a climate encouraging freedom of thought and the imagination. Now that the NEA is more than half a century old and has a budget of over $150 million dollars, it cannot be overstated how bold its formation was. Inspired by President Kennedy, Congress had slowly become convinced that private funding was no longer enough to support the country’s cultural resources. Although President Johnson was far less interested in the arts than his predecessor, he knew as no other that the Cold War was also being fought on a cultural level. Even if he was at least as much driven by political motives as by cultural idealism, Johnson is due credit for taking this crucial step towards bringing culture to America. For arguably the first time in the nation’s history, the arts were viewed as a public necessity.

No wonder then, that numerous applicants had been vying for the honour of programme director. It was a plum position, close to the White House, at the dawn of a new cultural era. To appoint Carolyn Kizer, a mere woman, to such a high-level, high-exposure post was extraordinary. But Roger Stevens was an extraordinary man, who did not care at all for what was considered acceptable. His first three appointments included another woman, Ruth Mayleas, in charge of theatre and dance. By May 1966, he had appointed an unprecedented bevy of eight sharp women who were, in the words of a Washington Post staff writer, “Charting a Course for American Arts.” The Post reported on May 17 that all eight had to deal with the same basic problems. To encourage the arts, they had to develop programmes that cost practically nothing, from scratch, while capturing the public imagination so that the NEA’s continued existence could be secured.

Clipping from the Washington Post, underlined by Carolyn, who was not happy that her name was misspelt

Carolyn thought Stevens a good man “with a great talent for people,” but rather useless, as he was swamped by his different jobs: he was also in charge of the new Kennedy Center. The NEA’s “bushy-tailed” administrative assistants were mainly political appointees, who, Carolyn was sure, considered the new directors superfluous, and concealed vital information from them. Fortunately, the other directors were all in the same boat as she and were wonderful. Not so the senior administrators at the NEA office, Livingston Biddle, Stevens’s deputy director, or Charles Mark, in charge of the NEA’s relations with the existing State Art Councils. Both “curiously flaccid and inefficient men,” they seemed “to spend a lot of time impeding the rest of us, and giving people the run-around as a kind of bureaucratic reflex.” Complicating the situation even further was the NEA’s Council, a group of advisers who voted on the proposals put to them by the programme directors. Carolyn loved the members in the visual arts and film, among them famous architect Minoru Yamasaki, dancer Agnes de Mille and, particularly, actor Gregory Peck. She regarded the Council’s literature section as weakest. Ralph Ellison, the author of the great American novel Invisible Man was “so grateful to have escaped from ‘negritude’ into the White Establishment that he is a real uncle Thomas, alas,” Paul Engle, the long-time director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “who doesn’t bathe, and has no other conspicuous talents” and Harper Lee, the author of Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), whom Carolyn described as “a drab sort of lesbian lady.” “I say that because no normal woman could sit next to Greg baby for two solid days, with dirty hair and no makeup and no girdle.” Indeed, Carolyn was so bowled over by Peck’s beauty, that, for once, she could not think of anything to say and was happy just to admire.

“I think that one of the wonderful things about being in on this program at the very beginning is that it is so personal. You are so involved with everything; with every phase of the project; with everybody in it; with every writer; with every teacher; with everybody who writes you,” Carolyn observed in 1967 (Kizer, interview with William Holland, Voyages, 1967). Notwithstanding the constant worry that Congress might decide not to allot money for the next fiscal year and the ubiquitous red tape, Carolyn’s life as director was electrifying. In October 1967, for instance, she first met Herbert Kohl, “who is helping black young dropouts” in Harlem. She then flew to Albuquerque with “a suitcase full of unread manuscripts and a bathing suit” to attend meetings of both the Western Literature Association and the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association in order to get to know more about writers in the Southwest. On to Portland, to see some historians and Pacific Northwest painter friends. Then back to New York City to consult with her literary juries, having received over three hundred NEA applications. She also met a Lincoln Center’s archivist to discuss developing an archive of taped American poetry and she saw the heads of the MLA and PEN. Rushing back to Washington, she reviewed grants for the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM): “after raising $50,000 in matching money for their first year’s program—with many sighs of relief! —I now have to turn right around and raise another 50 thousand for fiscal 67-68! What a life!”

George Plimpton playing the piano at his party, with Carolyn and her son Scott Bullitt (and Marilyn Monroe) looking on. Courtesy Ashley Bullitt

Carolyn produced virtually no work of her own during these years. Apart from the planning and programming, travelling and conferring, she attended theatre and dance productions, gallery openings and countless parties with her co-directors and boss. She herself did not entertain on a lavish scale, preferring to take colleagues to restaurants and bars. When she did play hostess, however, it was on such a grand scale that the Washington papers took notice. This was the case, for instance, when she threw a party for patrician George Plimpton, one of the founders of the lively Paris Review and perhaps the country’s most eligible bachelor in April 1967. James Dickey – according to Carolyn “the only writer in America who was for the Vietnam War” – then Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, was present, as were senators William Fulbright and Eugene McCarthy (Kizer, interview with David Rigsbee and Steven-Ford-Brown, April 4, 1987). The Washington Sunday Star described her as “the extraordinary poet, swinger and literary director of the National Endowment for the Arts.” Over a decade after their divorce, it was apparently important to mention, too, that she was the “ex-wife of Stimson Bullitt of Seattle.” The party’s glamorous “combination of poetic patter and political parlance” reached as far as Carolyn’s place of birth, Spokane, where Spokesman Review’s Betty Beale cribbed the Sunday Star article, adding that she was local lawyer Ben Kizer’s daughter. Carolyn was in a position of great power and influence, but she was still seen as an adjunct, as the former wife or daughter of.

“One of Our Most Successful Programs:” Poetry in the Schools

From the first, Carolyn was a staunch supporter of grants for individual writers. The first faint stirrings of political interference occurred when Stevens’s assistant, Frank Crowther, undiplomatically and indiscreetly, let drop that writers recommended by congressmen had little chance of being approved for a grant. The New York Times was flooded with angry letters; members of the House asked questions. Carolyn prided herself on having drafted the NEA’s diplomatic answer, which quelled the outrage. In reality, though, she completely agreed with Crowther and was careful to pin the hectoring, pushy notes by Congressmen to writers’ application letters, so that the Council members would be provoked into putting those aside. From the NEA’s first full year of operation onwards, Carolyn left her mark on the “Individual Grants to Writers” project. The “projected poets’ grants’ list looks, at the moment, like a list of prizewinners from Poetry Northwest, which is, of course a great tribute to my good taste as an editor, but will look like a put-up job,” Carolyn wrote to her friend Donald Finkel, who had won Poetry Northwest’s 1964 Helen Bullis Prize hands down (Finkel Papers, Washington University).

However life-saving these grants were for individual writers, some of Carolyn’s other programmes were far more instrumental in ensuring the NEA’s success. Foremost among those was Poetry in the Schools. It started as a pilot programme in 1966 with the help of the American Academy of Poets. In its first phase, well-known American poets such as Denise Levertov and Robert Lowell met with some four hundred teachers to stimulate their interest in literature and improve their teaching methods. In its second phase, lesser-known poets went to over a hundred – mainly disadvantaged – high schools, to read and talk about poetry. They reached more than ten thousand students – many of whom had never seen a poet or heard a poem before. “We are hoping very much to get into classrooms where there are large proportions of Mexican-Americans and American Indian children who have largely been muffled in their creative and responsive expressions and in their appreciation of literature,” Carolyn explained (Holland). Starting out in New York City, Detroit and Pittsburgh public schools, the programme was received with great enthusiasm and soon extended to two hundred schools. In 1967, it spread to other parts of the country. W.H. Auden, James Dickey and Adrienne Rich were among the poets then involved. The 1967 NEA report named it “one of our most successful programs~ not only in terms of student and teacher response, but in the enthusiasm of the participating poets–and as a source of income for a number of impoverished poets.”

“Black Powerists and Uncle Toms” and “Girlie Pictures:” Watts and CCLM

Another grant supporting the disadvantaged was given to screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s Watt’s Writers Workshop, which was founded in Los Angeles in the wake of the catastrophic Watts race riots of 1965. The workshop gave meaning and structure to the lives of its participants, young African American males. The NEA grant enabled Schulberg to set up the Frederick Douglass House in Watts “with a library, typewriters, writing supplies, and–most important of all–classes in writing.” (NEA Annual Report 1967.) It became a magnet for writers, and, at times, even a home for those who were displaced. In one of her unbureaucratic, brief, often blunt reports on her projects, Carolyn noted its internal racial tensions, notably the “split developing between black-powerists and uncle toms,” suspecting that many were “b.p. underneath and u.t. on the surface.” She concluded that they needed “reassurance that they don’t have to be nice boys to get help from us.” The Watts program led to a contract with the New American Library to publish From the Ashes: Voices of Watts (1967). Ironically, still mired in Cold War paranoia, the FBI regarded Watts House as a communist conspiracy and had one of its infiltrators burn it down a few years later.

As the former editor of a renowned small magazine which, like most other little magazines, could not pay its contributors, Carolyn undertook to change that situation. Writers, though wanting to “be read by serious readers and writers rather than be buried by girlie pictures and advertisements in glossy magazines” had to work for those more affluent magazines in order to survive, she told Holland. More experimental talents had a much better chance to break through via publication in small magazines than in the more conservative glossies. Her solution was to set up the CCLM, in effect an offspring of ALMA. Defunct by 1965, ALMA had succeeded in bringing together members of very disparate magazines for exchange and information regarding mutual problems with respect to finances, production, marketing and circulation. “To resurrect and strengthen its esprit de corps would require a savior. A succession of brief, CCLM disciplinary annals penned over the years laud a group of men as filling this breach, but few mention the woman without whom the organization might never have arisen: Carolyn Kizer,” Pauline Uchmanowicz states in her history of the CCLM (Massachusetts Review, 2003). It was Carolyn, who had the notion to funnel NEA money to journals that fell outside the commercial mainstream for author payments and production costs. She hoped that even the smallest, most far-flung and experimental magazines would profit. As with all group projects in these early days of the NEA, the grant-receiving organisations had to obtain 50% of the funds needed. Again, it was Carolyn who, together with Reed Whittemore, editor of Carleton Miscellany, scraped together most of the CCLM’s matched private funding. Both established magazines such as Poetry, Kenyon and Southern reviews and ephemeral, irreverent littles like Coyote and Burning Deck received money to bring out special issues and to pay their contributors.

Long after Carolyn had left the NEA, the CCLM came to be controversial. It had come to represent hundreds of magazines, its budget climbing to almost half a million dollars in the early 1970s. Concomitantly with its burgeoning budget, dissatisfaction about the money that the council raked off for its own administrative expenses grew. But its importance for the country’s literary life cannot be understated, as even one of its harshest critics, Richard Kostelanetz, admits. “[O]nce CCLM lost its NEA funding and thus had to terminate its grants program, the survival of many of the smaller, independent, economically marginal magazines became more problematic. Some indeed cut back severely on their publishing; others simply died. For this alone, the NEA had blood on, if not its hands, at least its fingers.” (The Grants-Fix, 2017.)

“Lighght” and “As Diverse as Possible:” The American Literary Anthology and Westbeth

Another project to support avantgarde writers was the annual American Literary Anthology, an attempt to bring the best work from the littles before a wider audience. This was Plimpton’s brainchild. A jury selected the fiction, poetry, criticism and essays to be published in the anthology. All winning prose selections received an award of $1,000, all poems $500. The stratagem was that magazines with winning entries were given $500 per winning prose and $250 per winning poetry item. This encouraged the acumen of their editors, simultaneously serving as a form of indirect subsidy to their hard-pressed mags. In a masterstroke, trade publishers were convinced to take responsibility, for one year each, to bring out the annual anthologies. The series, though both a commercial and critical triumph, was short-lived. When, after Carolyn’s resignation, its fourth edition was in preparation, a congressman from Iowa denounced the project by pointing at the selection of Aram Saroyan’s minimalist, one-word poem “Lighght”. Rumours were that Saroyan had received thousands of dollars for a seven-letter-word poem, while playboy Plimpton was pocketing thousands for administering the project. Congressmen who did not blink an eye when exceeding the defence budget by billions of dollars were horror-struck at spending $500 for a poem. NEA money was withdrawn.

NEA’s literary programme also subsidised PEN’s first international congress in America and helped usher in The American Playwrights Theater programme, which staged new plays in educational, community and regional non-profit theatres, as an alternative to Broadway. This allowed for more experimental productions and in its first year alone 150 theatres in forty states profited. But Carolyn was involved in more than “just” these and other literary initiatives. The brand-new staff of the NEA, starting out from zero, had early on discussed what their most important contribution to the arts might be. “They would build a live-workplace, a residence for artists, and low rent …  and of course it would have to be in New York City,” Joan Davidson, who came to supervise this project, remembered. Stevens had persuaded Davidson’s father, the philanthropist Jacob Kaplan, to donate lavishly to this cause. “These two old geezers,” she recalled (at a feisty ninety herself), “went running around and they finally settled on the Bell Labs property.” Westbeth was one of the first industrial structures ever to be turned into a residence. Originally meant for painters and sculptors only, Carolyn convinced Davidson that it should be more comprehensive. Although Carolyn had had a fling with her (now ex-) husband, Davidson put her on her admission committee. Inclusiveness became their priority: “married, unmarried, gay, old, young, you know, we made it as diverse as possible. So, it’d be a real New York Community and not some hothouse.” Westbeth recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

“Nobody Was Ever the Wiser:” Reluctant Bureaucrat

Carolyn both initiated programmes or accorded original proposals, such as Plimpton’s. She lead in selecting jury panels. She was also responsible for dealing with the many requests for assistance that came into her office daily from both arts organisations and individuals. All in all, there was much bureaucracy involved, as the NEA, an experiment in the eyes of a suspicious Congress, had to justify every single step it took. Carolyn had to determine whether applications fell within the authorised programmes, then had to solicit and compile background information on legitimate ones, often in conjunction with appropriate jury members. Besides notifying applicants of the different stages of their requests, she had to review all programmes with Stevens, compile reports on recommendations by the juries she had assembled, write reports for presentation to the Arts Council and write reports based on the decisions of the Arts Council. She was then responsible for carrying out the programmes the Arts Council approved during their meetings.

Carolyn’s diary from March 12 to 18, 1967: a typical week in her life as Director. Places: Washington D.C., New York City and Madison, Wisconsin. Meetings, luncheons, dinners and parties with, among others, Supreme Court Justice (and former lover) Abe Fortas, poet Stanley Kunitz, playwright Arnold Weinstein, New Yorker film critic Brendan Gill, and Partisan Review editor William Phillips. Also with Westbeth’s Joan Davidson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Katie Louchheim and John Meyers of the famous Abstract Expressionist Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Courtesy David Rigsbee

Carolyn’s diary from November 12 to 18, 1967. Meetings with, among others, her boss Roger L. Stevens, poets Ned O’Gorman, Ruthven Todd, and William J. Smith, as well as colleagues Charles Mark, Ruth Mayleas and Leonard Randolph. Courtesy David Rigsbee

The programme directors at the NEA were ridiculously understaffed, each having exactly one personal assistant. Bubbling over with ideas, Carolyn enjoyed the creative part of her job. From the first, however, she hated its administrative aspects. Impatient, tempestuous, demanding, Carolyn “went through assistants and help like Kleenex,” Patricia Meehan, one of them, asserted. Meehan herself managed to stay on for about two years, and it was she who singlehandedly organised the office. According to Meehan, she had no choice, as Carolyn often did not come into the office at all, being holed up, despondent and drunk, in her Georgetown house. Her next assistant, Marilyn Yarbrough, also thought that Carolyn was away too often. She, however, attributed Carolyn’s absences to the amount of travelling she had to do to find inspiration, discuss new projects and review existing ones. At any rate, Carolyn’s assistants were often without direction or supervision. Yarbrough, for instance, had one project for which she was solely responsible: inviting poets for readings. This was at the height of the Vietnam war and the poets therefore had to sign loyalty oaths. Although eager to take its money, most of them hated the government. After a poet had blown up at her for daring to ask them to sign, Yarbrough decided to forge their signatures, “and nobody was ever the wiser.” Working in public relations for NEA, Lynn Trowbridge saw Carolyn, “so electric, vivacious and bitchy. . . with her passion for poets and writers and totally dedicated to her program,” as a role model. She was thrilled by the NEA’s electric atmosphere, which was like a breath of fresh air in a government city that was still so staid that “stylistically you could draw a crowd if you wore false eyelashes.”

Reports about Carolyn’s character and behaviour during her years at NEA are contradictory. In his memoir Reluctant Bureaucrats (1991), Charles Mark, an inefficient career bureaucrat Carolyn could not stand, writes that she, though “extremely bright and attractive, was also extremely sensitive. She invariably arrived with her voluminous papers and a box of tissues. If the meeting took a turn toward criticism, or if she felt strongly about a proposed program that wasn’t immediately appreciated by Roger, or if I scolded her for some bureaucratic omission she would burst into tears and sop up tissues faster than newspapers running from a modern press.” Carolyn was, indeed, supremely sensitive to slights, but her tears were partly manipulative. Even Mark, though, gave Carolyn her due for Poetry in the Schools and the Watts project.

Carolyn constantly had to fend off political criticism levelled against the NEA from both directions. On the one hand, leftists blamed them for being chained, as a federal agency, to the whims of Congress, for supporting conservative programmes and artists. On the other, conservatives who considered every federal cent for the arts one too many, told them that they were supporting radical programs and that “what good writers need is to starve and all that.”(Holland.) Carolyn was also personally accused of “being venal, self-aggrandizing and probably crooked.”(Holland.) It is true that the list of writers who received large grants includes a majority of poets whom she had published in Poetry Northwest – for instance, Leonie Adams, Hayden Carruth, Joseph Langland, Josephine Miles and Eve Triem. However, awards also went to writers in literary traditions that were far different from hers – for instance New York School poet John Ashbery, countercultural Richard Brautigan, humane poet Lucille Clifton, verbose misogynist Edward Dahlberg, Objectivist Louis Zukofsky and Black Mountain College poets Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. The awards to more avantgarde writers such as Brautigan, Olson and Zukofsky were given towards the end of Carolyn’s involvement, in the fiscal year that ended June 1970. By that time, Carolyn was just a consultant. In September 1968, Carolyn, fearing that “Mr. Nixon (shudder) will be our next President;” found “the thought of working for Nixon intolerable.” She added opportunistically, though, that she would not mind continuing as consultant “if it were kept quiet.” Stevens would go to bat for her, she was sure, for her boss had come to hold her in high regard. He “amused me very much by grumping . . . ‘Dammit, I have to go to some stupid meeting to hear all Carolyn’s brilliant ideas. She never tells me anything,’” Carolyn quipped. “I had a lot of fun when I got back to the office, digging up old memos on PRECISELY the subjects which I had discussed, some of which I had sent him as long as two years ago!”

“Spotty and Sporadic:” Anchoring the Pilot Programs

When Nixon won, Stevens hoped to stay on in order to guarantee NEA’s existence and to continue to keep it largely free from governmental interference. However, he had been actively campaigning for Hubert Humphrey and was fired summarily. Carolyn had publicly proclaimed that she would resign immediately if Stevens were ousted, but stayed on as consultant after all, wanting her programmess to “strike fire in the breasts of our bored and aimless and ignorant children.” (“Literary Programs: Projection for 1970”.) Because of woefully inadequate funding – “all of our Federal appropriations for arts would run the war in Viet Nam for 38 minutes,” she reckoned – they had only been able to apply “palliative and supportive assistance to existing and nascent organizations, to gifted individuals and individual projects.” (Holland.) Furthermore, Carolyn regretted that the awards in literature had usually been “spotty and sporadic,” hardly ever sustained. (“Literary Programs”.) For the future, she therefore proposed systemising successful programs like Poetry in the Schools, CCLM and individual grants to distinguished American writers.

In the autumn of 1969, Republican Nancy Hanks, former lover of one of the Rockefellers, was appointed Stevens’s successor. Hanks was politically astute and turned out to be an excellent administrator. According to Michael Straight, Hanks’s biographer, these two alpha females – Hanks, conservative and controlling; Carolyn, liberal and creative – “met in one rough confrontation. Then, [Carolyn] resigned.” When no good Republican poet could be found to succeed Carolyn, Leonard Randolph, who had been an assistant to Roger Stevens and had become Hanks’ handyman, became Program Director for Literature. He felt that there was a “lot of cliquishness going on. It was almost entirely a New York-based operation. For example, the grant that had been given to the Academy of American Poets for what was supposed to be poetry-in-the-schools was nothing more than a hand-out to some well-known writers to read their poems in front of passive audiences.” (Straight.) Yet, Randolph was later to claim Poetry in the Schools as his major achievement. It is ironic that he became Kostelanetz’s main nepotist in The Grants-Fix.

“Intelligence and Taste:” The NEA

The Watts and Poets in the Schools projects were representative of the ways in which Carolyn infused her liberal sympathies into her proposed projects. Stevens’s NEA, which lasted only three years, with Carolyn as one of his bold free-thinking directors, was disproportionately efficacious. Whereas most governmental programs could count on extensive criticism by the press, the NEA – the first time federal money was spent on the arts in the history of the United States – met with jubilation. The San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that the “Endowment has accomplished infinitely more than anyone dreamed it could accomplish” and the New York Times praised its “impressive variety of artists, institutions and programs,” its “uncommon understanding of where and by whom it is most needed,” and its “admirable intelligence and taste.” (All quoted in NEA Annual Report 1966.) Some thirty years later, Carolyn looked back: “But if I was going to start all over again with  a literary program at the NEA, I think I’d move toward the Swedish system of subsidizing writers to go into prisons and hospitals and some sort of permanent subsidies for elderly and ill writers so that they’d have some sort of economic security in their later years. I’m afraid what happens to individual grants is that it becomes a kind of horse race. On literary juries there is a lot of trading off, of ‘I’ll support your lover, if you’ll support my wife.’ That kind of thing goes on, don’t think it doesn’t.” (Kizer, interview with Michelle Boisseau, KCUR, 1997.) By then, her reign as cultural czarina had long since ended. She had gone on to become Poet-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina, where her outspoken feminism and outrageous sexual behaviour would shock the sensibilities of its male professors. But that is a different story.

Carolyn playing the piano, with George Plimpton cheering her on. Courtesy Ashley Bullitt


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, my quotes are from documents in the Carolyn Kizer Collection at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington. Most are from letters written by Carolyn to her father, Benjamin Kizer and her daughter, Ashley Bullitt. I interviewed Joan Davidson, Patricia Meehan and Marilyn Yarbrough for this article.

About the Author

Marian Janssen received her PhD cum laude from Radboud University, the Netherlands. Her first book was The Kenyon Review (1939-1970): A Critical History. She received a post-doctoral fellowship for a biography of the poet Isabella Gardner. When Marian became head of Radboud University’s International Office, her research was relegated to a backburner. After giving a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Marian was asked when she was going to finish her planned biography. When Marian said that writing a biography and her current position did not mix, she was offered, on the spot, a grant for a year’s sabbatical. This led to her Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner (2010).

Marian was asked to write the—unauthorized–biography of feminist poet, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Carolyn Kizer (1923-2014). Kizer founded Poetry Northwest, became the first Literature Director at the National Endowment for the Arts, and a member of the American Academy of poets–from which she soon resigned in protest because it remained a white old boys club. Her life resembled a soap opera: she had an affair with Abe Fortas, Supreme Court Justice and fixer for President Johnson, as well as with Hubert Humphrey. And when she went to Pakistan in 1964, she returned not only with translations from Urdu, but also with a lover. Most of her affairs were with writers, though, from Hayden Carruth to Robert Conquest and from David Wagoner to John Wain. Obviously, Marian could not pass up the opportunity to write about this fascinating woman, so she resigned as head of her office and is now a full-time biographer.

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