Blog as Theater

by on Dec.09, 2011

Kent Johnson and Jordon Davis

For anyone who missed it, what has to be one of the funniest, strangest round of exchanges in poetry blog history happened recently in the comment stream at John Gallaher’s blog Nothing To Say & Saying It. It’s under the Surrealist post: the one that has 179 comments.

The back-and-forth between Kent Johnson and Jordon Davis about Johnson’s book A Question Mark Above the Sun could be an off-Broadway production starring Alan Alda as Johnson, and Patrick Stewart as Davis. (Or maybe that should be reversed: I can’t decide.)

I’ve been reading Sun, and I have to admit, I don’t understand what the ruckus is about. I find it a surprisingly moving book. Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch have been two of my favorite American poets for decades now, and the portrayal of their relationship in the book seems, to me, the opposite of scandalous.

Taking the whole “conspiracy” part aside, the book paints nothing but a flattering picture of Koch. Here’s a poet channeling his close, late friend, and he ends up creating one of O’Hara’s most beautiful poems. Talk about hauntology!

I’ll admit, I don’t actually buy the theory. And in the book itself, Johnson seems pretty skeptical of it too. But as a kind of re-imagined history, it’s a very beautiful work. And Art is full of re-imagined histories, alternative histories. In Monsieur Pain, Bolano shows us a Vallejo who is hiccupping himself to death, which I’m fairly sure is not accurate (though if Clayton Eshleman reads this, maybe he can help out here…)

11 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    I realize that’s not Alan Alda…

  2. t.w.

    All of Kent’s comments have been deleted by Kent. In any case, I’m rooting for team Air Jordan.

  3. James Pate

    Hi T.W.,

    There’s more comments from him later in the comment stream. In fact, the whole exchange about what can and cannot be reposted on the comment stream is part of the strangeness/humor (along with the anonymous sections).


  4. Carlos

    Kent Johnson is sort of like a four-year-old child standing on the sidelines of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Times Square, doing increasingly desperate things to get the attention of the TV cameras. First he jumps up and down. Then he waves his arms. Then he climbs on the shoulders of someone bigger than him. Then he takes off his pants. Then he pisses into the air. Then he throws poop at the Charlie Brown balloon.

    It’s sad. A few people notice, but they notice with the kind of sadness you feel when a mentally ill person speaks harshly to an elderly person. It’s understandable that a person with these problems will act out in these ways, but it’s sad to be forced to pity someone, as well.

  5. John Gallaher

    I find the convesation about Plato in the next comment stream “row row row your boat” to be more odd, in its way.

    So I started talking about music, and blink, everyone goes away.

  6. Kent Johnson

    Thanks, James, a surprise. For those who aren’t familiar, the full title is A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara. The book appeared last year in a 100-copy subscription-only edition from Punch Press; a revised and substantially expanded trade edition will be published by the superb Starcherone Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books) in July of the coming year (Starcherone is also a publisher of Goransson’s work, so there is something of a Montevidayo connection there). The Times Literary Supplement of London just named the Punch Press edition one of their “Books of the Year” in their year-end issue.

    A bit of background (there’s a lot of that to this whole thing!): Through a series of letters, there was a campaign of pressures and legal threats leveled at Richard Owens, the editor of Punch Press: from the Estates of both poets, Knopf/Random House, and four prominent poets in NYC, who signed on to the first letter of warning– Jordan Davis, Tony Towle, Bill Berkson, and Ron Padgett. The exchange between Jordan and me gets into that, a bit. The second edition will contain more meditations on the meanings and ethics of it all, including an Introduction by David Koepsell, an attorney and scholar in the Netherlands who is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on issues of literary ethics and law. There will be afterword essays by Joshua Kotin, former editor of Chicago Review and currently a prof at Princeton, and by Eric Lorberer, the Editor of Rain Taxi Magazine (plus a number of added materials).

    In any case, yes, it’s true I erased all my comments at John Gallaher’s blog before the whole thread turned and Jordan and I got into, as we have before–I wish now I hadn’t deleted the comments, as I’d put some thought into the issue of “surrealism” and its various deflections within current “post-avant” poetry. I was pissed that I was getting personally attacked for what I thought was no fair reason– though I really shouldn’t have, as it’s happened before on Mr. Gallaher’s blog, in other threads when I’ve challenged, in good faith, some of the assumptions of the regular denizens there. Not that I’m merely some kind of innocent victim on blog discussions: I know my idea of discourse-fun tends to be somewhat idiosyncratic!

    But for ease on the Koch/ O’Hara book issue, here’s the meat of the matter: First Jordan’s complaint, then my reply. (I guess this comment has the length of a short story!):

    >Anonymous (love your work), you ask good questions. The terms of those questions, though, have mainly to do with the marketing for Kent’s work of fiction, which last I heard consisted of labeling it as speculative non-fiction suppressed by the literary estates of its subjects. It is neither.

    My role in this: I worked as Kenneth’s assistant for twelve years and have been an advisor to the Koch estate for the last nine years. I’m writing on my own behalf, by the way, not the estate’s.

    The main concerns of any literary estate are collecting the work and if necessary republishing it, handling permissions requests for that work, and looking after the reputation of the author.

    The allegation that Koch forged work he then inserted in O’Hara’s Collected Poems is a challenge to Koch’s reputation (and possibly O’Hara’s). This is not a matter for debate — it’s an accusation of literary fraud, something, by the way, that Johnson has a history of being accused of.

    In any case, the hypothesis is less than unlikely; manuscript evidence has been provided that demonstrates that the poem was written when and where and by whom it was known to have been before Kent attempted to create doubt with his speculation. If Kent were actually testing a hypothesis, he would have let it go in the face of evidence to the contrary. At this point it is no longer speculative non-fiction — it is fiction.

    It is unfortunate that Rich chose not to seek permission to reprint texts by and images of the two authors discussed in the book until late in his production process. In the course of that process, the estates asked to see the text, and were promised it. It never came. Instead they got Rich’s acrimony. He may have gotten some back; none that I saw before it went out. I feel badly for Rich that funds he probably needed to maintain his house in Maine were diverted to reprint the Punch Press edition of Kent’s book omitting the text and images he did not receive permission for. It was an entirely avoidable situation, though. His and Kent’s continual use of heightened language suggest to me that there was never any interest in avoiding the situation — it may be speculated that they sought to bait the estates of the two authors Kent claims to admire. In any case, they succeeded in getting the idea out there that their book was suppressed, which, it may be speculated, was always only the goal: to create interest in the book and therefore profit by manufacturing a scandal involving the good names of two writers not around to set the record straight. It’s a shame, all right.

    Kent Johnson said…

    I want to say a few words about Jordan’s comment above. Rich may want to chime in, as well, don’t know.

    There is a lot of misinformation in Jordan’s post.

    Let me try to correct a few of the distortions:

    1) No one has said the total work was suppressed. The book was published, so it’s obvious the parties with whom Jordan is associated were not successful in suppressing the work. The point to understand is that there WAS a concerted attempt to intimidate a small publisher into not publishing the book. In three different letters, one from each of the estates and one from Random House, there were unambiguous indications that legal remedies would be sought if the book was published. We have these letters. I may choose to publish them in the second edition.

    2) But *parts* of the book were indeed successfully suppressed. Rich can speak about the response he directly received; I’ll speak to the answers I got: I wrote extremely polite letters to both Estates, asking for specific permission to cite passages from poems by both Koch and O’Hara. I quoted exactly what I wished to use in the book. The amount of material very obviously fell within the usual parameters of “fair use.” I’d have to go back to count, but there were maybe six to seven lines of poetry by each of the poets. I never heard back from the Estates. About a month or more (I can’t recall exactly, it might have been more), I received a formal letter from the Editor of Random House, roundly and emphatically denying me permission to quote a single line from either Koch or O’Hara. The letter concluded with a clear threat of legal consequences for me and the publisher if the denial was not observed. Thus, it was decided by me and Rich that we would replace the quoted materials with paraphrases of their content. The second edition intends to follow this practice.
    3) Jordan says that my book sullies Koch’s reputation by suggesting that he committed literary fraud. I deal with this in the book. I argue therein that the hypothetical act of Koch’s writing a poem such as ‘A True Account’ should in no way be regarded as mere “fraud”; just the opposite: that such an act, were it shown to be true, would constitute one of the most moving gestures of mourning and tribute ever undertaken in the history of American poetry. The first part of my book, a lengthy essay, lays out the reasons for there being a strong case of reasonable doubt about the poem’s authorship. I completely respect Jordan’s right to have no doubt of the poem’s authorship by O’Hara. But his claim here that all the questions, lacunae, and circumstantial evidence have been decisively answered is simply not true. His assertion that “manuscript evidence has been provided that demonstrates that the poem was written when and where and by whom it was known to have been” is wrong; in my book I show that strong questions remain, and I present hypothetical scenarios that might help explain them. I would encourage people to check out the second edition of the book when it appears next year and to judge if there is a case for reasonable doubt. To come to that conclusion does not mean that one KNOWS the answer, it just means that one acknowledges a very unusual and mysterious situation. That’s to say: In no manner does the book *assert* that Koch wrote the poem; it presents a hypothesis, a case for reasonable doubt, showing that the history surrounding ‘A True Account’ is deeply irregular. If Jordan believes that legal threats against another poet and a small press for such hypothetical critical investigation are appropriate, then I fear there is not much I can say in riposte. Ultimately, one can’t argue with a censor who is intent on controlling access to controversial points of view.

    As to the charges of Rich’s “acrimony” and the use of “heightened language,” I will just say that I was privy to the sequence of events and that it is an outright falsehood to suggest that any aggressive language was initiated by Rich; to the contrary, he extended perfectly polite, substantial, and professional queries to the Estates (as did I) and was met with hostile, threatening, and insulting response. But I will let Rich deal more specifically with that, if he wishes.

    The truth is that my book set out to raise some very legitimate questions about a very mysterious poem. Other O’Hara scholars, like Lytle Shaw and Marjorie Perloff, have agreed with me that the questions are legitimate ones to raise. And I believe that it becomes clear, in the process of my presentation of the *hypothesis* for a hidden authorship, that I *honor* the memory of both Koch and O’Hara, two of the greatest poets of America. Jordan and his three poet associates who joined in the campaign to derail the book feel, apparently, that it is *their* right to decide for others how and under what parameters critical questioning is to be conducted, or what nature of homage is to be deemed acceptable.

  7. t.w.

    Hi James.

    Yes, I realised I’d spoken too soon, popping up some popcorn at intermission. I s’pose now you could read “All of Kent’s comments have been deleted by Kent” as a metaphor – if you’re into that kind of thing.

    Thanks for pointing to the exchange.

  8. Kent Johnson

    “Carlos,” that’s some pretty earnest and fanciful character-assassination imagery there. You don’t refer to anything concrete to which the language could be referenced, so the barrage comes off as a bit atavistic in its hostility, even somewhat desperate. Seems that way to me, anyway. I don’t much recognize myself or my work there, in what you say.

    Maybe you’d like to relate your perspective in a follow-up comment (might be nice to do so as yourself, not under timid cover) to the *topic of the post*, which is the book on Koch and O’Hara? Have you read the book? See my long comment above and feel free to offer some specific, more relevant opinion if you have done so.

  9. James Pate


    Just to follow up on Kent’s comment…

    As readers of this blog know, few comments are ever not posted. (Hence why even comments calling this blog “Satanic” and such appear.) But I do think the hostility of your comment is over-the-top, and there are no references to specific books, poems, etc. I’m all for argument and controversy: all I ask is that it be carried out in a more civil manner.


  10. Thomas Brady Scarriet

    Two of Koch’s later poems, “A Time Zone” (references to co-writing with O’Hara, trying to write like O’Hara, etc) and “One Train May Hide Another,” (“one…reputation…may hide another”) support Kent Johnson’s hypothesis.

    I’m curious why Random House/the estates are freaking out—my guess is Kent’s hypothesis isn’t the issue, but rather ‘ownership’ of what is allowed to be said about an author that a publisher ‘owns.’ If this is the case, you’d think every poet and free-thinking person would automatically be on Kent Johnson’s side—instead of attacking him as ‘mentally ill.’ I participated in the thread before and after Kent erased his posts, and the head games played against Johnson amounted to mental ‘bear baiting.’ It’s sad to see. Gallaher is a reasonable man, yet he ‘bear baits’ Johnson with the best of them. Not sure why. Maybe Johnson offends so much because people feel he’s a ‘virtual eccentric’ and not a real one? Or a ‘virtual famous person’ and not a real one? Maybe we feel fame ‘just happens’ and Johnson is trying too hard? But I suspect these things are getting in the way, and we should just listen to what Johnson’s saying. Or perhaps we’re tired of keeping up with all the energy of a O’Hara and a Koch in the first place, and Johnson just makes us exhausted? There’s so much information out there now and our heads are exploding. In the 1950s and 60s maybe it was OK, but in 2011, we can’t take anymore?

    Look at us here—reading on a blog about a blog which directs us to another thread on another blog…and we look up from our computer, and we had a dozen other things we were going to do and our afternoon is shot.