HP: The independent literary press Catapult publishes books and an online magazine, offers creative writing workshops, and hosts an online community forum. It was founded in 2015, and in 2016 it merged with Counterpoint Press, including the Soft Skull imprint, which “effectively brought Counterpoint and Soft Skull under… [its] auspices,” as Publishers Weekly put it. Catapult was funded and co-founded by Elizabeth Koch, daughter of billionaire Charles Koch. As Poets & Writers notes, Koch “provided the seed funding for the company, which is operating on a budget in the high six figures.” A big budget for an indie press—which surely helped it gain quick prominence, its books receiving major reviews and prize recognition right away.
We can only assume this press is made of Koch Industries money.
Elizabeth Koch has not, to my knowledge, addressed this fact publicly. If she has thoughts about it, she doesn’t share them on her website, nor in a letter on the Catapult site written in her role as co-founder and CEO. In an essay in the LARB her father appears just as “a science geek,” unnamed. Elsewhere she describes herself as “apolitical.” She says, “Politics can be so divisive.”
Today I opened the Catapult site to find a lead article headlined “When It Comes to Climate Change, Grief Is More Useful Than Empty Nostalgia.” What does it mean that the publication of this website, this article, was funded by Koch money—fossil fuel money, climate change denial money, climate science suppression money, war profiteering money? I guess people could say, well, Elizabeth Koch is not Charles Koch (though “she professes to be very much her father’s daughter”). They could say, money is money, and it’s what you do with it that matters. I think the source of the money matters. Lucy, does it matter?
LB: You ask such good questions. Maybe the way to approach them is to ask, what is Elizabeth Koch doing with that money? Is an operation like Catapult out of sync with the Koch brothers’ activity in public life? Elizabeth isn’t the only Koch who is a “patron of the arts.” Robber barons are always patrons of the arts, like those opioid-hocking Sacklers!
Another thing I’m thinking is, the Kochs do not communicate with language. I’ve never heard or read anything from the mouth of either Charles or the recently deceased David. They communicate, and create change, through money. It’s so canny to be a patron of the arts, because you trick the artists into giving you their language. (Hilary, you did alert me to one opportunity to encounter Koch language: in Charles’s literary output. He is the author of two books, Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies and The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company. But if the business-speak of these books’ titles is any indication, this just another way of communicating with, and as, money.)
You know that Eileen Myles poem where they pretend to be a Kennedy? I’ve loved that poem for a long time for how tonally odd it is—its weird joy. But I keep thinking about how Soft Skull re-released Myles’s novel Cool for You in 2017, just after it was acquired by Catapult. When I read that poem now, I think, well, what’s a Kennedy, anyway? is Myles a Kennedy?
I don’t have any writer acquaintances or friends who are climate change denialists, or who believe that vast sums of untaxed money in the hands of the very few is preferable to, say, functioning public schools. However, I know numerous writers (none well, but many a little bit—and certainly many I admire!) who have some kind of association with Catapult. They give Catapult their good names, and their Catapult books are reviewed in the New York Times; their classes are offered online through “Catapult’s writing program,” which, per the website copy, “is like an MFA program without barriers—affordable, day-job-friendly classes for emerging and established writers”; their essays are published in Catapult Magazine. Catapult’s site has a familiar look—like Lit Hub or the Poetry Foundation—a big, bright, open-minded yet selective “home” (as we say) for contemporary creative writing.
But what deeply unsettles me isn’t that Koch money, or Elizabeth Koch herself, is giving these writers a home. It’s that these writers are giving the Koch money a home.
But what deeply unsettles me isn’t that Koch money, or Elizabeth Koch herself, is giving these writers a home. It’s that these writers are giving the Koch money a home. Catapult supports and promotes (and is supported and promoted by) such a wide range of writers, established writers with prior (pre–Catapult acquisition) relationships with Counterpoint or Soft Skull, MFA students published for the first time in Catapult Magazine… Of course, small-press literary writers aren’t obligated to be liberal, or to hate the Koch brothers. But for those that are, and do, is there some obligation here? To do something? To do what?
HP: I like how those questions are the same questions we ask ourselves, panicked, when reading news these days about the loss of Arctic ice. We feel urgently an obligation, a complicity, a desperate need to act. To do what? What can I do? I who am not even a Kennedy—though in a larger context I am, of course, as a white American, in my imperial wealth, a Kennedy. When you watch those images of melting glaciers, this gorgeous splashing rushing opera, you think: that’s caused by the fuel that’s run my whole life, everything I’ve ever eaten, every job I got myself to, every reading I got flown to, every single one of us, our heat together making a newly hostile world.
But that complicity is hardly equal. This fate could have gone otherwise. The speed and scale of the course we’re on were not inevitable. When David Koch died, the call-out line for the article in the New Republic—an interview with Christopher Leonard, author of Kochland—was: “Few humans hold more responsibility for the unfolding climate crisis than David Koch, the 79-year-old oil magnate who died this week.” This indictment includes both brothers (“Charles Koch has always been the center of gravity,” Leonard says), their work over decades at Koch Industries and through the political network we know well (“David Koch’s Most Significant Legacy Is the Election of Donald Trump” reads the headline of Lee Fang’s Koch obituary in the Intercept). In other words, we can’t pretend that the doings of Koch money are some past sin. They’re just getting started.
So what does this do to Koch money? Does it stain that money, does that money stain you when you touch it? What kind of substance is money? Right now it seems like money is Arctic ice. We know money is never pure and we’re never pure because we’re money. Money has always been right there in art, money takes form in all the poems. James Laughlin founding New Directions, great-grandson of a steel magnate. I’m part of Rescue Press, and if I help support that press, the little chunks of money I can give are part of a story that includes a great-grandfather, I think, whose money trickled down a little, who worked in oil, sold a little pipeline company to some Rockefellers, if that’s right, I don’t know, because, as you say, money doesn’t talk. When for a number of years I got too sick to have a job, I could put off applying for federal disability because of a little money, like a little Kennedy. How do we ever have enough money to do something, like art or survival, that doesn’t make money? Every time the answer gets ugly. We just keep exhaling CO2.
In that fantastic poem Myles writes:
And my art can’t
be supported until it is
gigantic, bigger than
everyone else’s, confirming
the audience’s feeling that they are
alone. That they alone
are good, deserved
to buy the tickets
to see this Art.
I’m thinking that right now money may be a kind of righteousness. Maybe money is being free to say to yourself that you did something, you did the right thing. The ice was melting and you Tweeted like a goddamn Kennedy. And—to get back to your beautiful point!—that’s what we’re doing for the Kochs when we take their money and launder it with our language. We’re saying, thank you. We’re saying, yes, you are also good, you deserved this art, we’ll give it to you. We’re saying, we won’t ask too many questions, we get it, there was no simple choice here, everything’s fucked, we’re good.
I say “we” because I mean all of us in literature. I’m not separate from the writers on these three presses’ lists; I can’t and wouldn’t separate myself from them, these writers I love and whose work has changed me, whose work I’m honored to read. (Over the years, not realizing the Koch connection—or happening to forget it?—I’m sure I submitted.) What I hate is the moment my gratitude for their work has to acknowledge itself as gratitude for Koch money. That’s what Koch money demands, that’s what it does to us when it claims a right to be here, in the house of literature: this money makes us thank it for its presence. Elizabeth Koch wants us to thank her.
So what’s the alternative? Where is this purer money I seem to think we could get? There isn’t, we can’t. If you don’t have (Koch) money, your press will be poorer, and fewer people will read those books. Fewer people will know these names, that work, whatever it was working hard to do. The presses with money make the culture and if you don’t have money, it’s sure harder. So shouldn’t you take it, make something good? If you turn it down, do you at least get that good righteousness? I hope so. But I think probably the something we should do is to use our language, to do the work of language, like writers, to make our hard homes in the complexities of language. To make homes for one another. So far Elizabeth Koch has not had to do that work. What she’s written in public is no account, no kind of thinking about the moral complexities her very name announces. If we think we want her money, that shouldn’t be enough for us (even if confessionalism will not save us).
What question would we want to ask her? I’m thinking with gratitude of how Rebecca Wolff has endeavored to talk about money and Fence. I’m remembering an &NOW Festival a few years back, a short talk she gave. What I remember was discomfort in myself, in the room. To talk about money, in public, like that; to change the whole room, like a poem. Money loves your thanks and then it loves your silence. So I think that, as money, we should talk. What is the uncomfortable utopia I’m trying to picture?
LB: Reading and thinking about what you’ve written, Hilary, my mind and attention are swinging wildly between imagining this problem of Catapult as a) something personal and b) something so big that I cannot conceive of its shape or meaning. And yes! this problem gives me the same sense of panic as I feel when I read about Arctic ice. The urgency, the obligation, the complicity, the desperation, need to act—so strongly felt, but so vague!
There’s a moment in the Quartz article on Elizabeth Koch that recalls Elizabeth Bishop’s iconic and complicated poem “In the Waiting Room.” Bishop describes looking at the photographs in National Geographic as a child, struggling—like Koch in that piece—with the otherness that constitutes the world itself, the world that contains her. Bishop:
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
My construction of my self, of my life… and then against that, no, within it, what is that horrifying otherness, other lives, other selves? It breaks me to see or fathom them. Later in the poem:
… you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
Dan Chiasson talks somewhere about that last line: what IT was, I was: I was what IT was: I was IT!
The occasion for the Quartz article is the convening of Unlikely Collaborators, Elizabeth Koch’s annual conference that the piece describes as “like a weekend of Ted Talks and psychological and social exercises, punctuated with presentations from Koch about her own life, in a beautiful setting surrounded by mountains.” Here is what brings to mind the Bishop poem: in one of the exercises, Koch pairs up with a former Sudanese child soldier in an attempt to conjure “the experience of no Elizabeth.” That would be nice, wouldn’t it? To distance one’s experience of living from the IT one is? Our speaker-Elizabeth couldn’t do that in February 1918 in the waiting room. Maybe all she was missing was hundreds of millions of dollars of funding and virtual reality goggles.
Both of our Elizabeths are doing what Toni Morrison describes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination: using black people to “ignite critical moments of discovery or change.” Morrison notes, in a late Willa Cather novel, “the interdependent working of power, race, and sexuality in a white woman’s battle for coherence.” Elizabeth Koch’s battle for coherence takes place at a scale, and a pitch, that is closer to global warming than to Waiting Room Elizabeth’s existential crisis.
Elizabeth Koch’s battle for coherence takes place at a scale, and a pitch, that is closer to global warming than to Waiting Room Elizabeth’s existential crisis.
I cannot accept Catapult Elizabeth as an I—not the kind of I that Waiting Room Elizabeth is. Her complicity is not my complicity. My complicity, our complicity, like you say, stems from loving and having been changed by the writers Catapult-funded presses publish. But the I’s we are—our own separate fucked-up battles for coherence—don’t have the same value as Elizabeth Koch’s I. Her battle for coherence, among us, above us, funding us, makes more than a mockery of the work we do to—oh, like you say so gorgeously!—”make our hard homes in the complexities of language.”
What is the uncomfortable utopia I’m trying to picture? Hilary, I confess that to speak of my upper-middle-class background here feels like I’m conceding something, not like I’m breaking a silence—while Elizabeth is up there, eighty billion dollars above, in her own unimaginable utopia. We have a lot of practice looking around at each other, other writers, saying, this one could afford Columbia’s MFA program; this one is an adjunct; this one has no student loans; this one has no health insurance; this one is on the tenure track; this one has no MFA; this one went to Iowa. That is not the kind of class consciousness that creates change in our community or in our world. It keeps us envious, interested, smug, distracted; we avoid asking, Who has the money to influence policy, and who doesn’t? The divisions among us are so small compared with the amount of money that’s been stolen from all of us, taken out of the public sphere, removed from our institutions. And those specific divisions I use as examples all result from the systematic defunding of higher education, by billionaires including the Kochs, who want to decide what we teach, what our students learn, who gets to go to college. In the presence of great evil, ill-gotten billions, wealth so extreme it determines national and even global policy, we must be united.
On Fresh Air, Christopher Leonard, talking about Kochland, noted that at the very sites where it is most pernicious and inescapable, Koch money is unmarked, unnamed. This includes the policies and institutions that that money has shifted and directed. And it extends to our material conditions. “The lights are on—Koch probably played at some level in the business of delivering the natural gas, the electricity that is making that happen. The clothing I’m wearing has items from Koch in it. This is an omnipresent firm. You just don’t see the brand name on it,” Leonard said.
So let’s name it! This evil, this money, the Koch Brothers, are inside our community. Behind the name Catapult, the name Koch. I sit under their lights and wear their clothes; I am heated and cooled by them. But they won’t ever have my writing. There’s so much that feels hopeless about the influence of this money, but I am hopeful that independent literary writing and writers can unite to divest from the Kochs. No billionaires in poetry! What if millionaires funded these ventures, rather than the Kochs? What a great project for that environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio—or the small press publisher Viggo Mortensen (I see from his Wikipedia page he was married to Exene Cervenka for a year in the 80s; he should fund Soft Skull Press!). Or a Koch-opposing #Resistance celebrity like Mark Ruffalo or Debra Messing. The way the Kochs’ power works is that it leaves us with no alternative but their product, their money. But in the case of literary publishing and small press funding, that simply isn’t the case. This is our world, not theirs. So let’s win it back.
HP: Yes. I know now what I want to ask Elizabeth Koch: what do you want from us? What would happen if she had to name her own desire? But we don’t have to wait on that—we can name our own refusal, even if it’s endlessly incomplete. So much of writing is the work of naming. “Uncomfortable utopia” I said but I should have said “dirty knowing.” (A phrase Caren Beilin texted me yesterday, on another subject, as if knowing I needed it.) I want this dirty work of literature: to keep naming the web we’re in, the web that’s us.
Without even knowing our own choicelessness, we’ve let the Kochs house and clothe and feed us and turn on our lights. We’ve let them profit on natural resources that were never theirs; we’ve let them evade taxes and pour millions into our political system to bend it to their will. We’ve watched the money made on our labor flow mercilessly upward. We need to name what they’re taking from us, what we would refuse them. Their goal, as you note, is a social and economic privatization so complete it will end the ways we need, for survival, to know and care for one another, to be for one another.
Elizabeth Koch writes (I am starting to think Elizabeth Koch writes like Ivanka Trump dresses) about how she’d like books she publishes to “bring attention to the false divisions that make up our world.” She can’t seem to see that these divisions are political—not a side effect of political discourse (“politics can be so divisive”) but what actors in the political sphere, including her father, have brutally wrought. These divisions attest to power deliberately wielded and which she too wields.
I love what you say about class consciousness among writers. As writers maybe we aren’t too used to thinking of ourselves as a class of workers. When I think about the dirtiness of philanthropy, I think about how dangerous writers, as a class, should be. David Koch, for example, has “donat[ed] millions of dollars to Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Museum of Natural History” (see Jane Mayer’s Dark Money) and “a record $150 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.” Mostly artists don’t have much say in where their paintings get exhibited, nor dancers where performances are staged, nor most cancer patients where their cancer gets treated. When artists do have that say, as we saw in the protests around the 2019 Whitney Biennial, they can fucking use it: those protests succeeded in making Warren B. Kanders resign from the museum’s board, though he’d given the Whitney over $10 million. Kanders owns a company that manufactures tear gas “whose use has been documented against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border,” as the New Yorker reports. So I want to note that as writers we do mostly choose who we work with. As writers we should be skilled at naming the meaning of the choices we make, telling the story of those choices occurring in the vast, tender, violent web of the social, the otherness we are.
When Elizabeth Koch publishes her own literary writing, she tells us, it’s “often under a pen name.” Yet she puts her name on her press; she does want it there. Maybe this act of naming is an opportunity for workers in the field of literature—for the fight that, as you say, we find ourselves in, a fight we need to win.
Lucy Biederman is the author of The Walmart Book of the Dead (Vine Leaves Press, 2017). Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in North American Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, and Pleiades. Her scholarship, which has been published in The Henry James Review, Women’s Studies, The Emily Dickinson Journal, and Studies in the Literary Imagination, focuses on how contemporary American women writers interpret their literary forebears. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields, winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose (2018); the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016), winner of the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award; and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013). She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and in the NEOMFA program and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press.