Open Letter to the Trustees of the "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad"

William A. Lowell, Esq.
Charles A. Cheever, Esq. 
Choate, Hall & Stewart
Two International Place
Boston, Massachusetts 02110

October 10, 2019

Dear Mr. Lowell and Mr. Cheever,

One of the greatest things about America is the fact that, as citizens, we pledge our allegiance not just to a flag but to a hope of a better future, despite our country’s history of racism, slavery, and native erasure. Since recent years have demonstrated reactionary regress inspired by xenophobia and America-First mentalities, I am writing this letter in the hope that you will consider the legacy that the Amy Lowell Scholarship leaves by basing it's application criteria so intensely (and profusely) around defining "Americans" as those citizens who were "born here."

As a child of defectors who was born in Romania, my experience growing up in Alabama was that of being told no matter how much I learned, no matter how passionate my academic and intellectual engagement, I could not be President. Meanwhile, my neo-Confederate friends could lead the Chambers of Commerce and state governments with an eye to the Presidency. As a student of history, I know our Constitution is far from perfect but I've been inspired by the poetry community's dedication to human rights, equality, and justice. And yes, I was required to learn A LOT about the Constitution before I became a US citizen at the age of 13.

The "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad" seems, on its surface, to be driven by considerations of merit. It asks for a poetry submission without focus on byline or academic background. It also states, clearly, "preference" will be "given to those of progressive literary tendencies". 

At no point does it ask about financial disability or previous travel (which would be appropriate questions if the intent of the scholarship was to reward untraveled Americans citizens without means to go abroad).

The application process is free and simple. All that is required is:

  1. Two copies of the completed application. You may also, but need not, submit a 2 to 3 page curriculum vitae (again, two copies).

  2. A sample of your poetry, consisting of either up to 40 typed pages (two copies) or two copies of a printed volume of your poetry and two copies of no more than 20 additional typed pages.

I don’t understand how a traveling scholarship intended to benefit underprivileged American poets doesn’t require any of the following: 1) a listing of their prior travels outside the country 2) a statement of their economic need 3) any evidence that they are better qualified to represent “Americans” than the sheer luck of being born here.

I don’t understand how a traveling scholarship intended to benefit underprivileged American poets doesn’t require any of the following: 1) a listing of their prior travels outside the country 2) a statement of their economic need 3) any evidence that they are better qualified to represent “Americans” than the sheer luck of being born here.

When I downloaded the application, I discovered that it asked for a birth certificate and that the primary information culled on that one sheet of paper had to do with where a citizen was born. As stated in your FAQ: 

"Any poet of American birth who is able and willing to spend one year outside the continent of North America. There is no age requirement, and there is no requirement that applicants be enrolled in a university or other education program. While many recent winners have been published poets, there is no requirement that applicants have previously published their work."

Past recipients of this fellowship include several of my favorite poets--writers whose work I cherish deeply. I believe that Amy Lowell would not be on the side of human beings who currently agitate to diminish the value and rights of naturalized US citizens and immigrants. I believe that she would be terrified by the birther scandal around President Obama and its resonance in our popular culture. If I am wrong in these beliefs, Amy Lowell's poetic excellence would not be enough to enable me to overlook a definition of "American citizen" that excludes naturalized citizens.

I considered suggesting a more appropriate title for this fellowship. For example, "The Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship for Native-Born Americans"--but that's the rub, isn't it? See, those who are actually native to America are not really represented in this Fellowship. It's not about First Peoples--it's about the people who replaced them. It's about the stories we tell about the country we can only honor through progress, restitution, and acknowledgement. Amy Lowell's efforts to portray the lives of First Americans in her posthumously-published Ballades for Sale reveals the way in which primitivist stereotypes can underlie even the most progressive intentions.

As a naturalized US citizen whose parents risked their lives (and me) to flee Ceausescu's dictatorship, I cannot accept the sort of nativism which makes my hard-won citizenship somehow inferior to that of those who did nothing to gain citizenship. Being born in the USA is enough of a privilege without institutionalizing this privilege in a poetry scholarship intended to preserve the legacy of a powerful female poet whose struggled to be accepted in a country that rejected her sexuality.

I don't believe that any law or wrong is immutable.

I don't believe that we are hostage to bad ideas from the past unless we deliberately choose to replicate and extend those ideas into the future.

I understand--and was reminded when protesting President's Bush's war in Iraq with a son incubating in my womb--that standing for the GOOD in one's country, as opposed to the bad, may render one "un-American" in the mouths of those whose institutions depend on historic preservation.

What I believe conspires with what I understand in hope.

I hope more for the legacy of the "Amy Lowell Scholarship for American Poets Travelling Abroad". I hope more for how America extends itself into the world. And I hope more--so much more--for this country.

Yours in poetry and hope,

Alina Stefanescu, minor writer