Volume 5: DISAPPEARANCE

Friday, November 09, 2007

Mario Hibert with Kent Johnson

Mario Hibert
Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Spaces Only Poetry Can Fill: An Interview with Kent Johnson

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Translated versions of this interview are forthcoming in Ajfelov Most (Bosnia) and in Mar con Soroche (Bolivia/Chile).

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Mario Hibert: Could you please demystify and explain alleged criminal act that is attached to you and your work in light of the reception of the controversial book Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, explaining the hoax labeled scandalous in American literary circles? . . . (for the sake of those here who are not familiar with “the story”)?

Kent Johnson: It’s from a number of years ago, and there have been quite a few developments since, but the following overview of the background—the opening of an article originally published in The Nation magazine—provides the nuts and bolts of the matter. I’ll quote an unusually extended chunk here for Balkan readers, since most will not be familiar with the basis for the controversy. The article, in fact, which I consider to be one of the most insightful reflections on the work, is by Forrest Gander, with whom you have recently become good friends, Mario, after the two of you spent time together in Sarajevo . . . so I guess it’s apropos to quote it in that regard, too:

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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. The translator and critic Eliot Weinberger suggested as much in the Village Voice, writing on "witness poetry," which he decries as "a set of biographical criteria that favors verifiable experience over imagination." Lingua Franca and others followed suit in publishing articles about the hoax. Wesleyan University Press, which had been interested in printing the Yasusada volume, dropped the idea.

No one has yet claimed to have written the book, despite suspicions that the Yasusada materials were generated by Kent Johnson—a professor at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, and the self-proclaimed literary executor of Yasusada's main "translator" (whose reality is also dubious). Critic Marjorie Perloff charged in the Boston Review that Johnson is the author, although he denies it. The time for a hoaxster's revelation would seem to have come and gone; but Yasusada's work is more than a mere hoax, even if his biography is.

Most of the individual poems were published in respected journals (including Grand Street and Conjunctions), their fictional authorship undiscovered, as the work of Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada. Along with Yasusada's own purported writings, there are numerous footnotes, scholarly commentaries and references that weave, in the manner of Woody Allen's Zelig, documentary facts into Yasusada's putative biography (for instance, references to actual Japanese poets, literary groups and affairs in Hiroshima). While there seem to be enough anachronisms (a reference to scuba-diving gear, for example, in a poem dated before the invention of such) and outright mistakes (a Japanese woman given a name that would only be used by a man) to suggest that something is awry, the general impression given is one of scholarly thoroughness and detail. As a result, many editors published Yasusada believing that he was, indeed, a Japanese poet and nuclear bomb survivor. Many of them have been quite angry to learn that they were taken in by an elaborate fiction. Some have suggested that no one who has not experienced an event as cataclysmic as the bombing of Hiroshima has the right to "pretend" to have done so, that such a pretense demeans the people who truly suffered there.

But before we launch into that furiously raging debate, let's consider the work itself, which, until questions concerning its authorship waxed full, provoked only wide-ranging international praise. The book's introductory note serves to identify the bulk of the text as translations made by three Japanese scholars of Yasusada's recently discovered notebooks. The ensuing assemblage of diary entries, Zen exercises, English class assignments, letters and drafts of poems coheres loosely around themes of loss and authorship [ . . . ].”

* * *

Anyway, that’s more or less the back-story. No one has yet stepped forward to claim ownership of the work, and no one ever will.

MH: Your radical and moreover successful criticism of the ideology of authorship, name branding and cultural industry reveals an engaged artistic subversion of literary political correctness. How do you perceive cultural exploitation of differences on the global scale? To what extent can the work of art adjust its subversive tendencies in regard to the contemporary globalized milieu of commodification of everything, from identity to culture?

KJ: This is a very challenging question, and I’m not sure I can answer it satisfactorily. Since the topic has been raised, and to give myself something of a handle, let me try to speak to the issues you ask about—or at least a subset of them—from my position as caretaker of the Yasusada writings . . .

The Yasusada writing emerged in the mid to late 1990s, at the end of the apogee of multiculturalism and post-colonialist studies in the US academy and elsewhere. It thus came in for strong attack from certain writers, who saw the work as an appropriation of ethnic and cultural otherness, a hijacking of “identity.” I was assumed early on to be the “culprit” and had a number of very personal slurs directed against me. A group of well-known Asian-American poets, for example, published a polemic in a leading magazine, asserting that Yasusada was nothing but an example of “yellow face” opportunism and that I was a racist. Charles Bernstein, the most notorious representative of US Language poetry, a long-time prominent academic, delivered an address at the Modern Language Association, and his thesis was that Yasusada constituted an instance of “White Male Rage” (though he has never published this paper).

These would be just a couple of early examples—there were many other attacks, and they haven’t stopped, actually. More recently, for instance, Yunte Huang, a prominent figure in post-colonial studies, has published an essay that purports to show, via a tortured reading of Gayatri Spivak, that Yasusada is something along the lines of Bernstein’s characterization, and The Believer magazine, a very popular national publication, published a long screed full of livid, libelous remarks on my person, written, oddly enough, by one of the country’s best-known film critics. So it’s been very interesting, this aspect of the reaction . . .

And what makes it all so interesting to me is that the work itself—an attempt to empathically imagine a complex, decidedly non-stereotypical life—is so obviously the opposite of anything that could be construed as racist. The work as a whole, rather, speaks in part to the ways in which essentialist constructions of “otherness” that are based on superficial ethnic parameters risk debasement of deeper commonality, risk promotion of a sublimated and insidious exoticness of, precisely, others. I don’t think I have to tell you, a citizen of Bosnia, how onerous such ideology can become, when taken to its limits and flipped over onto its reverse face . . . Unfortunately, in my country, the kinds of “politically correct” constructions you refer to are key to an academic industry that has brought considerable career perks to a whole layer of critics and poets. So it’s understandable, on a certain level, that there has been this visceral reaction: for Yasusada (even if he is a contradictory figure who bears some likeness, in various of his traits, with any number of post-war Japanese artists and intellectuals!) is not “really Japanese,” you see. And those American intellectuals who have a stake in controlling who can speak and from what subject position want to maintain some control, some authority, over their “Japan.” As if our two cultures were not in fundamental, over-determined ways long interfaced, fused, even, by deeper history . . . Not to mention by the Bomb, a still-looming event that implicates us all and transcends any racial or national distinctions proper . . .

Well, so I don’t know if I’m getting at your question, but I’d say that, yes, one of the tasks of such “scandalous” poetic fiction may be to show that this au courant, paternalistic, self-serving “commodification of identity and culture,” as you put it, is subliminally driven, really, by elements of the very psychological animus and prejudice it claims to abhor. Racism is a complicated thing. And its interpolations can get refracted, in fascinating ways, within ideological formations that claim to oppose it. Though as I’ve said on many occasions, Doubled Flowering was not guided, at its heart, by any attempt to show this sublimated complicity . . . Nor was it intended to be any kind of ethically unproblematic text.

MH: But what is right with the deconstruction of the authorship and wrong with the ideology of the deconstruction? Would you agree with the rationale by which models of transpersonal authorship, hyperauthorship, hypernym could be perceived as a mode of safeguarding the ethical foundations of writing?

KJ: Not so much a mode of safeguarding as one of discovering ethical foundations. I would not claim to know, with any degree of certainty, what those ethical foundations are. But I’m convinced that if poets are to be any part of that process of discovery, the process will crucially involve taking some counterintuitive and unpopular leaps beyond the conventions of literary identity, poetic private property, and cultural benefit.

As to the first part of the question, I certainly wouldn’t say there is anything wrong with deconstruction in principle. Some of the insights were wonderful. And deconstruction’s theoretical habitus, as it were, enabled some strange, often inspiring prose. Yes, the anti-historical bent of the approach, particularly in its American version, was a now-embarrassing drawback, I’d say, but this has been compensated for in other theoretical frames that borrowed from it: New Historicism, or Feminist Criticism, say. No big deal.

But the models of authorial experiment you mention (transpersonal authorship, hyperauthorship, hypernym) I wouldn’t so much see as “deconstructive” in nature. To the contrary, I’d argue that these are constructive in essence: new authorships are brought into being! Now, it’s certainly possible to intuit, in such gestures, deconstructions of the narratives of legal, empirical authorship—of the kind of tired, two-dimensioned relationship, that is, between text and subject such standard modes enact. But this doesn’t mean there is some exclusive or required method to pursue: a single writer can easily, and simultaneously, engage various kinds of authorial production and position, ranging from commonplace attribution to imaginary agency, alternating or combining them in variegated ways—and such combinatory effects can prove to be very interesting, even (as you put it) “ethically” provocative and generative of new, unsuspected modes.

The problem, as I’ve often said, is that so-called experimental poets (at least in the English-language realm) seem by and large blind to the creative and political possibilities transpersonal modes afford. Paradoxical as it may sound, “avant-garde” poets today largely buy into a thoroughly standard view of poetry’s generic nature, accepting that reified forms of ascription are more or less natural and given, that paratextual codes and structures are fixed, neutral markers that lie outside of Poetry proper, beyond the vocation’s potential aesthetic and cultural functions. I reject that. It’s a quasi-willful false consciousness that puts limits on the imagination’s terrain. And the imagination has no need or desire to be bound by any institutional claim.

MH: You also write short reports, cover stories from abroad, cross-disciplinary poetic forms that got me thinking it could maybe stand for distrust in verse and its ability to communicate with broader context (audience). But does this maybe show that we have lost confidence in imagination, on what happens in between unuttered spaces between the text and the reader, spaces only poetry can fill?

KJ: Well, on the simplest level, I engage various forms as a writer who is trying, awkwardly, to find his way. So I try out different things.

But your question is an interesting one, inasmuch as it implicitly raises an issue about the nature and potential of the poet’s task. Here, as well, in regard to genre distinctions, I feel the heteronymic impulse has much to offer, in that a questioning of authorial function also necessarily questions the properties and functions of artistic classification, its restrictions and the meanings of those: clearly, the Author’s name, the empirical, legal stamp of property, deeply underwrites horizons of generic propriety that the culture wishes to specify, enshrine, and reproduce.

Well, it’s an involved topic for sure, but here is something relevant to the issue, perhaps, that I proposed in another interview, with the critic and poet Bill Freind. It refers to Mikhail Epstein, actually, a thinker I know you studied extensively in graduate school, in Bosnia. The comment is in the context of a discussion on those alternative modes of authorship which poetry has barely begun to explore:

“I believe there will be, in this future and broad-based "refusal to be regimented from the outside," a more subtle and fluid relationship with poetic identity as legally and culturally, even biologically, circumscribed. And in this resistance to regimentation, the circulation of created, fully-realized hyperauthorships will become a vibrant and branching and authentic utopian space, with schools and collaborations, journals and sub-genres, critical forays and epistolary crossings. I think that readers will flock to this apocryphal space and jump in, grateful to abide in mystery and to pursue the traces, clues, and revelations its authors leave behind. Poets both real and not real will move in shimmering ways back and forth between realms and across times. Cross-disciplinary forms and genres unimaginable at present will flower forth. It will be a "wavy" zone impossible to appropriate or to discipline, because authorship in this topography will not have a discrete location or body; it will be continuum-like, a wave, to draw from [Mikhail] Epstein again, going across times, places, and personalities.”

Later in that interview I acknowledge that this is, obviously, very utopian in its projections, and that if such a parallel economy of writing were to develop, it would be over considerable time, and collectively enabled. But that it would have profound reverberations, aesthetically and even politically, of this I am quite confident.

MH: To what extent is contemporary American literature open for the writers from abroad?

KJ: Not very. It’s something of a scandal, really, the minor, subaltern position to which the art of translation has been relegated in current U.S. culture. Eliot Weinberger, one of our top writers and translators, has written on this, showing, through a careful analysis of U.S. poetic publications of the past decade, that only a tiny percentage of published poetry by mainstream houses is from abroad. An even tinier percentage, of course, is ever noticed in the venues that review poetry.

The great cultures, as is well known, the great golden ages of all cultures, are ages of prolific translation and cross-cultural imitation. Well, I suppose it only follows, syllogistically, so to speak, that a culture in late stages of atavistic imperial violence would not attach very much significance to literary translation . . .

That said, what is truly a remarkable scandal is that the avant wing of U.S. poetry, which considers itself so progressive, even radical in spirit, is so-little involved in translation. With some notable exceptions, very few of its poets—the older Language poets or their younger heirs—seriously engage the practice. Ron Silliman, for example, a leading Language poet and a blogger of great prolificacy, virtually never mentions works, either historical or contemporary, from non-English languages. A sign of the times, I’d propose.

MH: Your books are published by independent U.S. publishers. Is that your choice or the consequence of your style, your poetic that has intention to disturb, provoke, and invoke civil resistance?

KJ: A bit of both. One feeds the other. Independent, small press publication can give the poet a certain freedom to take off in unsanctioned, improper directions . . . But it’s the price of such freedom that when one does this, when certain lines of protocol are crossed, that is, one isolates oneself even further from the mainstream, whether in its traditional or avant-garde versions. So it’s a feedback loop.

Though I’ve been fortunate that my work—as author, translator, or caretaker—has been generously discussed and taught, I’m now at the point where there is no way I’d ever get published by the official venues, even those that are now publishing Language and post-avant formalist poetry—in many ways (though with, again, exceptions of note) some of the most politically safe, least “civil resistance”-like poetry being written today, actually.

Well, it’s my hope and faith that such separation from the centers of approbation is a good thing.

MH: Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War is directly related to atrocities in Iraq but it also challenges those literary circles showing little or no interest to engage “spirits” in articulating truths about the U.S. hegemony. Your irony, criticism and anger emphasize apathy, cynicism and absurdity in which contemporary progressive industry of culture nicely wallows. With Yasusada, you’re questioning the very ethics of writing, ownership and cultural production that could be seen as kind of self-differentiation quite diverse from Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz, which is constructed in extremely raw, open, direct and unambiguous ways. How do you comment on such shift in strategy and tactic in your writing, from representing (questioning?) to revealing (answering?)?

KJ: Well, it’s important not to confuse authorships here. Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz is by me, whoever that may be. Doubled Flowering and Also with My Throat I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords are by Tosa Motokiyu, an anonymous author whose work has been entrusted to me as executor. But you know, it’s curious: The Yasusada corpus, with (as you nicely put it) its “questioning of the very ethics of writing,” has probably had a greater impact on the politics of U.S. poetry than LPAA. In many ways, then (and its Hiroshima subtext aside), it has been a very political work, even though it wasn’t really intended as such.

This difference you draw between representing/questioning and revealing/answering is very interesting to me. I need more time to think about that, if you’ll forgive me. I guess I would wonder where, in poetry, answers stop and questions begin, and vice versa. I mean, I wonder if we can, in a political poetry, for example, that would matter, ever distinguish these terms. Would we want to?

MH: Forrest Gander, in article you quoted from, describes your poetics as political and poetical act of empathy, writing that succeeds in imagining the other. Of course it is a radically different approach from today's US national discourse. Can subaltern, non-Author-centered writing be heard in today's world?

KJ: I think the impact of Yasusada proves that it can be. The Yasusada work has been 'subversive' precisely because it rejects protocols and decorums of attribution the official literary culture demands. It refuses to be classified and ranked and filed away through the normative channels of the po-biz economy. It's a kind of counterfeit, if you will, that exists not for profit, but for the sake of an unhindred, apocryphal existence. Not exactly the fashion these days, but it's clear, I think fair to say, that the work continues to touch an unexamined, collective nerve.

MH: If simulacrum stands for the victim (sensitive Hiroshima survivor) and authenticity for the savior (self-righteous American poet after Iraq) would it be enough to outdo Adorno’s famous verdict?

KJ: Well, but Mario, remember that Adorno went on to qualify his aphoristic dictum. What he later said, and I quote him in LPAA, is this: “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric . . . [but] literature must resist this verdict.” I agree with him, in principle. To the statement I would choose to add that poetry must now write against and into itself, resist itself, as it were, always seeking, in so doing, new and unsuspected paths of truth telling. No, the “lyric” is more necessary than ever, I believe. May it now become more and more unhinged from the Romantic function of The Poet, which goes on stamping out, at great velocity, safely categorized Authors from its “traditional” and “innovative” molds.

MH: How come you ended up in Bosnia and Herzegovina this spring at the poetry festival “Sarajevo Poetry Days”? You were supposed to read at the American corner, sponsored jointly by a U.S. Embassy and host country library. What about reception of your work there? Did you collect some interesting stories for your next coming projects? How do you like Bosnia?

KJ: Oh, I think I want to retire in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Sarajevo, or Mostar, or magical little Pocitelli. I fell in love with your country. And I couldn’t have hoped to have been treated more warmly than I was at the conference. I did meet some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever encountered. We had a good time, didn’t we? I’m writing up some notational impressions of the trip, to be published in some near future, I hope. Forrest is doing the same.

How did I come to go there? Well, it was mainly because of the great poet Semezdin Memehdinovic and the former war photographer Pedja Kojovic, who are publishing a book of my work in translation with their new press, Eiffel’s Bridge. I owe a lot to those guys. Anyway, I know that they were the ones to suggest me to you folks at the Sarajevo Poetry Days.

The American Embassy, I guess, was not so thrilled. Apparently, Forrest and I are—in the four decades-plus of the conference’s history—the first invited poets from the U.S. to be denied travel funds by the Embassy in Sarajevo. They were under a budget crunch, they said, and didn’t have enough money for two plane tickets. Which may be true, of course . . . It’s entirely possible that the occupation of Iraq has drained the cultural coffers of American Embassies around the world!

Thank you so much, Mario, for your very thoughtful and challenging questions.

MH: And my thanks to you, Kent.
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Mario Hibert is a librarian in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. A poet and widely published film critic, his first book of poetry, Judas's Toys, was just awarded Bosnia's Federal Ministry Foundation Prize, and will appear soon.

Translations from Kent Johnson's book Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War (Effing Press, 2005) have appeared or are forthcoming (as book collections or in selected forms) in a dozen countries. Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, a book of new and
selected poems, will be published by Shearsman, in the UK.

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