There is no greater social trespass in New York than being out of step with the times, and the annual gala of Poets & Writers Inc. on Dec. 9 had the slightly confused air of a holdover from another era. The dinner and awards ceremony was one of those uptown-meets-downtown affairs-held at the Puck Building, not far from the literary organization’s Spring Street headquarters, and headlined by the kind of board members and guests enlisted in recent years to bankroll and expand the struggling information center and its outreach services. Leonard Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble; Carol Makovich, board president of RJR Nabisco; Robin Smith, president of Publishers Clearing House; Jay Fine, a vice president of CBS Inc.; the benefit’s chairman (and corporate underwriter), John Ingram, of the distribution giant Ingram Book Group; and Simon & Schuster’s $2 million man, Stephen King, who received one of this year’s Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Awards. Mr. Riggio described Mr. King as “very modest, very humorous, very touchable.” But not everybody thought so. “I think it’s tacky that we’re honoring writers like that,” another board member said.
If the pervasive presence of such industrial-strength forces as Barnes & Noble and Ingram seemed a contradiction in terms for an organization that, since its inception in 1970, has prided itself on its mission of encouraging independent-minded, grass-roots literacy and creativity programs, nobody was commenting. But it appeared indicative of a general sense of conflict within Poets & Writers, which has manifested itself, according to one diplomatic observer, as a period of “transition,” and to others as one of “turmoil,” “insurrection” and “total upheaval.”
Between late October and early December, four members of the roughly 24-member staff left, with more departures apparently on the way. The catalyst was the allegedly forced resignation of Daryln Brewer, the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine who had helped run the six-times-a-year publication for 18 years. Eight additional staff members considered resigning, but the dim prospects for replicating their already meager salaries elsewhere, especially in view of the dismal nonprofit and arts climate, made it difficult. “It was very heartening,” Ms. Brewer said of the people who offered to follow her out, “but I’m replaceable. The bigger point is poor management and no vision.”
Such outspokenness and a “tendency to see threats everywhere,” as one old-time board member put it, coupled with her decision to move with her family to western Pennsylvania in 1990 so that she edited the magazine with only periodic visits to the office, were responsible for increasing problems between her and the powers that wannabe. Tension ran especially high between Ms. Brewer and Poets & Writers’ executive director Elliot Figman, himself a respected figure throughout the nonprofit world. Ms. Brewer and others claim that Mr. Figman managed to orchestrate her firing, and they point to the fact that she was given severance as proof that her exit wasn’t voluntary.
Mr. Figman refused to discuss this or any other issues he considers internal Poets & Writers business, saying, “It’s a personnel matter.” His view, he added, is that the board was not shocked.
In addition to Ms. Brewer, Jane Ludlam, the managing editor, and Anne Flaherty, the advertising director, resigned in solidarity, and two interns and a part-time comptroller also quit the week of Dec. 8. The ostensible reason for Ms. Brewer’s break with her employer was the decision in October to bring an in-house editor to the magazine. Mr. Figman has told staff members the idea was generated by the board. According to staff members, board members gave the impression that Mr. Figman initiated it. Ms. Brewer, who learned of the plan only after several of her subordinates had been apprised, took the action as a not-so-subtle tactic to oust her. She also said that Mr. Figman’s claim that the on-site job was hers for the asking was disingenuous, since he knew that she was not in a position to return to New York. Ms. Brewer and her staff had already been upset, she said, by Mr. Figman’s recent tabling of plans to redesign the magazine and take it monthly. The magazine staff “worked a lot on a proposal for those changes,” she said, “and was willing to take on 12 issues a year-twice as much work-at no extra pay. And in the end, Elliot’s management style just destroyed our enthusiasm.” In the meantime, insiders said, a $20,000 grant, obtained by a person at the magazine to help with the redesign, seems to have disappeared into the organization’s operating budget.
In mid-October, Ms. Brewer insisted that Mr. Figman provide her with a written employment agreement. He and the board rejected the demand because, according to a memorandum obtained by The Observer that Ms. Makovich sent to her fellow board members, “no staff member … including the executive director” has a “written letter of agreement.” A search for a new editor is now under way. Another new source of unhappiness, according to staff members, has been the presence of Waddy Thompson, formerly development director at Second Stage Theater, in the newly created position of managing director, and that of an outside consultant. On top of Mr. Thompson’s not immodest salary, many staff members believe the consultant is being retained at an inordinate cost to an already financially strapped organization.
Equally troubling to many has been the specter of censorship at the magazine. This past summer, Poets & Writers finalized a so-called promotional sponsorship arrangement with Barnes & Noble; the chain has since placed large print ads in national newspapers mentioning the literary group and, Mr. Figman said, “there are in-store displays and readings by featured writers.” In exchange, the bookselling monolith looks good. But not good enough for a few subscribers to Poets & Writers Magazine , who wrote letters protesting an affiliation with an entity that, in their eyes, has doomed the same independent bookstores that have best served the Poets & Writers constituency. According to Ms. Brewer and others, Mr. Figman forbade the magazine to run any letters critical of Barnes & Noble. “The editorial integrity of the magazine is being sacrificed,” a disenchanted contributor said. Mr. Figman’s critics also say he kept the board-including Mr. Riggio-in the dark about the letters. “I’m not aware of those,” Mr. Riggio said. “Eliot has never brought it up to me.”
Several people inside Poets & Writers said they suspect that the mounting attention Mr. Figman is paying to the magazine-at one point last spring Ms. Brewer said that he told her he was “de facto publisher”-is a result of the problems besetting the rest of the operation. Federal and state grants, and philanthropic support, have been shrinking drastically, precipitating a crisis for arts and letters nationwide; Poets & Writers, consequently, finds itself in dire financial straits. This has led to the decimation of its Readings & Workshops program, one of its original components, a situation Mr. Figman attempted to rectify by firing its longtime director and hiring Fay Ching, formerly director of the Asian-American outreach program at the Henry Street Settlement. Poets & Writers’ seminal function as an information resource for and about writers has been curtailed as well. The only profit center is the magazine; hence, according to staff members, Mr. Figman’s newfound interest in it and his tendency to channel its surplus income into other parts of the organization. In fact, a former intern raised accusations of “financial mismanagement.” “Uncashed checks were lying around everywhere,” she said, “and we were owed thousands of dollars because advertisers never received their invoices.”
Whatever the business picture, it is clear that Mr. Figman’s relationship with his board has taken a turn for consolidation. About five years ago, he became a board member.That kind of relationship is a relatively unusual state of affairs among smaller nonprofits in particular, said Karen Kennerly, executive director of the PEN American Center. Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said he felt it could hamper “clearer institutional behavior.”
Many members of the Poets & Writers board referred questions to Mr. Figman. Such may be the growing pains of a nonprofit sector increasingly beholden to the business world. “Business people are very unsentimental,” said attorney Bill McKeown at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, who has advised PEN. “They don’t care about working out anything perceived as ‘dysfunctional,’ as though it were a family. They want less of a family and more of an organization.”