Note: Dispatches received this letter from CA Conrad on July 27, in response to our satirical Po-Biz Stock Report (posted two days prior), which made sport of Conrad’s self-righteous rants against the character of Walt Whitman. A friendly backchannel response, sent by Kent Johnson that same day, inviting Conrad to exchange views in a public forum on the topic of Whitman, racism, and the relevance of the matter to the present poetry field, has gone unanswered.

 

Letter from CA Conrad

Kent and Michael,

I know that you believe you know who I am, or that you at least feel assured about who I am, but you really are very far off the mark.

First, I have never been to AWP.

The very fact that you, in your cartoon manner place me there is enough evidence that you haven’t got the slightest clue who I am or have been.

You probably will not read this, but in case I have you wrong, here is a link to a very short essay I recently wrote about the term “politically correct” that president Trump and you and your friends enjoy weaponizing:  http://bit.ly/2KqkQov

While you are entertaining yourself trashing me, I am very busy on the streets trying to manage a semblance of sanity in this very dark hour.

Whatever it is in you that feels compelled to attempt a concussive blow, I hope you can get that taken care of, it seems to be harming you more than anyone.

Most sincerely, CAConrad

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Reply by Kent Johnson

Note: Johnson’s letter below, also posted a few days back as a (so far unanswered) comment at Conrad’s Facebook page, references a sarcastic and inaccurate post there by Conrad on 7/27. Conrad’s post, which received 71 ‘Likes’ and a number of cheering comments from his online ‘Friends’, reads as follows (caps in original):

 >With TERRIBLE AIM Kent Johnson is attacking me on his website. He also said I was allowed to contribute to his anthology BUT ONLY IF I had amended my negative feelings toward Whitman. I read the word “allowed” and BURST OUT LAUGHING! Hater, PLEASE STOP MAKING ME LAUGH SO HARD!

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Hello, CA,

OK, a longish message here.

I’m glad you wrote me and Mike, because I haven’t had your email address ever since the account at my former school closed out, which was nine or so months ago. You can write me back at this new address, if you wish.

There are lots of issues I’d love to talk to you about, but I’ll stick mainly to the two matters at hand, which are 1) the satire we wrote on your Whitman stand, and 2) your characterization of my email to you (I believe that was the last time we communicated?) regarding the massive Resist Much/Obey Little anthology https://www.bustle.com/…/new-protest-poetry-collection…, which Dispatches Editions published last year.

Let me say, though, first of all, and contrary to what you imply in your letter, that both Mike and I honor your writing and your commitment to making change in the broader sphere of things. Both he and I come from Old-Left backgrounds, and we spent well over a decade each as active members of communist outfits (competing ones—we would have had a hard time getting along, back then), both of us quitting school to work full-time in industry as union organizers, back when things were a bit different. Later, both of us were very active in more autonomous ways, in anti-Imperialist, anti-racist, and pro-women and gay rights type work. I myself worked as a literacy teacher in early Sandinista Nicaragua, in the northern war zone, on two extended occasions, and translated two books of revolutionary poetry as a result of it. I’m not at all saying that this experience is greater than yours or your own dedication, but I wanted to be sure, since you outlined your own history of activism, that you were aware that Mike and I know a bit about working in the trenches, too. In that sense, we fully consider you a comrade, and we hope you will consider us the same, regardless of our differences.

Part of that Old-Left tradition we come from, though, honors forthright debate and polemic as necessary features of political and cultural struggle. And this is much to the point of the mission and spirit of Dispatches, which aims to recover the venerable poetic traditions of direct critique and satire, deploying them, however marginally, as means of opening spaces for honest consideration and dialogue about the state of the U.S. “post-avant” field—which from our POV has become, all in all (notwithstanding its morphing tendencies and cliques), a hyper-self-serving and ingratiating subculture, more impelled by careerist imperatives than maybe any other formation in the history of American poetry. The sociology of it all is pretty fucked up. And we’re hardly alone at this stage in thinking there’s a critical need for some candid confrontation and reappraisal.

In any case, our Stock Report of the other day doesn’t mean we “hate” you, as you seem to think we do. You clearly have lots of friends (a number of them are also supporters of Dispatches), and we have no reason to doubt that is because you are a fine writer and good person, in the main. What we do dislike is your extremist position on Whitman, which strikes us as (coming from you) surprisingly obtuse and anti-poetic in spirit. We find your position so silly, in fact, that we felt we could only respond to it with satire. And many people agree with us, you should know: We’ve gotten lots of positive responses to the zany piece! This confirms for us that sometimes issues must be brought out into the open with force and verve, and “sumor and hatire,” as Pierre Joris has put it, is an age-old and respected means for doing so (historically, anyway, not currently). Some of the finest poets of all time, going back to the Greeks and Romans, have both deployed it and been targets of it. So don’t be insulted. It’s not you, but your position that is reprehensible.

Please take this offer seriously: We would love to have you write to Dispatches and challenge us. It would be a good and healthy thing to have a frank debate on the Whitman topic, one that many people would follow, no doubt. Our pages are open to you, without qualification.

This is getting long, so let me just close with some words about point 2), the matter of that email I sent you back when the anti-Trump anthology was in process (our mutual friend Paul Nelson forwarded the text of it to me this morning, after you, I guess, wrote him), and which you referenced yesterday in a post to your FB page. Seeing it triggered my memory about writing you. I was writing so many people at that urgent, madcap time, that it’s all a blur. But I do see that I put things very awkwardly in that message, and I don’t entirely blame you for misinterpreting my meaning, even if the word “allowed,” which you mocked, was never mentioned. Here’s what I said:

>CA, I do hope you have revised your very weak Whitman-hate position? If you have, send us a poem for our anthology, which carries as title a quote from the great man.

I can see that you understood this message to mean that any contribution from you was contingent on your “coming over” to our position regarding WW. And though, again, I didn’t put it well (there is, granted, a tinge of facetiousness that was not appropriate for the occasion), nothing could be further from the truth. The basic principle of the anthology, in fact, was to be fully inclusive, regardless of poetic or political affiliation, so long as the spirit of resistance to the new administration was behind each poet’s participation. Neither I, nor anyone working on that book, would have put such a qualification on “allowing” a contribution from you. My point, more than anything, was to give you the heads up about the title of the book, knowing that there would likely be a conflict for you, given the strong public rejection you had put forward of WW. And to acknowledge that you likely wouldn’t want to contribute to a book openly guided by Whitman’s spirit and call, unless you had reconsidered or qualified your stance. But I take responsibility for writing that email, which I recognize was poorly put.

Our pages at Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, which will continue to be polemical, politically poetic, and poetically political, are open to anything you would like to send us (disdain and disapproval welcomed). That invitation includes any folks following your FB page, as well.

onward,
Kent