The Academy of American Poets recently announced Jennifer Benka was named the organization's next Executive Director. She will return to New York City from San Francisco, where she was most recently the National Director of Development and Marketing for 826 National. She will assume her new role at the Academy on July 16.
Benka, according to the Academy of American Poets' release "worked for nearly a decade in New York City as the Managing Director of Poets & Writers. In her role at Poets & Writers she served as the chief fundraising and marketing officer, planning and executing a successful multi-million dollar endowment campaign and winning the organization more visibility than it had received in its 40-year history."
She has roots in the Midwest and experience in New York and the West Coast. I'm certain that she'll do a fine job and the selection committee made their decision carefully. It's a safe, responsible decision that seems unlikely to generate much protest or discontent. We'll see if she's able to replicate the success she had with Poets & Writers.
From a Southeast Asian American poet's perspective, I would still argue much work remains to be done by both Poets & Writers and The Academy of American Poets to foster an environment that meets the diverse needs and interests of Southeast Asian American poets. Many are approaching their 30th to 40th year in the United States, if not more. With over 500,000 of us in the US, we're not so small a demographic to be uninteresting, are we?
At the present moment, the Academy's representation of Southeast Asian American voices is execrable. A keyword search through their site for Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, Thai and Vietnamese Americans or their work is almost nowhere to be found. The exception is in passing mentions by non-Southeast Asian American poets. After intensive searching, you'll find Linh Dinh and Hoa Nguyen have one brief mention, and there may be a few others sprinkled in there. But forget finding U Sam Oeur, Barbara Tran, May Lee Yang, Saymoukda Vongsay, or anything by a Karen, Khmu, Tai Dam or Akha American poet. They're out there, but you wouldn't know that from the Academy.
In the interest of fairness, even among certain prominent Asian American arts organizations, active engagement with emerging Southeast Asian American is sketchy at best. They like Lao beer, but not Lao writers. Go figure.
But I think we can and should expect more from the Academy of American Poets going forward. Be sure to let them know.