by Kent Johnson

Buffalo '99

"And if you want to survive in show business, don't let
the hecklers get you down, make them part of the show."
                          -- Charles Bernstein

The following is a brief exchange between myself and Chris Alexander, "Moderator" of the SUNY/Buffalo Poetics Listserv, the Internet's largest poetry discussion group, with upwards of 800 subscribers in nearly twenty countries. In November of last year, a heated debate began at Poetics after Henry Gould (one of the List's most prolific and eloquent members) was placed under "special subscription status" by List Owner and renowned "Language" poet Charles Bernstein. Under this status, Gould's posts were singled out for "review and clearance" by the Poetics List Administration before being forwarded to subscribers-- a practice reserved, apparently, only for him. When word of this leaked out, a few people began to question, via posts to the List or in back-channel exchanges, the policy's fairness. Why, they asked, should one individual be placed under surveillance within an otherwise exuberantly democratic venue-- an electronic community that had grown, in the space of a few years, to become the English world's single most vibrant forum of poetry discussion and debate?

The reason given by then Poetics Administration-functionary Joel Kuszai (soon to resign as a result of this controversy) was that Gould was consistently "overposting," even though a review of the site's archives for all of 1998 reveals the latter's cumulative contributions for any month as averaging out to far fewer than the allowable limit of five posts per day. In short, the overposting charge struck a number of people as disingenuous, and some, including myself, wrote to express concern that Gould's treatment (and the unexplained and unprecedented "disappearance" of some of his "reviewed" posts) was more plausibly a clumsily-orchestrated ideological maneuver-- one motivated by an irritation with Gould's inspired polemics on behalf of more "conservative" poetic traditions and a desire to punish his reasoned and rhetorically brilliant criticisms of "Language Poetry" and its "Post-Language" acolytes.

Charles Bernstein replied to these concerns with two long and indignant missives, in which he suggested that "dozens and dozens" of innocent subscribers had been silenced or driven from the List by Gould's purportedly excessive posting. He also alerted everyone, with a hint of things to come, that membership on a "private List" was "not a right." [*] While Bernstein's reply reminded everyone that Poetics existed because of his initial vision and ongoing labor (an undeniable fact for which he certainly deserves much credit), it did not succeed in ameliorating tensions, and many people became increasingly upset, including a number of prominent subscribers who rallied with considerable fervor to Bernstein's defense. These individuals clearly regarded the gagging of Gould as either deserved punishment or necessary evil, and they variously opined, publicly and privately, that beneath all the hoopla lay a cabal of malcontents hell-bent on reducing Poetics to ruins. Insults, on both sides, were hurled.

A few days before he told millions of undoubtedly bemused TV viewers at Rose Bowl half-time that the Yellow Pages had transformed our idea of the text, Charles Bernstein closed down the Poetics List for the purposes of "reorganization." The List reopened a few weeks later, "reorganized" as a "moderated" site whose emphatically-stated central purpose was to be a "bulletin board" for poets to announce their publications, readings, awards, etc.-- in effect, something of a Yellow Pages for poetry products. Discussion- threads of issues relating to critical and theoretical matters would be, it was made clear, curtailed and subjected to the "editorial" intervention of the List Administration. Henry Gould was summarily denied subscription rights to the newly "moderated" List. Gabriel Gudding, a prize-winning young poet who had recently committed the indiscretion of writing elaborately theatrical ripostes to Marjorie Perloff, leading critical champion of Bernstein and other "Language" poets, was likewise barred, as was FlashPoint editor and left media critic Carlo Parcelli, who had been one of the most vocal opponents of Gould's straight-jacketing. These writers appealed to the Poetics Administration for an explanation, but only cursory replies mentioning a failure to abide by "guidelines" were ever given.

Even if it's now obvious that the overposting charge was merely a smoke screen, many will no doubt argue that the issue is old, fairly insignificant, and not worth troubling over. The Poetics List, after all, is now back to discussing and debating issues of controversy in poetry, even issues of international politics, and there is no evidence that those silenced voices are at all missed. Plus, it is undeniably the case that Charles Bernstein, as the "List Owner," is legally entitled to regulate his Listserv property any way he sees fit.

All of which is true enough. But there is an interesting and rather glaring contradiction brought forward in these events that gathers force from the apparent willingness of so many to passively accept it. The contradiction is this: Charles Bernstein and the brilliant core of writers who gave rise to the most significant and influential tendency in American poetics since the end of the Vietnam war claimed to found their aesthetic politics on principles of unbounded textual openness and inquiry. The political sine qua non, that is, of a poetics dedicated to clearing ground for imaginative and critical opposition was (and still, in theory, is) purported to reside in a principled fidelity to freedom in language-- a radical libertarian poetics ever vigilant of institutional and ideological pressurings to delimit and deflect its critical spirit. As Bernstein himself puts it in an essay recently published in Jacket magazine, the writing for which he publicly stands "represents less a unified alternative poetics than a series of sometimes contentiously related tendencies, or proclivities, and, especially, shared negations...there is no limit to those who can, or have, or will participate in this work, which is open-ended and without proscriptions."

Thus, the banal, punitive censorship carried out by Bernstein and his backers raises a host of interesting questions, a prominent one being the extent to which a formerly embattled and combative "avant-garde" (however much that term is poignantly eschewed by its members) is in the process of submitting and parceling itself into the Literature Institution's slow but steady artifice of absorption: To be clear, the stoop to censorship shows itself, at bottom, as a bungling move within an increasingly self-conscious effort to safeguard and circumscribe the literary pedigree of a once anti-academic, "open- ended" moment in American poetry. In the harvest time of canonization and professionalization, one might say, the family tree's best fruits must be unblemished and waxed for market. The Poetics List's loudly proclaimed status as "private property" (which naturally includes the "right" to banish trespassers) is perhaps best understood in this light, for in addition to functioning as a site of discourse, it is also --within the general economy of contemporary poetry-- something akin to a regional board of exchange, where commodities and futures are traded, where the upstarts eagerly bid to gain a foothold, while the big producers hold sway, track the charts, and expand their holdings. No reason, then, to not proscribe those who would upset the apple cart. It sends a message and keeps the traders in line.

Of course, Language writing's institutional denouement is only one of the forces inducing this collective acquiescence to the management of speech and power, but it's an important one. And it's a safe bet that future chroniclers of our literary fin de siecle will pay some attention to the layered and embarrassing meanings of this "insignificant" affair.

The first post here, from Jessica Pompeii, provided the occasion for the controversy's brief reopening. My own second post to Chris Alexander, the last in the sequence, was denied access to the List. The "PS" is something I've added, hoping Mr. Alexander, whose writing I happen to admire, will read it. Otherwise, the exchange is self- explanatory.

-- Kent Johnson 5/99

[* Reasonable suggestions that the individual daily post limit be reduced to two, or that all posts be held- over until the following day to allow posters to reconsider remarks were apparently disregarded.]

Date:         Thu, 1 Apr 1999 21:40:40 EST
Sender:       UB Poetics discussion group
From:         Jessica Pompeii <Pompeiij@AOL.COM>
Subject:      3 faces
All this Kosovo stuff saddens me. The class stuff too. People with all the answers, who want to become famous. I am disappointed that my posts don't get posted the rare times I attempt. 1 out 3 is subtracted. I tried to say that I am a vegetarian and don't know the first thing about pacifism. And how do you? This list feels very over fished to me. Maybe it's me but, "the writing community" does not feel even room temperature. I am not interested in battle of the bands style poetry readings. I work for a boss at nonprofit literary arts center that hates me, the harder I work. He screams at me. If I were a secretary in real job maybe I could sue him. I think how we treat each other is more important than being a star. Except for a small handful of people, this air conditioned boat leaves me cold and adrift in academic name dropping. And I am not jealous, just wishing for more heat. Respect for other peoples opinions does not mean necessarily agreeing. So here I am listening and attempting to participate.


Date:         Fri, 2 Apr 1999 12:00:27 -0500
Reply-To:     UB Poetics discussion group 
Sender:       UB Poetics discussion group
From:         Poetics List <>
Subject:      Re: 3 faces / list moderation
Jessica's post gives me a good chance to address an issue that's plagued me since having taken on the position of list moderator in January; and while this is not the most opportune time for me personally to respond (I have to get to work), I wanted neither to hold her post or to let it go without some kind of reply.       What's been troubling to me is this quandry: how to acknowledge publically the ideological limits of this space, or rather to assert my own position as arbiter of the list (a word I use pointedly) in attempting to facilitate the specific exchange and debate for which this space was intended from its inception; and in particular how to do so without approaching the destructive anti-dialogue that consumed the list towards the end of last year - for I can't help but think that what I'm preparing here are the means by which I will be accused not only of censoring "discussion" on the list, but of censoring discussion of list censorship and so forth ad nauseum. Which in fact is, ultimately, the very point of my address.

I'm not even sure this is the best time to broach this topic - there is, however distantly for most Americans, a war on.

What follows is an adapted version of a post sent previously to a subscriber, in response to his/her objection to my decision not to forward a one-sentence post. This is not quite the manner in which I had wanted to address this matter (I have other, prepared material elsewhere), but it is what I have on-hand at the moment.


P.S., not wanting to sound singlularly cheerless, I should also say that my remarks here pertain to "discussion"-oriented posts of a relatively "straightforward" manner, and not to poems or other kinds of other writing. (And, being someone who attempts to push my own poetry in the direction of criticism, rather than maintaining such a discretion, I realize that there are problems with all of these terms, esp. and above all the distinction between poems and other posts.)


        The ideological limits of this list - which is explicitly and acknowledgedly an ideological space - are laid out in the Welcome Message that is sent to all subscribers.

Among other requested and sometimes enforced (again, using the word acknowledgedly) guidelines to the list, you will find that I've said this is a list primarily designed to address poetry and poetics, occasionally to address political issues. You may notice, though it is not there stated because not rigorously adhered-to, that the explicitly political material I forward generally relates to an "immediate" situation, e.g., the current war or NATO/US involvement in such.

        You will also find that I ask of subscribers to post relatively considered and even extensive statements, opinions, etcetera, and not single lines or single sentences - a position I am willing to stand by so long as I have the energy, which is not always. Unfortunately the limits of this list are also to some extent the limits of my time and energy, since without further support from SUNY Buffalo (and beyond that institution, Gov. Pataki and the state legislature etc.) I do this job more or less on my own.

Now in those instances where a subscriber has taken the time to articulate a position, and I mean in a considered manner, and especially though not necessarily in relation to a poetics, I have consistently forwarded those posts to the list. This could be said of even a paragraph or a few lines. On the other hand, I simply do not consider a single line, and one whose challenge lies more in its tone than its position, to be such an articulation; and so in this and other instances I have generally not forwarded said post to the list.

If you want to challenge this list on the basis of aesthetic, political or ethical practice, that's fine with me - even though I don't see the particular relevance of *this* statement to this (poetics) list. But I simply must ask that you do so in a way that will provoke consideration or sustained argumentation, and not in an off-hand comment which will provoke more of the like or be simply ignored. I might add that this would be to the benefit of your position, as it may be to the benefit of the list.

This list is not a list of my opinions. I happen to disagree or even in some cases have no developed sense of the issues that are "discussed" here (though note that my own position would be to discard the "conversational" tropes that surround the list). But I do consider it my job to maintain this list in a form that, to whatever extent possible, furthers concrete and serious consideration of the issues at hand - even due seriousness of fooling around, when that happens.

If this is censorship, as indeed it may be characterized, then I will own that charge in saying (again) this absolutely is an ideological space, as regards form and content. And so are all other spaces, however unacknowledgedly.

        sincerely, Chris

Date:         Sat, 3 Apr 1999 10:35:03 -0500
Reply-To:     UB Poetics discussion group 
Sender:       UB Poetics discussion group
From:         KENT JOHNSON <kjohnson@HIGHLAND.CC.IL.US>
Organization: Highland Community College
Subject:      Re: 3 faces/ list moderation


I used to be quite active on this List (an understatement, perhaps), but since the big arguments of a few months back I've relegated my involvement to reading the archives now and then. I just read your post in response to Jessica Pompeii's very interesting message, including the addendum of your reply to another subscriber wherein you acknowledge, with laudable candor, the "ideological" character of the Poetics List. But Ideology, you assure us, has never kept you from forwarding posts that "provoke consideration or sustained argumentation."

Since you have opened discussion around the issue of List "moderation," please accept this post as an honest attempt to provoke consideration around a specific matter that has troubled me. Please understand that I do not offer these concerns in the spirit of starting another round of angry accusation, which I admit having contributed to when the controversy was at its height. I am simply asking for clarification so as to better form my overall opinion about the List's transformation, and I hope you or Charles Bernstein will be able to offer a response.

So here, in the form of a few pointed questions, is my concern: Does the enactment of the List's "ideological character" mandate, in addition to your daily surveillance of posts, the denial of subscription rights to certain poets? More specifically, are there poets who were previously members of this List who have indeed been denied subscription? If this is not the case, then I apologize for being misinformed, and I hope to soon see again, for example, the provocative and thoughtful posts of Henry Gould, who seems to be under the impression (at least when I spoke to him in Providence a couple months ago) that he is _not_ permitted to rejoin the List.

So what, after all, is the story? If it _is_ the case that certain people have been, so to speak, B92ed from the List, could you explain exactly why? Now that the List is a self-conscious and self-proclaimed ideological space enjoying the benefits of a benevolent panopticism, one effectively designed to keep discussions "on track" and to squelch any drift toward "over-posting," what would be the rationale for banishing someone as passionately committed to the art of poetry (however idiosyncratic one might judge his aesthetic commitments to be) as Henry Gould? Or, for example, for excluding Gabriel Gudding, who could easily be prevented under the new rules from airing anything undiplomatically critical, but who might be allowed to share, here and there, the gift of his mordant intelligence?

All in all, IF it is true that there have been poets "ideologically" excluded from List membership, isn't it actually the case, Chris and Charles, that you ARE, in practice, preventing posts that might "provoke consideration or sustained argumentation" from coming to the List's attention? Now that a center of authority and control is clearly established, why not invite _all_ poets to submit their "considered argumentation" to the moderator's deliberation? There may, of course, be those who will not wish to participate under such conditions, but it certainly can't hurt to make the gesture.

If my questions here are in any way informed by faulty assumptions, I ask you to please post this anyway and then publicly point out my misconceptions. I know that other people share these concerns with me, and so a simple clarification would be a positive thing, even if my error should bring me some embarrassment. Thank you.

On another note, and just up-- The Nation has an important special issue devoted to NATO's war. All articles are available at


Date:         Sat, 3 Apr 1999 22:06:42 -0500
Reply-To:     UB Poetics discussion group
Sender:       UB Poetics discussion group
From:         Poetics List Administration<>
Subject:      A Reply to Kent Johnson

Kent - As you know, I withheld your message of friday until today; it having been addressed to me by name, I felt it my due at least to have the chance to read it before sending it on. Now that I have read it, I can say that - if not gladly - I'm willing to respond to your questions this once, despite the fact that where they lead may be, whatever your assurances, "another round of angry accusation." On this count, I leave it to other members of the list to judge for themselves how the rhetorical tactics you deploy in such phrases as "B92ed from the List" etcetera balance with those assurances.

Your basic questions, I take it, are these:

1. Does the enactment of the List's "ideological character" mandate, in addition to your daily surveillance of posts, the denial of subscription rights to certain poets?

2. IF it is true that there have been poets "ideologically" excluded from List membership, isn't it actually the case... that you ARE, in practice, preventing posts that might "provoke consideration or sustained argumentation" from coming to the List's attention?

My reply is simply this, that the *specific* ideological cast that you and your friends have wished to give this issue is a gross distortion, and tiresome; and that the supposed intellectual or poetical differences that have comprised this debate are neither. Instead, we - by which I mean the owners of this list and its subscribers - have been met time and again with an empty rhetoric of "free speech" so twisted as to support the grossest domination; coupled with sustained inappropriate behavior toward list administrators and fellow subscribers, as the case may be.

I reserve, as do all listserv moderators, the right to remove from the list and to deny further subscription privileges to any subscriber who will not abide by the rules of the list as set out in the Welcome Message; and this includes "problem" subscribers that were removed or resigned their subscriptioins before I took on the task of list moderation. I use the words "subscription privileges" pointedly - as a little [electronic] bird just reminded me, list membership is a privilege, never a right.

The obligation to remove such subscribers from the list is one I take very, very seriously; so much so that I want to address the specific formulation of the two questions I've quoted above, in order to be absolutely clear. In the first, you ask me if it is true that the fact of moderation on this list mandates "the denial of subscription rights to certain poets." To this I would have to reply that the task of list management has to do with subscribers, and not "poets" as such; and that the implication that anyone has been removed from this list for reasons other than their behavior on this list is certainly false. In the second question, you attempt to demonstrate a flaw in the logic of my earlier claims, to the effect that my actions here *are* preventing discourse on this list. In answer to this, please refer to my preceding characterization of the "contributions" to which you evidently refer. Those who wish to know more may consult the Poetics List archive, located on the web at <>

So in fact, Kent, as you suggest in your post, your questions are informed by faulty assumptions. I would go so far as to say that even the assumption that these are questions - of the kind that want answering - would be faulty. What you seem to want, rather than answers, is to make further accusation; and the tenor of your questions bears this out. What I want is to preserve this list, so shaken by the actions of a small group of subscribers, some of whom evidently employed precisely the sort of tactics you employ in this post, if perhaps less subtly; and whose abuses of this list and its members directly precipitated my appearance as moderator.

Now this issue has been given enough time on-list; we have wasted enough bandwidth. To think that 600 people would want to be subjected to "another round of angry accusation," however cooly made, is too much; not to mention my own time, which is precious to me.


      % Christopher W. Alexander
      % poetics list moderator

From:          Self <STUDENT/KJOHNSON>
To:       < >
Subject:       Reply to Chris Alexander
Date:          Sun, 4 Apr 1999 12:58:20 -0500


I doubt this will make it through, since you seem to have declared a blackout on any further discussion of the issue. But just in case the "ideology" you serve has not yet _completely_ washed fairness from your mind, I thought I'd give it a whirl. (Yes, I said I didn't want any "accusations," but your post is surprisingly hostile and accusatory, so I respond, proudly, with some indignation.)

You said:

< So in fact, Kent, as you suggest in your post, your questions
< are informed by faulty assumptions. I would go so far as
< to say that even the assumption that these are questions -
< of the kind that want answering - would be faulty. What
< you seem to want, rather than answers, is to make further
< accusation (...)

In fact, Chris, I sincerely _did_ want an answer, and you have answered my question quite clearly: The Poetics List Administration IS a censorship board, and its function is not only to snip out offending items, but also to disappear writers who don't toe the party line. Your "moderation" is nothing more than a euphemism akin to fashionable "humanitarianism": The rhetoric hides strategic motives, and the "privilege" of membership (in NALPO, the North American Language Poetry Organization) is reserved for those who don't test too much the ideology that props the Organization's power.

Shame on NALPO and shame on NATO too!

Save yourself, Chris, before it's too late.


(PS: I can see that my "B92" analogy annoys you, and I can understand that it is hard for you to swallow. But the censorious impulse is latent in all forms and kinds of power arrangements, from ultra-nationalist governments to poetry listserves. An ethical task is to resist that impulse --outside and inside ourselves-- wherever we might be. This is what I mean when I urge you to "save yourself.")

Buffalo '99 is reprinted courtesy of Skanky Possum magazine, where it appears in Issue 3, Autumn 1999. For copies of this issue contact Hoa Nguyen & Dale Smith at:   Skanky Possum, 2925 Higgins Street, Austin, TX 78722, or e-mail them at