An Interview with Kent Johnson
The following interview, conducted by Pedja Kojovic, will be published in translation early this year in the magazines Poezija (Croatia) and Fantom Slobode (Bosnia). An expanded version will appear as introduction to a book of writings by Kent Johnson, translated by Pedja Kojovic and Semezdin Mehmedinovic, to be published by Eiffel’s Bridge in Sarajevo, in 2006.
Pedja Kojovic:Who is Araki Yasusada?
Kent Johnson: In an article some years back in The Nation magazine, the poet Forrest Gander put it this way:Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada is the most controversial poetry book since Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Lingua Franca devoted a special section to it. The Boston Review hosted a forum of responses to it. The American Poetry Review featured an insert of Yasusada's poems preceded by a portrait of the writer. On August 9, 1997, Asahi Shinbun, Japan's leading newspaper, published a front-page story on Yasusada. Poems and letters from the book have appeared in major literary journals in the United States, England, Australia, Russia, Spain, Israel and Italy. And yet Araki Yasusada -- the diarist from Hiroshima, the Zennist, the member of a prominent literary group called Layered Clouds, the Jack Spicer afficionado conversant in French and English, the family man whose family was devastated by the nuclear blast, the writer whose moving poems, letters and notes comprise the text of Doubled Flowering, this Araki Yasusada -- apparently never existed.
Now, more specifically, Araki Yasusada is the heteronym of "Tosa Motokiyu," the pseudonym of the author of the Yasusada writings gathered in the books Doubled Flowering and Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: The English Letters of Araki Yasusada. He is also the creator of a rather idiosyncratic critical corpus of ten "tape essays" on various topics—transcriptions of imagined recorded conversations he has with his fictional co-translator/editors, Ojiu Norinaga and Okura Kyojin. These proceed in serial, renga fashion, often quite awkwardly, and include various ambient sounds caught on the tape, some of them quite humorous and embarrassing in nature. The most recent of these pieces is a tape-essay (forthcoming in a new web journal from India) that shows, quite convincingly, I think, that Frank O'Hara never wrote the famous poem "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island." The true author of that poem is therein exposed.
But more to the point, perhaps, is that the "who" of Yasusada is very much still at issue—not who he is in the relatively uninteresting sense of who his hidden author might be, but in the bigger sense of the work's meanings within the sociological field of poetry and all those institutional customs and protocols that define it. There has been so much controversy, speculation, and discussion generated around his figure in the past twelve years or so, that in a real sense his nature is still being made, still unfolding. He is in some ways, from a literary angle, unclassifiable, it seems. And this has not sat well with certain people who feel that everything must be in its proper rank and station.
PK: After Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, there were a lot of reactions. Your writing has an interesting characteristic--it is interactive. It includes social context and reactions so much that they almost become part of your work. How important is this reaction to you?
KJ: Yes, that is well put. It's interesting what happens when a body of poetry becomes displaced from roles of Authorship we've come to assume as normal, even necessary: Such work doesn't seem to behave as one expects or wants—it tends to move about in a kind of hazy, ghostly fashion, haunting the theatre beyond the stage where it's supposed to remain, so to speak. And in so doing, the initial furor and fuss provoked in the audience begins to evolve into a kind of bigger living drama, one whose plot becomes open-ended, unfinished, and no longer limited to the script or its "proper" area of performance. This is what has happened with Yasusada, of late--and similarly with other notable poetic fictions of yore, like Chatterton's medieval monk-poet Rowley, Kierkegaard's lyrical philosophers, Pessoa's multiple heteronyms, among other cases. This is a healthy thing, I believe, deeply poetic, really. And much that is undiscovered, I'd propose, including spaces of subversive action and maneuver, waits beyond the long-banal property zones of standard authorship. But first, experimental poetry must start to shed some of the inherited, unquestioned "good-culture manners" that regulate its production and circulation.
Because one of the persistent problems of so-called experimental poetry is how it gets locked into the very same institutional surround as the most conventional kinds of literature and art it originally sets forth to defy… It ends up, as if by design, corralled inside the Museum, where abstract collages hang innocuously in one room and realistic landscapes hang pleasantly in another. Everything properly classified, framed, and displayed… And that's a pretty apt trope for the fate of Language poetry, I'd say. Less than thirty years ago it was a radical movement guided by left theory and proposing a qualitative restructuring of the literary field; it's now well on its way toward enjoying honorable, official status in the Poetry Mainstream. In fact, the original figures and their younger followers are in rapid process of assuming a very similar position in the Academy as that held by the New Critics during the 30's through the 50's. If anyone doubts this, a glance at the current program of the annual Modern Language Association convention (whose current President is the esteemed Marjorie Perloff, of Stanford University, Language poetry's most avid critical champion) should suffice to convince.
This process of once-autonomous dissent and resistance getting domesticated into docile gestures of formalist "innovation" is hardly new, of course. It goes back to Romanticism, at least. And that is what is partly so troubling about the current conjuncture in U.S. "experimental" poetry: For these once militant, iconoclastic poets are perfectly aware of this well-rehearsed history of cultural recuperation, and yet they try very hard to pretend that it isn't happening to them… But even as they offer soliloquies on their blogs about their status as the "Opposition," their roles and scripts and stage directions have obviously been assigned. And despite all the disingenuous bluster, it's also obvious that most are quite content with how they've been cast.
I'm not necessarily a big fan of his general work, but Foucault began, tentatively at least, to theorize the problem that is at the core of this dynamic. He called it the "Author Function." It would be impossible to totally eliminate its far-reaching effects, of course, and most writers will no doubt always offer up their legal identities in the expected ways. But I believe poetry can establish practices and paths that are capable of unsettling, even partly transcending, that disciplining context. And it can start such process by taking Authorship and all its attendant paratextual, ideological paraphanelia—all that which we've been told is untouchable and "outside" the bounds of imaginative process—and begin to fold it into a more comprehensive inventiveness, one that observes no legal or institutional limitations to the exploration of Poetry's nature.
So, to come back to your question more directly: Yes, this reaction you allude to is very important to me, as it was to "Tosa Motokiyu." To turn the great Robert Creeley a bit on his head, if I may be so presumptuous, I'd see these broader ideational aftereffects flowing out from my works as a content that is extended from the form of the text proper: something going beyond Poetry, in the same way that Robert Smithson's Sprial Jetty, for example, goes beyond Sculpture. I elaborately hope, anyway… My rather grandiose desire as a poet, I suppose, is to put in play dimensions and relations of the poetic that go beyond just being features of textuality in the usual sense.
PK: After that you published Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz, which has also some sort of interactivity like Yasusada. What is the meaning of Iraq, today in America, or Hiroshima yesterday? This kind of public debate, what does it mean to you, and do you believe that your books are invitations for debate? Is that debate possible today?
KJ: Well, I honestly don't know what the meaning of Iraq is, much less that of the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can offer arguments that are fairly standard ones, about basic ideological, strategic, and geopolitical forces that help impel such pornographically murderous policies. Lots of people can rehearse those and more eloquently than I. But there seems something else to it all, doesn't there? Because it's all so quite mind-boggling once events like this unfold before us, and one begins to suspect something darker and more powerful is at work, something primal and very frightening. I'm still trying to figure it out, myself. The overwhelming horror and criminality and black humor, all of it, superseding any attempt to grasp it fully…
Now, the matter of poetry's relationship to the "political" is a complex one, and I don't want to sound like I think I have some kind of definite perspective on it all, much less that I am for throwing up my hands. But I would argue, in the case of the current war, that "political poetry" must do more than just speak back at the nightmarish surround. Many poets write this kind of polemical, "didactic" verse—there is certainly a long and great tradition of such literature, and I've argued (against certain doctrinaire spokespeople of the "avant-garde" here) that it has a vital role to play at certain conjunctures: think of leftist poetry in Latin America, for example; Samizdat poetry in Russia and Eastern Europe; performance poetries in South Africa; even U.S. protest poetry at the height of the Vietnam War. But it's not exactly the kind of thing I seem to be given to write myself now, for better or for worse.
I guess I'd say that poetry that is consequential to this strange and confusing time—speaking just from my position as a U.S. writer—must also speak from within the over-determined despair and confront, not least, the locations of poetry's own complicities. It must confront its helplessness even as it expresses outrage and refusal. It must, as part of this, also express outrage and refusal at itself.
I don't know if I'm making any sense. It's a difficult question.
PK: Your books are not typical, they could be said to be subversive compared to the American literature scene in general. It is interesting that the most bothered people by your work are writers (Epigramititis, I Once Met). What do you think is the reason for that?
KJ:Thank you. Yasusada is no doubt the most "subversive" work I have been associated with, although in that case I am only the editor and caretaker of a writing whose actual creator has opted for anonymity.
But yes, Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War, and Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets have been the targets of some fairly acute ire—an ire that also gets manifested, it should be said, via a pointed refusal, from some obvious quarters, to even acknowledge the books' existences: In the innovative U.S. poetry community, silence is wielded like a weapon, and it is used individually and collectively in strategic ways, to guard hierarchies of cultural capital, more or less meaningless as those are.
The two books are very different, of course, and so they've pushed buttons in different places. But both books in their ways propose the scene of U.S. poetry as major theme, and this gets treated in various lyrical or anti-lyrical tenors, and with a pointed quality that some have deemed highly improper… Over here (if I may plagiarize myself a bit from a forthcoming conversation), satire, at least satire of the focused, Juvenalian tradition—satire aimed at writers or the literary institutions they do commerce in—is considered an off-limits activity: We inhabit a poetic subculture where there is great nervousness, touchiness, and bad humor when it comes to roasting the Poet's legal identity. I'm not sure I have a developed answer as to why; someone will no doubt write a book on the matter some day. But I suspect it has something to do with the deepening marginal status of poetry within a hyper-commercialized surround that's increasingly driven by celebrity worship and media spectacle, from talk shows, to politics, to art, to journalism, to war. Well, that's a banal statement, I suppose. I mean, Adorno had no idea how prescient he was when he began to theorize the phenomenon of "Mass Culture" back when, how its power would consume nearly everything, like some giant blob that subsists and expands by eating, expelling, and then again eating, with gusto, its own shit. The situation's become so depressing it's comedic.
Now, within that broad zeitgeist of ideological digestion and expulsion, one within which the poetry-biz industry is something like part of a bowel movement going down the blob's intestinal tract for the fourth time or so since the fall of Saigon, Authorial identity comes squeezed out very teeny, very frail, at the other end, more and more pathetic and loathsome all the time: a kind of squirming parasite in the quickly drying waste. And it's a truism, I suppose, that the more insignificant one feels within the bigger dumping ground, the more anxious one becomes about defending the little that one still can defend—the smaller the turd-stakes, the more precious the turf gets, and all that. Well, I guess this is what they call starting to mix one's metaphors, and I'm losing the point…
Anyway, so Authorship for poets in my country has become something of a sacrosanct thing, something not to be mocked, and this is the case across the aesthetic spectrum, not least amongst the so-called "avant-garde." The state of affairs that accompanies this is increasingly pronounced and routine: a poetic field rotted through by academic careerism and compromise, elitism and cultivated insularity, hypocrisy and obsequiousness, corruption and betrayal, all under the cover of protocols that proclaim professional and communitarian best behaviors, of course.
In short, if we've ever had a poetic era both more afraid of and in need of satire, this is it, I'd say… I don't know if any of this might be relevant to the situation of poetry in the Balkans?
PK: Who is Kent Johnson?
KJ: A name that seems to be on my driver's license, next to the picture of some middle-aged personage who tries to write poetry so as to find, in part, who he is—only to see whatever answer there might be in that regard slip further and further away, the more he writes.
I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. What's hard to take is that it's becoming obvious I'm never going to find out.
Kent Johnson in "Death on All Fronts"
John Beer reviews Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz