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.


Frances Madeson said...

I sent links to this post to contacts at:

1.National Free Speech Week October 18-24 suggesting inclusion of this issue in a program
2.PEN America suggesting an expression of solidarity
3.The New York Center for Independent Publishers, same
4.I printed out a copy of the post to mail to John Whitman of Turtle Books who is the Smaller and Independent Publishers Committee representative to the board of the Association of American Publishers with a note encouraging him to try and persuade Tom Allen to slot a discussion of this issue on the agenda for the next board meeting
5.I also e-mailed Ralph Nader with a link to the post.
6.Printed copies to mail with notes to Ellen Nachtigall Biben, Special Deputy Attorney General for Public Integrity and Mylan L. Denerstein, Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice, both in NYS AG Cuomo's office
7.E-mailed the link to Nannette Perez in the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association suggesting that the Intellectual Freedom Round Table discuss this issue and publicly weigh in
8.Printed a copy and sent it to Larry Flynt suggesting he also blog about it

Edmond Caldwell said...

Damn, comrade Frances, I think you did all that before I had my first cup of coffee!

It's splendid, though, and I know that Kent Johnson and Richard Owen would both be very gratified by these efforts; it's the exactly the sort of thing that needs to happen.

Stay tuned!

chuck.godwin said...

Frances, you are in inspiration! I love you sent the link to Larry Flynt.
Edmond, I am sorry I disparaged this issue over at DE; I read your post here after you reminded me that more than a shrug was indicated.I have sent the link to your excellent post, urging its wide dissemination, to:;;; and
These are Bay Area small publishers except for the California office of Poets & Writers Magazine. I will find other folks to send it to. Thanks for this.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Wow -- no, thank YOU, chuck!