Poetry slam

N.Y. Times writer defends his story

By Salon Staff

Published June 8, 2000 7:47PM (EDT)

Billy and the bullies

Sigh. Dennis Loy Johnson's wildly overwrought contention -- "a story that broke like a sex scandal" -- that the New York Times, Random House and I conspired to smear the University of Pittsburgh Press to our collective disgrace belongs in the well-worn category: "interesting, if true." It isn't.

First of all, the story I wrote about the publishing dispute between the two houses over a poet, Billy Collins, was hardly a smear. It presented, accurately and soberly, the positions of the two sides. And like most reporters, I didn't report only what I'd discovered; indeed, the on-the-record comments from disinterested small press publishers and one well-known poet that might well have contributed to a sense of smear were omitted. I had two extended conversations with Cynthia Miller, the second of which I initiated because I felt she had not stated her case adequately, and I printed her most forcefully expressed argument, which indeed is a reasonable one. With the exception of the date of publication of one of Collins' books, a typo, as it turns out, that I didn't catch, every fact in the story is correct. The diciest element of Pittsburgh's stance, that it opposed the wishes of its author, Collins, is indisputable.

As to my conflict of interest: I have known Chris Calhoun for some time, though not since college. We met in a professional context maybe 15 years ago. Like most reporters, I have become friendly with many people who work in the businesses I have covered. In a less prejudicial light, these people are called sources. For the record, Calhoun did not come to me with this story. When I heard about it from someone else, I called him. I told Mr. Johnson every bit of this when he called me several months ago. He chose to quote me -- accurately -- in a not terribly flattering way. I regret the obscenities, which reflect my anger at his accusatory tone and not at all at Miller, who was nothing but cooperative and forthcoming.

Johnson's own willful bias is discernible from his story. I did not claim that Collins, on the basis of sales, is America's most popular poet, only that on the basis of a number of factors, he is "arguably" so. I did not say that Pittsburgh's position was an affront to Collins; Collins did. I stand by my story and suggest here that Salon cannot do the same.

-- Bruce Weber

Dennis Loy Johnson replies:

"Sigh" is right. I wish Bruce Weber had more directly addressed the serious issues I raised. For example, he says his article in the Times "presented, accurately and soberly, the positions of the two sides." My article questions this from a number of angles. His piece in the Times cited five named sources and "several" unnamed on the Random House side of the issue, and one on Pitt's side. Anyway you look at it, that's unbalanced reporting. More important is the conflict-of-interest question. It is a fundamental tenet that you simply don't write about your friends when they stand to make money off the influence of your reporting. When I interviewed Weber -- an interview I tape-recorded with Weber's permission -- I asked him how he knew Chris Calhoun. Weber told me, "He was a buddy of my college roommate, so I've known him for a good long time." When I asked him, specifically, if the relationship was a "close friendship" or a "professional relationship," Weber chose the former, and continued to refer to the relationship as a "friendship" throughout our discussion. As for my "willful bias" -- the "affront" comment is not in quote marks and it is not attributed, and so I read it as Weber's. He said Collins is "arguably" the most popular poet in the land; I said Weber "contended" this. I think I fairly represented Weber's writing in both instances. Finally, as for my being overwrought -- well, at least I didn't say Cynthia Miller was "born in a small Pittsburgh hospital."

-- Dennis Loy Johnson

Dennis Loy Johnson's article on the Random House/Pitt Press slapfight over Billy Collins' tedious, saccharine poems aptly dramatizes the race to the bottom in what passes for the "literary world" today. Publishers kick and claw to find the next big, bland bestseller, and everything else be damned! Readers fall right into line, accepting every self-serving recommendation from the mass media as an indication of excellence. Frankly, I'm surprised that Oprah's never thought to choose Collins' pseudo-insightful doggerel for her Book Club. Perhaps Bruce Weber will lend a hand with that as well.

It's all product, people. Billy Collins, Jewel, Robert James Waller, whatever pre-packaged Flavor of the Month the big boys are selling is the gold standard of the moment. Oh, sorry, we're out of David Foster Wallace at the moment -- perhaps you'd like a big cone of this Dave Eggers instead? With sprinkles?

Bitter? You bet I am. Appalled? Sorry, that muscle wore out a long time ago. Here's the thing -- the most interesting writing I've been reading lately is all self- or Web-published microbrews with a little snap to them. The officially-approved geniuses are as limp as last week's bok choy. Who won the Cold War again?

-- Julia Sullivan

That Random House, a big press with lots of money to spend on advertising in publications like the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, was able to slander Pitt Press isn't surprising. That people were outraged by what they believed was unfair treatment of Collins by Pitt Press isn't surprising either. What is surprising is that Collins, whom I've heard described as a friendly, plain-spoken person, is now stabbing the small press that promoted him and made him successful in the back. What's even more surprising is that no poets, many of whom lament the decline of small presses, are now turning their outrage against Random House. One can only hope that a few poets will take a risk and do what needs to be done: boycott Billy.

-- Christopher Allen Waldrop

Salon Staff

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