Kent Johnson

from: _Letter from Jerome Rothenberg: Post-Poems, 1998-2001_

<<The first letter of this series was previously published by Aporia>>

------- Forwarded Message Follows -------
From: "Osama Husein" <Faculty/OHussein>
Organization: Sudan State University
To: kjohnson Date: Fri, 28 Aug 1998 13:52:55 -0500
Subject: (Fwd): Khartoum Translation Conference

Dear Mr. David [Bromige]:

It is to our delightful attention that the poetry of Sudan is now discussed in the poetry of America with such suddenness. Thank you for being a section of this and for making a vision of a poet of Sudan. In ways I believe you do not suspect, you have entered the Arab nation's literature. It is my principle, nevertheless, that you must be delighted by this.

Please excuse my English, but I am writing to invite you, as a poet first of Canada and now, secondarily, of America, to what I now wish to present. I am speaking concerning a conference (International) devotional to translation in all the sense of this word. We are interested, with specificness, in the doubled (tripled!) voices passed through many mediators of history and cultural ignorance. Irony, as I feel you must conceptualize, is big here. Irony, in its bigness, becomes something other. It is like, for an example, you, a Sudanese poet speaking through an English tongue of brokenness. Or it is like many, many things: For an example, if I may twice say so: It is like two boys kissing in the shadows of a pharmaceutical plant. (They are like black and deep wells. Their lives inside are very, very rich.) The sun will come up over this dusty land and an ancient hatredness shall fill them.

I do not know if I put myself well. So may I directly ask. Will you come to Khartoum? Please close your heavy eyes and dream of my branching hand opened out to you.

We passion to invite another poet of America, Mr. Kent, who also is credenced in your two countries, and perhaps others, to be a racist. (In his reply to our Central Council, he spoke: "I am honestly not sure.") Still we are opened, and we have most little, but our flowing tents which appear (to all purposes and meanings) to be sailboats in the desert, are yours. Our young are fresh and eager, and they shall press into your soft mouth goat cheese with a hurt and surprised look in their eyes. Also, dark-skinned soldiers with golden and musical watches adorn every minareted corner. Yes, you will find Khartoum strange and hospitality-filled, except, as you realize, inside certain surprising circumstances. But lightning on a human is more likely, so really not to worry.

Ethnography, of course, is also interesting to every one of us and to all peoples. Our flowing tents, if I may say it repeatedly (for I, in an addition, am a poet), appear to be sailboats in the desert. Thus, after the morning session, we will convene in Building 242 for tea, the prayers of all religions, and the making of bombs. No one is to be insulted, not even if they do not know how.

Then we will reconvene, as I have said, and talk concerning Ethnography, including the customs of Christian animists to the south, the poignancy of American magazines like _Look_and _Cross Cultural Poetics_, and the rituals of Buffalo List of Poets.

Well, I am sorry. The situation is very complicated. But here, as the saying goes, we are. Here also, please, is a poem by a youth named Leonel Rugama whom we have invited too, except sadly he was beheaded long ago, at 20 years, by Green Beret students in the country of Nicaragua:

The Earth Is A Satellite Of The Moon

Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty.
Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2
Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty.
Apollo 4 cost more than Apollo 3
Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2
Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty.
Apollo 8 cost a whole shit-load of money, but no one minded
because the astronauts were Protestant,
they read the Bible from the moon, astounding and delighting
every Christian, and on their return Pope Paul VI
gave them his blessing.
Apollo 9 cost more than all of these put together
including Apollo 1 which cost plenty.
The great-grandparents of the people of Acahualinca
were less hungry than the grandparents.
The great-grandparents died of hunger.
The grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less hungry
than the parents. The grandparents died of hunger.
The parents of the people of Acahualinca were less hungry
than the children of the people there.
The parents died of hunger.
The people of Acahualinca are less hungry than the children
of the people there. The children of the people of Acahualinca, because of
hunger, are not born, though
they hunger to be born, even to just die of hunger.

Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.


Well, in realness, I do not know why I give this poem, except that I know you very much like poems. Don't you agree it was translated, without doubtfulness, by someone most self-congratulatory, so angry at his own country, yet blind as Oedipus to the terrorisms of non-white peoples? (Forgive me. I am smoking opium from Afghanistan. It betters my English, which you can tell is getting better as this letter, like a martyr, spills.) Of course, Mr. David, the trip (including camels) is long, like torture, apparently, in its likeness, and you shall be compelled to gift-forth your own plane-fare. In these days, that can be a dangerous incident. I understand, of course. But we sure hope you will say yes. Will you say yes? The people of Sudan await you. Headphones are to be distributed. You are forever one of us.

Sincerely, (although it is not my true name)

Osama Hussein



September 24

A. de Campos to R. Reis [excerpt]

June 1915

Dear Reis:

[Three pages into the letter]...What do you expect? Talking to poets about that is something like [Carlo Emilio] Gadda getting up to make a toast at the Royal wedding in Lisbon, 1909 [1910 is the year of the establishment of Portugal's First Republic, KJ] and then launching into a discourse about fucking. Well, what is fucking? I will tell you what fucking is: It is 1) the most elemental of topics (the regal guests would never have made it to the wedding without it), and it is 2) the most taboo of topics (for the regal guests, that is, who turn away in embarrassment, both for themselves and the man discoursing about it)....

Sorry about the mail, it is so slow. When are you sailing? I have sent you two weeks ago a copy of the new number of Orpheu, in which I have a long poem, Oda Maritima. Pessoa is also in the number.... [etc.]

fair greetings,

de Campos

[The letter continues on at great length regarding internecine poetry wars in Lisbon. The "that" to which de Campos refers is the ideologically conventionalized conception of authorship about which a modest controversy had been provoked by Fernando Pessoa (the very creator of de Campos and Reis) through his publication of the poems by the shepherd Alberto Caeiro in a previous issue of Orpheu. KJ]


September 24

Mensagem from Mario de Sa-Carneiro

Instructor Kent Johnson
Spanish Language
The Highland Community University
Freeport, Illinois 61032

Dear Instructor Kent Johnson:

I am a visitant Professor to Brown University in the fields of Luso-Iberian Poetry, and the Librarian Henry Gould has told me about the essay separated into various articulations that you are typing on the Internet Listserv called SukSuk. Therefore, he shared with myself (through the medium of the electronic mailing, consequently my incredible speed) the letter by de Campos to Reis that you fragmented for your companions. I am happy to have found it. There is a very large amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.

Neverthemore, I must bring forth a correction for you. The letter in question is not of the mad author de Campos; it is by the diffident Bernardo Soares, a very important distinction to be making, I'm sure you would consent to me.

But my focicle is the following, to share with you the text (fragmented) of a letter written to me by another friend of Henry Gould, the Professor Edwin Honig, also of Brown University, and honored some years ago by my country for his service to my country, awarded to a different scholar, by the force of Law, from a different country.

In the end, I do not think he would mind, for poets are always roasting their minds on a spit, in any case. Privacy is a hoax. Well then.

Mr. Honig has said of Fernando Pessoa:

"The stratagem behind such metamorphoses has been tried but scarcely probed by modern poets casting off the subjective self [by the way, sorry to interrupt, please, but do the Linguistic Poets say that they cast off the subjective self also? I believe Mr. Gould said to me that they say so]: to cope with estranged fragments of poetic identity by making specific dramatic characters out of them, occasionally lifted from one's personal life {...} The practice also serves to mute momentarily the disquieting problem of how to continue in a world inimical to poetic survival: Be not one poet but four or even nineteen! [Excuse me again, please, but here, undoubtedly, Professor Honig means that a tasking of the poets of avant-gardeness is to make forth multiple authors and let them run in the world to see what will manifest from them. How referential like a fetish to be merely one "real" Author or Academic! Please excuse me for my interruptings.]
When he wrote, 'I am a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness,' he was stating the condition of the post-Romantic who, finding no model in the past, was left to rummage through his consciousness for whatever guidance the search might generate. The sentence further implies that the alien 'I' does not belong to 'my consciousness,' and hence is detached and something different from the central *I*. In pursuit of the other, the wanderer keeps translating the inscrutable messages of consciousness by impersonating, as translators do, the absent author himself, possibly to achieve some affective identification with a fictive self-- perhaps a hypothetical former self, perhaps a self-to-be..."

Incidentally, in the light of these reflections, it was interesting to myself to attend the Convention of the Modern Language Association in Chicago the last year and to sit in a lobby of the Hilton regarding the Professors. I thought to myself: Is there any hope for poetry other than a boring Poetry of Poets? Fashion and circumstance answered no, en absoluto.

I should add, Instructor Johnson, that I understand you have poetic readings at your University. I also am a man of craft, with five authors to my Alexandria of names, and I would be honored to come to your village. Anything to get out of Providence for awhile, as they say... Or, failing this, please let us meet next time you are in this dead and infernal city.

Let us continue, I hope, a correspondence.


Mario de Sa-Carneiro, Ph.D.



September 25

Re: letter from Barrett Watten


Yes, it's true, the Language poets air-brushed me out of Leningrad. One thing I will never forget from that simulacral city in reverse is sitting in a vast hall in an incredibly ornate czarist building made all of marble, crimson-draped windows towering out onto the Neva, swarms of rococoed cherubs overhead, Barrett facing me across the great mahogany table in a kind of late pinkish glow, looking quite uncomfortable, eating little spoonfuls of caviar, while half a dozen Stalinist officials from the Ministry of Culture raised formal toasts to the "American cultural friends of the Soviet Union."

Arkadii Dragomoshchenko leaned over to me and with booze on his breath said in heaviest accent, "is this a bunch of fucking shit or what?"

"You think so?" I burbled, my mouth aswarm with sturgeon eggs. "I think this is fantastic!"

It was the first time in my life that I felt like a real Poet....

And to my left, far away, at the far head of the table, was Ron Silliman, his whole face consumed by a blinding sphere of light.




September 27

Letter from Jack Spicer

Dear Mr. Johnson:

Through the gentle and waking-dreamed eyes of Kevin Killian, I have glimpsed the little blowtorch you have held against their Faces. Against the feces of my children. All fucking by Poets takes place in Hell. You will need to learn how to write better. My enthusiasms.

I have also seen all of your invented letters. The ones from the living are quite boring. The more interesting ones are from the dead. (Mr. Killian does not know I am looking through his eyes.)

There is not much time given for writing where I presently am. So I will tell you three things, and if you're smart, you will believe me:

1) The entire matter is a very complicated situation, more complicated than you can presently imagine.

2) You are right about their burned or smelly faces, but that will never mean you should not kiss the image of your own head.

3) The whole problem began, in a sense, with The Beatles.




September 28

Letter from Jerome Rothenberg

Dear Kent Johnson:

I haven't written an e-mail for a long time (lol), but Pierre Joris tuned me in to the very long string of posts you are writing, and I feel it is time I wrote to you. Indeed, I have felt for a long time now that I should, ever since you made it public that Pierre and I had planned to run a whole special section of poems by Araki Yasusada in the second volume of Poems for the Millennium, and then withdrew our decision at the last minute when we heard the rumors.

The only reason I am writing at this time is to tell you that we both feel a great deal of remorse over the matter now. For one, it was unfair to the actual late writer of the poems and letters, Tosa Motokiyu (tho I understand that is only a pseudonym in turn); for another, it was unfair to you, in a sense, since you had answered our request, as caretaker of Motokiyu's estate, and sent us the poems; and finally, it was unfair to our truest principles as poets and editors, for our decision, one admittedly made under the pressure of ideological and archival forces we weren't fully cognizant of at the time, has made it appear to some that we were more interested in publishing "avant-garde" Poets than "avant-garde" poems. I hope you will accept our deepest apologies and regrets.

I have done quite a bit of thinking on the matter, and it seems to me that this idea of heteronymity or hyperauthorship (as you sometimes refer to it) is extremely interesting and an almost totally neglected ideational field in poetic studies. I believe, like you, that fascinating things will be happening in the future that will deeply change what we think about poetry and what it can and should do. Therefore, I would like to invite you to enter into correspondence with the small group of poets on the Hudson Valley Poetry Listserv, where Charles Stein, Don Byrd, Pierre, Robert Kelly, Elizabeth Robinson, George Quasha, Jed Rasula, David Hess, Barbara Guest, myself, and a few others hang out and chat. In December, our topic is to be "Pessoa's Trunk: Black Box or Time Machine"? We have also invited a number of Pessoa scholars to join us, as well as Jacques Derrida, who has expressed tentative interest. Please feel free to extend an invitation to your co-executor in London, Javier Alvarez, as well.

I would be delighted to hear back from you. If and when I do, I will send you the subscription particulars forthwith. If you are still in touch with him, please give my regards to Henry Gould, for whom I warmly and publicly expressed my admiration at Poetics about a year before he suddenly and strangely disappeared.

with best wishes,

Jerome Rothenberg


October 8

Poetry like baseball?

What a terrible city Detroit is. Two days ago I was there, sitting in a Greek restaurant called The Parthenon, or something like that, reading The Paris Review roundtable discussion about The State of Poetry Today, with participants Harold Bloom, Stephen Burt, Frank Kermode, William Logan, Daniel Mendelsohn, Richard Poirier, Richard Lamb, and Helen Vendler. In the forty or so pages of commentary about dozens of the "greatest poets," living and dead, there is not one mention of a single non-Caucasian-- and only three passing mentions of non-English language poets (Brodsky is one, dismissed as the most overrated poet in the world, and Cavafy, and Rilke). It's really quite amazing. Is America a racist and eurocentric culture? My God, I'm beginning to wonder!

Not that it has anything to do with this astounding state of affairs in the Paris Review, because it doesn't, but any minute, I thought, Barrett Watten will walk in the door, looking like he just stepped out of GQ magazine (Wayne State University is only a few bombed-out buildings down the street from The Parthenon), but he never did, and I doubt he would have recognized me even if he had, all fancied up and lipsticked in drag as I was.

Anyway, in this Paris Review piece (which, indeed, is remarkarbly like Detroit in many different ways), is an analogy that struck me as so interesting I thought I would ask what people thought about it: Richard Lamb says, "It sometimes seems like poetry is the first art to become a sport. The writer/common reader model has broken down in favor of a sort of generalized participatory *aficion*. Few baseball fans never play baseball (Marianne Moore might have been an exception) [Jack Spicer was probably another, but this is not the kind of piece in which one would find mention of him, KJ]; likewise there are poetry sandlots and diamonds all over the place. And some Shea Stadiums. The result is lively but fuzzy."

The rest of the day, in between sipping my Retsina and making eyes at the handsome Greek waiters, I wondered: If this baseball comparison is true, what then is our Subsub? Is it an American Legion team learning the ropes? Is it a high school team full of up-and-comers? Is subsub an obscure farm team in AA, full of frustrated wanna be's? Is it like a team in the old Negro Leagues, neglected but loaded with talent? Is it a sandlot team full of wishful dreams? A bar league softball team drunk and playing for fun? A Playstation baseball team on a computer screen? To what might we compare "our" team?

Whatever we are, the Owners Association members around the Paris Review roundtable would seem to be unaware of our existence.



Read an interview w/ Kent Johnson, issue #5 >>