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A few months ago, Kirk Nesset was released from federal prison. A former professor of literature at Allegheny College, he was prosecuted for possession of child pornography in 2014.
At the time, the FBI and Pennsylvania State Police found more than 500,000 images in his home.
Some images depicted the rape of infants. Other images depicted the sexual abuse of older children. “This case is unbelievable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said when Nesset was sentenced. “It is the most child pornography that I have seen in 15 years as a federal prosecutor.”
This month, Nesset had a poem published in one of the most prestigious poetry magazines in the world.
For its February issue, Poetry included the “work of currently and formerly incarcerated people, their families, and the artists, poets, and teachers who work in carceral spaces.” The editors did not investigate the backgrounds of those who submitted, and Nesset’s poem was accepted. Understandably, when readers found out what this poet had been incarcerated for, they were upset. Right now, more than 2,000 people are petitioning the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry, to remove Nesset’s poem from circulation.
There was a time when I might have signed their petition, too.
But in the past few years, I have spent time working with incarcerated writers. As a writing mentor in PEN America’s Prison Writing Program, I corresponded with a man who participated in the gang rape of a woman. He sent me his work, and I did my best to help him revise it. Over time, we got to know each other. Like many sex offenders, he had been molested as a child. Like me, he loved to read and write. He was also someone who wanted to turn his life around. If his work had been accepted by Poetry, I would not have tried to remove it.
I have never met a prison volunteer who supports crime. But most prison volunteers believe that a criminal can reform and move beyond their crime. As one of my colleagues from the Prison Mindfulness Institute once said to me, “We all have the Buddha inside of us.” In other words, we all have the potential to have compassion for ourselves and each other. Just as I have compassion for the victims of sexual abuse, I also have compassion for their abusers. I also don’t think it’s my place to bar writers from publication after they are released from prison.
At the end of the day, most prisoners will be released. I hope they all have the resources and support networks to find a positive sense of purpose in their lives. Like many progressive activists who work to “ban the box” that allows employers to discriminate against formerly incarcerated job applicants, I also hope editors will not discriminate against formerly incarcerated poets, novelists, playwrights and other writers who submit their work.
As someone who has seen the consequences of sexual abuse, I know how important it is to support victims. I also know how important it is to challenge the culture of punishment and retribution in the United States, a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Let’s not confuse punishment with compassion for the victims of violent crimes. And let’s not forget that some of the worst crimes are committed by people who are also victims.
If a pedophile should not have their poem published, why should a rapist or a murderer have their short story, play or essay published, either? In this vein, there seems to be no reason why those who started the petition against Nesset should not start new petitions to retract work published in PEN America’s prison writing anthology and other anthologies, magazines, journals and newspapers. After all, if Nesset is censored, then a lot more writers should be censored, too.
As New York Times Magazine poetry editor Reginald Dwayne Betts put it in a Slate article, “It’s easy to be righteous in the anger at his crime. This guy was a pedophile. But shit, I carjacked somebody! If I was in that issue I could see the person I did that to asking, ‘Why the hell is this guy in here? In fact, the only reason he’s in here is because he carjacked me and went to prison!’ That’s why the outrage seems false, because they’re only willing to do it on this case.” In contrast to how easy it is to be upset right now, it is more difficult to decide who should be censored and who should not.
While “tough on crime” has been the promise of every Republican president from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan through Donald Trump, it should not be the promise of editors who publish poems. It certainly should not be the promise of readers who identify as progressives. As Betts suggests, there is a disjunction between the anger directed at Nesset and the rhetoric of prison abolition that many of these same liberals expound. Indeed, just a few years ago, some liberals were upset that Harvard University did not admit a writer who was convicted of murdering her disabled son.
Of course, none of these cases are the same. But, in the case of censorship, I’m in no position to draw the lines between them. And to be frank, I don’t think anyone else is, either.
To end with a quote from the petition to the Poetry Foundation, “Nesset’s time served does not equate to the lifetime of emotional, physical, and psychological trauma victims of child pornography and sexual assault endure.” This couldn’t be more true. Moreover, readers have every right to be upset, especially since Nesset has the same elite background as so many poets who end up in Poetry. But in the end, censorship will lead to more problems. And if these censors extend their arguments to other writers, it will also lead to a hell of a lot more censorship.
I don’t think this is the right path for progressive activism or for literature.