Dear *******,

We appreciate your detailed letter. We don’t doubt many of the people involved in this latest iteration of Poetry Cancel Culture are “sincere” in their motives.

But they are, in our own sincere judgment, gravely confused. And your letter, in fact, arguing for Barrett Watten’s cancellation from the upcoming Louisville Conference on Poetry and Literature Since 1900, inadvertently suggests how dangerous the present dynamic has become. 

We have read the anonymously distributed petition to ban Watten from attending Louisville and from speaking at the panel he had convened. The petition, clearly inspired by the actions of you and other graduate colleagues at Wayne State (and now approved by the University of Louisville administration), is an insult to principles of academic freedom and the most basic democratic traditions of the poetic field.

Yes, we are aware that Watten, like countless poets and artists before him, has acted, on various occasions, in objectionable ways toward other people. Over the years, as frequent critics of his Language grouping, we ourselves have been targets of his volatile disposition, from time to time. Although we reserve judgment regarding the specific measures taken against him by Wayne State University until things legally calm down and his side is fully heard, it seems to us that some kind of disciplinary action was warranted. Though he is fighting the severe sanctions taken against him by his institution, Watten himself appears to acknowledge and regret some of his more intemperate past actions.

But now, after your student phalanx has succeeded in having draconian sanctions imposed on a long-practicing scholar and writer, you are pushing things further, advocating that his contentious personality and behavior at Wayne State disqualifies him, even, from attending a prominent poetry/literature conference that he has contributed to for the past thirty years—a cultural event completely independent from any past goings-on at your institution.

And though you try hard, with various examples of how objectionable Barrett Watten is, your letter describes nothing that in any way justifies that.

The worst of Watten’s conduct, from what we can see so far (and we in no way excuse it), is that he has brusquely and tactlessly spoken to, even “yelled” at, other faculty, and sometimes students, apparently distressing and “intimidating” various people with his argumentative aggressiveness. And, as well, that he has been improperly controlling, even sometimes insulting and self-serving, in his dealings with graduate students. He is, to be sure, hardly the first or the worst case of academics overstepping their bounds. And none of what has been described validates his proscription from the ongoing conversation and debate about poetry.

If Barrett Watten had a verified history of violent physical or sexual assault it would all be a different matter, obviously. In that case, he would belong in prison and we wouldn’t even be discussing the issue. But in the reams of scandalized affront we’ve read about him (not least at the pile-on character-assassination site you helped create, where even Marjorie Perloff joins in, griping that he was, heaven forbid, boorish toward her!), and which includes, admittedly, many testimonies attesting to his impolite and arrogant comportment, we don’t see any claims or evidence whatsoever of sexual aggression or physically harmful actions on his part. Surely such behavior, in such a fraught and vindictive atmosphere, would have come out by now if it were part of the picture? If and when it does, we would be the first to condemn it.

*******, let us ask you a serious question: If being an intimidating jerk, or even being an uncouth cad, is qualification for getting physically banned from an academic conference, why not take (and leaving aside all the many dozens of living jerk-poets operating today) the next logical step and ban the study and discussion at the Louisville conference of all the canonical Modernist poets who have been qualitatively greater assholes, in many ways, than Barrett Watten? Surely there are students and profs, perhaps especially Jewish ones, whose discomfort is “triggered” by an anti-Semitic bastard like Ezra Pound, just for one example. Why not, for the sake of their “safe space,” ban him? Or what about Wallace Stevens, who wrote racist filth about Africans that is arguably even worse than anything Pound ever uttered. Should the Louisville conference not then end any discussion of his work, too, to prevent violating the “safe space” of African-American poets? Or what about “safe space” from discussion of Robert Creeley, say, whose misogyny and violent predisposition in his younger years (including reported near-strangling of his first wife) is a matter of record, certainly a potential concern in the #MeToo era? What about the Vichy collaborator, Gertrude Stein, a hero of the “post-avant,” whose craven speechwriting and adulation for Petain might surely trigger the “safe space” of who knows who?

The list goes on and on. We are not being totally facetious with the above questions. You have moved from campaigning for an individual’s censure for work-site misbehaviors, to a much more general punitive attack, one that involves the total cancellation of that person from a field he has considerably, if controversially, contributed to over the past decades. So why not be principled and ban other “uncouth” poets, dead or alive, from whatever conference, too? What is your argument for only banning the work and presence of a Barrett Watten?

You also suggest that we, Fric and Frac, can’t relate because Watten was not “our” professor, as he was yours and that of some of your friends. Young poet, listen, please. We could write a collaborative novella about our past professors or poetic mentors and their bizarre, sometimes unsettling personalities. Not that we would choose to change those personalities, to be honest, because the discomfort we sometimes felt was much a part of our poetic education.

Regardless, it never would have occurred to us to try to erase their difficult presence from the intellectual conversation. That is the issue here. You and student others (and your protective Admin) have taken this now way too far, and the precedent being set is a very disturbing one.

We urge you and your associates to change course. Don’t think that there aren’t a lot of people in the literary world truly alarmed by where this stuff is going. Most are afraid to speak out about it, still, but that will change little by little. Or maybe faster than you or we think. Or at least we dearly hope it does.

Ultimately, you see, the issue is not “Barrett Watten.” It is you and your comrades and the effect your actions will bring upon the future field of which you are a part. Think, all of you, of how you will be seen when others are looking back upon this time. Don’t fall prey to the petty current political fashion. Don’t be remembered as a Culture Cop.

Poetry is bigger, infinitely bigger, than that.

Sincerely,

–Dispatches

 

Nota bene #1: Alan Golding, director of the Louisville Conference, has written to make a correction. The University of Louisville administration did not base their rescinding of Watten’s invitation on the circulated petition, which was apparently never delivered directly to any parties there, but rather on the Wayne State University Dean’s letter, FOIA’d and made public by the students at WSU.