December 30, 2010

Press Release for a Dirty Bomb

Press Release for a Dirty Bomb

A dirty bomb is set to go off in Boston this fall, and the clever evil-doers are hiding in plain sight – they have announced their act of terror in a press release:


(BOSTON) The organizers of the Boston Book Festival have announced that Tom Perrotta’s The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face has been chosen as the first short story in the organization’s One City, One Story program. 30,000 copies of this story, chosen for its accessibility, literary merit and ability to stimulate discussion, will be distributed as a bound booklet throughout the City beginning in late September. Festival organizers hope that thousands of Bostonians will read and discuss the story in the weeks leading up to the second annual Boston Book Festival, which takes place on Oct. 16, 2010.[1]

And the most sinister part:

Distribution will take place at Boston Public Library branches, subway stations, community centers, farmers markets, open studios and other places where people gather…

But let’s back up and look at how the plot unfolded.

Now in its second year of self-congratulation, the Boston Book Festival was organized in 2009 after Deborah Z. Porter, current president of the festival’s board, noticed that Boston was the only major US city that didn’t host such an event. A palpable embarrassment, because New England was home to such an unbroken line of book-culture excellence, from Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Dennis Lehane, and Steve Almond.

Unfortunately book festivals don’t grow on trees, so Porter signed up some major culture-loving institutions to help bankroll the project, including Verizon (currently partnering with Google to keep the net neutral), Hachette (one of the “Big Six” global media monopolies that control most publishing in the US), and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt (a subsidiary of another of the Big Six, Education Media and Publishing Group Limited, registered in the Cayman Islands). But the real breakthrough came with a generous grant from State Street Corporation, who was awarded the status of the festival’s “Presenting Sponsor.” Thus all the promotional materials for the first festival, from posters to programs, were effectively branded: “The Boston Book Festival, Presented by State Street Corporation.” Not as concise as a Nike swoosh, but it would do.

State Street Corporation is a financial investment giant headquartered in Boston, with billions in annual revenue and $1.7 trillion in total assets, and the 2009 book festival is not the only item in its list of good works. More recently, State Street helped Republican Scott Brown take Ted Kennedy’s seat in the US Senate. State and its other banking friends then successfully lobbied Brown and other senators to gut key provisions from the financial reform bill, including a $19 billion tax on banks which the senators insisted should be made up in spending cuts. (Who knows, maybe they’ll finally trim all that fat off the NEA budget.)

This year’s festival lacks a crowning “Presenting Sponsor,” but the list of patrons features some heavy hitters nonetheless, including the nation’s biggest bank, Bank of America, and one of its largest insurers, Liberty Mutual. How nice to see recipients of recent government largesse – the TARP bailout and the industry-friendly health care “reform” bill – give something back to the community. They’ll get a tax write-off, of course, and what Boston gets is a second middlebrow celebration of its professional-managerial class’s idea of itself in the company of poets such as Edward Hirsch and Elizabeth Alexander, fiction writers such as warhorse Joyce Carol Oates, hip youngster Joshua Ferris, and the inevitable Lehane, and nonfiction authors such as David Shields and torture apologist Alan Dershowitz. For the overall taste and texture of the event, think NPR: inoffensive liberal sweetness on the outside with a hard nut of “neo-” at the center.

What’s new about this year’s festival, however, is the dirty bomb angle: spreading the cultural radiation beyond the convention center via the pseudo-community of the “One City, One Story” program. In an otherwise cheerleading article about the city’s adoption of a read-and-discuss initiative like those already piloted in Seattle and Chicago, a Boston Globe writer inadvertently let the mask slip when he identified such programs as “cousins of the team-building exercises commonly staged at corporate retreats.”[2] And sure enough, Boston’s version does have a primary corporate sponsor, the Goldhirsh Foundation. Set up in 2000 by Bernard Goldhirsh after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, the foundation awards grants for brain cancer research and “social entrepreneurial ventures.” But the late Goldhirsh’s philanthropy goes back further than that: as a young engineer he worked on ballistic missile systems to keep us safe from communism and later moved on to found Inc., a business magazine best known for their annual “Inc. 500” list of fastest-growing companies.

The story itself was selected in bureaucratic back-room fashion by a committee made up of “a designee from the Mayor’s office, several branch librarians, several Boston Book Festival Board members and one or two other representatives of the community,”[3] in which Perrotta’s “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” – originally published in Post Road and reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2005 – somehow emerged as the consensus choice (Perrotta also sits on the festival’s “Honorary Advising Board”). In describing the story and its selection in the press release, however, the festival’s organizers strain to give the whole affair a democratic, participatory gloss. President Porter:

“Centering around that quintessentially American experience – a Little League game – Tom has crafted a story that is at once funny and poignant, exploring the universal themes of family, parenthood, adolescence, and intolerance in a fresh and absorbing way. The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, will appeal to men and women, adults and teens. It is truly a story to be read, shared and discussed.”

And the festival’s Executive Director, Emily D’Amour Pardo:

“We love the idea of many thousands of people in Boston reading the same story and talking about it against the backdrop of the Boston Book Festival . . . The huge success of our inaugural Festival last year proved that Boston has a passion for reading. We want to explore this further by uniting the City around a single story and examining it from the many different perspectives that exist here.”

Many of the “different perspectives” that Porter and D’Amour Pardo enthuse about, however, might find themselves entirely left out of the story, however “quintessentially American” and “universal” the organizers try to bill it. Set in a New Jersey suburb, its protagonist-narrator is a middle-aged, middle-management white guy who regretfully mulls over the failure of his marriage and estrangement of his gay son while he acts as umpire for a Little League championship game, pitched for one of the teams by an Asian-American girl with an amazing arm. It’s not a given that African-Americans in neighborhoods like Dorchester and Mattapan or the Latino/a community in East Boston and Chelsea, among others, will find their universe in this “universal” tale.

This shortcoming can be partially remedied, however, by the educational apparatus: it’s a sure bet that there will be plenty of special assignments focusing on the “One City, One Story” program in the region’s high school English classes, in which students will be coached to “discover” how universal the story is while being exhorted that they are participating in the city’s cultural life. And no doubt the program’s organizers will branch out in the coming years, selecting a Black or a Latina author at suitable intervals so long as their stories reflect the appropriate values.

And what are those values? Tolerance is one – the story’s main character learns to accept that the playing field of his community must be widened to include Asian people such as the pitcher and her father and gay people like his own son. Even though they are painted with an After School Special brush of middle-class, model-minority respectability (the Asian-Americans have strong family bonds, work hard, and achieve excellence, and the son’s homosexuality is signified by his desire to perform in musical theater), no doubt they will be read as standing for “all” minority or marginalized groups.

But the story has a further lesson as well: personal responsibility. The narrator recalls how the year without his family gave him, in his words, “a lot of time to stew in my own anger, to indulge the conviction that I was a victim too, every bit as much as my wife and son.” The turning point for our hero comes when he watches the star pitcher’s father, Happy Chang, punch out the opposing team’s coach for setting up his daughter for a dangerous bean ball when she comes up to bat. As Chang is taken away by the police, the narrator sees on his face “the proud and defiant smile of a man at peace with what he’d done and willing to accept the consequences.” Happy Chang isn’t going to spend any time feeling sorry for himself but rather instantly takes responsibility for his actions, even if it means assault charges; thus he represents an alternative to the narrator, who punched out his own kid and then wallowed in self pity. The story reaches its climax when the narrator, inspired by Happy, makes a courageous and lonely stand over the final call of the game.

The homiletic arc of the story curves from “victim” to “accepting the consequences,” key words that will no doubt find themselves highlighted in many of the copies of this “free” corporate-funded and state-blessed story that find their way into classrooms and book clubs. Ideologically, it’s a perfect “third way” narrative, thoroughly in tune with the values of the Democratic Party under the hegemony of the business-friendly DLC and the Clinton and Obama administrations: tolerance for those who can merit it in the “free” marketplace.

The story is aesthetically conservative as well, a textbook example of the “well-made” realist epiphany story that remains the dominant mode in many MFA programs and literary journals and in most of the “literary fiction” published by the Big Six monopolies. The chief function of such fiction is humanist apologetics for the “literate” professional-managerial class, to keep them on board with galloping inhumanity; readers find in it – along with markers of their cultural distinction – the narcissistic reflection of their “uniquely human” and “free, spontaneous” interiority and autonomy. With a slight shift in the angle of light, however, that reflection becomes just the sheen of the commodity.

Literature doesn’t fall from heavens, it comes to us thickly mediated, and those mediations are not merely “frames” or “contexts” but deeply braided into its very materials. Writing which is art – as distinct from “literary fiction” – is conscious of this and strains against it, against its own materials, and invites us to participate in that struggle, and its inevitable failure, and its inevitable next attempt. Literary fiction, on the other hand, goes with the grain, is easily consumed, and enjoys success.

Such success will now be enjoyed by Tom Perrotta’s “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” and the organizers of the Boston Book Festival, and their corporate sponsors. In the pseudo-community of their “One City, One Story” program, a space is created for the discussion of artistic and social issues that is neither authentically dialogical nor democratic, but rather one in which some are invited to enjoy their profit and privilege, and all are invited to enjoy their alienation.

(originally published in SOUS LES PAVÉS 1.1, Nov. 2010)

[1] Press release. Ashmont Media. Boston, MA: 26 August 2010.
[2] Carlo Rotella, “Binding Boston with a Story.” Boston Globe, 30 August 2010.
[3] Jess Huckins, “Bringing Boston Together, One Story at a Time.” Blast Magazine, 19 June 2010.

December 29, 2010

Author Interviews and Other Police Procedures

From a 1985 BBC interview with Jean Genet, filmed not long before his death. Watch how Genet's performance deconstructs one of the institutions of the "literature" industry -- the author interview -- to reveal its complicity with another practice of power-knowledge in the carceral continuum, the police interrogation.

Here is the transcript for this segment of the interview:

Jean Genet: I had a dream last night. I dreamed that the technicians for this film revolted. Assisting with the arrangement of the shots, the preparation of a film, they never have the right to speak. Now why is that? And I thought they would be daring enough – since we were talking yesterday about being daring – to chase me from my seat, to take my place. And yet they don’t move. Can you tell me how they explain that?

Nigel Williams: Yes. Uh… How they…?

JG: How they explain that. Why they don’t come and chase me away, and chase you away too, and then say, “What you’re saying is so stupid that I really don’t feel like going on with this work!” Ask them.

NW: Okay, sure. (He speaks to the technicians and translates Genet’s question into English.)

JG: The sound man too.

NW: (Nigel Williams asks the sound man, Duncan Fairs, who answers that he doesn’t have much to say at the moment, that the people who work every day lose their sense of objective judgment about what they’re doing and remain prisoners of their personal world. He adds that the technicians always have something to say after the filming, but that if they spoke in front of the camera it would cost a lot of money and would be very expensive for the film production company.) Is that what interested you about your dream: disrupting the order of things? In a certain way you wanted to disrupt the order that exists in this little room?

JG: Disrupt the order of things?

NW: Yes.

JG: Of course, of course. It seems so stiff to me! I’m all alone here, and here in front of me there are one, two, three, four, five, six people. Obviously I want to disrupt the order, and that’s why yesterday I asked you to come over here. Of course.

NW: Yes, it’s like a police interrogation?

JG: There’s that, of course. I told you – is the camera rolling? Good. I told you yesterday that you were doing the work of a cop, and you continue to do it, today too, this morning. I told you that yesterday and you’ve already forgotten it, because you continue to interrogate me just like the thief I as thirty years ago was interrogated by the police, by a whole police squad. And I’m on the hot seat, alone, interrogated by a bunch of people. There is a norm on one side, a norm where you are, all of you: two, three, four, five, six, seven, and also the editors of the film and the BBC, and then there’s an outer margin where I am, where I am marginalized. And if I’m afraid of entering the norm? Of course I’m afraid of entering the norm, and if I’m raising my voice right now, it’s because I’m in the process of entering the norm, I’m entering English homes, and obviously I don’t like it very much. But I’m not angry at you who are the norm, I’m angry at myself because I agreed to come here. And I really don’t like it very much at all.

NW: But your books are taught in the schools, right here in England.

JG: Oh! What are you talking about?

NW: It’s true. I myself studied Genet at the university.

JG: Hmmm.

NW: Do you like that?

JG: There’s both a feeling of vanity.. and at the same time it’s very unpleasant. Of course, there is this double… this double imperative almost. Is the camera rolling?

NW: Yes, it’s rolling.

JG: Good. Ask me questions then, since the system says that I’m the one who’s supposed to interrogated.


Full transcript here. H/t.

December 28, 2010



Dale Smith, Brooks Johnson, Keston Sutherland, Richard Owens, Debrah Morkun, j/j hastain, Sotère Torregian, David Hadbawnik, Tyrone Williams, Linh Dinh, Susan Briante, Vituper Ventures, Sommer Browning, Brenda Iijima, Mary Burger, Josh Stanley, Christopher Marlow, Felix Zapata, Kent Johnson, and Peter Davis



December 16, 2010

New Work at Chicago Review

The wheels of academic publishing turn slowly, but they turn. The new Chicago Review is out, including my piece on Dalkey Archive Press's Best European Fiction 2010. Read it here.

December 9, 2010

"The Great Library will burn down Rome": SLAG on the UK anti-fees protests

A communiqué issued by the Surrealist London Action Group. I repost it as a fellow traveler of Surrealism, and because I think it makes a very important (and quintessentially surrealist) point that often gets overlooked in the analyses and agitational materials of the more conventional left: schooling is miserablism. We should fight off every neoliberal assault on the "educational" apparatus, the better to destroy it ourselves, in the same convulsion of the marvelous that abolishes the vicious, philistine society it was meant to reproduce.

New Alexandria

Sheets of paper, sheets of flame. The Romans are burning the Great Library again. Today the Liberals and Tories, the British ruling class’s oldest parties, are voting on their own plans to eat the young. Like the Labour government before them, they have realised that educating working-class youth is an unnecessary expense. University fees must rise, subsidies to support teenagers through school must go, and there need be no more pretence that education is for the benefit of anything other than capital.

While the MPs are voting, students will be protesting and resisting heroically, as they have been over the last few weeks, and the ruling class will once again send squads of riot police against them. Schoolkids whose future educations are being stolen from them will instead receive extra lessons in applied batons and horse charges.

As revolutionary Surrealists – and as students, ex-students and education workers, and people who have been taught to read and write – we hardly need to say that we are viscerally opposed to this assault on youth and education. We will fight these education cuts with all the means at our disposal. But we will not do so in the name of defending education. Britain’s education system in its current form is frankly not worth defending.

Cringing Liberals have been pointing to the post-1992 expansion of higher education to justify the fee hikes, arguing that the massive increase in student numbers has made the system unsustainably expensive. Many of those who oppose the rise in fees – including the so-called left wing of the very Labour Party which introduced tuition fees in the first place – say that this newly accessible university is precisely what must be ‘defended’.

But those of us who have worked and studied on these intellectual factory farms know that education in this country has been nothing short of a disaster, from Key Stage 2 SATS to the Research Excellence Framework. Children fed poetry that’s been reduced to the literary equivalent of Turkey Twizzlers; students told that politically flabby post-New Left bullshit is the way to make sense of ‘culture’; academics chasing ever-decreasing funding by publishing in elitist journals with ever-decreasing readerships… Defend that crap? Not on your life.

Where, in all of this, is the beautiful savagery of the mind? Where are the things that are appalling to know, that score the flesh with their uselessness and wonder? Learning is no commodity: it’s an acid to burn money. Bound in human skin, it’s the toxic arcane to be championed, explored, succumbed to, seduced by, conquered. It’s traced in golden words of fire that fall blazing from the page, flaring and dying as we read them, gone in an explosion of unknown suns.

The only library that we defend is the one that’s set alight by its own blazing. Sheets of paper, sheets of flame. The Great Library will burn down Rome.

October 30, 2010

New Fiction at Lamination Colony

Lamination Colony 2010 is up, a throat-in-rags death rattle of a final issue, featuring 46 writers. Go and read it, especially if throat-in-rags and death rattle strike you as a contradiction in terms. My bit is in there, too, "Valley of the Dolls." Thanks to the editor for being cool with the formatting issues and getting it just right.

October 27, 2010

New Fiction at wigleaf

Isn't it one of the best-designed sites ever for very short fiction?

October 17, 2010

Dead Markets

Markets Updated
(since last newsletter):

New York Times Book Review: Has closed.
Atlantic Monthly: Project cancelled.
The New Yorker: Website has not been functioning for over a month; emails to the editor bounce; we are declaring this a "dead" market.
The New Republic: Website hasn't been updated in over a year; editor has not responded to our inquiries; we are declaring this a "dead" market.
Paris Review: Website has not been functioning for over a month; emails to the editor bounce; we are declaring this a "dead" market.
Ploughshares: Website has not been functioning for over a month; editor has not responded to us; we are declaring this a "dead" market.
Missouri Review: Website has not been updated in quite a while; editor has not responsed to us; we are declaring this a "dead" market.
Iowa Review: Website has not been updated in quite a while; editor has not responsed to us; we are declaring this a "dead" market.
9. Esquire: Project cancelled.

October 10, 2010

"No Story and No Sin"

Pierre Guyotat

Roland Barthes on Pierre Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden:

Eden Eden Eden is a free text: free of all subjects, of all objects, of all symbols, written in the space (the abyss or blind-spot) where the traditional constituents of discourse (the one who speaks, the events recounted, the way they are expressed) would be superfluous. The primary consequence is that criticism, unable to discuss the author, his subject, or his style, can find no way of taking hold of this text: Guyotat’s language must be “entered,” not by believing it, becoming party to an illusion, participating in a fantasy, but by writing the language with him in his place, singing it along with him.

Getting in on the language, in the sense of “getting in on the act,” is possible because Guyotat produces not a manner, a genre, a literary object, but a new element (which might even be added to the four Elements of cosmogony); this element is the phrase: substance of speech with the qualities of a fine cloth or a foodstuff, a single sentence which never ends, whose beauty comes not from what it refers to (the reality towards which it is supposed to point) but from its breath, cut short, repeated, as if the author were trying to show us not a series of imaginary scenes, but the scene of language, so that the model of this new mimesis is no longer the adventure of some hero, but the adventure of the signifier itself: what becomes of it.

Eden Eden Eden constitutes (or ought to constitute) a sort of eruption, a historical shock: the whole of an earlier evolution of writing, seemingly double but coinciding in ways we can now see more and more clearly, from Sade to Genet, from Mallarmé to Artaud, is gathered up, displaced, purified of its historical circumstances: no Story and no Sin (surely the same thing), we are left simply with language and lust, not the former expressing the latter, but the two bound together in a reciprocal metonymy, indissoluble.

The strength of this metonymy, sovereign in Guyotat’s text, might presage a strong censure, which will find here its two favorite pastures, language and sex, united; but any such censure, which may take many forms, will be unmasked by its own vehemence: condemned to being excessive if it claims to censure simply the subject and not the form, or vice versa: in either case condemned to reveal its own essence as censorship.

Yet whatever the institutional peripeteia, the publication of this text is important: a whole body of critical and theoretical work will be carried forward, without the text ever losing its power of seduction: outside all categories and yet of an importance beyond any doubt, a new landmark and a starting-point for new writing.



Stephen Barber on Guyotat's Coma.

John Taylor's "Reading Pierre Guyotat" at Context.

October 7, 2010

New Fiction at A cappella Zoo

I now have a triptych of stories about encounters with artists and art, a third panel to go with "The Scythian Idol" and "An Affair." This one's called "The Collector of Van de Voys," and since I consider it one of my best pieces so far, I'm especially pleased that it's found a home in the latest issue of A cappella Zoo, alongside work by Nancy Gold, Hayes Greenwood Moore, David Misialowski, Kate Riedel, Mike Meginnes, Alex Myers, Benjamin Robinson Jason Jordan, Phillip Neel, Theodore Carter, Melissa Ross, Tania Hershman, Catherine Sharpe, and Naoko Awa, and more. The entire contents of the issue will be published online by the end of October, but I hope that you'll order a print copy of Issue 5 of the Zoo -- or better yet, subscribe.

Update: "The Collector of Van de Voys" has now been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

October 1, 2010

Introducing SOUS LES PAVÉS


. . . is a bi-monthly newsletter of poetry, prose, ideas & opinions, reviews, photo documentaries, b/w artwork and letters of all kinds. It is conceived in the spirit & tradition of THE FLOATING BEAR, FUCK YOU, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, ROLLING STOCK, THE REALIST, THE DIGGER PAPERS, INTERNATIONALE SITUATIONNISTE, THE BLACK PANTHER INTERCOMMUNAL NEWS SERVICE, PROFANE EXISTENCE and any number of lo-fi no-frills PUNK ZINES & COMMUNITY PAPERS. At a time when much discourse circulates amid the instantaneous push-n-pull of the blogosphere – some of which is sharp, but much of which is soggy pulp – we seek to slow down, pause, and cultivate thoughtful responses to our collective troubles before delivering a polemical flux of ideation via the hands & feet of the world’s postal workers

in perpetuity

However, to do so, and do so with regularity, we need your financial support. If you receive this newsletter and understand its value, please consider donating some small funds to our effort. All moneys will be used to produce and ship the newsletter to what will no doubt prove to be a growing number of recipients. As things stand at the time of the first issue, our mailing list consists of approx. 300 people, all of who will receive this newsletter gratis.

To donate, go the SOUS LES PAVÉS page at Interbirth Books

To get on the mailing list, write to Micah Robbins at:

And while you're at it, read contributor David Hadbawnik's post on the newsletter, "Print: Why Bother?"

September 24, 2010

New Fiction at Prick of the Spindle

from "An Affair":

They watched as the artist had an exchange with a grizzled poet who had dropped by. Still pecking out pomes on yr Olivetti, homie? the artist tweeted. “Except when I use parchment and quill!” said the poet, flourishing a small spiral notebook out of his pocket. He opened the notebook, cleared his throat, and read one of the entries to his sudden audience (a poem later included, with one or two minor revisions, in his chapbook Regression Analysis). Everyone applauded except the artist, who rolled his eyes. “Litrachur is 50 yrs behind painting,” he needled, adding in the next tweet, Gysin said it, I believe it, that settles it. “You may be right, brother,” was the poet’s quick riposte, “but at least poetry is still twenty-five years ahead of fiction!” Then he rolled a cigarette and stuck it behind his ear for later.

Read it in the new Prick of the Spindle.

September 7, 2010

You and What Army

Representatives of the Kenneth Koch Estate drop in on Punch Press

A few weeks ago I put up a post about a forthcoming volume by Kent Johnson, A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara, to be published in a handsome limited edition by the good folks at Punch Press prior to the release of a trade edition. The book is devoted, in part, to Kent’s exploration of the intriguing hypothesis that Kenneth Koch is in fact the author of one of Frank O’Hara’s canonical poems, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” which Koch always maintained he discovered among O’Hara’s papers in 1966 after the latter’s untimely death. To me this is a valuable and interesting investigation, inviting us to widen our ideas not only about the direct participants but a host of issues such as literary mourning, authorship, "authenticity" and voice, influence, reputation, and even questions of textual editing.

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.