[Versions of the following two letters were emailed by Kent Johnson to Mark Nowak and Chris Fischbach, respectively, on March 25th. The one to Nowak, here, is significantly revised and expanded (the original has not received reply); the email to Fischbach is as sent, with the addition of a paragraph written in follow-up on the same day. It hardly needs be said that people are concerned right now with more important things. But poetry goes on, we are still members of our field, and even in a time of pandemic, maybe even especially now, unprincipled, immoral crap among us (and there’s no paucity of it!) should be called out.]

 Hello, Mark (Nowak),

I ordered your Social Poetics through Kindle today. It looks to be a thought-provoking and useful book, and I congratulate you for the contribution of it.

I just read Chapter 2, where you discuss the Talleres de Poesía of Nicaragua and the handful of serious works in English published so far on that remarkable poetic project. And I noticed, as I read–and somewhat to my astonishment–that in that chapter you make a point of highlighting each and every author, translator, or editor of the books and studies related to the topic, with the single exception of me. Even as you quote at length from my book A Nation of Poets: Writings from the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua (West End Press, 1985)– from my translations and from the extensive interview I conducted in Managua with Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, then Nicaraguan Minister of Culture… In fact, though you quote from my book more extensively than you do any other text you reference, no other writer in your book is treated with like disregard. Quite simply, your suppression of my name is over-the-top and clearly deliberate, and other readers, including notable figures on the U.S. poetic left, have already remarked on it to me.

Let me remind you of some background, Mark.

You and I had a close and collaborative friendship when we were grad students together at Bowling Green State University. It wasn’t a long one, because you came into the MFA program about a year and a half before I finished my doctorate. That friendship was severed by you, a few years after I left Bowling Green, when the international controversy around the Araki Yasusada work began to escalate–even though you had been an early and enthusiastic reader of some of the first poems from that manuscript. It was a time when the most doctrinaire cultural politics and ideology were nearing their apex in the Academy, and your journal of that time, X-Cultural Poetics, had become a prominent part of that ideological current. So I well understood the unstated motives behind your breaking of our relationship, ironic as they may have seemed to me, in various ways.

Since that long-ago time, and even though I have sincerely praised your work on various occasions in different venues and reached out to you a few times, I have not heard from you, to the best of my recollection, save one or two sarcastic emails you sent years ago, in response to friendly messages from me. I believe the last time we had direct contact was in 2005, when we were guests at a poetry conference at Cambridge University, many years after we’d last seen one another. When I walked up to you to say hello (other poets present might testify to this) you smirked and walked away.

Of course, poets act like jerks in their personal relations with other poets all the time, so none of that is really the major concern. The major reason I am writing is to ask you the following: How could you allow your petty antagonisms to take precedence and lead you to occlude another writer’s standing within a topic you’re supposedly addressing with scholarly responsibility? To engage in such an embarrassingly forced snub even as you make prominent use of that person’s work in your study? How do you view the ethics of that, compañero? Is such puerile conduct worthy of the honorable subject of your book? Have you forgotten, in fact, if I may evoke a sentimental remembrance of “comradeship,” that I gave you an inscribed copy of A Nation of Poets back at your Main Street, second-floor apartment, in the late 1980s (Brian Eno was playing), and that we discussed the Sandinista poetry workshops avidly on a number of occasions, at a time when you were focused (avant la lettre!) on Kenneth Goldsmith-type appropriations*, and long before you began your wonderful working-class workshop projects? I am asking sincerely, because I am stunned that you would be so transparently small and vindictive in this book, under such circumstances.

And that you, as a socialist, would conduct such erasure on someone who worked in Nicaragua on two extended occasions as a literacy teacher in rural areas during the revolution (the first time in the National Literacy Campaign and the second time as an adult education teacher in an active war zone), when and where I gathered the materials for A Nation of Poets–in close collaboration with Cardenal and other Ministry personnel–defies understanding. Not to mention the fact that I then returned to Nicaragua on two other occasions to do research, including a series of seven long interviews on the politics of culture with Sandinista leaders and writers (all of which were published in prominent publications in Mexico and Cuba—the ones with Vice-President Sergio Ramirez and Ernesto Cardenal causing Octavio Paz, incidentally, to go ballistic in Excelsior, igniting a big kerfuffle in Mexico about the workshops), wrote extended pieces on the politics of the Talleres in the Nation, NACLA Report on the Americas, and other journals, and edited and translated (with Russell Bartley and Sylvia Yoneda) a book of poetry and other writings from Curbstone Press by Comandante Tomás Borge, then Minister of the Interior for the Sandinista government.

The thing is, you know all this. Can you see why it’s disconcerting to me, both personally and politically, that you would stoop to the choice of calculated, quasi-Stalinist deletion? That shit is the last thing we need to repeat now among poets and critics of the left.

If you have what you think is a reasonable argument for your conduct in this matter, please let me know. Maybe I am missing something. If I don’t hear from you by Thursday with a serious response, I will be assured my assumptions regarding your motives are perfectly correct, and I will publish this letter at Dispatches from the Poetry Wars and elsewhere.

I do hope to hear back from you.


[* While at Bowling Green, Nowak was (it now seems unbelievable, but it’s true) targeted by one of the main Professors of the BGSU Creative Writing Program–a good man, actually, of conservative, New Critical tastes, who had a meltdown (his wife was undergoing a very painful terminal illness, which no doubt played a role) and literally petitioned the University that Nowak be expelled from the program because he wasn’t writing “poetry,” but merely “cheating” (I believe this was the term used) via his Cage-like/appropriation pieces. Mark, understandably outraged, requested a meeting with the Professor, asking me to attend with him as his witness, which I did, though I ended up (even though what I said is fuzzy by now) intervening beyond my agreed role, defending Mark, in my own anger. A clearer memory is that I later visited the Professor at his well-appointed home and had a long meeting with him over scotch, convincing him to back off, lest his own reputation be severely tarnished in scandal. Nowak went on to get his MFA.]


Dear Chris (Fischbach),

I appreciate your message.

I am aware there are a couple of pro forma, MLA endnotes pertaining to my book. If there hadn’t been, the matter would’ve been even more outrageous than it already is!

The point, as I’m sure you can understand, is that Mark purposely elides my name from the text proper. It is a transparent act of passive-aggressive hostility, partly designed, it would seem, to avoid having to list me in the index to the book, where all the authors, editors, and translators of ALL the other books and studies he discusses are present. My personal erasure, singular as it is in his book, from what I can see, is completely obvious and purposeful to anyone reading with any measure of attention. It is nothing less than a species of airbrushing.

A further point: Mark has a “Permissions” section at the back of the book, where he mentions that “[E]very effort has been made to contact rights holders for permission to reproduce their work, in accordance with guidelines of fair use.”

But this is a lie. He never attempted to contact me (even though I obviously would have granted permission, as he of course knows). He didn’t contact me because he knew he’d have a harder time erasing my name from the record if he did so. That is patently clear.

You may not be aware of the history of Mark’s antagonism toward me. It goes back a long way, to shortly after we were in grad school together. His omission of my name is fundamentally related to poetry politics, which makes this calculated violation of simple scholarly ethics all the more pathetic.

And how unfair to be the target of such petty maneuver, when I have, so far as I can tell, published more work on the Talleres de Poesía, both in translation, interviews, articles, and essays, here and abroad, than any other North American writer. I find it stunning that Coffee House Press would allow one of its authors to engage in such a violation of simple consideration toward another writer. How unfortunate that such juvenile meanness should insert itself into a book that purports to be about ethical principle and comradeship.

Again, I need Mark to write me personally about this. That he hasn’t, so far, of course, only more clearly confirms that we are talking about an act of unprincipled, belligerent intent. If I don’t hear from him by tomorrow, as I said, an expanded version of the letter I wrote him will be going up at Dispatches (our audience has become quite large, indeed), and then published elsewhere.


Kent Johnson