Monday, October 11, 2010

Stem Cell Agency Apologizes for Its Choice of Poetry

The California stem cell agency stepped into a bit of an unnecessary mess last week that, of all things, involved poetry.

Perhaps it was a sign from above that government agencies should not try to commit literature, if you could call it that.

The case in point was a poem that won a prize from CIRM as part of its “stem cell awareness day,” a drum-beating effort to build support for human embryonic stem cell research. Winners of CIRM's poetry contest were announced last Wednesday in a widely distributed news release that was also posted on the CIRM Web site.

However, not only did the contest draw exceedingly few entries (only 18), the poem by one of the two winners was offensive to some who take their religion quite seriously. That in connection with research that already has more than its share of controversy.

In an item headlined “How to Offend 101,” one critic, J. Wesley Smith, wrote,
“One of the two top winners wrote a poem using the words of Jesus at the Last Supper to apply to embryonic stem cell research....

“Was it an intentional slam on Christians, many of which oppose ESCR, which the CIRM realized in retrospect would blow up in their faces?  Or did they think the poem, by using the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, would somehow appeal to Christians?  Or did they just think it was clever?   Whatever it was the judges were thinking–they weren’t thinking.”
Smith also used words like “hubris,” “arrogance” and “clueless.”

By Friday, CIRM had excised from its Web site the poem in question, which you can find at the end of this item. And the agency published an apology on its Web site that said,
“CIRM recently announced two winners of the second annual poetry contest, one of which contained some religious language that is identical to liturgical language used in the context of Christian and Catholic sacraments. The language introduces a religious element that we now realize was offensive to some people.

“We are deeply sorry for any offense caused by the poem. Neither the author nor CIRM intended for the language to insult or offend any religious group.

“When CIRM recognized that the language was of concern we removed all four poems from the CIRM web site and from the Stem Cell Awareness Day web site.”
CIRM's statement carried no comment from the three judges of the contest: Don Gibbons, CIRM's chief of communications, who said in the poetry press release that he studied poetry and creative writing at Indiana University; Margaret Hermes, also an Indiana alum and a “practicing poet and teacher,” and Don Reed of Fremont, Ca., a patient advocate.

The issue here is not the poem itself, which would have attracted little attention in a literary venue. But it was not published and touted privately. It was ballyhooed by a $3 billion California state agency, which has responsibilities to all of California – not just the scientific community.

CIRM had little to gain from running a poetry competition. Even under the best of circumstances, it would not generate sufficient PR payback to justify the time and expense involved, which was not much. And the prize for winners was equally neglible – “a framed stem cell image of their choice from CIRM’s Flickr web site.” Here is the poem from Tyson Anderson, a U.S. Army linguist from Tampa Fla.

Stem C.

This is my body
which is given for you.
But I am not great.
I have neither wealth,
nor fame, nor grace.
I cannot comfort with words,
nor inspire to march.
I am small and simple,
so leave me this.
Let me heal you.
This is my body
which is given for you.
Take this
in remembrance of me.


  1. Anonymous2:28 PM

    Honestly, they pay a guy 195K, they spend hundreds of thousands on outside media firms like Fleishman-Hilliard, and they can't figure out that this might not be a good idea?

    Where do I sign up for a high paid brain dead gig with CIRM?

  2. Anonymous11:45 PM

    Why are they dealing with poetry anyway? Aren't they supposed to be finding cures for serious diseases? Who runs the CIRM joint? Here's a poem:

    Roses are red
    Violets are blue
    Waste precious dollars on dumb poetry

    Did I win, did I win!? Send me my Flikr print! Because, well, hey, Californians are beIng furloughed left and right but someone's still gettin' paid BIG BUCKS to read poetry up in CIRM!