The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax

from Linguafranca: The Review of Academic Life
November 1996 issue, pp. 82-84
by Emily Nussbaum

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, major poetry journals like Grand Street and Conjunctions have showcased a remarkable discovery--the work of Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada. Vivid, surreal poems and assorted literary artifacts (letters, drains of haiku) appeared alongside a heart - wrenching biography: Yasusada, readers learned, had lost most of his family in the bomb blast. Hitherto unknown, this unexpectedly witty, experimental poet offered a striking new link between Japanese sensibilities and Western avant-garde poetics, with a style influenced by both renga and Roland Barthes. The writing impressed editors and readers alike with its brittle imagery ("When I hold by tongue inside a written sentence/it blisters"), so different from the sentimental voices of many other Hiroshima poets. Sadly, Yasusada had died of cancer in 1972, but his unruly notebooks, which were in the process of being translated, attracted enough interest to be considered for publication by Wesleyan University Press.

But even as Yasusada's resume grew, a rumor began spreading in the poetry community: There was no Yasusada, editors whispered to each other--at least not in the usual, one-author-one-body sense. The same manuscripts submitted to poetry journals (and mailed from a variety of locations, including California, Tokyo, Illinois, and London) had shown up on the desks of prominent academics like MarJorie Perloff, but with a notable difference: "Yasusada" was presented as an invented persona, the creation of one or more people intent on keeping its origins a secret. Messages slowly surfaced on the Internet warning editors about an ongoing deception.

ONCE WORK of the hoax leaked out, many editors who had published the writing--sometimes with poignant footnotes on the death of Yasusada's daughter from radiation poisoning--were furious. "This is essentially a criminal act," says Arthur Vogelsang, editor of American Poetry Review, which published an entire "special supplement" of Yasusada's work, complete with a fake "portrait" of the author, this past June. When Wesleyan's editors learned they'd been snookered, they dropped the "notebooks" manuscript cold.

For every embarrassed editor, of course, there's a chuckling critic. Literary historians trumpet Yasusada's acceptance as proof of the American poetry community's shallow understanding of the Japanese avant-garde. Postmodernists see it is as fitting rebuke to those stragglers who keep trying to roll back the rock from the tomb of the author. And critics of the popular "poetry of witness" school--a movement which champions work created in the crucible of war and oppression--are thrilled by the way the Yasusada writings seem to expose poetry editors as suckers for any writing by a Victimized Other. Writing in the Voice Literary Supplement, poetry critic Eliot Weinberger suggested that the Yasusada affair delivered a coup de grace to the idea of "poetry where you had to have been there."

SO WILL THE REAL Araki Yasusada please stand up? Well, no, apparently not. The most obvious suspect is Kent Johnson, a 41-year-old professor of English and Spanish at tiny Highland Community College in Illinois. Johnson has been the primary clearinghouse for the plethora of submissions, follow-up letters, and theoretical exegeses surrounding the Yasusada writings. (The fictional Yasusada purportedly worked for the Japanese postal service. Johnson must relate.) Interestingly, Johnson has published several poems of his own that were written in the voice of a Hiroshima survivor. They appeared in the journal Ironweed in 1986, under the title "From the Daybrook of Oshimora Okiyaki"; many of the same verses show up in the Yasusada manuscripts in altered form. The professor also featured Yasusada (among more corporeal poets like Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley) in his 1992 dissertation at Bowling Green, "Strategies of Saying." His advisor, Howard McCord, lauds Johnson as both an astute critic and "a very intellectual poet, extraordinarily rich, and a great creator of character."

BUT IF JOHNSON is hiding in a poetry of witness protection program, he's not coming out any time soon. In fact, if he has his way, the question of Yasusada's real identity will remain forever in flux, a "hyperauthorship" which wriggles and splits like mercury. So far, Johnson has parried the questions of editors and publishers with Zelig-like skill. While some editors are angry at him, all have engaged in a complicated courtship that has left them experiencing a mixture of resentment, fascination, and a discomfiting intimacy. Several editors told Lingua Franca that Johnson had confided to them (under duress or as a slip) who the real author the work was. Alas, each of Johnson's answers was different.

Not to mention complicated. Here is Johnson's latest explanation for the origins of the work: The actual author, he informed Lingua Franca, is "Tosa Motokiyu," whose name appears as a translator in several Yasusada manuscripts. (Johnson insisted on communicating only in written form, co-authoring his faxed response, he said, with Javier Alvarez, a Mexican folk singer and possible collaborator.) Never heard of Motokiyu? According to Johnson, it's another pseudonym. As he tells it, "Motokiyu," who purportedly died of cancer last year, was the roommate of Johnson and Alvarez in Milwaukee in the Eighties. Motokiyu, says Johnson, created the Yasusada writings in an attempt to "imagine another life in the most sincere way he knew how...only by remaining hidden could he accomplish that." Johnson reports that "Moto" wrote 95 percent of the Yasusada writings-- and wished to remain forever unidentified. (Johnson acknowledges, when pressed about his own Ironweed poems, that ten pages of the Yasusada corpus are his. He says that "Moto" admired them and asked for them to be included in the Yasusada manuscript.) That's as deep as Johnson will go; he won't even say if "Moto" was Japanese, let alone a survivor of Hiroshima.

WHATEVER the truth of Johnson's confidences, the writing that he has helped to loose upon the world is affecting. In one Yasusada poem, the narrator gazes out at the crowd in Hiroshima's municipal stadium and overlays the image of cheering baseball fans with that of an atomic blast: "seventy thousand voices are fused by a sphere and/A corolla of screams ringing absence is viscerally real." There are troubling and often grotesque visions of Yasusada's daughter: "Of course, he knows his daughter's acne is causing her much shame./Some people are found still standing, burned to a dark crust." These corrosive references mingle, perversely, with slapstick jokes and erotic metaphors. "The image of the galaxy spreads out like a cloud of sperm."

The work does fluctuate in quality. The absurdly footnoted scraps published this past summer in American Poetry Review seem deliberately parodic, a joke on the reader who swallows their poetic poison. And Grand Street's bizarre prose draft "From The Diary of Rita Hayworth," in which Yasusada himself adopts a persona, has more self referential levels to it than an Escher print. (No wonder it's included in their Fetishes issue.) As for authenticity, it's clearly not Yasusada's strength. "This is just Japanized crap," exclaims John Solt, a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College. "It plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture--Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic--and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony." As an example, Solt cites the line, "obediently bowing the white flowers." "Bowing is not seen as subservient in Japan," he points out. "It's a form of greeting."

SINCE WORD of Yasusada's nonexistence got out, reactions have varied. Lee Chapman, who published selections of the work in a special Hiroshima issue of First Intensity, in 1995, says she was "livid" and regards what was done as "just plain ugly and selfish." Says Chapman, "It struck me as particularly conceited and cynical [for someone] to be pushing made-up material relating to the horror of Hiroshima, when real survivors and their families are still around to remember what happened to them." Chapman says she found the work "fairly remarkable," but strongly resents the way it was interwoven with "heart-rending 'annotations'" about Yasusada'a tragic personal history.

Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, which published the work in a 1994 issue on translation, was intrigued at first by the deception but finally found the whole masquerade "coy, self-satisfied, glib." He, like Chapman, regards the Hiroshima subject matter as "almost too grim," and argues that "If it was written by a Hiroshima survivor, as a literary response to that experience, then it's an amazing historical document and certainly a remarkable technical achievement. If it's just someone being emphatic in another culture fifty years later, it's legitimate but not as interesting."

Others in the poetry community find these concerns about political offense overblown. Deborah Treisman, who published work in Grand Street, Laughed when she found out Yasusada's bio was bogus, though she also feels the deceptions was "on some level irresponsible." More pointedly, Marjorie Perloff says, "There isn't any sacred subject you can't make a hoax about! Why would this be more O.K. if it were about the victim of a car accident?" For Perloff, the relevant issue is editorial hypocrisy: "If they thought it was such good writing, they should still think it was good writing."

For her part, Wesleyan Press poetry editor Suzanna Tamminin thinks it's not that simple. She says she "absolutely loved" the work when she received it, but when Johnson began to hint that Yasusada didn't exist, she rejected the "notebooks" manuscript, concerned about the ethical issues involved. A correspondence then commenced in which Kent Johnson offered to "frame" the writing, stating that he had in fact written it. (Johnson now says that an ailing "Moto" requested that he take credit, both to prod Wesleyan's acceptance and to help the shadow poet "disappear more deeply into the crowd of figures...that populate the fictional world he made.") After outside readers--one apprised of the hoax, the other not--found the work "appalling" and oddly uneven," respectively, Wesleyan delivered a final rejection. "There was, as well, a personal feeling of being humiliated," says Tamminin. "But then again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It does speak to the power of the writing."

SUCCESSFUL or no, Yasusada's creators are simply the latest in a long line of poetic ventriloquists. Recall, for example, the "Ern Malley" incident. In 1943, two Australian pranksters cobbled together the "lost" work of this supposed homegrown genius, duping editors Down Under with modernist pastiches many critics still consider remarkable. On our own shores, poet Kenneth Rexroth performed a feat of faux-translation in the Fifties when he "discovered" the erotic poems of "Marichiko," his Japanese female persona.

Some suggest that it's high time for the wizard to emerge from behind the curtain. After all, shouldn't the author(s) get credit for what is, for many readers, a powerful act of literary channeling? For Johnson et al., this misses the point entirely: The writing should be judged not simply as the work of "Motokiyu" (or Johnson, or Alvarez) but as that of "virtual author" Araki Yasusada, the ghostwriter in the machine.

For perspective, one could look to a similar situation, some twenty years back. A youg poet narned David Dwyer, wrote, after much research and imaginative effort, a series of poems in the persona of an older woman, named Ariana Elisvos. In an attempt to see whether he was "getting it right, whether it was convincing," Dwyer submitted the poems to the feminist journal Aphra which was seeking subnussions from older women. The journal ended up publishing two poems. When the editors of Aphra found out about the deception, they were furious. Later, when Dwyer published the work under his own name, Aphra charged him $100 per piece to buy back the rights to his poems. Dwyer won the coveted Juniper Prize for the collection.

Appropriately enough, Dwyer now says he's "of two minds" about the deception. "On the one hand, I was genuinely trying to create this persona, to really create a living voice," he says. "On the other hand, I did take advantage of people's kindness. Then again, I was very young. And there's a kind of arrogance that grips artists, where you're willing to take advantage of others. It was quite a few years before I got rid of that character."

Emily Nussbaum is a writer living in New York City.


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