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The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship

One afternoon a little over a year ago, I got a brief and mysterious e-mail from a man named Jackson Taylor. It was sent from a personal Gmail account. “I am heading up a new literary fellowship here in New York,” he wrote. “You have been secretly nominated for a spot in the inaugural group—and I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time to speak by phone? The fellowship begins in April but won’t be publicly announced until June.” Before I had a chance to respond, my cell phone rang: it was Jackson. He said he was travelling and sounded out of breath, but I heard something about a “congress of writers” that would teach skills and speak truth to power. If I showed up for twice-weekly sessions for two semesters, I would receive ten thousand dollars. The program’s benefactor, Jackson told me, was the family foundation of Leonard Riggio, the executive chairman of Barnes & Noble. They had “deep pockets,” he said.

I had recently moved to New York after five years of reporting, mostly as a freelancer, in Boston and Berlin. I was working a full-time job that I regretted taking, and writing on the side. My apartment had a bedroom too small to fit a desk or even a dresser, and its single window faced an air shaft the color of dryer lint. I was a journalist, not a novelist or a poet, and, in New York, writers seemed to sprout from every sidewalk. I had no idea why Jackson and this foundation had singled me out.

I turned to Google. Leonard Riggio, I learned, had amassed hundreds of millions of dollars as the man who turned Barnes & Noble—which had one location when he bought the company—into a nationwide chain. His blend of cutthroat competitiveness and generous philanthropy had led New York magazine to call him, in a profile published in 1999, “Barnes & Noble’s Jekyll and Hyde.” I searched for Jackson, too. After scrolling past results about a country singer with the same name, I found a writer who had directed the Prison Writing Program at PEN America, which provides resources and mentorship to incarcerated writers. He had taught at the New School and published a novel, about a white woman in Depression-era Pennsylvania who is arrested for helping a black doctor perform abortions, a story apparently based on the life of his grandmother. It had a 3.8 rating on Goodreads.

I replied to Jackson and asked whether he could tell me who the other participants were. He gave me a few names, including those of a début novelist and a poet who had been published in The New Yorker. I noticed that they were all writers of color, which seemed in keeping with the progressive ideals that Jackson had talked about on the phone—speaking truth to power and so on. In his response, Jackson asked me to be discreet, and he mentioned, again, the deep pockets of the Riggios. “In a year or two we aim for this prize to be synonymous with excellence, intellectual rigor, and artfulness... in short—the very best,” he wrote. I accepted the offer.

The first session was on a Wednesday in April, in an old building in Chelsea. I was late because I was riding the subway from work and got off at the wrong stop. When I arrived, overheated from running up Tenth Avenue, I took the elevator to the fifth floor, then wandered a narrow hallway looking for Suite 513. I walked the length of the floor several times before noticing that someone had papered over No. 514 and replaced it with a handwritten “513.” Inside, about a dozen people were sitting on wooden chairs and two uncomfortable couches, writing in red notebooks. They had all written their first names on pieces of white printer paper.

Other than the handful of people Jackson had mentioned to me, I didn’t know anyone’s full name. A few days before the session, Jackson had e-mailed the fellows as a group, but he had blind-copied us on the message. There were reasons for this secrecy, he insisted. “We prefer to minimize the social pressure of social media on our congress,” he informed us. “Yes… this is another cryptic email… but one that takes seriously the question of how do we as writers circumvent the fashions of the day… and recast what others tell us is necessary or expected?” Also, because of “copyright diligence,” he was still unable to share the name of the program, he wrote. He did introduce us to two colleagues—Tim, who would lead class sessions on Thursdays, and Antonio, the program’s administrative director.

In the far corner of Room 513, or 514, Jackson, a large man with fair skin and a fondness for wearing vests over T-shirts, sat in a leather reading chair. It was hot, and the windows were difficult to open. The air-conditioning unit sputtered too loudly to use during class. Jackson told me to write my first name on a piece of paper, and to complete a writing exercise. I was to create an original fable, complete with talking animals and a moral. After we’d all written our fables, we took turns reading them—but we were only supposed to listen to one another’s pieces, not to comment on them. Jackson called this “the pedagogy.”

What it produced was a series of awkward silences. At the end, Jackson launched into a lecture on literary structure. Pausing frequently for effect, he spoke about constructing fables, discerning between the abstract and the concrete, and “kicking the tires of aphoristic writing.” Somewhere in the middle, without any warning, he began to speak angrily about PEN America, its hiring processes, and its executive director. Then he handed out copies of “Springing,” a poem by Marie Ponsot about a leisurely day of boating and swimming. (“Swimming aimlessly is luxury just as walking / loudly up a shallow stream is.”) The poem prompted a debate among the fellows about privilege, which, Jackson said, was an aspect of the poem that he had not considered. He said that the fellowship would likely be called Springing, after the poem.

In subsequent sessions with Jackson, we discussed a range of writers and theorists, from Henry David Thoreau to Northrop Frye. Most of the fellows were women, and about half were writers of color. (My mother was born in Singapore, to Chinese parents, and my father is Jewish; I’m often taken for white.) In our discussions of the readings, fellows brought up questions of race and gender, but Jackson said that these subjects were distracting. One fellow suggested that we read “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s book of poetry about anti-black racism in American life. A week later, we read a passage from Rankine’s book in which the speaker describes a conversation with the head of an academic department: “He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there. You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. / Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?”

After the reading, Jackson told us that he had once run into difficulties firing a writer because the writer was black. He looked for excellence rather than diversity, he said, and he lamented the difficulty of recruiting and retaining staff members of color. (Tim and Antonio were both, like Jackson, white men.) He asked a black fellow whether she would want to be hired because of her race. She said no. “Thank you!” he exclaimed.

Soon after the sessions began, a few of us started gathering after class, in the hall or in front of the building, to talk about what was going on. The neighborhood was crowded with warehouses that had been converted into art studios; during the day, it was noisy with construction. But by evening it grew quiet, and we lingered on the sidewalk in the dark, talking about how strange everything seemed. Some of us traded phone numbers; a couple of times, we walked to bars in Chelsea, making quips about needing a drink.

Many of the fellows were growing frustrated with Jackson and his methods, but there were a handful who defended him from time to time, and two who consistently took his side. Stephanie, a writer in her thirties, often complained when fellows brought up race or gender or privilege. They were interfering with the pedagogy, she said. Tom, the only visual artist in the program, said that we should trust Jackson, that he knew what he was doing. (Both Stephanie and Tom were white.)

One evening, walking to the subway after class, one of the fellows, a black poet named Hafizah Geter, told me that she had been searching for details about the others. By this point, all the participants had exchanged e-mail addresses, and Hafizah said that she had come across Stephanie’s maiden name online. It was Riggio. Stephanie, who had been attending the sessions and reciting her work like the rest of us, was the daughter of the fellowship’s funders. That’s odd, I thought. Was this the reason that Jackson had never shared our full names?

At a session in early May, one of the fellows, a black poet, brought in a poem that he had written which alluded to Wallace Stevens’s “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” and reflected on Stevens’s use of the racist slur in his poetry. We broke from the pedagogy and took turns talking about the poem. When it was Jackson’s turn, he accused the writer of “baiting” the group, and, in the course of sharing these thoughts, he repeated the slur several times. Another black writer asked him, as calmly as though she were asking for a glass of water, to stop saying the word. Jackson compared her request to censorship—and if the word were off limits, he said, we would also need to ban words that are derogatory to white people, such as “whitey.” Hafizah told Jackson that his desire to use the word as a white man was outrageous. But black people say the word on the street, Jackson replied, using the word several more times as he made his point, and gesturing at Hafizah. Maybe we should disband the fellowship, he said, raising his voice. She told him that the classroom did not feel safe. Stephanie seemed upset. Tom said that we should get back on topic.

We took an afternoon break. I joined Hafizah in the hall. Antonio, a short and soft-spoken man in sneakers, came out to talk to us. Quietly, he asked us to e-mail him our concerns, so that he would have them on record. After a moment, Tom came out and invited us back into the class. Hafizah and I decided to leave early.

That night, Hafizah texted me a link to Tom’s Web site, which she had found in her continued Internet sleuthing. I clicked on the link, and photographs of Jackson appeared, along with art works that I recognized from the space in Chelsea. “Guess who he is to Jackson,” Hafizah wrote. “His fucking boyfriend.” I eventually learned that the artist’s studio in which we met was in the same building, and on the same floor, as Tom’s previous studio. Jackson had recommended it to the Riggios for the fellowship, and it had been renovated to Tom and Jackson’s specifications. The Riggios approved a lease, and Tom moved his art works into the fellowship space.

Later, I talked to Hafizah about that day. We met at her apartment, in Brooklyn, which was stuffed from floor to ceiling with books. “It was a nightmare,” she told me. “You felt trapped, you felt like you were suffocating in all this.” She told me that she went home and cried for a long time. Hafizah is one of the writers Jackson mentioned to me when I first asked him who the other fellows were; she’s won several awards and fellowships for her poetry, which has been published in The New Yorker and Tin House and many other places. Her confrontations with Jackson convinced her that she had been recruited to the program, and then marginalized, for the same reason: that she was a black woman. During the session, she had said to him, “If every person of color left this room and didn’t come back, this room would be irrelevant. It would just be another white room talking about white power.”

The day after that session, I e-mailed Antonio to say that I was disturbed by what had happened, and we made plans to talk over coffee. Hafizah e-mailed Jackson to say that she was quitting. She was the second to leave: one of the fellows, who was commuting a long way from out of state, had quit at the end of the first week. “You can’t come back from the N-word,” Hafizah told me. She regarded his use of the word in class, spoken in her direction, as a threat. She was careful, in her e-mail to Jackson, not to say that she had left because of him. She was worried about her career, she said. Could the Riggios, or their employees, hold this against her, she wondered? Would they tell their friends not to hire her, not to publish her? She didn’t know what to think, and she didn’t want to risk it.

At his next session, Jackson said that Antonio was no longer working at the Springing Center. (We never did get that coffee.) According to the Springing Center, Jackson fired Antonio without consulting the organization. Antonio told several people that Jackson threatened to keep his work out of Barnes & Noble stores if he made a fuss.

Jackson also announced that he was banning class discussion. If we had questions or concerns, we could write them down and save them for the end of each class. Several of us raised objections, saying that restricting conversation would only increase tensions, but we didn’t get anywhere with him.

Shortly afterward, another fellow, a woman of color, e-mailed the group to announce that she was quitting, too. A fourth fellow, who was also a woman of color, did the same the next day. I had thought a lot about quitting myself. I had visions of waiting until the official announcement and publicly refusing the award, like a disgruntled actor at the Oscars. I also thought that maybe someone should stay and write about what happened. We had joked to one another while out for drinks in Chelsea that we were all getting a lot of material.

I called my editor at The New Yorker. I had already figured out that he was the person who’d suggested me for the fellowship—Antonio and Jackson, it turned out, were former colleagues of his, at PEN America. Antonio had e-mailed him, asking for recommendations, and he’d written a little blurb making the case for my abilities. That was pretty much the extent of the selection process. Now I told him the fellowship might be worth writing about. He seemed skeptical, but said to keep him posted.

After the fourth fellow quit, Jackson e-mailed those of us who were left. The week’s sessions had been cancelled due to “an electrical emergency,” he said. Two days later, Tim wrote to explain that Jackson had a family emergency. The remaining spring classes were cancelled, and we were told that we would “regroup in the fall.”

Weeks passed without any updates. At last, in June, when the fellowship was supposed to be announced to the world, we received an unsigned e-mail from “Springing accounting.” “Earlier this year, the corporation retained an outside consultant to evaluate the corporation’s mission and programs,” the e-mail read. “The fellowship program is now terminated.” We would receive five thousand dollars. The check arrived a few weeks later, and I felt grimy when I cashed it. “Stay tuned for information about our new programs,” the e-mail concluded. “We wish you a fruitful and fulfilling summer of writing.”

The early years of a writing career are often full of an unsteady kind of optimism. You hope that someone will notice you, or, more grandly, that someone will become a champion of your work. And, particularly if you’re a writer of color, or a queer writer, or a woman, you may learn that entrusting your work to would-be champions is a fraught endeavor. I remember more experienced writers telling me that I should say yes to every opportunity until I had earned the privilege to say no. But hope is both a strength and a weakness; it takes time to learn the difference between those who feed it and those who feed off of it. I wish someone had told me that early-career writers are the cheap gas on which much of the writing business runs.

Shortly after the fellowship was discontinued, I returned to Google in earnest, trying to understand what had happened. I was a reporter, after all, and this seemed like a story. I learned from nonprofit filings that, between 2003 and 2011, the Riggio Foundation had donated millions of dollars to the New School and its creative-writing program, where Jackson taught. In 2008, two years after she graduated from college, Stephanie enrolled in the New School’s creative-writing program, and Jackson became her thesis adviser. Later, I learned from Stephanie that, in 2012, after she graduated, Jackson encouraged a friend who worked at St. Joseph’s College, in Brooklyn, to offer her teaching work. Jackson was hired to direct St. Joseph’s creative-writing master’s program shortly afterward. His method drew on the writings of Marie Ponsot, a St. Joseph’s alumna and the author of the “Springing” poem that we had read in class, who is now in her late nineties.

Between 2013 and 2016, while Jackson and Stephanie worked at St. Joseph’s, the Riggios donated at least $187,500 to the college. The gifts funded a scholarship that Jackson oversaw, and it also endowed the Marie Ponsot Chair, which was awarded to Jackson. (The Riggio Foundation said it was unaware that he had received the chair.) Tim joined the faculty, and, in 2015, Jackson’s partner, Tom, was, according to his résumé, offered a residency at St. Joseph’s.

In 2017, Jackson was abruptly dismissed from his position at the school. Ponsot joined a protest on the sidewalk outside St. Joseph’s. A story about the protest in the Brooklyn Paper referred to Jackson as “the beloved founder and director” of the school’s creative-writing program. The story quoted a school spokesperson, who said that St. Joseph’s had “determined the need for new leadership” after a “thorough assessment process.” One of the organizers of the protest, a second-year student named Alexa Wilding, told the paper, “The value of our degree will go down. In the literary world, it’s who you work with, that’s your value.” That year, the Riggios were not listed as donors to the school. (St. Joseph’s College declined to comment on Jackson’s dismissal or any other aspect of this story. When I e-mailed Wilding, and told her about the Springing Fellowship, she replied, “I have had only positive experiences with Jackson as a teacher.”) Around this time, the Riggios decided to fund a charitable corporation in New York that Stephanie would oversee.

I thought about Jackson’s references to the Riggios’ deep pockets. “The resources are vast,” Jackson had written in his third e-mail to me. Since the nineties, the Riggio Foundation has reported donations of more than a hundred million dollars to hundreds of tax-exempt institutions, including public schools, private universities, equestrian organizations, art museums, Italian-American cultural organizations, and religious institutions. Several of the contributions, to institutions such as Spelman College and the National Council of Negro Women, specifically support women of color. The donations often seem scattershot in their aims and amounts: twenty dollars for a breast-cancer nonprofit, five thousand for a dog shelter, a hundred thousand for the Utah Film Center. There is, one imagines, a story behind each of these contributions, though they might be personal or even impulsive. Meanwhile, for those on the receiving end, the money could be life-changing. (Most notably, the Riggio Foundation spent millions building homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, an effort that eventually became a separate nonprofit.) Most of the foundation’s assets originally came in the form of Barnes & Noble stock. This month, after going through four chief executives in a five-year span, Barnes & Noble was sold to the hedge fund Elliott Advisors, for six hundred and thirty-eight million dollars, including debt. Before the sale, the Riggio Foundation reportedly owned 4.3 per cent of the company.

Around the time that Stephanie enrolled in Columbia University as an undergraduate, the foundation donated a hundred thousand dollars to the school; after she earned an art-history degree there, the Riggios donated five million dollars to the art-history and archaeology department. (The Riggios are also major art collectors.) Four universities that have received major donations from the Riggio Foundation have awarded Leonard Riggio honorary doctorates. Riggio and his wife have each contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic political candidates; two of the recipients of their generosity, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, were New York gubernatorial candidates who had previously settled lawsuits against Barnes & Noble while serving as the state’s attorney general.

For someone of Leonard Riggio’s personal resources and political commitments—he grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the son of a dressmaker and a boxer who became a taxi-driver, and is a long-standing supporter of liberal causes—none of this is particularly unusual. But it did help me understand how a program like the Springing Fellowship could suddenly materialize, and then vanish, without so much as a public announcement or an explanation for the participants. The Riggios are rich enough to move on to their next philanthropic endeavor without worrying too much. They seem to know the difference between money, which one spends, and wealth, which one wields.

In the fall, after I had decided to write this essay, Stephanie, to my surprise, agreed to a phone interview. “It was horribly uncomfortable, and just offensive in every way,” she said, referring to the fellowship; I had not yet asked any questions. “It was not what I wanted it to be in any way, shape, or form, which is why it is no longer in existence.” The Springing Center was supposed to offer a range of cultural programs, she said, and Jackson only oversaw one part of it. “I’ve been on a lot of boards, I’ve done this work before, so I know what it takes to get a foundation off the ground,” she said. (She previously chaired the board of the Equestrian Aid Foundation, which is funded in part by donations from the Riggio Foundation. Last year, the organization gave Stephanie an award for the work she’s done for it.)

The nonprofit was set up in a hurry, without independent oversight, and the board of trustees included five people: Stephanie, Stephanie’s mother, their family lawyer, Antonio, and Jackson. There was no formal selection process for fellows. According to Stephanie, Jackson sent offers to friends and former students before notifying the Riggios, then pressured her to start the program six months earlier than she had planned. He claimed, she said, that one fellow had already left a job, and another had moved from Portugal, in order to accept his offers. Stephanie also blamed Jackson for the decision not to share her identity with participants, and criticized his conduct in class.

I pointed out to Stephanie that she was Jackson’s boss. While she was attending the sessions, as though she were a writing fellow, she and her family could have disciplined or overruled him. “It’s true,” she said. “I could have, and I should have, and I didn’t.” She fired Jackson and Tim in late June, she said, and ended the fellowship. Antonio took legal action against the Springing Center. Multiple people told me that he received a settlement that barred him from speaking freely about his employment there. Tom moved his art works into a different studio in the same building, one floor up.

I e-mailed Jackson, asking if he would speak with me, but he didn’t reply to that message or another I sent later, following up. Eventually, I sent him detailed questions about the accusations that the Springing Center had made against him, and about things that had happened during the fellowship, and what I had learned since. I repeated my request to speak with him in a text message. He never responded to me, or to a fact checker for this magazine. Tom, too, did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment or to a list of written questions.

I talked to people who had worked with Jackson in the past, trying to make sense of his role in everything. The people I spoke to generally reacted with surprise. One former colleague, who requested anonymity for fear of losing a job, noted that he could be capricious, and often seemed to speak without a filter. “He has always viewed himself as the person who speaks truth to power,” the former colleague said, and that attitude persisted, the colleague went on, even in situations where he was the more powerful person. I remembered something Jackson had said in class, about feeling misinterpreted as someone with privilege, when he did not see himself that way. I found an interview that Jackson gave after his novel was published, where he said, of the black doctor at the center of the book, “I didn’t want to appropriate someone else’s history as if I understood it fully, because I don’t. A white person will never know what a black person experiences, despite the empathy they may have.”

After speaking to Stephanie, I e-mailed her to ask what kinds of programs the Springing Center might offer in the future. She told me that she was unable to share any details, and that if I had other questions I should direct them to the senior vice-president of communications at Barnes & Noble, Inc. Included in her e-mail was a short mission statement. “At the Springing Center, we believe that there is a way to unlock every door,” the statement read. “The heart of this conviction lies in our unwavering dedication to allowing suppressed voices to be heard, to helping traumatized psyches heal, and to including marginalized voices into the global conversation.” Recently, the Barnes & Noble spokesperson sent an update. Around the time that I talked with Stephanie, she said, the Springing Center closed permanently.

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From Ansel Adams To Unica Zürn, 'Scrawl' Finds 2019-07-01 09:44:12Some might say these little works only acquire their auras through their creators' fame. But once you start pondering them, they start to seem like f

'Reviving Ophelia' Turns 25 2019-06-30 17:18:00The 1994 book Revivng Ophelia spotlighted the mental health of teenage girls. Years later, author Mary Pipher and her daughter Sara Pipher Gilliam hav

How The Advance Weather Forecast Got Good 2019-06-30 08:12:00Under the radar (so to speak), predictions have improved dramatically of late. In The Weather Machine, Andrew Blum writes that it's due to an interna

A Self-Sufficient Kid Finds An Unexpected Silver Lining 2019-06-30 07:00:11Lauren Morrill's new YA novel follows 17-year-old Maritza, who's used to taking care of herself. But when she lands with a foster mother who truly c

Not My Job: We Quiz Novelist Jennifer Weiner 2019-06-29 14:39:00Weiner will be quizzed on one whiner in particular — she'll have to figure out which negative review was actually written by host Peter Sagal'

'Three Women' Puts Female Desire At The Forefront 2019-06-29 08:03:00For her new book, Lisa Taddeo spent nearly a decade immersed in the sex lives of three women. She says desire is one of the things we think about the

Podcasts Are Providing A New Way Into Poetry 2019-06-29 07:00:09A poem on the page has its appeal — but poetry spoken aloud is a more intimate experience. And a new crop of podcasts are expanding poetry, givi

For Novelist John Green, OCD Is Like An 2019-06-28 13:22:00The Turtles All The Way Down author says OCD "starts out with one little thought, and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you're able to

3 Memoirs That Explore The Many Facets Of 2019-06-28 07:00:00One in five Americans have some experience with mental illness every year — and these three new memoirs dig into that experience, whether it's

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