Poets’ Corner | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Poets’ Corner 

The Poetry Foundation's new digs rise amid lingering questions raised by former trustees.

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Architect’s rendering of the new building at Dearborn and Superior

Architect’s rendering of the new building at Dearborn and Superior

Courtesy of John Ronan Architects

"It was a miracle of rare device: / A sunny Pleasure-Dome with caves of ice!" —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"

In September 2005, when Poetry Foundation president John Barr announced plans to establish a "national home for poetry" in Chicago, trustee Rudy Rasin objected. It wasn't that the foundation didn't have money enough to build itself a headquarters, with offices for its fabled magazine, Poetry, and a new think tank called the Poetry Institute. It was awash in the stuff, having received a $200 million gift from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly. But this decision was rushed, Rasin said in a statement to the board. With a $700,000 study of poetry's place in American life in progress and a $1 million Web site not yet launched, the foundation should wait, Rasin argued, pay rent for a few years more, see how the study and the site pan out, and develop a detailed strategic plan. Maybe they didn't need a building with an auditorium—or a think tank.

But last month at a luncheon at the Arts Club Barr unveiled plans for a $21.5 million facility, already under construction at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Superior, introducing it as the "end of an odyssey" and as a metaphor for poetry itself, revealing itself "line by line." Designed by Chicago architect John Ronan—celebrated for his brightly striped Gary Comer Youth Center at 7200 S. Ingleside—the new home for poetry might also be a metaphor for the foundation. Seen from the front, the 22,000-square-foot, two-story structure will offer a view into a tree-graced courtyard that will be dramatically lit at night. But from other angles, caged behind a metal screen-wall, it'll be an inscrutable black block.

There wasn't any hint at the luncheon of the matters that rankled Rasin—now an ex-trustee—and several of his former colleagues on the board. In December 2008, Rasin and then-trustee Peter Minarik informed Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan of possible conflict-of-interest and governance issues that they thought might put the Poetry Foundation in violation of the laws regulating nonprofits. Minarik—a former chair of the foundation's audit committee and, in his day job, director of the southern region of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—wrote in a letter to Madigan, "I believe . . . the Foundation may be engaged in self-dealing and is in violation of its by-laws.

"Specifically, among other numerous management matters," Minarik wrote, "I believe the Foundation in apparent contravention of its own adopted policy regarding the employment of 'disqualified parties' has allowed the president, a voting Trustee, to employ his wife to manage a significant program of the Foundation. His wife has publicly acknowledged that she is not qualified for the position."

According to documents provided to Madigan, Barr—a poet, investment banker, and founder of the Natural Gas Clearinghouse (now Dynegy) who was hired by the foundation in 2003 because of his rare big-money-and-poesy background—envisioned a role for his wife, Penny, from the beginning. And despite questions raised by some trustees, she was eventually hired as a paid consultant to run the foundation's program for young children. Her duties included managing the appointment of a children's laureate, a new post she'd suggested be added. After raising hackles by describing herself in a 2007 New Yorker story on the foundation as "not versed in poetry," she switched to volunteer status. But some trustees continued to question whether she was the best person for the job—since no search had been conducted—and why this program, which had been identified as critical, should be left to a volunteer.

Minarik believes these challenges weren't well received. He notes that both he and Michael Goodkin, his successor as leader of the three-person audit committee, were removed from their chairmanships after they objected that hiring Penny Barr looked like a conflict of interest. He also says the demotions were followed by attempts to dump them from the board. The move was unsuccessful in Minarik's case. But Goodkin, a board member for 35 years, didn't fare as well. Informed in August 2007 that he wouldn't be nominated for another term, he resigned. Minarik hung on until his term expired in 2009.

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