In Furor Over Poet With Child Porn Conviction, Prison Abolitionists Debate the Limits of Mercy

Is Poetry magazine "platforming toxicity" or promoting the "practice of freedom"?

The issues of Poetry Magazine are displayed at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, December 16, 2009.

Issues of Poetry magazine are displayed at the Newberry Library in Chicago on Dec. 16, 2009.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A bedrock principle of the prison abolitionist movement is that you don’t ask an incarcerated person what they’re in for. It’s more than etiquette. To eschew the identity that the punitive state assigns — which could be false — is to see someone whole. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” says Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson. Even a murderer is somebody’s baby.

That’s the way guest editors Tara Betts, Joshua Bennett, and Sarah Ross — poets, abolitionists, and educators behind bars and in the free world — approached the submissions to “The Practice of Freedom,” the February 2021 issue of Poetry magazine. The issue features the work of people who are or were incarcerated, their families, and those who work in “carceral spaces.” The contributors had already been judged and punished; the editors would judge the work, no rap sheet attached, not its makers.

And this is how a poem by Kirk Nesset made it into the pages of Poetry. Nesset, a 63-year-old former Allegheny College English professor, pleaded guilty in 2015 to possession, receipt, and distribution of child pornography; he was sentenced to 76 months in federal prison and released this fall. He is now on the sex offender registry in Arizona.

From the moment the issue came out, sexual violence survivors, victims’ advocates, and assorted feminists began raining angry tweets, blogs, and public statements on Poetry and its publisher, the Poetry Foundation. A petition demanding that the magazine remove the poem and apologize to “Nesset’s voiceless victims, their readers and subscribers, and victims of sexual violence everywhere” gained over 1,600 signatures in a week. By then the story had spread as far as New Delhi.

The editors responded kindly to their critics but did not take the poem down. “I’m heartbroken about hurting anyone or making them revisit their pain,” Betts tweeted. “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?”

Poetry posted several statements, the latest on February 5. “In publishing an issue that included incarcerated writers, we accepted that submissions would come from poets who have harmed others,” it read. But “weighing people’s convictions in editorial decisions for this issue would be antithetical to the discourse around the practices of freedom we are seeking to facilitate.”

What has been interesting about this dispute is that it’s not the usual law-and-order hard-liners versus insurgents against the Prison Nation, not the censors versus the American Civil Liberties Union or the anti-“cancel culture” right (though there is some of that, here and here). Rather, the outcry against Poetry reveals ambivalence among folks who are committed to dismantling the Prison Nation.

“Can @poetrymagazine publish murderers? Can they publish carjackers? Rapists?” tweeted Reginald Dwayne Betts (no relation to Tara), who participated in a carjacking at 16, was locked up for eight years, and eventually became an award-winning writer, Yale-educated lawyer, and, now, poetry editor of the New York Times. Referring to that job, he asks, “What is the line of people that cannot have poems published? … Please clue me in on what’s impermissible.”

“And also, I need to know the limits of abolitionist rhetoric. Cause, the same people saying abolition one minute and crying foul the next, I gotta get things right.”

Tara Betts’s tweet communicates that she can tolerate this, the moral tension at the heart of prison abolitionism. Dwayne Betts is asking his comrades to negotiate the terrain together, because it’s slippery.

The outcry against Poetry reveals ambivalence among folks who are committed to dismantling the Prison Nation.

But militancy defies irresolution. And, as in the criminal legal system itself, sides must be taken, victim or perpetrator. Given the guest editors’ bona fides, some critics have looked for collaborationists. “POETRY gave Kirk’s submission white male privileges,” writes Teka Lo on her site Public Intellectuals, which focuses on Black and brown women’s art and politics. “POETRY knew who he was, and I suspect they probably hid it from the guest editors until the very last moment and then gaslighted them into being OK with it.”

Jezebel ignores the blind selection and construes Nesset’s inclusion as a prize for criminal conviction, conferred “not in spite of but because of the fact that he stored hundreds of thousands of images depicting child torture and got caught.” Did he engineer the arrest to gain the street cred to secure the publication? Or was he just doubly lucky?

The trope of the wily sex offender is ubiquitous. Nesset, who was well-published (four books and a translation) and well-recognized (Pushcart Prize), “has weaponized literary power,” says writer Sandra Beasley. Novelist Aya de Leon suggests that he must have pull, because he’s not that great: “I read the offender’s poem+he tried to front like it was just another middle-class-white-boy-talking-randomly-about nature-type-poem.”

The general feeling is that Nesset displaced more deserving folks: “Platforming toxicity when there are so many unheard voices,” says one tweeter. That he’s a “wealthy white guy” who doesn’t need the money. (Poetry, whose attendant foundation has an endowment of $200 million, pays $10 per line with a minimum of $300 per poem.) Writer-composer Carrie Kahler wants the magazine to promote “the traditionally marginalized.”

Writes Lo: “Kirk Nesset is not a victim of the prison industrial complex, he’s a predator.” He can’t be both.

Race is used as shorthand for who merits sympathy and who does not. On Twitter, Fig Wellness, the account for a sexual wellness blog, charges Poetry with “using the rhetoric of racial [sic] and decarceration to re-platform a powerful white man.” Opponents use the same language to “deplatform pedophiles,” as Jezebel approvingly puts it.

“We know that the carceral system is an inherently racist, White supremacist system that perpetuates the surveillance, control, and monitoring of communities of color,” reads a post by Persephone’s Daughters, a literary site “for and by” survivors of sexual harm. “We know that the carceral system punishes and devastates rather than reforms. Literary spaces for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals are crucial.”

“However, ceding—no, not just ceding, but amplifying—the voice of a White male predator at the expense of the voices of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated transgender, non-binary, and female survivors of color is egregious.”

Kahler implies that Nesset’s inclusion is a betrayal of the anti-racist commitments of the editors, two of whom are Black: “The editors explicitly frame the issue as making a ‘larger claim about the role of the literary arts in an age of mass incarceration, and the work of prison abolition itself’ and references The New Jim Crow.”

In fact, the writers and artists in “The Practice of Freedom” are as varied as their work. Not all have been imprisoned, and their situations and convictions do not line up neatly with their races, origins, or pronouns. Some are publishing for the first time; some have heaps of awards or fancy degrees. One exhibits artwork at MoMA PS1 and Art Basel; another, released from prison in 2018, is focused on giving her kids hope and “becoming better than she was yesterday.” One strangled her parents. One killed a teenager and paralyzed her boyfriend in an apparently racially motivated shooting.

Is the trouble with Nesset his professional success? Is it his whiteness or his reviled fantasies? Popular culture conflates the latter two: On “Law & Order: SVU,” the pedophile is a pasty white sniveler. In fact, while white people constitute the majority arrested for child pornography possession, Black people get longer federal sentences. African Americans are arrested for rape at three times the rate of white people. Yet in a 2011 analysis of DNA exonerations, 62 percent of the defendants falsely convicted of rape were African American; with Latinos, the percentage rose to 70.

These disparities reinforce “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” author Michelle Alexander’s framing of mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow: the latest chapter, after slavery and Reconstruction, of white subjugation and disenfranchisement of African Americans. Her analysis gives powerful narrative and strategic coherence to prison abolitionism. But what happens when the “predator” of the 1980s, that imaginary ruthless, remorseless young Black gangbanger, morphs in the ’90s into a beast that looks like Kirk Nesset? Fictional or real, the white “sex offender” does not fit into Alexander’s frame.

In this conversation, the word “community” pops up repeatedly, as if by auto-suggest. It often connotes whom we care about, who needs and merits caring about. “What’s permissible?” Dwayne Betts asks. The question might be “Who is permissible?” And into what community? As a “predator,” Nesset is assumed to have forfeited care. Because he is white, because he had a tenured professorship and a literary reputation, his critics cannot conceive of him as marginalized. True, he is still white, so he’s better off than “sex offenders” of color. But everybody with that label on their forehead is both hyper-monitored and invisible, banished from every community.

The technologies developed to apprehend and control people with deviant sexual fantasies are integrated into policing at every level, especially in communities of color. But the sex offense legal regime is a rare agenda item at abolitionist gatherings.

Law professor Ira Ellman, co-author of an influential article debunking claims that recidivism among people with sex convictions is extraordinarily high, has posted a counter-petition on praising Poetry’s stance and putting the debate in context. “The demand to impose one exclusion after another on people who have already been punished implicitly assumes our right to disappear them from society,” it reads. “Such carceral thinking has led to unjust and damaging policies that have incarcerated millions, and now exclude people from housing, employment, and public spaces, for life.”

Ellman is talking about the sex offender registry, a regime of punishment and exclusion so thorough and permanent that its effect has been called “social death.” The registry and its restrictions chew up everyone on it — nearly a million Americans — as well as their families. “Civil commitment” of those deemed to be “sexually violent predators” is indefinite preventive detention. The technologies developed to apprehend and control people with deviant sexual fantasies are integrated into policing at every level, especially in communities of color. But the sex offense legal regime is a rare agenda item at abolitionist gatherings.

Meanwhile, legislation to reduce prison populations and mitigate the crippling consequences of felony conviction, laws concerning everything from shoplifting to voting rights, almost uniformly excludes “sex offenders.” There is no public safety rationale for these blanket exceptions, writes Southwestern Law School professor Catherine Carpenter in a 2020 law review article. “What knits these unrelated laws together is animus toward the registrant.” But criminal justice reformers have not only failed to resist the “except for” clauses; they have also actively traded the rights of registrants for popular and legislative support of the bills.

Of the half a million images on Nesset’s hard drive, an unspecified number were the vilest imaginable: babies being brutalized by adults. Nesset told me he never sought any extreme images or intentionally shared files (the peer-to-peer software typically used to download child sexual abuse imagery sweeps up vast caches of files with a broad search and allows sharing without the knowledge or permission of the computer owner). He swears he never touched a child sexually and said that when he clicked on those images he found them excruciating.

The notion behind criminalizing and harshly punishing the possession of child sexual abuse imagery is that a victim is re-traumatized at a distance every time new eyes fall on the record of their abuse. This idea has been challenged, yet Nesset seems to have absorbed it. “I do believe that the more those little faces and bodies are exposed, the more hurtful it is, and I feel shame and remorse about it,” he said. “I didn’t comprehend the problem then. But I do now.”

Commenting on Lo’s post in Public Intellectuals, an incarcerated person at the federal facility in Lompoc, California, corroborates: “I knew Kirk in prison. He was a decent guy and is working to get his life back in order. While in prison he taught creative writing classes and tutored GED students. He knows he did wrong and is trying to rebuild.”

The next commenter submits that the writer is probably Nesset himself.

Mercy strains when its object is a “sex offender.”

But it doesn’t have to break. Kent State sociologist Christopher Dum and his colleagues have found that “humanizing poems” by incarcerated people reduce stigma and increase support for post-prison reentry programs. Poetry that evinces “universal truths, emotions, experiences of losing, loving,” he told me, “reminds us the writer is, like us, a person.” Kirk Nesset’s poem, “one place is as good as the next,” does not celebrate pedophilia. It does not recount the depredations of prison life. It speaks, elliptically, of birds and bodegas and human hubris.

Join The Conversation