If anyone needed proof that Barrett Watten doesn’t get it, all they’d have to do would be to read the self-serving screed currently posted on his blog (The Aye of Poetry). Watten’s subject is our Dispatch from two weeks ago in which we state our contempt for the au courant post-avant fad of mob-type aggressions, habitually launched under sanctimonious banners of ideological purity. Watten expresses his “surprise” at our “principled” position, one we’ve quite prominently held since this pirate sloop set sail nearly four years ago.

The problem in this case is that Watten likes to present himself as an innocent victim of others’ unreasonable brutality without ever examining his own participation and involvement. The current controversy over his bullying behaviour in relation to his students and colleagues is a case in point. An investigation by Wayne State University, his employer, into numerous complaints about his conduct has led to his suspension from teaching (albeit with full and permanent pay). Not once, however, has Watten acknowledged and apologized for his actions. Instead, he goes on the attack.

In this case, his “gratitude” to Dispatches for resisting the current attempts to ban him from the Louisville Conference because of past bullying (Dispatch #45: On the Attempt to Exclude Barrett Watten from the 2020 “20th Century Literature Conference” in Louisville) quickly passes into self-serving misrepresentations of two previous engagements between us and him. The first had to do with the liberation of a tape recording of a confrontation between him and Robert Duncan in 1978 that he had suppressed for some 40 years, refusing permission to researchers to copy and reproduce its content, all the while misquoting and misrepresenting it for his own purposes (Recovering a Suppressed and Vital Document). The second had to do with the reproduction of a public argument over Robert Duncan and myth between him and Nathaniel Mackey that began on Facebook and moved to an email exchange copied to numerous observers which Watten claimed was “private.” (An Encounter between Nathaniel Mackey and Barrett Watten)

Dispatches does not intend to revisit the details of those two events (it is to Watten’s advantage that we don’t!), but would like to point out how Watten, in a typical move for him, attempts to overwrite the content by slandering our motives, using high falutin’ nonsense words like “doxxing,” as if there was no contest about the nature of the events. Watten is well-known for attempting to control and suppress documents in order to allow himself free reign to re-narrate events so as to make himself look like a martyr (Dispatch #33 – When personal is political). Passing himself off as a “Blakean” (is that a joke?), he suggests that we (and the New American Poetry) are motivated by the desire to have him gone because he is ruining the “bucolic picnic of the Lost America of Love.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We love having Barry to argue with.

For decades Barrett Watten has made himself a public figure who argues for a very specific materialist poetics shared by his cohort of so-called “Language poets” (and where have they gone?). He is hardly a wilting violet, a poor, blameless object of others’ animosity. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that he is a bully, and that in personal relations he uses his aggressiveness to attempt to overwhelm and silence those he disagrees with. As Dispatches has stated, while we find that behaviour unacceptable, his personality is not our business proper. Our business is with his poetics, a poetics he has militantly argued for in a public sphere for decades, and which we find to be radically antagonistic to our own sense of poetry’s possibility (Dispatch #38 – Mythic ideologies, ideological myths, and the other kind: Poetry, poetics, and the questions of myth). This is a public issue, one that calls for discussion and debate. And we defend Watten’s right to present his side, free of totalitarian attempts to silence him. Yet Watten devotes untold energies trying to stop debate about poetics by suppressing documents, slandering his opponents, misrepresenting their positions, and glorifying himself as Victim.

Barry . . . allow us to point out what is obvious to everyone else even if you can’t see it: You ain’t no Victim, pal. Au contraire. And if you don’t like the fact that others disagree with your publicly presented poetics and exercise their right to make their disagreements public, then you have an easy out — shut your big fat yap. Stop posting long theoretical statements on line. Stop publishing polemical books. Stop trying constantly to control the record by prohibiting access to documents. As long as you put yourself forward as representing a vulgar quasi-materialist poetics, Dispatches will continue to oppose your views, while making sure that everyone can have access to all the documents that make up the record of the struggle, so that the debate can be fully informed. You may call that “doxxing.” We call it liberation.

 

—Dispatches