06 November 2006
Some Fictions of Kent Johnson
Election Eve, 2006 --
Kent Johnson (on the left, pictured with BlazeVox editor Geoffrey Gatza) was in Buffalo recently. He gave a great reading at Medaille College (my employer, which earlier this semester hosted our own Lance Olsen as well) -- work political, lyric, alternating langauges and moods, beautiful and full of truth. Johnson denominates himself a poet, but only because in the current world of poets "fiction" seems to have become a fallen, dirty word. Somehow experiments involving prose and narrative investigations, if conducted by poets, are being called poems these days -- as if, to bend the old saw, the dancer were now more essential than the dance. (I even had a writer recently tell me that she had written a book of prose poems, though she supposed that if we were in France it would be called a novel.)
Living in Buffalo, a city of poets, I am used to such (mis)constructions of fiction. But whatever Kent Johnson calls himself, he is partaking in the strategies and tactics of fiction writing.
Let me talk about his recent book in the ongoing Araki Yasusada project, Also with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada's Letters in English (Combo Books, 2005).
This work is a sequel publication to the alternately lauded & decried collection, Doubled Flowering ("the most controversial poetry book since Allen Ginsberg's Howl" - Forrest Gander), on whose title page Johnson appeared as editor (alongside Javier Alvarez) when the book was first published in 1997. What happened subsequently is the stuff of literary provocateur legend: Johnson was ultimately accused and (perhaps) revealed to have been himself the author of the poems which had been claimed to be the work of Yasusada, a survivor of atomic-bombed Hiroshima; accounts of the hoax appeared in Lingua Franca, The Nation, and elsewhere. The "perhaps" above ensues because Johnson has never (to my knowledge) fessed up, and instead we read such labyrinthine narrative positionings as this, from the more recent (2005) letters volume's introduction:
"In the poetry world, it is by now generally known that Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada is a fiction created by its 'primary translator' Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym of a writer who requested, before his passing in 1966, that his legal identity never be revealed."
Any attempt to try to stabilize statements of the authorship of Yasusada eternally encounters new self-cancelling fronts and evasions. Yasusada's Letters are likewise a maze of metacritical delights on the order of Nabokov's Pale Fire, which, of course, Yasusada and Motokiyu both have occasions to reference. The letters date from a year in Yasusada's early student career in the US, 1926, almost two decades before he was to be present in Hiroshima, and are written to a never-further-identified "Pal-Pen" named Richard. They are annotated throughout by the at-best pseudonymous and more likely entirely invented Motokiyu, as well as the sur-editors Johnson and Alvarez, with commentaries that are notable for almost invariably and frequently comically missing the most obvious significations of the lines they meant to elucidate. And the letters themselves are written in a deliciously imagistic and variously attenuated pidgin language which begins as naively attempted English before morphing into a gorgeous, if sometimes precious, poetic prose, over a period of months. Despite all of the circuities of Johnson’s framing device, one has the uncanny experience, confronted by the core textual materials, of seeing a young artist blossom, an accelerated, fragmentary, international 20th century kunstlerroman:
January 5, 1926. "I am writing the letter from this class of American English. I hope you are feeling lovely. Do you have a wife? Inside your nation I know there is hotness in months of August and July. Particularly there is hotness in my nation when in August. Now there is coolness. And much snow. I enjoy to travel upwards in mountains (yet especially downward on long clauses!) [...]and also the study of your tongue, English."
July 24, 1926. "Boiled tortoises are made to cool. Giggling geishas left bones with tweezers. Red dace make eggs in mussel shells. Eels are sliding in baskets of bamboo. A carp goes eaten by the bride. Inside Fujiwara and Manabe there are bandits. This is one silly song sung while tops are spinning."
November 7, 1926. "Each time I read Dr. Anzai's poem, 'Spring,'
A herring is about to be brought to the table, coming through a subway tunnel
I feel renewed and excited, as if I had been slapped awake by an Imperial courtesan with the thighs of a wrestler! [sic] And your own 'Horse,'
There is a naval port inside its intestines
reveals, if there ever was any doubt, that within a single turnip pulled up by a squatting man there are mountains, rivers, and a whole formation of rubber-capped subjects swimming across the Hokaido Strait! My death is coming; I am patient."
Sweetly, Yasusada signs each letter "I am sincere." Of course, the liar always sez he's telling the truth.
The slim volume closes with an essay and a personal reflection by yet two more characters, critic Mikhail Epstein and Hosea Hirata, the latter of whom claims lineage to another survivor of the atomic blasts. These people may be real, as Javier Alvarez also might or might not be; yet Araki Yasusada has an entry on Wikipedia and Johnson was asked and answered a question about the attempt to secure a University home for Yasusada's papers when I saw him in Buffalo, engaging now in a fictive game of such momentum that it has acquired players in his audiences. Where Johnson has been criticized (and I avoid here investigating further the blog wars in which Johnson and detractors evidently both descended to nastiness), it has been for exploiting the victims of this historical crime by authoring poems which are said to have issued from that time, place, and subject-position. There are both hard and soft critiques to be made from this perspective: Is Johnson’s Yasusada a reactionary “reverse-discrimination” experiment suggesting the limitations of “witness” poetry, that writings that would not have received such an audience when seen as written by a white American more valued when they are seen as the products of a now-dead Japanese writer, who perished as an indirect result of historical violence? Or, crediting Johnson with his own version of “I am sincere,” to what extent is the Asian “other” subject position rightfully claimable by one who has not lived in the society or had the experiences, but mimics identity for the purposes of art.
Johnson full body of work turns these types of questions inside out and every which way. A notable text in this debate is his story/poem, "Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz (Or, Get the Hood Back On)," which first appeared in Gatza’s online magazine BlazeVox and has subsequently appeared both in Johnson's collection, Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War (Effing Press) and in the anthology, PP/FF, published by my own Starcherone Books. Of these, the essential experience remains the BlazeVox publication, where Johnson’s text is presented under a montage of Abu Ghraib photos, musically scored and designed by Gatza to reinforce the contrast of casual colonial brutality and naive gringo enthusiasm that is a hallmark of Johnson’s text:
"What’s up, Ramal, I’m an American boy, a father, two children, graduate of Whitman High, where I was a member of the Science Club and Student Council, then I got to be the youngest elected officer ever in the history of my town’s Rotary Chapter, I’m in charge of fund-raising, which hasn’t been easy the past few years, what with the economy and all, but we’re hanging in there. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, because I don’t want to assault your sensibilities, or anything like that, but I want to be up front with you because I believe that honesty is the best policy: So, I’m going to put a pointed plastic hood on your black and blue head, and then I’m going to stand your caped body on a milk box, with live wires taped to your outstretched hands, and then I’m going to count to ten, you witch-like Arab freak, and maybe I’ll flip the switch and maybe not, it all kind of depends."
“I think Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz is by far the most relevant poem for/in/about this War,” poet Ethan Paquin has about this text (about 15% of which is excerpted above). Paquin’s statement is one with which I am in wholehearted agreement, except perhaps for the part about “poem.” But whatever kind of text one wants to call this, the sense in which Johnson has made himself an actor in the service of national conscience should be emphasized. Always in Kent Johnson's work is the linger of American war violence -- whether it is the haunting flash-backward and forward to Hiroshima in the Yasusada letters, our devastation of Baghdad or the incomprehensible (and radically uncomprehended by its perps) tortures of Abu Ghraib. Johnson loves the interplay between the devastations wrought by US superpower and the naifs (young soldiers, young Yasusada) entangled in any deciphering of their meaning. Gander makes much the same point, in talking about Doubled Flowering:
"Using Modernist strategies, the author(s) [Johnson and Alvarez], steeped in translations of Japanese literature and feeling uneasy, even -- if they are Americans -- complicit with the U.S. foreign policy that generated such mass destruction, invented an imaginative, political and poetical act of empathy. To write poems concerning Hiroshima, they felt it necessary to imagine themselves as the other, 'the enemy.' They relinquished their own identities as authors and became invisible, as the Hiroshima victims themselves disappeared. It is an impossible gesture of solidarity, since one cannot truly imagine one's way into an actual culture considerably different from one's own."
I am interested in and sensitive to questions concerning the ethics of representation as similar questions as pertain to the Yasusada project may well be raised about my own novel, Malcolm & Jack, particularly where I fashion artificial constructions of the subject positions of such figures as Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. In answering these concerns myself, I would underline the sense that narratives are always constructions, and any verisimilitude created by fiction is an effect of the art form, in no way a speaking for the absent subject: verisimilitude is not verity. At the same time, what fiction writers DO is represent. That is the essential form of the art: it is an art of lying, invention, artificial construction, mimicry, semblance. I think it is a limitation on the practice of the art to say that there is some aspect of discourse, experience, or history that one should refrain from representing, as a hard and fast rule. Of course, one should not go into the minefields of representation unadvised or without respect for the significances of histories of racism, oppression, violence and the like. We should also expect the representations of others from assumed and masqueraded subject positions will be problematic -- that is the nature of experimental art. Fiction, by its very nature, is a practice which self-consciously presents itself as lies, thus leads us to reflect upon lying, both within deliberately designed aesthetic creations and upon the at-large practices of fictionalization at work in all walks of our lives. Fiction is that discourse that calls into question the truth-telling strategies of language even as it employs them. Airtight, airbrushed, sanitized lies are the ones we really have to worry about. I am a fiction writer, and so I lie, but my lies haven't been killing people. This distinguishes Kent Johnson and I and y’all (who’s out there?) from Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney, who lie and kill people, or who lie and make people killers. Fiction is lies that do not lie about lying. That distinguishes the art of lies that is fiction from the lies of power we are so much in the grip of in our national discourse today. We are distrusted and feared by the world and we have alienated our own youth so much that a majority have opted out of democratic agency even as we claim to be bringing this great gift to the rest of the world.
To summarize, then: Kent Johnson is (and is not) Araki Yasusada. Geoffrey Gatza is Superman. I am Jack Chapeau. George Bush is Bozo the Clown with 100 million vials of poison. And I guess tomorrow we'll start to find out if we can trust our voting booths.
"There was never a mistake in addition," Gertrude Stein once wrote. Or was that Antonin Scalia?