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 the conferences are wonderful arenas for common people, who cannot or would not

attend a college poetry writing course, may gather to learn more about poetry. Many of them

have written only one poem in their lives, and they're proud of it, so they get to read it.



The Phrasing Of ISP Letters Is Misleading

------ Says Professor Len Roberts, ISP Educational Director

An E-interview by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye


Len Roberts, a leading U.S. poet is professor of English at Northampton Community College. He has published ten books of poetry and three books of translation in the Hungarian. He has been published in several distinguished literary journals and magazines,  and received several awards for his work. Five years ago, he was hired by the International Society of Poets (ISP) as Educational Director. After a series of e-mail correspondence, he granted this e-interview to Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye where he stoutly defends  the activities of the controversial poetry body, trying hard in the process to restrict his comments to the ISP Conferences and its offerings.

Have you always known about ISP and their events?

Roberts: I learned about ISP three years ago (in 2000), when one of their lecturing professors, a friend of mine, invited me to lecture. I lectured at my first conference and then was asked to be ISP's Educational Director, with complete freedom to hire lecturers , judges, and readers that I thought would do good jobs.

I then hired, and continue to hire, well-reputed poets to judge, lecture, and read. If you look at our poets' roster, you will find they have received awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Poet Laureate of the U.S. position, the Poet Laureate of Delaware position, the Governor's Award from Ohio, the Guggeneheim Award, as well as National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities Awards, and...many publications by our nation's very best journals and book publishers. The judging of poems at the conferences is impeccable, as are the lectures and readings.

I read the evaluations of the conferences, and more than ninety percent of the respondents greatly enjoy what we offer.

What is your assessment of ISP’s commitment to poetry, literature and scholarship?

Roberts: ISP is committed to allowing just about anyone--your aunt, my grandmother--who publishes their poetry on to attend their conferences., as you know, is an open site which many, many people greatly enjoy being on and reading from. ISP's conferences usually have participants who have been on and want to read their poems live, as well as compete for the monetary prizes.

ISP is not dedicated to "academic" literature in any way; they are interested in common people's poetry, the poetry of those who have not attended college, perhaps, or have not taken a creative writing course. ISP does encourage scholarship to the extent that they have poetry writing courses, which are quite good, by the way, and they provide very informative lectures at the conferences.

This is not "scholarship" in the sense of academic credentialing, but rather information about the writing of poetry for the common people. The owners of ISP want to make profits, which is expected, but they also provide a free on-site publication arena (, as well as informative conferences. Their books, which, again, consist of poetry written by amateurs, not professionals, are well made and attractive. Contributors may buy a copy, but they do not have to.

ISP is not, certainly, like the Academy of American Poets, nor does it claim to be. Its function is to provide arenas for non-professionals to enjoy their own and others' works.

Since associating with ISP, have you heard of any unflattering comments about them?

Roberts: I have read criticism of ISP on the internet, and Charlie Hughes, who once published my poems in his journal, has sent me some of these criticism. The only valid complaint I find among all of these criticisms is that the phrasing of ISP's letter is misleading, making the poet think that he or she has already won the prize.

I do think the phrasing should be clearer, as I have said, but that is a marketing decision, one which I have no power over. However, you need to note that all the major criticisms of ISP (by any radio or television outfit) was done more than four years ago, before I became educational director of the conferences; since that time there has been no major broadcaster who has criticized the conferences for any reason whatsoever.

In fact, most of the individual criticisms I read on the sites (and I do keep familiar with them) is that they were misled to attend the conference; none of them, to my knowledge, complains about the judging, the lecturing, or the readings. Not one. That should be noted, I think, in any fair appraisal of ISP's offerings. 

Has any one made any complaint directly to you?

Roberts: Yes, two or three people have complained directly to me, before attending the conference, and I have had ISP refund their payments. Again, no one has ever complained to me about the conference activities themselves.

What is the necessity of lacing the ISP letters with some dose of deception to make people register for the conference?

Roberts: Some of the phrasing is not as clear as it could be. 

How do you feel after an ISP conference, and bitter cries rent the air, with loud complaints, and even threats, as some have reported?

The only complaints I have heard after the conferences is that individuals have not won the prize. In fact, one year there was a rumor that the man who won the first place prize was my son! The man was 45, which means I would have had to sire him at the age of 10! If you show me any complaints about the conference activities themselves, I guarantee I will address them personally.

You see, some people come to these conferences for the wrong reason--to win money, rather than to learn more about poetry. Most participants, however, more than ninety percent, come to enjoy the activities and learn. These people are most satisfied, and you should talk to and about them as well as the very faint minority who complain. 

So, you don’t think those flooding internet sites with bitter stories about ISP have genuine complaints?  You think they are  merely green eyed rivals?

Roberts: I have no doubt that some rivals have complaints about ISP on sites, and that some are written by disappointed participants. Again, I think the only valid complaint is that about the phrasing of the letter. The others are false or the result of hoping to win money rather than learn about poetry.

Will you be proud to identify with ISP any day?

Roberts: I hope that is obvious, especially when I can say poets such as Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Pinsky, Herbert Martin, Grace Cavalieri, Fleda Brown, and many others are also proud to be associated with ISP's conferences. I have many poets contacting me, asking if they may work for us.

What you need to understand is that the conferences are wonderful arenas for common people, who cannot or would not attend a college poetry writing course, may gather to learn more about poetry. Many of them have written only one poem in their lives, and they're proud of it, so they get to read it. They also hear wonderful lectures and poetry readings. Any fair assessment of ISP must include this information.

What is your advice to prospective participants in ISP Conferences?

Roberts: My advice is to read the letter very carefully and to realize they have not won a prize yet; they are invited to attend the conference, only. Second, they should not come if they intend only to win the prizes; the odds are greatly against them. Third, they should come if they want to read their poems to peers and to participate in a weekend of lectures and readings. Fourth, and last, remember this is not an organization for "professional" poets; the poems will be written by common people and heard by common people. This is not a "literary" event in the academic sense; it is a gathering of people who like poetry.

I have worked in many poetry conferences over my lifetime, and I must say that ISP's conferences offer as many beneficial lectures and readings as any others I have attended.

Do you think ISP could still attract any crowd if their letters are straightforward, clear, and not deceptive?

Roberts: Definitely, and that is the major goal I am working toward, as are the other poets who work at the ISP conferences. In fact, I am sure we would attract larger crowds.

Do you know about their parent body, the International Library of Poetry (ILP), can you assess their publications -- content, physical quality, critical acclaim, etc. Are people excited buying their books, or rather, would you proudly display their anthology on your study/office shelf; would recommend them to any class of students, will you teach them?

Roberts: I do not know much about ILP, but I have seen some of their books, which seem well-made and attractive. I know nothing about their selection process but I assume it is open, as are the ISP conferences, meaning anyone may submit and probably be published. I think such vanity publishing is fine, too, by the way, as long as the poet understands the situation.

I would display an anthology of the winners of the ISP poetry conferences, and have done so, on my shelf. They are quite good. I would give an ILP anthology to my relatives, those who like poetry but do not study it. I would not give such an anthology to my students, for the ILP poems, for the most part, are not "professional" and therefore do not demonstrate the techniques I want them to learn.

However, I do use parts of the ILP's Poetry Writing course in my classes, for they use professional examples and very well written.

Tell us about yourself, your work, and academic career.

Roberts: I have published ten books of poetry and three books of translation from the Hungarian--with good U.S. publishers. I have had poems published in major American journals such as The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Paris Review, Hudson Review, Partisan Review, and so on.

I have received a Guggenheim award, as well as two National Endowment for the Arts Awards and one National Endowment for the Humanities Awards. Three times I have served as a Fulbright Scholar to Hungary, Rumania, and Finland, and I have received the International Teaching Award for Fine Arts. If you need more information, please search my name and poetry on the internet. 

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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