With its first issue, published in October of 2002, and now its sixth, which has recently shipped, Coyote has established itself as one of Brazil's more vital and interesting new journals. Edited by Ademir Assunção, Rodrigo Garcia Lopes and Marcos Losnak, poets all, the magazine's commitment to publishing unpublished writers is a part of their larger work in opening new spaces for cultural activity in Brazil. Recent issues have featured remarkable translations of writing by Adonis, Jacques Roubaud, Rosemarie Waldrop, Samuel Beckett and Mina Loy (the latter three translated by Rodrigo Garcia Lopes). Coyote also publishes art and photography. The consistent quality of the work presented in the magazine, as well as the restlessly creative graphic design by Losnak and Joca Reiners Terron, continue to both enchant and impress. To sample Coyote here in VeRT magazine is both an honor and a treat... --Editors, VeRT Magazine
Interview with Kent Johnson
conducted by Rodrigo Garcia Lopes, Editor, Coyote Magazine, Brazil
Q: What are, in your opinion, the main poetic trends today in the U.S.? How do you position critically in relation to them? In post-modern times, is it still possible to speak in terms of literary movements? Are innovation and experimentalism dead? Where do you find it in America or elsewhere? Relatedly, what do you think of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group and its school? How do you see this movement, retrospectively? Did it leave heirs? Are they important or not to American poetry? If not, what are their main problems or deficiencies?
KJ: Well, all those questions make for a big body of water with a lot of possible tributaries. My answer will have to be pretty impressionistic and put a lot of talented and decent poets into the steamer trunk of historiographical abstraction. But I guess literary history feeds on the agonistic clash of such abstractions, actually, so for what it's worth, here's my little antithesis. I doubt it will improve my current standing in certain circles.
To first answer one of the questions in the list above: Yes, the Language phenomenon has been extremely important to American poetry. Many of the original documents created around this movement stand as very impressive achievements. And it has had, to varying degrees, international repercussions. Along with the Beats, perhaps no other American poetic formation has more aggressively affected the landscape of literature since the Second World War. But (with a smattering of exceptions, like a number of the digital-based and Oulipean-inspired poets associated with the Ubuweb group, or certain isolated poets pursuing a quasi-Noigandres aesthetic, or the beginnings of what one could call a "Dada-Pop" poetics among some younger blog writers) the bulk of what is called "innovative" or "experimental" in North American poetry today is pretty much a generic recycling of attitudes and compositional approaches that had their significant moment in the late 70's to mid-80's, when it wasn't yet embarrassing to use the term "poststructuralism," and when Language poetry could still claim an oppositional status inside U.S. literary culture. It really no longer can.
Of course, the veteran core of Language and its second-generation offshoots (many of whom, it should be said, are quite brilliant, even as they are burdened by an inertial love-hate animus toward their forebears) still want to be seen, and to see themselves, as outside "mainstream," "official verse" poetry, a fuzzy enemy-realm that never really gets defined except in the most figurative lit-critical terms, i.e., poetry based on the nostalgic or epiphanic experience of a "self" that naively assumes to stand beyond the language games within which it is staged. Or something to that effect. (Most recently the term "School of Quietude" has been proposed by one of the leading Language poets as a catchall trope for this degenerate poetic force, against which the avant-garde must supposedly continue to do brave battle.) This kind of "official" poetry, it is repeatedly claimed, is the dominant mode of the "academy" and of the most influential magazines, like, for example, American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, or Poetry.
Now, it's true that strains of softly surrealist, anecdotal, personal experience poetry have been ubiquitous since the 1960's, and during the 70's and most of the 80's these were, indeed, the reigning styles. But for the past decade or so its projection as the hegemonic poetic discourse has been a polemic of convenience for the "avant-garde," one whose effect (and, arguably, intent) is much less to describe the actual case than to obscure the fact of a terribly ironic, rapidly developing interface. Increasingly, that is, Language poetry and "avant-garde" styles growing directly out of it (under myriad denominations, like "post-language," "abstract lyric," "ellipticism," "new synthesis," "third generation New York school," and so on) have come to be the zeitgeist at virtually all the elite and many of the second-tier creative writing programs-few serious younger poets with any degree of reading have an interest in writing the scenic, first-person lyric of narrative experience. What's happened is that most younger poets now want to write the fractured lyric of intellectual, self-reflexive experience, or else some theory-inflected version of the cool, campy Frank O'Hara-like poem, or some hybrid version of these styles. This "experimental" atmosphere constitutes the ascendant period style --the poems of our climate, as one of our famous poets once put it-- and very few literary journals or presses of consequence today are truly hostile toward this fashionable "innovative" work.
In short, the aesthetic of non-narrative pushed by Language has become rapidly absorbed and adapted (as the hip insouciant poetics of the New York School had before it) into institutional poetic arenas, and the public demeanor of its prominent Authors, older and younger alike, is increasingly circumscribed by all the institutional boundaries of "official verse culture": prizes, grants, competitions, academic careers, university or slick corporate/government-funded publishing venues, etc. While the speed with which this absorption has occurred (with increasing momentum since roughly the end of the first Gulf War) is surprising, it was fated to happen: For Language poetry, which proclaimed in its manifestoes a militant opposition to the poetic "I" or "Self," never undertook to question, in practice, the ideological assumptions and entrapments of authorial orthodoxy. Or rather, the Language poets never managed to follow through on the implications of their theoretical principles (the New York School never had any, save a certain hyper self-conscious commitment to personality worship and name-dropping) and turn the category of Authorship into a poetic problem to be explored, with the aim of making strange (ostranie, the Russians called it) its comfortable and automatized surrounds. Their poetry has never really imagined itself beyond the page and is now entropically caught in a two-dimensional performative realm, the range of its innovations limited to surface issues of prosody, visual arrangement, syntax, and so forth. The movement is, essentially, a formalist phenomenon, informed (in the case of a number of the first-generation Language writers) by increasingly stale and poignant pronouncements about the political relevance of "experimental" practice.
Q: So Language poetry along with its progeny is an example of avant-garde history repeating itself?
KJ: Yes, I think that's becoming clear. The current American experimental wing is to mainstream, traditional poetry what Cubism quickly became to traditional painting: something that looks different on the canvass, something often quite exciting, but readily lending itself to ornate framing and hanging in the Museum. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and we will always have, and should have, institutionalized art that abides by the genetic modes of reproduction the culture requires--traditional and "avant-garde" alike. This will always constitute, it goes without saying, the bulk of artistic production. And some of it will be excellent art. But my point is that American experimentalist poetry is caught inside an outmoded grid of cultural rules; it is still waiting for its collectively articulated, decisive conceptualist moment. When that moment comes, things will get quite a bit more subversively indeterminate and exciting than they now are.
Q: As a poet, do you see yourself as free from the institutional dynamics you are saying the American avant-garde is limited by?
KJ: No, not at all. I'm certainly as capable of hypocrisy as anyone. But the critique is an important one to make, I think.
Q: In the world, as well as in the U.S., there is a tradition of poets who were formally innovative as well as libertarians in the existential level. One can think of Whitman, Rimbaud, Thoreau, Blake, Maiakovski, Lorca, Allen Ginsberg, George Oppen etc... Is this tradition still alive? Or are contemporary poets, as you seem to suggest, more inclined to risk only at the formal level?
KJ: It's an interesting question. I'm not sure I would see the list of poets you present as representative of a tradition, actually, insofar as their "libertarianisms" are of quite different natures. But it's true, certainly, that all these poets had intense ideological engagements beyond their aesthetic practices-and in some, of course, there is a conflation between the engagement and the practice.
Your mention of Oppen is especially interesting, inasmuch as he stopped writing for many years after his early and most experimental book, Discrete Series, so as to put his "existential" ideals into fullest practice. He was a member of the Communist Party, as you may know, unaware of Stalin's crimes when he was, apparently, and for him there had to be a total commitment one way or the other: If you were going to work to change society, then that is what you did, without distraction; if you were going to write poetry, then that is what you did, without distraction. The Objectivist notion of "sincerity," for Oppen, is far from merely textual.
Now, it's fascinating that Oppen is taken by many of the Language poets and their "heirs," as you put it, as a poetic hero of sorts. While there have been some qualifications and dissensions over the past few years, it's still generally the case that for the Language tendency, formal experiment is deemed to have a sense of seditious political value: "the disruption of linguistic habit to foreground the social and ideological constructedness of language," etc. is held to be the most advanced and meaningful act of poetic resistance. This view of poetry's "radical" mission is assumed by hundreds of poets, even as their poetry and criticism is more and more positioned within, and directed at, academic venues of little civic consequence.
Oppen would have laughed, no doubt, at such (what he might have called in his cadre years) petit-bourgeois hubris. It's clear, if you've read his letters and interviews, that his absolute commitment to poetry was a personal, ethical act, through and through, bereft of any presumption of subversive political value.
So this is a problematic issue, in my opinion, this raising of the sails of ethical value on the gunboat of aesthetic experiment. It's not that this poetry doesn't have a key role to play, for it does: it is an advanced undertaking, doing the work in poetry, you might say, that little-known radio astronomers on a cold mountaintop in the Andes are doing in the realm of cosmology. The problem is that these poet radio astronomers claim their relatively abstruse work deserves to be popularly recognized and widely read, and that the science journalists writing the big-selling popular astronomy books should be given the boot for simplifying reality. And that is simply misguided. It's a mistaking of a specialized part for the multi-dimensioned whole.
In past months, in fact, as the imperialist assault in Iraq was about to get underway, and as masses of people were seeking, in ways unseen since Vietnam, to form united fronts against the invasion, the practical implications of this quasi-Adornean, holier-than-thou stance became grossly apparent. During that time, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten, the three most prominent theoreticians of the Language movement --and deservedly so, each of them is brilliantly provocative-- published pieces that clearly dismissed (in Bernstein and Watten's cases indirectly; in Silliman's case bluntly) the Poets Against the War website, a project initiated by the prominent "mainstream" poet Sam Hamill, to which, rather astoundingly, over 15,000 poets contributed. As one would expect, most of these poems were, indeed, written in the referential, polemical, personal, and urgent address of traditional political poetry. It could not have been, nor should it have been, otherwise. The project received unprecedented media coverage, hundreds of anti-war readings were held around the country (some attracting audiences in the thousands), and a book selection from the website became the fastest-selling U.S. poetry anthology in the past four decades.
What did the Language poets have to say about this? Essentially, Bernstein, Silliman, and Watten suggested that the Poets Against the War project was politically and culturally retrograde, that, as Bernstein put it, the time did not call for "righteous monologue" and "digestible messages," but for a poetic discourse of "complexity and ambiguity." Well, one could go on. But it was all quite incredible. I responded to this stance in a widely disseminated article (currently available at VeRT, issue #8 http://www.litvert.com/ ), wherein I more or less proposed that the elitist position adopted by Bernstein and his fellows was clear evidence of the shipwreck of Language poetry's vanguardist project.
Q: Let's change focus now: Yasusada´s book, Double Flowering, was accused of being "a criminal act". While in 2002 millions of people learned of Yasusada after one of our largest newspapers carried a multi-page feature on him in its literary supplement, the general Brazilian reader of poetry is not yet familiar with the specific background polemics. Could you explain the episode? How is Yasusadas´s reception today, after "the crime"?
KJ: The phrase "criminal act," was used by the editor of The American Poetry Review, the largest and most influential publication of poetry in the United States. The magazine had featured a big "Special Supplement" of Yasusada's work, along with an introductory essay. After the work's fictional nature was revealed, this editor became very upset and made the remark to a journalist writing a story on the matter. Of course, if Yasusada was a "criminal act," then so was most of the poetry written by Pessoa, most of the major philosophy written by Kierkegaard, and quite possibly, it seems, all of the work written under the name of "Shakespeare." Not a bad crime family to be in!
There have been many pieces published on the controversy, and more are in preparation. A volume is also being prepared by the poet Anthony Robinson, which will gather much of this work along with new essays. One of the most interesting contributions was published in The Nation, a prominent U.S. magazine. The beginning of this piece nicely lays out the first outlines of the "scandal"; so, in answer to your question, for the sake of convenience, clarity, and interest, I'll quote the opening of that:
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
Now, this was published a few years ago, and quite a bit more has happened since and is still continuing, though now the controversy has pretty much moved from the journalistic realm into the academic one.
Q: Months before, however, it was praised by many critics as one of the most astonishing books to have appeared in the literary scene. Marjorie Perloff wrote that the relevant issue is editorial hypocrisy: "If they thought it was such good writing, they should still think it was good writing."
KJ: Well, yes. But it's "good writing" inside a conceptual apparatus that moves beyond the expected protocols of attribution and circulation--it's a work that somewhat brazenly lays down a challenge to literary authority, in the doubled sense of that word. And so it is difficult, perhaps, for most to judge it dispassionately, in the sense of traditional axiological parameters. In fact, as I have often said, there is a sense in which the ambiguous authorial status of the Yasusada writing is embedded into, and inseparable from, the work's very aesthetics, so if someone is very upset by its apocryphal nature, it is unlikely he or she will consider it on the merits of its textual record.
As I suggested in my first answer, the problem is that the current reading culture at large --even that segment of it regarded as most critically sophisticate-- is generally not yet prepared to approach poetry with the open-minded notion that a body of work may hide more regarding its creative origins than it appears to hold on its "legal" attributional surface. Currently, unfortunately, North American poetry, traditional and innovative alike, is very much locked into an antique ideological function of authorship handed down from 17th and 18th century English law, and we expect our Authors to be empirically verifiable, well-wrapped in the cocoons of their copyrightable identities. History shows that it didn't always used to be that way, but our poets act as if it were a natural and immutable condition.
Q: How do you see the polemics retrospectively and what lessons or insights did you take from the episode? What contributions it left to the contemporary literary debate? Could you mention bizarre or funny responses and reactions to the book?
KJ: I think the polemics have for the most part been very healthy, and I believe they have opened up for consideration a whole potential area of poetic production that had been largely non-existent. Time will tell. If in the future we have the development of a fairly broad counter-sphere of heteronymous practices that begin to freely circulate alongside the habitual province of "empirical" and genetic ascription --a kind of parallel poetic economy, if you will, one not beholden to the relations of production and exchange of the official literary culture-- then I think Motokiyu's work will be seen as having made an important contribution. Should readers and editors come to take such ascriptional democracy for granted, I think it would be a salutary development, one that would greatly expand imaginative freedom and make reading and writing more interesting in a variety of unpredictable ways, and more resistant, by far, to being tamed. Of course, in that event, Pessoa will always be the main hero of the new field Therein, poetry will derive its mystery and force not so much from what it is "on the page," as from what it is in the world.
As to bizarre or funny stories, let's see... I suppose some of the outraged reaction from certain circles, where the outrage came from those who otherwise hold to earnest theoretical claims about the over-reifications of self and identity in poetry, seemed funny and bizarre to me from time to time. I was also called a "racist" by some, and that was certainly bizarre, since Doubled Flowering is a decidedly anti-racist work.
And there were some curious incidents that had their element of poignancy. One of the most telling, for me, was that Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris had planned to include a substantial entry on Yasusada in their great, two-volume anthology project, Poems for the Millenium, perhaps the most important gathering of international innovative poetries in any language, ever. Yet, when they discovered at the last minute that Yasusada was a more complex authorial entity than they had imagined, they excised his poems. As I reported Motokiyu writing in a letter to Rothenberg after he found this out: "I am wondering, presently, if the writing in your book only counts as innovative or exploratory if it comes accompanied with a certificate of authenticity." That's a good question, I think.
I don't know how well known Rothenberg's work is in Brazil, but he is (despite his terrible mistake on Yasusada!) one of the great figures of post-war English language poetry, and his elevation of the anthology to the realm of art and deep critique has had a profound impact on the course of things. He would certainly make for an important feature in a future Coyote, if you don't mind me suggesting.
Q: How do you see the world and the United States after September 11th and the war on Iraq? What can poetry do in a world that is increasingly becoming violent, complex and unpredictable? Is poetry still necessary, or even a necessary discourse?
KJ: I have my outward positions, of course, and like most people, I like to sound like I know what I'm talking about. But like most people, too, I'm very uncertain about what the world is or where it may be headed. And it seems to me that poetry must resist the temptation to assume a defining "mission" or "role" in these times when we are all hungering for firmer bearings. Perhaps what we need to do, as poets, is plug our deepest recesses into that great and encompassing uncertainty, fear, paradox, and, yes, dark comedy of the current conjuncture and just see what happens. Allow our selves to be shocked and lit up by the horror. To be transformers, as it were. Needless to say, there are as many cords and plugs as there are snakes in Medusa's head; and there are as many open outlets as there are orifices in Hades. So while we must be bold, we need also, I suppose, to be careful and have the polished shield handy!
So I guess I'm saying I'm not sure that poetry can or should aspire to "do" anything, really. To the extent that poetry does do work beyond its general aesthetic circumference, it seems to do so most meaningfully when it remains steadfastly what it most "politically" is: an autonomous zone of spirit and conscience, a zone that should be understood by those who enter it as multifarious and many-guised, beholden to no ideology of politics or art. Oppen and Zukofsky were onto something not yet sufficiently explored when they talked about sincerity as the ground of the art. Too easy to dismiss the concept as a sentimental cliché; harder to view and follow one of its countless paths waiting there.
Auden writes in his elegy for Yeats,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Perhaps in moments of crisis like we are now in, powerful poetry may reveal the connections of the "political" to that mysterious "mouth" Auden evokes. Maybe one could say that the poet's "political" task is to show how the "Real" is never separate from that dark space. But, well, I guess you can see that I am struggling with this answer!
Q: Who are the new poets that you consider as being the most expressive and interesting in the U.S.?
KJ: I had mentioned some younger poets working with a kind of Dada-Pop aesthetic, what they call Flarf-I think there are some interesting possibilities there, if they can become unstuck from their somewhat unimaginative relationship to the flattening figure of Authorship. And I'd mentioned the Ubuweb poets, a loose affiliation of visual and web-based writers, where there is considerable energy, in particular in Canada. I'm fortunate to work very closely with one of the most gifted poets of my generation, Forrest Gander. He and I have been co-translating the great Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz, and we are now into the second book, Saenz's frightening and magnificent book-length poem, The Night. Gander, I don't mind saying, is most definitely il miglior fabbro in our writing relationship. And he will most emphatically be the only contemporary poet I will individually name, since if I continue, I will inevitably end up, I'm sure, leaving the most obvious people out, including some of my friends, and I have few enough friends as it is! So I hope you'll understand.
But I will mention three writers who are not primarily known as poets, and whose work, I feel, is as crucial and singular to poetry as that of anyone writing in English today: Eliot Weinberger, generally known as translator, essayist, and editor, the finest prose stylist we have among those who write about our art, and someone who has taken the "essay" into new conceptual realms, so that one gets the sense of a wholly new genre in the making; David Rosenberg, primarily known as a scholar and translator of biblical and Judaic literature, one of the most original thinkers about translation's purposes, and who has engaged translation's mysteries and paradoxes to create works of poetic fiction that look like scholarly books but are something much more otherwordly; and Mikhail Epstein, the great Russian cultural theorist, now of the U.S., whose works of philosophy, like Wittgenstein's famous rabbit figure which changes into a duck and back again, oscillate between rigorous theory and delightful poetic fiction.
Frankly, I think we "new poets" of the English language have considerably more to gain from reading writers like these than we might by reading any of our more generic "Poet" contemporaries.