A Second Open Letter to Tree Swenson, President and Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets

Dear Tree Swenson,

Of course I understand that The Academy of American Poets is a separate entity and that the Poets.org 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 pw.org 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 pw.org, 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 Poets.org 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 Poets.org forum does some wonderful work with its 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


  1. You forget to mention, perhaps, you were not at Poets.org long enough, that a couple of the administrators are using their ezines and literary magazines to promote their friends in the forums. This is truly sad since they are excreting a kind of power that only fosters inequality and doing it in the name of Poets.org.

  2. Dear Anonymous,
    I wasn't there long at all, but I was still struck by the number of Moderators that grilled me within the first 24 hours of my first post. Unfortunately, all that has been deleted now so it's no longer in the public domain, because I would have liked you to be able to see that first page so you would see just how hostile was the reception I received.

    Because there is no doubt in my mind somebody at Poets.org knew I was coming. I lasted over four months of posting every single day on the Pw.org Speakeasy, whereas I was on warning just a few minutes of Day One at Poets.org!

    Yes, I think I probably gave the wrong impression in my first post--I had no intention of rehashing what happened to me at Pw.org, just to continue to explore the same issues in what I felt would be a more sympathetic environment. I made that very clear from the start--but from the start nobody was prepared to hear me. Because they knew me!.

    I replied to one particularly truculent Moderator in just my third post like this:

    I'd like to say right here that I've been reading Poets & Writers for over 20 years, and have subscribed to the magazine for many of those years too, indeed whenever I lived somewhere that had a postal service that could deliver it. And make no mistake about it, Poets & Writers is an invaluable resource for me as a writer, and I’d be at a loss without it.

    The Academy of American Poets has also been a primary resource for me for many years, but I go to it for quite other sorts of support and information. And the primary difference is that I go to the AAP for inspiration above all, and I'm profoundly grateful to it for having no vested interests or commercial patrons that have to be satisfied. Poets & Writers is financed by patrons that advertise there, and those patrons do influence what gets expressed there both in its pages and in its forum, at least to some extent. That's normal, at least in the free world it is. Fortunately there are very sensitive, big-hearted individuals with money who allow our NGOs to function independently of both business and government, and when those organizations work well they're invaluable.

    You may be right that some of the Administrators may be publishing some members of the Forum in their ezines and literary magazines, but I don't see why this would be a bad thing or foster inequality in itself. I mean, who comes first, you or me on the Poets.org Forum, and so what? Did the Administrators bring the friends to the Forum or find the friends on the Forum? All any editor can do is look for the work and the personalities he or she finds sympathetic and then promote them. And what would be wrong about finding someone on a huge sprawling Forum like Poets.org?

    No, it seems to me the greater danger is that a single Site Administrator who has been in that position for many years wields too much power, particularly when the mystique of the place, like the Marine Corp, assumes every last man (yes!) of the Moderators will close in behind that Administrator when a decision to charge is made. In my case, which is probably rare, a very bad decision indeed was made, and the moderators certainly did close in, and still are, largely (not completely--I've had some very surprising support from within!).

    There is no doubt in my own mind that I was banned for reasons no one still suspects, including the majority of the Moderators. Changing the structure so that there are THREE Site Administrators instead of one will probably address this problem, and I certainly wish them well. Because the problem is INFLUENCE.

    And why? Because when there is only one Administrator, and only one who has been in the job for a very long time too, take note, then there is only one ear to influence--i.e. an influential person from either within the Academy itself or from the larger Poetry Elite knows precisely where to go to censor the news if there's need. And today, unfortunately, there is news that does need to be censored, and my news was precisely that news, and still is. I got censored at Pw.org for precisely the same news I delivered at Poets.org, indeed both times at Poets.org, and I mean TWICE for precisely the same news!

    The news isn't murder or treason, it isn't even illegal for the most part, though close sometimes, but what is so devastating about it is that it's news that impinges upon the health of Poetry in America. For me that's a huge issue because I'm a poet myself. In a nutshell, there are things happening now within the poetry world in America that are damaging its Poetry, and that's why I'm an activist, and that's what I say.

    Thanks, Anon. I hope that helps.


  3. What is it you intended to achieve by posted the information about Graham on Poets.org?

    I'm not trying to attack what you're trying to do, but to understand. What can one person, or even many members of poets.org, do against her scandal?

    You said "but what is so devastating about it is that it's news that impinges upon the health of Poetry in America"

    How so? That a woman from Harvard is corrupt?

  4. That's a good question, Anonymous--like all questions that bring a heated debate back to earth. Yes, why Jorie Graham? Why are we interested in her of all people? And even more down to earth a question, why do we bother with corruption at all, particularly if it's just some woman at Harvard?

    Or did we even say corruption? Was that what we meant?

    So the earth is not quite as simple as you would imply it is. Indeed, the real question is, why does any of this impinge upon the health of Poetry in America?

    Well, first of all, let's take note that “we,” i.e. those of us writing here on Poets.net, did not bring the issue of Jorie Graham to the Poets.org Forum any more than we brought her to the Poets.org Homepage where she is today. On the contrary, it’s those who believe in her as a Leading Light in the world of American poetry who put her in the Limelight. So, for example, the Poets.org thread called “An Interview with Jorie Graham” was started by a young reviewer named Deirde Wengen from a poetry site called www.phillyburbs.com. It was Deirdre Wengen who drew the Forum's attention to her own interview with Jorie Graham on the occasion of the latter's new book, Sea Change, not “us.” http://poets.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=15357 As it happens, another, unrelated Forum member named TomWest had also attended Jorie Graham's Reading at Harvard in person, and pointed out that the reviewer repeated almost word for word what Jorie Graham said about herself, in other words the reviewer's words were Jorie Graham's own words of self-praise—a ventriloquist act that felt a bit seamy to him and certainly does to us, as if some sort of slippery cult were being celebrated. To underline that impression, another Forum member drew attention to a much more substantial review of the same book in The NYT Book Review by James Langenbach, one which offered a very different take both on the quality of the poetry and the legitimacy of the poet's claim to be America’s Delphic Guardian and Poet Priestess of the Earth!

    “YAY,” to quote the Site Administrator on Poets.org!

    And you see, that's precisely what impinges upon the health of Poetry in America, dear Anonymus--just as it does upon Politics in Italy when Sylvio Berlusconi sings another aria (“YAY!”), or Politics where I live when Thaksin Shinawatra bows down before another Buddha in the 99 Temples he is at present visiting one by one to demonstrate his holiness to the people of Thailand (“YAY, YAY. YAY!”)! Berlusconi is a master ventriloquist, of course, one who also happens to own all the Italian media in addition to being yet again Prime Minister of the country. Jorie Graham is a ventriloquist too, and her reviewer is still too young to understand that not all beautiful words have meaning, even when spoken by what the media would have us believe is a “great poet,” and that saying you have good intentions never proves you do, ever, not even when you say it in poetry--indeed, that "YAY" counts zilch in poetry! And of course, Jorie Graham also just happens to sit in the most powerful and conspicuous position of any poet in the world, i.e. in the Chair of the Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard University! That’s why she matters, not because it’s Harvard and not because it’s corruption. It’s because she cultivates her own image as an idol. Idolatry, that’s sometimes called—George Orwell had much better names for it!

    Poetry is not like politics, of course it’s not—the value of the money in your pocket will not be determined by it, nor will your preparations for your retirement. But the quality of your life most certainly will, at least if you’re far enough along in examining your own well-lived life to give it space to matter. And the poetry of those who have had to compromise what they mean to get there, like Peter Sacks accepting that Georgia Contemporary Poetry Award from Bin Ramke when he knew full well he would be marrying the judge, Jorie Graham, just 2 months later, or Jeffrey Levine sending out those 100s of “template personal reviews” last year with a Special Offer for $295.00 tacked on, or Joan Houlihan exonerating both Bin Ramke and Jeffrey Levine in her Nov/Dec 2007 Poets & Writers Magazine Letter, ROTTEN GRAPES (speaking of spades that are spades!) just as her own new book was coming out from Tupelo in its grimey turn, the poetry of such people is indeed affected by their greed, inflation and hypocrisy! And the louder they shout the guiltier they are too, and boy are they shouting just now!

    I should know!

    Christopher Woodman

  5. My apologies to James Longenbach of the NYTBR for misspelling his name--I've just had eye-surgery and am still not focussing too well.

    And my plea to Anonymous--please tell me more what you meant. Did my reply help, or were you thinking of something quite different?

    What are we distorting here at Poets.net? For example, what important dimension makes the "fiddling of the books" Joan Houlihan defended so passionately in her P&W Letter ethically o.k? What twist to all that are we missing?


  6. My apologies for not replying very quickly, I was away for the weekend.

    I'm not sure I worded my question right the first time, or even now as I am about to pose it. I believe however that we can eventually come to understanding. :)

    How is poetry being effected by Jorie Graham? I did indeed see the interview on the main page of poets.org and I don't agree with it being there; but that seems to just be Jorie tooting her own horn so to speak.

    Is this more than politics? Is her self-idolatry changing poetry?


The following are subject to deletion:

--Comments with outside links
--Off topic comments
--Advertising and general spam
--Hate speech
--Name calling
--Bad language

We are Indies

If you are an Indie writer,

please consider joining

on Facebook.