Recently, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars posted a long exchange between Barrett Watten and Nathaniel Mackey. The post included salvaged texts from a suppressed Facebook debate (deleted in its entirety by Mr. Watten, a few days previously), and a series of emails that Mr. Mackey circulated with Mr. Watten’s knowledge, but over his objection. The recipients included the seven participants in the original Facebook exchange (Norman Finkelstein, Ben Friedlander, Grant Jenkins, Andrew Mossin, David Need, Ted Pearson, Luke Harley,) and four others who heard about it and asked to be included (Don Byrd, Joseph Donahue, Patrick Pritchett, and Peter Gizzi). Some of those participants shared the exchange with their contacts who passed it on to still others. The material thus became widely circulated, even before Dispatches from the Poetry Wars released the thirty-some page record linked to above.
The Dispatches post received significant back-channel support from many readers, but also came under some pointed criticism on social media. We were accused (including by some of our friends) of violating the privacy of personal emails without the permission of the correspondents. Dispatches has answered that criticism in Dispatch #33 – “When the personal becomes political” – challenging naïve and uncritical usage of words such as “personal” and “privacy,” and arguing that the event was public and political from the start. Dispatches also sent Mr. Watten an email, after he threatened to sic his attorney on us, expressing the hope that the post would become the stimulant to a wider conversation about the important issues of poetics it contains.
Mr. Watten’s unfortunate response was to post a long, self-congratulatory entry on his blog, marred by inaccuracies, misrepresentations, distortions, ad hominen attacks, and outright lies. Let’s take a look at just a few of them, quoting directly (at risk of legal action, perhaps) from Watten’s blog post:
But Mackey would have the last word, putting the whole thing online courtesy none other than Kent Johnson.
This is a fabrication by Mr. Watten to buttress his ad hominem attack on Mackey. It never happened. He immediately follows up with a defamatory assault on Kent Johnson, a longstanding critic of Language poetry’s obliging slide into institutional accommodation (Johnson will be responding in a future post to Watten’s claims). In fact, Dispatches received a copy of the exchange from one of the 11 original recipients of the emails. Kent Johnson and Michael Boughn (who mysteriously disappears in Watten’s account, along with the apparently unspeakable name of Dispatches from the Poetry Wars) decided the central debate over poetics was of interest and importance to the larger community and published the letters as public documents.
Which brings us to another of Watten’s self-serving distortions:
I did not agree to circulate the exchange to a list of persons not of my choosing; there was no consultation, no reciprocity, and no recourse
Mr. Watten may not have “agreed” with the circulation of the emails, but he was fully aware of it from the beginning and participated with full knowledge of the situation. Indeed, Mr. Mackey informed him after the first email letter that he was copying the exchange to the original participants in the deleted Facebook discussion. Mr. Watten, knowing that, chose to continue to participate in what became an extended discussion, and it is logical to assume he had, as he developed his positions and responses, a larger audience in mind than just Mr. Mackey. His recourse was to stop writing emails to Mackey but he chose not to. He chose to continue a public conversation. Continuously painting himself as the aggrieved martyr, Watten attempts to misrepresent the situation as one in which he was the helpless victim when he could have just said No.
Presumably attempting to argue that the entire exchange is “private” and “personal” because he considers his Facebook page to be “private,” he actually writes:
In a Facebook post, one frequently says things that are one-offs, not backed up with citations or footnotes—it is not a place for careful thinking, but is often useful to testing ideas where that level of seriousness, or lack of it, is understood (at least, that is how I use Facebook). My thread is also private, and I consider participants to be guests of a sort.
Mt. Watten can consider whatever he wants, but naiveté doesn’t begin to describe the obtuseness of this ridiculous statement. Has Mr. Watten had his head in a book during the entire Cambridge Analytica brouhaha? Was he napping during the whole Zuckerberg in front of Congress thing? Is he unaware that for over a year now a massive public discussion has been going on about the absence of privacy on Facebook?
Allow us to clear up this simple point for you, Barrett: There is no privacy on Facebook. Even if you have set your posts to be “private” (which by the way, you haven’t done), there is no privacy on Facebook. Even if you consider participants “guests,” there is still no privacy on Facebook.
Beyond the outright inaccuracies in his blog post, Mr. Watten manipulates the narrative using one of the most brutal and time tested methods of political and cultural tyrants: deny your target a voice and put words in their mouths that make them look stupid and/or evil.
Think Minstrel here. Throughout his blog post, Watten reproduces his own letters verbatim (the very same letters he has threatened to sue Dispatches for posting), continuously congratulating himself on their excellence. “This was a strong response,” he says of himself at one point. “This letter—which I think is a good one,” he says later. I wanted “to elevate the discussion to at least what is publishable, but Mackey would have other plans,” he states. (Slow down, Barry, or you’ll wind up staining your trousers.)
In the course of this extensive blog post, he never once quotes Mackey. He denies him a voice. Instead, he inserts words in Mackey’s mouth in the form of “summaries” that bear only the most tenuous and tortured relation to Mackey’s actual responses. Purposefully or not, it unfortunately enacts the very power distortions that have characterized racist discourse in the United States for 400 years.
And what is Watten’s narrative? Mackey is unreasonable, angry, and aggressive. He erupts in “challenge behaviour,” shows “increasing antagonism,” issues “concluding insults,” “resorts to “a personal attack, an attempt to humiliate,” and demonstrates “evident selfishness.” Meanwhile, Mr. Watten patiently continues his reasonable, calm, and generous responses, the very paragon of enlightened discourse. You would think that someone with Watten’s writing experience could do a little bit better than that. After all, the original text is readily available for comparison. Unless, of course, Watten follows through on his threats of legal action to force its removal, in which case his mise en scène could go unchallenged by any access to Mackey’s actual voice.
Equally disturbing, however, is Mr. Watten’s parting shot at Robert Duncan (someone he admits he doesn’t read except selectively, out of animus), implying that the poet was a racist. Like the rest of his narrative manipulations, he bases this on a misrepresentation—a shameful distortion of Duncan’s beliefs with clear intent to tar Mackey’s reputation by suggesting that Mackey, a black man, is compromised by his defense of a racist poet. Setting up and then denouncing a vague strawman he calls “myth” (a term he never bothers to examine), Watten carries on:
I would rather go back to the classics of anthropology, and their critique, to do that than invoke the Pound tradition, its racial politics, or its use of Leo Frobenius. It is a project, however, that will come undone of its own incompatibilities, particularly in terms of Duncan and race. While I have confined my readings of Duncan to what interests me, scholars may want to go farther and look into his remarks on LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka that I noted while scanning the index of his letters to Denise Levertov.
And what were Duncan’s “remarks” on Baraka? They involved a critique of Baraka’s poetry, which Duncan didn’t much care for. For Watten, this apparently constitutes racism, which makes as much sense as accusing Duncan of misogyny because he didn’t care for Marianne Moore’s poetry.
As far as race goes, Duncan was absolutely clear where he stood on this absolutely crucial question, although Watten’s pathological hostility toward the poet prevents him from actually reading what he said. In The H.D. Book, Duncan’s magisterial exploration of the origins of modernist poetry, he was unambiguous. Raising the issue in the context of Dante’s concept of prowess, Duncan wrote:
All thru the body of our nation, where men are fighting for the realization of all the potentialities of the human mind , against exploitation and discrimination, for the potentialities that have been denied negroes and for our own potentialities of community with negroes, of brotherhood, companionship in work, and marriage, that have been denied, they are fighting, we are fighting, for our true “safety” and have that “prowess of arms” that poets would praise.
This seems pretty straightforward to us.
Given his resort to the age-old tactics of USAmerican racism in denying Nathaniel Mackey his own voice in order to turn him into a caricature, Watten’s accusations of racism against Duncan reek of hypocrisy and desperation. It is unfortunate that what might have been an interesting conversation on serious issues of poetics was turned into an ignorant brawl.
We stand by our decision to publish the exchange between Mackey and Watten. It is more pertinent now than ever.