Hoaxes and Heteronymity: An Interview with Kent Johnson
Araki Yasusada, an Hiroshima survivor who died of cancer in 1972, began to have his poems published in Western journals in the mid-1990's. His work was praised by both mainstream and experimental poets and critics for a combination of what seemed to be a traditional Japanese style and more innovative elements, and a book deal had been negotiated with Wesleyan University Press. However, word soon began to spread that there was no Yasusada and that the poems in fact had been written by Kent Johnson, an American poet who had acted as an intermediary between Yasusada's "translators" and the journals which published the poems. Johnson claims that Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym for one of the translators who is now dead, is the actual author. The response was immediate and often hostile. Wesleyan refused to publish the work, although Roof released Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, in 1997. American Poetry Review editor Arthur Vogelsang, who had published some of the poems, said the hoax was "essentially a criminal act."
But one aspect makes this different from previous hoaxes such as the inventions of Thomas Chatterton or James Macpherson: it seems as if Johnson, or whomever is in fact the author, wanted it to be discovered. There are a number of errors and anachronisms in both Yasusada's poetry and his biography which are so glaring that they must be intentional. "Araki" is a fairly common family name in Japan, but his alleged translators exclusively refer to him as "Yasusada," which would suggest either that he had a very unusual given name or that the translators were unfamiliar with Japanese nomenclature. A similar problem occurs with Yasusada's wife's name, Nomura, which is also a family name. The biography states Yasusada studied at Hiroshima University in the 1920's, although that institution wasn't founded until 1949. The translators claim Yasusada read the poet Paul Celan in the 1930's; Celan's first volume was not published until 1952 -- and then in German, which Yasusada did not read. Yasusada's letters have him reading and citing books years before they were published. Similar "errors" abound.
As a result, the Yasusada poems raise a number of very important questions about contemporary culture. To what extent does the work of art exist without the artist to whom it is attributed? Are the poems sincere meditations on a terrible tragedy, or are they little more than a hoax or publicity stunt? More generally, what makes a poem or an author "real?"
In the wake of the Yasusada controversy, Kent Johnson has been an eloquent and provocative commentator on many aspects of art and politics. In addition to Doubled Flowering, his books include A Nation of Poets: Writing from the Workshops of Nicaragua (Los Angeles: West End Press) 1985; Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Boston: Shambhala) 1991, edited with Craig Paulenich; and Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press) 1992, edited with Stephen M. Ashby.
Bill Freind has work in Jacket, Combo, Kenning, -Vert #4, Can we have our ball back and others. And has work appearing in The East Village, Nine to Zero, Lipstick Eleven and others. His chapbook _An Anthology_ came out from housepress. Etc. Look for his essay forthcoming in Poetics Today on the Araki Yasusada controversy and one in Angelaki that addresses the broader question of hoaxes.
For additional materials related to _Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada_, see:
Marjorie Perloff's essay, "In Search of the Authentic Other: On the Poetry
of Araki Yasusada"
"The Yasusada Affair - Ethics or Aesthetics? ... the Kent Johnson / Akitoshi Nagahata letters"
Forrest Gander's review of _Doubled Flowering_ from The Nation
Eliot Weinberger's "Can I Get a Witness?", an interview with Kent Johnson,
and a letter to The American Book Review
Mikhail Epstein's "Hyper-Authorship: The Case of Araki Yasusada" and On Hyper-Authorship. Some Speculations on the Mystery of Araki Yasusada
"Waiting for the Ultimate Snuff Flick", an interview on Yasusada with Kent
Johnson in Rhizome Issue 1
"Waiting for the Ultimate Snuff Flick", ad interview on Yasusada with Kent
Johnson as originally published in Read.me
For samples of Yasusada's youthful letters to his pen-pal "Richard"
BF: When it was revealed that Araki Yasusada was in fact an invention, many people were quick to call the work a hoax or a fake. Do those terms seem accurate to you?
KJ: Who is more authentic, who is less a reproduction: the poet who markets his person and career, proudly hoarding his cultural capital into the mutual fund of résumé and copyright, or the poet who creates another poet or more and refuses, to his dying day, to claim this writing under his own name? In the special issue of Boundary 2, 99 Poets/1999, edited by Charles Bernstein, the expatriate Syrian poet Adonis proposes the following about poetry's future task:
To save itself, poetry will need to progressively espouse the unknown eternal truths and refuse again and again to be regimented from the outside by any kind of ideology, system, or institution....[P]oetry will have to advance by exploring regions the invader cannot reach....[T]he traditional view of the poem cannot survive, it will have to be transformed in its very structure. Just as the traditional concept of poetry has already broadened to exceed the limits of traditional forms of speech, so, in order to resist the utilitarian goals which nearly strangled it this century, in order to escape ideology, the structure of poetic language will have to open itself to more movement, and move always toward a concept of the total poem.
This is well said, and I would say that this movement or opening toward the "total poem" will also require a sloughing-off of narrow and fake notions of authenticity. It will mean a guerrilla war of the heart against the ideology of the Author.
BF: What's wrong with the ideology of the Author?
KJ: I don't mean that all poets would or should cease to attribute their poems to their persons. That would be more than a quixotic proposal. So I'm not suggesting that modes and versions of heteronymity will totally replace traditional conceptions of authorship. Nor, I should say, will any move to something truer and more authentic have anything to do with simple notions of anonymity. As Mikhail Epstein, the prominent Russian theorist and critic wrote in a letter to Yasusada's creator, Tosa Motokiyu, in 1996:
Poststructuralism has pronounced the death sentence for the individual author(ship), but does this mean that we are doomed to return to the pre-literary stage of anonymity? One cannot enter twice the same river, and anonymity in its postauthorial, not pre-authorial, implementation will turn into something different from folklore anonymity. What would be, then, a progressive, not retrospective, way out of the crisis of individual authorship? Not anonymity, I believe, but hyperauthorship.
As in the physical world one has Newtonian and quantum mechanics coexisting in paradoxical simultaneity, so also will classical Authorship and heteronymic strangeness coexist. The problem is that literature is still very solidly in pre-Einsteinian times, and the quantum realm has not even yet begun to be observed...
BF: The quantum realm?
KJ: 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 Epstein again, going across times, places, and personalities.
But this will require strong conceptual moves that leave behind the vanishing point of genetic ascription and push poetic- performative activity-- sometimes illicitly and against "known laws"-- beyond the generic canvass-horizon of the page.
BF: This sounds visionary, with a tinge of the mystical, maybe. Some of what you're saying reminds me of the Neoists, who fought against the capitalist appropriation of the figure of the artist by producing works under the name Karen Eliot. Likewise, they sponsored what they called Festivals of Plagiarism which included works which borrowed, reworked and, yes, plagiarized other works. While that seemed like a good way of directing attention to the commodification of both "art" and "the artist," it's interesting to note that Stewart Home, one of the primary Neoists, has moved more recently toward what can only be described as outright mysticism (although he suggests this celebration of the occult is a parodic way of undermining the ideology of capitalism). Can we question the commodified figure of the artist without sliding into a more mystical approach which is little better than the system it purports to replace?
KJ: Yes, what I'm talking about is a bit of a vision, admittedly, but it is grounded in a materialist, not mystical position. As to the Neoists, in their second incarnation via Mail-Art and Home, they foreshadow a much more significant anarcho-cultural phenomenon: the still-unfolding collective pseudonym Luther Blissett, which began as an Umberto Eco-inspired cell in Italy and has rapidly spread, largely via the Web, to other nations. This is a fascinating development, and its hoaxes, pranks, hacks, and Situationist-like antics have garnered a good deal of media play. But Luther Blissett and Karen Eliot bear little in common with Yasusada: the former are anarcho-deconstructive in intent and function, the latter is utopic-constructive; the former vacuums up creative minds in monolithic anonymity under a single name, the latter represents the sowing of new authorships by creative minds seeking to disseminate identity in fluid configurations.
Now to get back to the issue of mysticism, I can't fully agree with the premises of your question. There will be many mystics, many odd, spiritualistic characters in the future exfoliations of a heteronymic general economy. Heteronymous materialists will attack them violently, to be sure, but it would be unmaterialist to assert that materialism has won the debate in advance. Are super-strings, or wormholes, or parallel universes, or Barbourian now-capsules matter or spirit, for example, and what do these terms mean, truly, when we talk about such things? Why is there something rather than nothing, as Leibniz asked 300 years back? There's been no answer yet. The question heteronymy proposes is materialist in character and intent; no one can say what the final response, if there is one, will be.
The underlying contradiction that provides the traction for setting forth, the "regimentation" that demands new destinations, is quite clear in its general outline: poetic production, in the US, Russia, Uruguay, Martinique, The Vatican, or Japan is stuck on the page and inside the body brace of the Name. The Name is what validates and envalues; it is the relay pole through which the current of the culture industry moves; it is the hole through which the invader enters and appropriates; it is the watermark that guarantees the currency. It's comfortable and respectable to circulate there. What, after all, could seem more natural? If your mutual fund grows big enough, you can even buy a job. But poetry's yearning cannot be contained indefinitely by this system, and it is fated to burst the outmoded form that presently binds it.
Marx said, "The task of history, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world." For poets-- or at least for those poets who take the notion of a revolution in poetic language seriously-- the task is now. There is no need to wait for "the world beyond the truth" to disappear. There is no need, either, for a "transitional stage" of practice that requires some kind of "collaborationist" interregnum with the reigning regime. The task is one of permanent poetic revolution-- a progressive espousal, as Adonis, again, puts it, of the unknown eternal truths that can only be discovered outside of "any kind of ideology, system, or institution." In order to begin this espousal, in order to begin establishing the poetic truth of this world, we must show, by deeds and not just claims, how phantasmagoric the world of the Author beyond the truth truly is.
BF: And how might this be shown?
KJ: The fractal proliferation of new, created authorships will show this, dismantling and liberating in a single gesture. Their multiplication across times and places will expose heretofore invisible conjoinings and practices. This will constitute a qualitatively new condition of poesis, one that will unfold beyond the penal, disciplinary rituals of the old order. The world of the Author we are now in is a vast and flattened circle of cells around a great tower at the center which sees from above and all around. Most of the prisoners happily accept their state; a few souls try to wiggle their way under the walls here or there, but they do so while singing about it at the top of their lungs. The song is called, "Here I am, my name is inmate so and so, I occupy cell number such and such, and I'm trying to wiggle my way under the wall." Obviously, they won't get out this way.
BF: What is the radius of this flattened and ramparted "world beyond the truth"? You seem to be suggesting that it encompasses areas beyond "mainstream poetry"?
KJ: I'm not talking here just about the poets at the Associated Writing Programs convention or at the New Yorker party. The so-called avant-garde in the U.S., for example, is by and large in a poetic/panoptic Flat-Land, poets squiggling about, trying to make squiggles distinctive from those of the poets of the Academy of American Poets, for example. They are doing some interesting squiggles in those two dimensions, the so-called avant-garde is, but there are many other dimensions, and one can stand up in them and even fly, maybe, or be in two places, or more, at once. But if you are "so and so" poet because that's what it says on your social security card, you are stuck in a certain space that is constructed for you, and the reader is too, no matter how odd the form or language of your poem in Poems for the Millennium.
I think this is one of the reasons poetry of any kind is not interesting to most people, and why so many of those who do find it interesting find it so for surface considerations... Poetry, alas, has become too much a kind of entomology, a collection of chrysalis-like authenticities all too happy to be plucked and pinned in display inside the tower at the structure's center. Poeticus charlesenius olsonius, Poeticus robertus pinskynius, Poeticus brucenius andrewsei, etc. ...The multiple specimens have variations in size, marking, and color, but they all stem, ideo-phylogenetically, from the originary genus. It's quite easy to fit each species-- even the exotic kind-- into its proper place in the Archive.
The truth is that professional wrestling, which is brazenly fake on one level, has a much more interesting and complex relationship to cultural reality than 99.9% of poetry does today. Poetry should and could be much more sophisticated in its generic-conceptual performative operations than professional wrestling, of course. Right now it is less so.
But I don't claim any special powers of understanding these matters. I'm quite aware I'm not as literarily-talented or quick-minded as many of those poets trapped in the Flat-Land. It's simply that I've been associated, by great coincidence and fortune, with a work that has proven to have a subtle and powerful (if largely unintended) critique of the present state of poetic affairs. And I think Yasusada has done a little bit of good work in laying bare the fake consciousness of so much poetic authenticity. Anyway, so no, because I guess I'm still answering your first question, I do not feel that the words "fake" or "hoax" are applicable to Yasusada in any productive sense.
BF: This is interesting -- what you're calling for bears some obvious similarities to the work of Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who wrote under a variety of what he called "heteronyms," a term you used earlier, wholly different personae with very different styles and approaches to poetry. Most of Pessoa's work dates from the 1920's and 1930's, and although he has a reasonably strong literary reputation, I wonder if many readers might be skeptical about such a project now. Is it possible that with the advent of digital special effects, HDTV, and high resolution copy machines we've actually become more enamored with the idea of "authentic" cultural production?
KJ: It's a good question, and maybe so. But one could also speculate, au contraire, that the Author Function's contemporary cramp-grip on writing and reading culture is in part symptom of a collective, pathological yearning for simulacral states. Authenticity or Truth, however you put it, is a mysterious and troubling notion, and I think most people intuitively know it has only something superficial to do with what can be empirically verified. Death, for example, is a very authentic and true state, but no one alive knows what it truthfully is. So it seems defensible to hypothesize that what people are after nowadays is not so much "the Authentic"; they are after, rather, authenticity's simulacral and constructed Figure, ready-made in the Author's image. It's a comfort zone, like television.
Susan Stewart, in the magisterial book Crimes of Writing sees the postmodern as marked by "the invention of a mass-market subjectivity of authorial 'stardom' within a context of deepening anonymity." And it's interesting to consider a relationship between the unprecedented hegemony of this zeitgeist and the rapid proliferation of simulacral technologies over the past, say, thirty years or so. I remember that Eliot Weinberger back in the late 80's proposed in Sulfur magazine that "Language poetry," which probably stands as the most influential avant-garde poetic movement on an international scale since the Beats, could only be fully understood in the big cultural context of post-modern sound-bite technology effects. There was a big brouhaha over that, and Weinberger has been more or less reviled by many of the Language writers and their fellow travelers ever since. But in truth, we've seen many of the leading figures of that movement rapidly devolve since then, in ways quite consistent with Weinberger's early critique. They've gone from an aggressive "anti-self" theoretical stance, utopianly proclaimed in decidedly non-mainstream publications, to an embarrassing embrace of as much authorial stardom as the academic/culture industry will grant them. And if that means publishing your books with Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Cambridge, and Oxford, or making clownish sound-bite appearances on national TV for the Yellow Pages at Rose Bowl half-time, as Charles Bernstein, the most famous "Language" poet did in 1999, so be it.
Interestingly, in this long march of network marketing from within the halls of academe they've become, the Language poets have, the aesthetic clothes to wear for perhaps a good one-third or more of today's American creative writing students. To these students I'd recommend Professor Tensfeldrockh in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus from way back in 1831: "Clothes gave us individuality, distinction, social polity; Clothes have made Men of us; they are threatening to make Clothes-screens of us." In other words, beware of designer-labeled fashion pretending that it isn't. It is nothing but the vestment of a mass and boring transvestism.
BF: Why has this capitulation, as you see it, taken place?
KJ: There's a simple, originary reason this collapse into the culture industry has taken place. From the day Robert Grenier penned "I HATE SPEECH," these poets just haven't been able to keep the Narcissus-image of their legal selves away from their writing. Railing against the ideologically constructed self, they never climbed out of the virtual reflection of identity's actual social cocoon. Now they are on their way to the Museum in the tower, these postmodern pupal poets, jarred, solutioned, and identified. Therefore, yes, digital copy effects, the increasingly sharper resolution of simulacra all around us--and thus inside us-- has something to do, perhaps, with this poet-patenting posing as pomo polemic.
So Pessoa: he will be seen as an even greater force, I believe, in the future. But Pessoa was all alone. My view is that down the road, 1000, 10,000, 100,000 Pessoa's will be writing at once and their heteronyms writing to and about each other and back to their creators and through time, re-valuing, dis-assembling, re-making the canon. What will the culture industry do with this? It will be at a loss, with nothing to grasp at, nothing to hold onto that might be pinned to the phylum board. Heteronyms can float through the walls of the Museum at will.
But who knows what's down the road? One can see how the current mode of driver's license poetic production is overripe to rotting, but any kind of heteronymic free zone, if you will, will be worked out in the future, sometimes slowly and sometimes at great velocity by many Pessoas, individual and collective. My calculation is at least 100 years before some kind of critical mass is reached-- but when it is, I think changes at considerable speed will begin to happen.
BF: To follow up on the Language poets: So you are asserting that this movement, though it thinks of itself as having undertaken a kind of dialectical leap frog over traditional, academic poetry, is still imprisoned inside the culture industry?
KJ: They are still squiggling down there too, yes. This slavish surrender by purportedly left-wing poets to Lit-culture's staged decorums and rituals (I've said it before, as has Motokiyu in the tape-essay "Renga and the New Sentence" in Aerial #6/7) is the delicious irony building up in the arteries of Langpo and its second-generation acolytes: It doesn't get talked about very much anymore, but remember that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project emerges in a brilliant critique and categorical rejection of the "self" and the "I" as conceptual ground for writing. Today, the work of both the aging figures of the group and their young apprentices is openly (and progressively so) underwritten-- and with no sense of self-consciousness-- by a mode of literary production and exchange whose scaly ideological stalk winds its smelly way smack out of 18th century capitalist law. One wonders how such an obvious lack of fit between the proclaimed theoretical commitment and real-time accomodationist surrender could go unnoticed by its practitioners and admirers. Well, "Exactly!" as Althusser might say...
The obsequiousness, the meanness, the cowardice, the overall fakeness that results from this state of affairs fostered and guaranteed by the Author is deemed more acceptable, more "authentic," less "hoaxed," than a writer choosing authorlessness so as to give life to other authors.
But time will tell. My guess is that when time has told, the Language poets will be something like the Lovelace's and Suckling's of our time. Fun, but with silly-looking Clothes that fit way too tight.
BF: Are there any current or recent poets or movements that are exceptions to what you are talking about?
KJ: There are some hints. I consider Alan Sondheim, in his multiple incarnations, to be a poet leaping, in fascinating ways, between dimensions. He/They is moving at a speed and volume most so-called experimentalists can barely fathom. A number of historically rigorous and lyrically bizarre poems put up on the Buffalo Poetics List in 1999 by the pseudonym "Lynn Miller" sent out rays in a number of promising directions, though whether Miller will expand from simplistic, two-dimensional pseudonymity into a full-fledged heteronymity is not clear. Another partial example would be the OULIPO, their work collectively considered. In the works of the OULIPO, authorial attribution has become a kind of meaningless carapace left behind after the creature has been boiled and eaten. Much as in Sondheim, the name becomes a form of whispered joke, though one wonders, at times, if the writer gets it. Armand Schwerner, Jackson Mac Low, and John Cage are three writers who began to move toward the horizon line, but never quite jumped over. Nabokov, in Pale Fire, makes another, if differently configured, false rush at the line-- an expression of giant ego so incandescent it verges on auto-erasure. The works of these last four writers have a doubleness to them, a centaur quality that lights up the overripe and ready-to-burst skin of legal Authorship: they are like figures whose legs and torsos are transparent and liquid in weirdest ways, but their heads are glossy and air-brushed, like a Barnes and Noble promo photo. The uneven and combined nature of their development is harbinger of revolutionary transformations to come. Motokiyu, though certainly not as talented an artist as these last examples, stands on their shoulders and glimpses something dialectically beyond.
BF: Your reference to capitalist law raises some interesting questions. Wordsworth was one of the first writers to push for copyright protection, yet it's well known that much of his early work was co-written with his friend Coleridge. Are you suggesting a similar kind of hypocrisy is at work today?
KJ: His betrayal of Coleridge and of his own earlier radical principles aside, Wordsworth's aesthetic was based on the individual's visionary voice. Copyright lends itself quite naturally to Romantic ontology and, consequently, to the great majority of poetry written today. But the aesthetic of the Language and so-called Post-Language poets is largely based on the idea that such I-centered, scenic claiming is part and parcel of ideology's fictionalizing function. They've written about this quite eloquently. But here these postmodern radicals are, stamping their texts with their mostly academic identities and copyrighting them as fast as they can churn them out. One might say that their betrayal is of a more candid type.
Speaking very figuratively, I had mentioned that any "collaborationist" sucking-up to the hegemony of the Author Function would necessarily fail to meet the demands of a true revolution in poetic language. Ironically, Barrett Watten, to whose work and person Aerial magazine devoted a fat, special issue, with BARRETT WATTEN printed in huge letters on the spine, has just written an essay arguing, with allusions to Kristeva, and with a strain that makes one wince, that half a dozen examples of collaboratively produced texts between Language poets stand as evidence of an avant-garde dismantling of conventional notions of authorship . Not quite, I'm afraid... Watten's main example is Legend, a five-person collaboration that he claims "dissolves the individual," is "supra-subjective," and "is located precisely in the place of the utopian elsewhere/nowhere invoked by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E's articulation of authorial subject positions." But one must ask the embarrassingly obvious question: How can an authorial subject position be "elsewhere/nowhere" when its legal denomination so emphatically marks a textual/territorial site of ownership? The store has an address and number in the Yellow Pages, as they say Watten's claim that "collaboration" between avant-garde Authors represents the threshold for a shedding of the Author Law, as he puts it, would be almost touching in its naivete if the arch-academic rhetorical lingerie of his essay weren't so plainly the disingenuous costume of an "experimental" strip-tease for the Modern Language Association Convention.
Let me qualify that last wordy sentence: There are exotic dancers who are compelled by objective circumstances to perform what they do, and many of them are very good people, hard-working and intellectually gifted. My point is that Barrett Watten's apparent gifts would find their true, unbounded, and nomadic range were his identity not so theatrically on the Authorial stage, dramatically pretending it is not what it is. But alas, in the revisionist spirit of the bureaucratized Third International, the erstwhile vanguard Party of Language now stages "collaboration" with a corset-like mode of literary production as a poetics of "revolution". And it's hardly surprising that this is so, now that the leftist opposition has its ministries and diplomatic posts in the Academic Popular Front of Poetry.
Fanciful and badly punned as the above analogy undoubtedly is, one must go by observation, and by its light, who can't but feel that what the [Robert] Pinsky's and the Howe's, the Perelman's and the Rich's alike desire most truly is to be enshrined in the canon's diurnal course, right alongside old Wordsworth?
BF: Of course, that brings up another point. In spite of your denials, most people have assumed that Motokiyu is an invention and that you in fact are the author of the Yasusada texts. Even if that view is mistaken, it's clear that you've received a fair degree of attention. Given your denunciations of the celebrity status which is accorded to many writers, wouldn't your best option be something like silence, or at least an avoidance of interviews such as this?
KJ: No, frankly, I don't think so. Because "(e)ven if I were him whom I claim I am not, and I am not, my speaking to them about a work that could never be mine, would not, I am convinced, contradict the spirit of the field of many you's that I imagine will fall forth-- fall forth, I mean, into many thems Many writers will speak, in different voices, about their them's, and there is no end to the possible in this regard. 'This is very important: There is no end'(p.23)."
This is a quote, perhaps somewhat melodramatic, to be sure, from one of Moto's notebooks, which [Javier] Alvarez and I will begin editing and partly translating when we finish with Moto's letters to "Richard". They are a treasure-trove of fascinating, speculative notations, though they often border on illegibility. I don't know from where the concluding reference above originates. I'll let the quote stand as answer to your question. But additionally, for what it's worth, I think it is true that each time I speak about Yasusada in a public way, it becomes clearer that he was the creation of a mind much less prosaic than my own.
BF: Do you think heteronymity can ultimately work to undermine or at least critique the largely unquestioned dominance of global capital?
KJ: Heteronymic modes of writing are infinite in their untapped variety. They need to be thought of, in the first instance, as time and space shifting procedures, propulsive vehicles writers might enter to lift free from the ideological gravity of Authorship-- inside whose Law, as I've said, writers make little hops and leaps but without ever, alas, getting very high off the ground. Or to rashly mix my analogies like I mix my metaphors, one could say that the heteronym is a form of Oulipean "constraint," but one that arches, like a dome, above the semantic-lexical operations of the writing per se, creating an enclosure within which a certain conceptual "heating up" takes place that produces rhizomatic branchings thoroughly impossible to conceive under "normal" conditions.
I'd mentioned Armand Schwerner, with whom I had, until my public involvement with the Yasusada texts, a warm friendship. We corresponded and talked often on the phone, and we spent time together on a few occasions. The controversy separated us. The last time I saw him, he placed his hand against my face without saying anything, and then turned and walked away. He once wrote, "Why leave the fictional experiments to the fiction writers?" The obvious answer is that it's strange indeed that contemporary poets have almost completely abdicated the field in this regard. In the future paradigm (and has no one thought of applying Kuhn, cliched as his paradigm model has become, to the sociology of authorial production?) the test of value in a poetics of "experiment" or epistemological exploration will likely not depend so much on mechanical matters of syntax and visual layout; its test will more significantly be how elegantly complex and genealogically subtle a tension the heteronymic figure enacts in relation to wider and unfolding context... For example, any poem by Ricardo Reis [a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa], classical in his aesthetics and monarchist in his politics, is profoundly more radical, from a total poetic point of view, than any "experimental" poem branded with the banality of legal ascription.
BF: But to return to my previous question, what about subversions of authorship as a critique of capitalist ideology?
KJ: Yes, so as to politics in the stricter sense of it: insofar as US poetry is a miniature and marginal but complete economy, dependent, like all economies of private gain, on a certain fictive correspondence between values of worth and exchange, and insofar as the legal Name in commodity-driven culture assumes the status of "brand" that is carefully and zealously superimposed on its product in preparation for circulation in the market, I suppose that heteronymic writing-- in addition to the above-mentioned creative and critical take-off a shadow economy of heteronymy would provide-- could well represent a symbolic and principled resistance to the appropriative functions of the Institution of Art-- a kind of civil disobedience, so to speak, against the IMF of the word: "Oh, so in your generous openness you'll include us in your End of History if we privatize? Well, Fuck You, you haven't seen anything yet." As we saw recently in Seattle, civil disobedience can sometimes have a salutary impact. And as I was suggesting earlier, there are manifold versions of such "civil disobedience" waiting to be brought, through poetry, into the world.
But poetry's role in any real-time undermining of global capital will be quite minor, I'm sure. There will need to be thousands of Seattles, and lots of huge strikes by barricade-building workers, and big mobilizations in the inner cities, and hundreds of expert hackers conducting cyber class-warfare, and a mass party thoroughly free from the collaborationist politics of "lesser-evilism" that can direct and focus such action. All of this will be necessary to get us an honest social-democratic government that is not the servant of corporate desire. I happen to be an ex-Trotskyist railroad mechanic, so I'm talking relatively modest outcomes here. It's too bad it can't be easier.
No, poetry's political impact, at least in the United States, is going to be poignantly tiny. Let's face it: George Oppen had the fundamental equation between poetry and politics right; Pound was right when he said literature heals nothing; Spicer was generally right, from a conjunctural perspective, about who listens to poetry ... But this doesn't mean that poetry is not absolutely necessary to a full and meaningful human existence.
BF: You mentioned Charles Bernstein. I've heard reports that at 1999's Modern Language Association convention he delivered a paper on Yasusada, in which he claimed that the work is essentially an expression of "White Male Rage." What is your reaction to that?
KJ: I've been told by people who were there that Mr. Bernstein read the paper with quite a bit of venom in his vowels. And of course, for some of the reasons I touch on above, Yasusada can't help but turn a radical avant-gardist Charles Gray Professor of Poetry into an angry white male who gets so hopping mad that he can't see how poignant and funny the situation really is. And it's a very interesting situation, that of the politically proper post-modernists: When it comes to multi-culturalism they want to have their cooked non-white poet and eat her too. And, of course, they want to do it with everyone's name cards on the banquet table in the English Department dining hall. No heteronyms allowed!
BF: Another appraisal for your comment: in a, long essay in The Notre Dame Review, the former Yale Younger Poet award winner David Wojahn claims that Araki Yasusada is a much better poet than Kent Johnson or than the late English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. He also claims, referring to you, that it is difficult to understand how someone who comes across as "a windy and slightly paranoiac jerk" in his published commentaries on the matter, could ever be the author of writing like Yasusada's, which he feels is brilliant, heart-breaking, and historically significant.
KJ: Well, I agree with everything Wojahn says. It's what I've been saying to smug, deaf ears all along. I am not Yasusada.
BF: Why do you think Tosa Motokiyu, or whomever wrote the Yasusada poems, initially wanted to keep his or her heteronymity secret?
KJ: My answer is necessarily speculative, because the issue was not something about which Alvarez or I ever entered into specific conversation with Moto. One always goes back and wishes for a second chance. Javier has a somewhat different view, but I feel strongly that Moto never really thought about it all that much-- at least not in any theoretical detail, with anticipation of all the discussion to come. The matter for him, rather, was what to do with poems he couldn't explain in any straight-forward, rational way: What was this other voice? Who was this non-living author who seemed, in all his complexity, to have had his own life and poetics? This is not to draw some kind of mystical curtain between Yasusada and Moto. They are not ever separate. But the former stands as a kind of metamorphosis or transcendence of the later. And so I think for Moto-- someone, by the way, not literate with the ins and outs of the American poetry business-- it was the most natural thing to present the poems in the "transgressive" way that they were.
Now, does the work contain the seeds of an ethnographic advance into the mountain hamlet of US poetry and, even, of the self-conscious dismantling of its own specific fictionality? Yes, clearly, as critics like Marjorie Perloff and Eliot Weinberger have pointed out. But the question (and this is where Alvarez and I differ) is to what extent there was an emplotment by Moto of the work's critical subversiveness, of its status as a time bomb that explodes and reappears, goes off again, comes back to tick and detonate, and so on.
No matter what the case may be (and we'll never know, because Moto's notebooks don't contain clear clues), I think it's apparent that we should be grateful he presented the work as he did; we should be grateful he was beyond doubt that Yasusada would cease to be if he did not allow him to simply and completely exist as the author of his own writing. Otherwise, his afterlife, more real, more "other" than his initial one, and which is still unfolding, or going off, as I said, and much to the consternation of some, would never have been.
BF: Some critics have questioned the ethics of using a hibakusha, or Hiroshima survivor, as an heteronym, arguing that that amounts to a politically questionable appropriation of a victim's voice. How would you respond to that?
KJ: I've spoken to this in previous exchanges. The term "appropriation" assumes a premeditated choice, one most likely made against better moral judgement. The phrase "victim's voice" assumes an effort at unmediated presentation, a "victim" speaking who would occlude the open wounds of his fictional body. This is not the case with Doubled Flowering.
Still, no matter what I say, there will be those-- particularly those professionally invested in certain notions of essentialism-- who will never be swayed. So be it. But Yasusada is not an "appropriation"; he is a deep and idiosyncratic work of empathy, one which provides, in the words of the critic Joe Lockard, "a radical encounter with the thinness of human distinctions." Naturally, this bothers those who demand that empathy have checkpoints at the borders of "the other's" difference. Sweeping away their policing, Yasusada reveals, through the mirrored-layers of his text, how deeply the otherness of Hiroshima and its victims is inside "us"...
You had alluded to plagiarism earlier (and I should say that Yasusada's translators almost always indicate, openly or slyly, those moments when he is borrowing), and in a recent interview I did with the Northern Arizona University linguist and Nahuatl language scholar Norbert Francis, I ended by poaching from a published exchange I had with the Japanese poet and critic Akitoshi Nagahata. In that spirit, I'd like to end this interview by plagiarizing from myself again, this time from another recent interview I recently did with the poet John Bradley, editor of a stunning new collection of essays from University of Arizona entitled Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader-- a book that will probably not get the attention it deserves. Here is what I said:
Despite how some have "sympathetically" seen the work, Doubled Flowering is much more than an ironic commentary on cultural simulacra, much more than a clever experiment with historical identity, or what have you. Elements of theoretical things, as I've said, can be found. But it's much more helpful, to my mind, at least, to think of Yasusada's presence in a less rational light: as a form of haunting, a remnant, or, as Derrida has it in Spectres of Marx, a reve-nant, broken-off from the excess of trauma and mourning that flows out of Hiroshima through time and through us. Yasusada's shattered textual apparition stands, in success or failure, as an act of transmemoration. It's an aggressively transgressive act of remembrance, and that's fundamentally it.
Yasusada emerges in Moto not as a dramatic persona who is plotted and crafted in cold advance, but as a force or imperative from within. The writer through whom this voice emerged withdraws and leaves a slender book of fragments as an after-image cast in Hiroshima's long sear. The shadows of Hiroshima are very disturbing. I would say that it is entirely appropriate, in this sense, that Yasusada's form, a faint shadow of shadows, has proven disturbing in its own small way.
The unspeakable that happened 56 years ago, as I said, is deep inside us-- "East" and "West". The work of facing, of mourning Hiroshima and Nagasaki is barely begun and will never be done. Thus, Yasusada is one expression of this mourning: To use Robert Jay Lifton's phrase, he represents one possible form of the "protean imagination" that is required to move within something that is overwhelming and not fully negotiable through closures of identity and authority. There's no doubt there are other forms, more visionary than Yasusada's, on the verge of coming forth.
To read Ken Johnon's poems in issue #5 >>
Kent Johnson has work in -VeRT # 3 & # 4. Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz (translated with Forrest Gander) is forthcoming from University of California Press.