Sunday, April 27, 2008

AN OPEN LETTER TO TREE SWENSON, President and Executive Director, Academy of American Poets

Dear Tree Swenson,

This letter is part complaint and part apology—a difficult stunt to pull off!

The complaint first

--I think in its context you and your colleagues may be surprised at the apology!

As I feel sure you will all be only too aware, I got banned from the Forum very recently. Indeed I got banned TWICE—the first time for talking about what eventually became the huge, fertile, sprawling thread called "On Aspiring Writers Becoming Successful Writers." The second time was for saying exactly the same thing yet again--same cause, same effect!

But what was the cause, that's the question? What was it really?

For a start, both expulsions were sudden—and in neither was I provided with a coherent explanation. After the axe fell the second time I couldn’t even track down the Site Administrator, the forum [at] address was malfunctioning (!), and it was only through the good graces of my Thai wife, Maw Homprang, that I eventually forced Christine Klocek-Lim to explain that I was banned for "harassing" Moderators and sending them "flaming" PMs. No evidence was provided, just the word of the Site Administrator on the thread.

To make a long story short, in the end Christine Klocek-Lim admitted that there was only one offending PM, so we don’t have to do a lot of research to take the next step to arrive at a conclusion.

Well, I've posted that PM now for all to examine here on, and if it's neither "harassing" nor "flaming" (Christine Klocek-Lim's own terms), which I think everybody agrees it isn’t, then you've got a problem. At the very least you’ve got to acknowledge that I was banned for something else--and that that something else was what I had been saying in public, not in private. The problem with the trumped-up “harassing/flaming” charge is that it would suggest the management doesn’t want to admit to the real reason, that it was, in fact, certain persons and issues that could not be discussed on the site that got me banned--not my style or my tone. And this is a very serious difference, and has very serious implications for as it's managed today.

Here's the link to the document in question--you can judge the evidence for yourself:

And the apology?

Oh dear, oh dear. It's for what a poster called 'Foetry' said to you on-line—something which, dear Tree Swenson, I want to say is completely and utterly unacceptable. Though not involved in expressing that threat myself, I want to apologize for it anyway—as somebody has to, and profoundly. On the other hand, I do want to say in the same breath that in my experience there is no such thing as a Foetry Gang out there, if such a group ever existed. Foetry has always been just a loosely associated brother/sisterhood of mavericks like me—look up the word for the image to really get teeth. Also read Matt Koeske, who talks a lot about that phenomenon in both his letters just below.

As to myself, I only discovered just a few months before it was dissolved last year. At that time I wrote quite a lot for it, having been very badly abused, and very personally too, by two important editors to whom I had been sending my work for 10 long but hopeful years. Call me naïve if you wish—I’d rather call myself the very rare poet who had never passed through the PoBiz system and was therefore blissfully unaware of it! So when the mask fell away and I saw the Machiavellian deceit of the faces behind it, I looked for help, and Foetry was the only relief I could find. I was 67, lived on the moon, had published my first poem at 52, and had no connections with any poetry community anywhere on earth! And then I went on to write for Foetry, quite a lot too, because it helped me. Indeed, I have come to admire what it stood for, and to admire it a lot—just like Matt Koeske.

I want to assure you, dear Tree Swenson, that what I am doing on will never include smearing people, and that indeed if I feel anyone is being treated vengefully, being humiliated, or threatened with exposure on the site just to gain points or advantage, I will do my best to stop it--and if I can't stop it, I will quit. As simple as that.

I have also discussed this with the owner/editor, Jennifer Semple Siegel, and she is in complete agreement with me on this. She will never let this happen on her site.

On the other hand, we all know there are a lot of things in the world that have to be said that some people would do anything to cover up, like the Bushes oil, or Enron--or Roy Cohn or Max Mosley their sex lives. Of course, there are moments when such private information is so relevant it has to be leaked, like the fantasies of the perpetrators of Watergate or Abu Graib. In Roy Cohn’s case it was not the sexuality but the hypocrisy, and we needed the essential sexual information to get closer to Joe McCarthy's own will to destroy so many lives. In the case of Max Mosley it's also not about the sex but the politics--and of course they were masquerading as each other!

I'm writing this letter to you partly because as President and Director of The Academy of American Poets, you need to be aware of aspects of your very worthy cause that may be in trouble and/or inappropriately supervised. I feel it was a great mistake to ban me at all, and if you read what I was writing I think you will see that both my posts and PMs were always well-focussed and dealt with even the most sensitive issues in a constructive and humane way.

I myself have used The Academy as a major resource in my exile for many, many years, and I am very grateful for its existence. I have nothing but positive feelings about your personnel as well--I just think you have to be very careful about the issues that are so advanced they are almost unthinkable, and one of them is that certain figures in the poetry establishment, among them perhaps some of your own friends, are engaged in business activities that cannot be publicized without serious moral questions being asked. You must be very careful that the Academy does not cover up for such people, especially when the going gets rough--and the names are right there in my own personal banning!

And one word about another famous name, Alan Cordle--a man whom I deeply admire. Alan invented the Foetry movement all by himself, and went on to reveal and substantiate in very great detail the unthinkable all by himself--through very hard work, persistence, and uncanny intelligence. So I understand Alan Cordle’s impatience completely even if I don't share his tactics in threatening you as he did. Never will I compromise on that!

On the other hand? On the other hand, who asks for scruples from the Scarlet Pimpernel, after all? Even Simone Weil was ready to parachute behind the lines and wreck havoc among the innocent in the Second World War, even this angel so pure she couldn’t eat! I compare Alan to both. He’s a hero for me, and I place him right up there with the world’s greatest RI (La Résistance Intellectuelle!) fighters.

I wish you the very best in all your good work.

Christopher Woodman


  1. On April 18, 2008, sbunch, a moderator, said on

    "I, too, have so little to go on, ACommoner. I have no idea what happened to you when you 'brought in material from the outside,' and I have no additional idea why you 'don't dare discuss material that's not already on the board.' So many windmills, so little time."

    I had thought about responding to the reference to the windmills (Don Quixote) directly on, but I figured I might as well save my energies for a place where I could articulate my views on ageism in the literary community overall, where Chick Lit and the increasingly pretensions of the young seem to rule.

    I have decided to remove my admin hat for a short time and respond here just as someone over 50 who has taken personal offense at the implication that poets and writers past a certain age should just shut the hell up and go off into a corner and die.

    sbunch's post seems to imply that Christopher Woodman is a dotty old man who should keep his "old" views to himself because what does he know? He's just an old man chasing windmills.

    Let me tell you something about Christopher Woodman. I first met him (in a virtual sense) on Foetry, where I was an administrator. One day, he posted a poem that absolutely blew me away: "Apologia Pro Vita Autistica."

    On January 5, 2007, I responded as follows:

    "...this qualifies as a wowzer poem (and, believe me, I don't usually get all excited about most poems I read, even ones that I use in class).

    "I feel this poem; it makes me want to weep, but I'm not quite sure why yet, but that's okay. This poem is NOT obscure, but it holds some tantalizing mysteries.

    "My Latin's a little rusty, but I do believe the title means "Apology for an (the?) Austere Life," or something close to that.

    "I'm not going to 'interpret' this poem; I just want to say that its terse vivid images have cut through this reader. The speaker seems to take his monastic life seriously, and yet he doesn't seem to be able to achieve the perfection he so desires. He still has a need to do cartwheels down the stairs (what an image!), just like a child in the prime of life--not a likely image for a pious monk. Well, I suppose that is a sort of interpretation, but that's all I'll say because I could be WAYYYY off, which is always a danger when one puts a poem out there.

    "Oddly enough, this poem doesn't quite fit the 'exhibitionistic' mold, though the cartwheeling down the stairs is a startling image, juxtaposed with the language of piety: 'wash,' 'pray,' 'stain,' 'whiteness,' etc.

    "I have an idea about this stanza:

    "'These empty hands speak hours/
    of doing other things and then/
    something not so nice besides.'

    "But I could be way off; my Catholic upbringing (what a pain!) often gets in the way of a real world life.

    "Christopher, I'm in the middle working on my syllabus for spring, and I'd love to add this poem to it. Would that be okay? I would pair it with 'Touch Me' (Stanley Kunitz).

    "There's no law that says I have to use an anthology poem, and, certainly, my students could benefit from reading a poem that doesn't have an academic history.

    "I have to say that [Jeffrey] Levine exhibited good taste in selecting this poem for his blog."

    Anyway, Christopher agreed, and I had my students read and discuss this unpublished poem, a real risk for me (being untenured). Generally, the students responded in a most generous manner, even though they didn't "get" all the nuances of the poem. Most of them felt the language of the poem and the beauty of the images--I'm not sure you can ask more of young people just starting out as critics.

    My point here: Christopher is anything but dotty, senile, forgetful or whatever label that some young people want to place on older Americans (even ex-pats!).

    Like racism, ageism is a big ugly word; unlike racism, ageism is not always viewed as a real "ism," and some people feel free to mock older people (and cleverly compare them to Don Quixote, who, as a character, is also an ugly stereotype) because what do they know? Doesn't everyone know that "old people" are automatically "dotty" and "intellectually diminished"?

    Perhaps some are, but Christopher Woodman is not one of them. He could run intellectual rings around most of us.

    So, yes, sbunch, if you are going to "prune" posts from, perhaps you should start with your own windmill reference because I, for one, was/am highly offended by it.


  2. Christopher, you are right. I should not have come off as threatening. In fact, I still don't believe that what I posted could possibly be construed as a threat. I was very frustrated, and still am, that moderators are so heavy-handed. Truth be told, I will be publishing information about Tree Swenson, her late husband, Liam Rector, and the Academy in my book, regardless of whether I am banned from their forum or not.

    So let's not call this a threat. Let's just call it a fact. Christohper, Jennifer, Matt, Tom, Nomi, and some others who haven't yet appeared at, I admire all of you. I'd admire Tree Swenson greatly if she made a statement in support of the mission, regardless of whether she agreed with its methods. She could become the real hero. Until then, I continue to think of her as an overpaid and cowardly head of a one star charity. So I guess this is my less-tactful open letter.

  3. This may come as a suprise to you all, but Tree Swenson has nothing to do with the discussion forums at The Academy hosts the space on its web site, and the forum is staffed by unpaid volunteers. (The admin was offered a $50 a month stipend when she took the job, but the Academy has had to rescind that for lack of funds.) The full-time, paid staff member to whom the admin reports is Robin Schaer, I offer this information so you won't get all pissy when Tree Swenson ignores you. Going to her is a little like complaining to the governor about your water bill. Robin might or might not have something to say to you, but the online forum is not the concern of the Chancellors.

  4. Don't worry, anonymous. Most people realize Tree's too busy talking trash about Jorie behind her back while being nice to her face. Everybody realizes nobody takes Tree seriously anyway.


    First to you, dear friend and mentor, Alan Cordle,

    You can't imagine how hard this is for me to say, but I still feel what you say in your Comment following my last post is just plain unacceptable. What you threatened to do on was to tell dirty secrets about someone if they didn't do your bidding, and that's always beyond the pale. It always is and it always will be, and I wish you would decide never to threaten that way ever again.

    I wish you would come out and say that too, Alan. Go ahead, spill the beans on Roy Cohn or Max Mosley all you can, or Karl Rove, but only if you have to spill them to make the world a better place, never just to control others! Come out and say you've learned that the hard way, and that you want everyone to know you stand for that too.

    Having said that, dear friend Alan, I understand entirely where you're coming from, the monumental frustration you feel, and above all the anger that someone who blew that golden whistle so well and so far should have to suffer so much for it. The ignominy that in the end Alan Cordle should be the one who’s disgraced!

    So I want to say right here that you are in very good company in your war, Alan Cordle, and to be sure everyone understands exactly what I mean by that, I'll just call a spade a spade. I myself received several harassing e-mails from Janet Holmes just this month--I had never even heard of her until she assumed "Christopher Woodman" must be Alan Cordle, and thought she would demolish his cover and, of course, little old ME (what a shock it must have been to find out I didn't have any—I tried to talk to her on the phone but she refused!). Indeed, Janet Holmes is quite a well-known critic and poet at Boise State University, but was involved in a number of scandals that Foetry uncovered, and that’s why she’s so vindictive. Indeed I have watched her try to hurt Alan Cordle ever since—I’ve seen it with my own eyes on my own iMac screen!

    I also got savaged by Joan Houlihan a number of times on the internet, and she's another quite well known critic and poet, and certainly not someone who should be doing such dirt. Moreover, now that she has admitted on her own blog that she is 'rperlman,' I want to say that I saw with my own eyes 'rperlman' lurking on the Speakeasy Forum every time I got near Joan Houlihan in my posts, and since I entered the site to respond specifically to her Nov/Dec 2007 Letter in P&W Magazine, I had occasion to talk about her views quite a bit. Most striking of all, 'rperlman' made a visit to the Speakeasy just 20 minutes after I got banned from for talking about among other things her Colrain Maunscript Conferences, her partner in it, Jeffrey Levine, and her publisher (EUREKA! the same). The visit was co-incidence perhaps, but she hadn't looked in for 10 days before that—and she visited over and over again during the shambles that immediately followed my departure—I always had another Login as “CSWoodman” so I watched with my own eyes.

    And of course that's why I got banned from too. It's a no-brainer, but could never be said. Indeed, Joan Houlihan's name has been central every time I have run into trouble anywhere this year ever since she wrote that letter in Poets & Writers, including of course twice at, and she has personally attacked me at least four times on the net in broad daylight, "that Christopher Woodman guy," she calls me!

    Finally, I have seen the cyber logs and I know where else she visits over and over and over again, obsessively.

    Not a pretty picture at all--also not my scene and I have no intention of pursuing it any further. On the other hand, many of you do, you respectable poets, teachers, critics, editors and publishers, and you are therefore tarred with exactly the same brush. The difference between you all and Alan Cordle is that he tells the truth, you just stalk and you hurt because you’ve been found out!

    Just before I sent my Open Letter to Tree Swenson to, I deleted a paragraph that might have made all the difference. I regret that now very much, because I feel that had I supported Alan Cordle more fully he might not have lashed back at you all as he did. This is what I deleted—indeed, I want you to see the deleted words in the context so you’ll understand exactly what they mean:

    “And one word about another famous name, Alan Cordle--a man whom I deeply admire. Alan invented the Foetry movement all by himself, and went on to reveal and substantiate in very great detail the unthinkable all by himself--through very hard work, persistence, and uncanny intelligence. He was eventually outed in a most unconscienable way, and he and his wife are still being harrassed almost daily for their service to humanity--he's writing a book about it so very soon everybody will know--and the same names will resurface, don't worry. So I understand Alan Cordle’s impatience completely even if I don't share his tactics in threatening you as he did. Never will I compromise on that!

    On the other hand? On the other hand, who asks for scruples from the Scarlet Pimpernel, after all? Even Simone Weil was ready to parachute behind the lines and wreck havoc among the innocent in the Second World War, even this angel so pure she couldn’t eat! I compare Alan to both. He’s a hero for me, and I place him right up there with the world’s greatest RI
    (La Résistance Intellectuelle!) fighters.”

    And now for you, dear Tree Swenson, someone who I don’t know at all and have no bad feelings about whatsoever.

    Dear Tree Swenson,

    Of course I understand that The Academy of American Poets is a separate entity and that the Forum’s administration is not under your direct control—indeed, I had exactly the same conversation with Jason Chapman, the IT Director at P&W, who was furious when I wrote Kevin Larimer, the Deputy Editor of P&W Magazine, after I was banned from the Speakeasy last March. But do take notice, my argument was not that Kevin Larimer should intervene, but simply that he should know what was happening on the Speakeasy. He was after all the Editor who wrote directly about both Jeffrey Levine and Bin Ramke in the Magazine, and it was Joan Houlihan’s attempt to white-wash them both in her Letter in the Nov/Dec 2007 issue that led directly to my banishment.

    The whole Poets & Writers Community needs the facts, dear Kevin Larimer and Tree Swenson—they need their own history. My thread called “Does A Poet’s Behavior Matter?” is at present locked on, and I’m sure the plan is to delete it. Ditto the passionately argued “Mediation” thread which in the end exonerated ACommoner, i.e. me, completely. If it’s all gone, then Poets & Writers descends back into ignorance, and I mean the community does, I mean you both do, and I mean me.

    That’s the point.

    There are two other points I want to make as well. First of all, the Forum is probably the most active meeting point for poets of any website in the world, and that’s a huge responsibility. And why is it so famous? Because I tell you from my own experience it’s certainly NOT because the Site Administrator has created such a free and welcoming environment! Indeed, you should be aware that the whole site is school-marmish, and that most of the participants are as dutiful as boyscouts longing to get those badges one by one so that eventually they too can stand up tall in the parade as Moderators! Olie North’s on Parnassus, so salute!

    The forum does some wonderful work with it’s young people, but it’s youthfulness is also a very big part of the problem, particularly when a 68 year old man like myself gets banned on trumped-up charges. The Academy of American Poets has to represent views as uncomfortable as my own too, you know, unless you think poetry has no room for the uncomfortable. Because if your website has no room for a 68 year old expat maverick with degrees from Columbia, Yale and Cambridge, a bunch of credits anyway, and a passable but peaceful essay style, then you’re not serving the poets of America. You’re just serving the Moderators!

    So that’s my first point—you simply have to get in there and change the management style so that the Forum gets out of the kindergarten where it’s stuck. My case should have alarms bells ringing all over the place, and I sincerely hope they’re being heard. Use my death well, lay a little wreath on my gravestone, even if most of the lettering has been deleted and the rest will go as soon as the mourners go home. If you lay that wreath in good faith, learn something from my demise, and keep my work up as SIGNIFICANT POETS.ORG HISTORY, that’s all I could ask. Indeed, that’s what I came for, not to be critiqued or get medals!

    The final point is about Alan Cordle’s threat to you, dear Tree Swenson. I have no idea what he was referring too, and I don’t want to know either. I just have to say to you as I have said above to Joan Houlihan and Janet Holmes, if one is stalking oneself then one’s going to get stalked. The only way out of it is to get out of it—refuse to participate in isolating anyone, refuse to accept one iota of harassment, marginalization or destructive innuendo. Make the Academy truly the Academy of American Poets, where such behavior is not only unacceptable but unthinkable.

    With very best wishes, Christopher Woodman


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