October 02, 2014

At a Loss

This is not what I thought I would be posting about today. 

The Meadville Tribune has reported that Kirk Nesset, professor of English at Allegheny College and a familiar face to many of us in the creative writing community, is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Erie later this month for a preliminary hearing on federal child pornography charges. He does not deny downloading child pornography to his home computer. The entire article is available here. 

An article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette adds that in the affidavit, he expressed "a preference for girls ages 10 to 13." He confirmed plans to resign from his teaching position. The entire article is available here. 

As I write this, we share 710 "friends" on Facebook, which essentially represents our overlap in the writing community. Many of those writers are parents who unhesitatingly post snapshots of their kids in various stages of dress. They deserve to know, and so I will link to this on Facebook. But that felt like an inappropriate place to make a primary post of some complexity and length, which is why I'm using my blog. 

If you attend the annual AWP Conference with any regularity, you've probably seen Kirk Nesset. He's memorable because he carries his mini-Pomeranian everywhere. I read with him for a literary journal panel a few years back, and we've always been on friendly terms; I admired his tenacity in creating opportunities for students to travel.  

There's been anxiety and anger in our community as of late because of transgressions--some alleged, some confirmed--of one writer against another, with accusations that a cloak of protective silence has come down around the perpetrator due to his or her popularity and/or influence. I've stayed out of it. That choice, I realize with some embarrassment, is a luxury of not knowing any of the parties involved. I have no such luxury here. I have implicitly endorsed Kirk by making friendly introductions over the years; I have offered explicit endorsements by sending students his way. 

This poetry world thrives in part because of the little-bigness of it, the sense that we're all in this ridiculous, sublime, entirely un-lucrative adventure together. This isn't just a common profession; it's a tribal affiliation. How many couches have I crashed on, vulnerable, at the houses of people who I'd only known for the length of a reading? 

When my younger sister got stranded in Seattle for a night earlier this year, I called the first poet I could think of in that city, knowing I could trust her to his family's care. (And I was right! He made her midnight pancakes while she shared the details of a harrowing day.) I joked to my husband that I'd activated the "Emergency Poets' Network," but it wasn't really a joke. We watch out for each other.  

There are many ways that the consequences of these type of charges may be mitigated. Even a jail sentence does not equal banishment. People can and do re-emerge. I'm writing this in part because if we ran into each other at some future AWP Conference, I might be tempted--caught off guard, on the fly--to take the easy route of smiling and waving. Because hey, those terrible things that happened a few years back wouldn't feel relevant in that very moment, right? Wouldn't it be easier to just smile and wave? Wouldn't it be okay?

Not okay. Another writer might see that gesture, and think Oh, she knows him. Might then feel comfortable letting his or her child pet the nice man's cute dog. Might not mind when he snaps a photo or two.  

In Matt Bai's recent cover story for New York Times Magazine, he quoted former senator Bob Kerrey: "We're not the worst thing we've ever done in our lives, and there's a tendency to think we are." As Bai observed, those words should be posted on the wall of every newsroom, and are relevant here. I'm not sharing this with any vigilante joy. If it weren't already at the level of public record, I would not share it at all. 

I am sad for Kirk, who has often shown he is capable of kindness and generosity, and for the reality that his professional accomplishments will be overshadowed, in the coming months and perhaps for years, by this massive violation. 

It's important to note that the Black Forest Writing Seminars has severed all ties. Kirk Nesset will not be a part of their Summer 2015 program. There's an amazing roster of talent lined up, and director Deborah Reed is happy to field questions.

I love the poetry world. I really do. It's an automatic, unguarded love that I might outgrow someday but not yet, not yet. When I go to a new town, I like to find the poetry shelf of whatever the local bookstore is and run my fingers along the spines like I'm thumbing the pages of a yearbook, looking for any name I can match to a face and conversation. The eccentric good-ness of this writing community has seen me through many a dark night. 

We owe it to each other to shepherd that goodness, and that means recognizing when something has gone very wrong. 


Mike Young said...

Beautifully said, Sandra.

Liz Prato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz Prato said...

Sandra, I respect this a lot. I currently have 101 mutual friends with him. At the beginning of the day, it was 122. That means only 21 people have unfriended him since the arrest came to light. Is every one of those people who haven't implicitly saying to someone else, to the world,that this is someone trust worthy? That what e did is not so bad? Its all very confusing.

Carolyne Wright said...

Thanks very much for this, Sandra--it's very balanced and nuanced. I know this poet only glancingly, through a job search some 15 years ago; but I'm sorry that a poet could make such ugly choices that lead to such upheavals in the poetry community, not to mention families of the victims, and the poet's own family. A lot of innocent people end up suffering for the sins of one person.

Aliki said...

I wouldn't believe anything that the police say with regard to Kirk. They are not required to tell the press the truth. Just yesterday Kirk pleaded 'not guilty,' which leads me to believe that he didn't admit to the charges. There are thousands of people falsely charges with possession of child pornography. The only way of assuring you won't be one of them is this: don't get pornography from the internet. In fact, be careful about what you download, period, and be careful about what you google. I know a lot about this because another friend found himself in the same predicament. So I say, don't be quick to judge. All the best, Aliki

Katie said...

Hi, my name is Katherine and I'm one of Kirk's former students at Allegheny. I'm a writer now, published and everything, and the news about Kirk has...really really really messed with me in ways I'm still unraveling. But your post has been a salve for the last sixteen months, and I wanted you to know that I appreciated this post more than I can possibly say. They sentenced him today, and I feel like I'm grieving for something I lost (trust, mentorship, friendship, the ability to take someone at their word) when the man I thought I knew did not turn out to be the real person. And, that he did do and act in a way that perhaps we accepted too easily at Allegheny, swept under the rug, and perhaps this could have been different.

Anyways. I wanted to say thank you.