Everything that Kent has written about the topic in advance of the book’s actual publication (for example here and here) clearly communicates that his project is intended as a thought-experiment, a reframing of the poem in the service of refreshing our awareness of it and the relationships and issues surrounding it, whether or not we decide that Koch, rather than O’Hara, was the poem’s author. Kent himself acknowledges that “the odds are still on O’Hara,” and adds, “I’d probably bet on him myself.” Nor does Kent impute any motive to Koch (who died in 2002) other than love for his friend, writing, “Such a ‘forgery’ would stand as one of the most beautiful, selfless, and idiosyncratically ethical gestures ever made in the history of American letters. It would ratify, and in singular, moving ways, both Kenneth Koch’s greatness as poet and Frank O’Hara’s greatness of spirit.” (For both quotes see the end of the article at the second of the two links above.)
It wouldn’t be surprising for a projected title with such a thesis to stir up a little controversy and some lively discussion and debate, but unfortunately it appears that the custodians of Koch’s and O’Hara’s literary reputations – which apparently aren’t robust enough yet to fend for themselves – have decided instead to assume postures of outrage and are now moving to stifle the discussion altogether. As Kent announced yesterday in an update at Isola di Rifiuti:
On 9/4/10, Richard Owens, poet and publisher of Punch Press, soon to release A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara, received a certified letter from The Kenneth Koch Literary Estate. The letter unambiguously threatens “legal action” against the book.
The letter states, in part, that “Alfred A. Knopf (publisher of both Koch and O’Hara), Maureen Granville-Smith, executor of the Frank O’Hara Estate, and poets Bill Berkson, Ron Padgett, Jordan Davis, and Tony Towle [ . . . ] all are strongly convinced that this publication is a malicious hoax, one that denigrates Kenneth Koch’s character and dishonors his work.”
The claim that the book (which, it bears repeating, has not yet been released and therefore can’t have been read by the complainants) is a “hoax” is utterly without merit – speculation on a poem’s authorship doesn’t even fit the word’s definition – and the only thing “malicious” going on here is the bullying legal threat itself.
In a post at The Best American Poetry blog, David Lehman breaks down the network of relationships among the co-signatories:
Knopf publishes both Koch and O'Hara. Granville-Smith is Frank O'Hara's sister and the executor of his estate. Kenneth Koch entrusted his literary estate and legacy to a trio of persons including Padgett and Davis. Berkson was on very close terms with O'Hara, who addressed numerous poems to him. Towle studied with both O'Hara and Koch.
But the conclusion Lehman draws from this – that “if anyone is in a position to judge the case, it is they” – does not necessarily follow. The connections and shared history he cites could just as easily reflect an interest in maintaining a certain status quo. Note, for example, the insouciance with which the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf is included in the list of individuals’ names. Well, corporations are persons under the law, too, right?
But in this case it’s the 800-pound gorilla: Knopf is a division of the Random House Publishing Group, which in turn is a division of Bertelsmann Inc., one of the “Big Six” media megaconglomerates that currently monopolize commercial publishing in the US and elsewhere. So what we have here – in the name of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch! – is a threat by a large corporation potentially to bankrupt a small independent press and drive it out of business if it dares to bring out Kent Johnson’s book, which in its turn dares to speculate on the authorship of a poem written over fifty years ago.
Punch Press, run by Richard Owens, is a publisher of a small number of finely-made and very cool poetry books, chapbooks, and broadsides, as well as the valuable journal Damn the Caesars. A lawsuit against such a press, with few to no financial resources, brought by a company such as Knopf – armed to the teeth with dollars and lawyers – has no need to prevail in court, or even come before a judge, in order to have its intended effect. No doubt the Koch Estate, Alfred A. Knopf publishing, and the other co-signatories of the letter to Punch Press are all anticipating that the specter of attorneys’ and legal fees alone will be enough.
This has plainly become an issue of free speech versus censorship. I have no doubt that the careerists will either keep their mouths shut or open them to side with power (after all, maybe someday they’ll be published by Knopf!), but those with their principles still intact have a responsibility to raise their voices, in whatever venues they can, in protest against this threat and in solidarity with Kent Johnson and Richard Owens.
Some other responses of note, here, here, here, here, and here - most of them eloquent and reasoned defenses of the book and the publisher. What's interesting, by contrast (dip into the comments threads, for example), is how unable those who explicitly or implicitly support the book's suppression are to mount any kind of argument at all, offering instead only snipes, sneers, shrugs, and serves-you-rights. But then power is always its own argument.