by David Hess and Kent Johnson || Author's Links
David Hess's criticism has appeared in Jacket, Read.me, Skanky Possum, The Baffler, Mungo vs. Ranger, Poetry Project Newsletter, and numerous other magazines. A book of poetry, Cage Dances, recently appeared from Skanky Possum Press.
Kent Johnson is caretaker of the manuscripts of Tosa Motokiyu, including the writings of Araki Yasusada, which The Nation referred to as "the most controversial work of poetry since Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl,'" and which Arthur Vogelsang, editor of American Poetry Review, labeled "a criminal act" following the publication of Yasusada selections as an APR Special Supplement. He is translator, with Forrest Gander, of Immanent Visitor: Selected Poetry of Jaime Saenz, due out next fall from University of California Press.
David Hess sends Kent Johnson some contentious remarks re: Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, inviting his commentary. Johnson responds.
Hess: In the wake of the publication of Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, by Roof Books in 1997, an extensive PR-like campaign was launched by Kent Johnson, who some claim to
have actually produced the material with his own hand gestures. While Johnson maintains the work was written by Tosa Motokiyu, a pseudonym for some Japanese guy who supposedly took it upon himself
to create a fictional hibakusha (Hiroshima survivor), my curiosity is piqued by the ferocity with which Johnson has defended the "Yasusada Author" -- in interviews and essays, at conference-like gatherings, and on listserves, especially -- and made his own rather deeply utopian claims for the value of the work. And these claims are what I wish to focus on.
Johnson: Hello, David. Thanks for sharing these interesting notes with me. On the "deeply utopian claims": Only fair to note that I have said more than once that the Yasusada writings are a minor, tentative expression of what might be reached in a more broadly-active hyperauthorial counter-sphere. In this sense, Doubled Flowering is like the guy with wax wings, pre-Kitty Hawk, jumping off the bridge. But by the way, why do you assume "Tosa Motokiyu" is "some Japanese guy"? Tosa Motokiyu is a pseudonym, quite distinct from the Yasusada heteronym; his ethnicity is indeterminate.
H: In a recent post to the extraordinarily boring listserve Poetryetc, Johnson argues that the heteronymic writing in Doubled Flowering "may offer new ways of empathic engagement and understanding (albeit always unfinished, of course)." It is one moment in the "progressive espousal" (a phrase taken from an interview with Bill Freind) to which Johnson has committed himself after the publication of that book. In the same interview Johnson says, "The fractal proliferation of new, created authorships will ... dismantl[e] and liberat[e] 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." These are tall claims. Not only does Johnson say fictional authorships will make better art (than all non-fictional authorships? we are not told) as well as a kinder, gentler, more truthful literary field, but that they will free us, maybe even save our souls. The Promised Land seems to be on the horizon. I can't reconcile, however, Johnson's claims for empathic engagement with his promises for personal liberation and transcendence of self, and here is where he seems to stumble into ethical quicksand.
J: Not just trying to be defensive here, just accurate -- you are confusing my defense of Motokiyu's Yasusada with my comments on the "futural" (a nice term I just learned from an otherwise terrible essay in Postmodern Culture on one of the famous Language poet-professors) promise of an expanded heteronymic practice (i.e. the creation and proliferation of a fictional poetic space to which "actually existing" authors would have a variety of potential relationships). But most importantly, the following comment of yours seems very off the mark to me: "Not only does Johnson say fictional authorships will make better art... as well as a kinder, gentler, more truthful literary field, but that they will free us, maybe even save our souls." I don't think I've ever said such a thing, and I think Motokiyu would come back to haunt me for all my days if I had.
H: William Styron wrote a book called The Diaries of Nat Turner, which I haven't read, and he was criticized for having written an account of a black slave uprising in the pre-Civil War South from the perspective of its instigator, even though he himself is white. I see no moral quandary in Styron's act if empathic engagement took place in the writing, if Styron was able to humanize his subject while staying true to the historical unfolding. Styron, of course, did not present his work as the actual writing of Nat Turner, nor did he present it as the work of an unknown leader of slave revolts, which then was revealed (by Styron) to be the work of someone else, not Styron, who created a fictional leader of slave revolts, someone who of course just happened to die a few days ago, therefore being unable to be reached for comment. And while Styron might have found writing the book to be a healthy thing to do, he did not go on a campaign to promote it as a tool for revolution, literary or otherwise. If Doubled Flowering is to be used to extend the agenda, however noble, of Kent Johnson, who claims not to have written the book and yet to know that the act of writing such a book is liberating and the best, then the whole basis of its magic, its testimony to a nuclear catastrophe has been lost, wiped out.
J: Yes, the above is the doubled-bind, if you will. It's too bad Motokiyu has such a flamboyantly earnest executor. I suppose if he'd known what I was going to do, he might have entrusted the work to someone else -- someone more demure and academic, maybe. Or maybe not. Too late now, in any case. There's that story of the Lama from Tibet asking his California yuppie hosts to go through the drive-through at McDonald's so he can get a Big Mac. "But you are a vegetarian!" cries one of the hosts. "That would violate the precepts." "Yes," says the Lama, "what a paradox..."
H: Later on in the interview with Freind, Johnson defends the "brazenly fake" nature of professional wrestling, commenting that it "has a much more interesting and complex relationship to cultural reality than 99.9% of poetry does today." Though the categories "fake" and "real" are intensely subjective and temporal, my opinion is that Doubled Flowering is much more subtly fake than brazenly so. While there are historical inaccuracies, probably created on purpose, such as the impossibility that Yasusada or anyone read Celan in the '30s, the writing does not alter or fabricate the historical event around which it orbits -- the bombing of Hiroshima. In fact, that is the only thing we can be sure about.
J: Of course, that the book is a "fiction" is the other thing one can be sure about -- though one where fictionality seeps out of the picture frame into the safe confines of the literary exhibit space. And it's for this reason, largely, though few would wish to admit it, that much of the reaction has been so vituperative.
And this, by the way, is also Yasusada's generic difference as a work of art -- and why it's not really accurate to "compare" The Diaries of Nat Turner or Schwerner's The Tablets, or any other number of straight persona expressions, with him, as some people have done. And professional wrestling... well, it's idiotic, to be sure. I'm only saying it has a more sophisticated relationship, intentionally or not, to the "Real" than most "avant-garde," experimentalist poetry, which is absolutely unimaginative and timid in that regard, i.e., "My name is so and so, and I'm writing code-poems to the Memory of the Future, when people will at last be able to understand me," which is the argument in that Postmodern Culture essay I mentioned earlier...
Hess now writes Johnson back, addressing him directly. Johnson responds within Hess's comments.
H: Thanks for the extensive commentary, Kent, but the big problem is that you continue to do the about face, maintaining that there is Motokiyu's Yasusada and then the Yasusada that is the little Kitty Hawk preparing the way for the big countersphere of cool heteronymic badminton.
J: Have to say: Don't think I'm following you here (though "cool heteronymic badmitton" is classic Hess). I've always said that Yasusada happened for his creator as a series of bizarre and unsuspected of accretions -- a "necessity," you could say, as you do below, when you remark on Pessoa. All the theoretical speculation about the work's possible implications for different forms of poiesis come after the fact -- "after" the startled and enraged reaction. So, yes, there is a sense that there is the body of work on the one hand, and the wrapping that's been done around it on the other. It occurs to me that Yasusada has become something like a "theoretical object" art piece, something like a teacup covered in fur, or a spiral jetty in a dead lake. It's not the fault of the teacup or the spiral.
H: If people are to follow your example then they would not be building such a countersphere where people can freely make up fictional poets with their own oeuvres while not having to act as if they didn't.
J: Well, they might and they might not. There would be lots of room for all kinds of different propositions and performative stances. This is partly the point: the idea of hyperauthorship is vast, like outer space (Motokiyu says that so simply and wonderfully in a tape-essay published in Aerial magazine a number of years back), and different relations and positions of authorship will emerge, flicker, collide, eclipse, orbit, burn out, explode, emerge, etc.
H: I'm not harping on the fact that you continue to deny your role as the creator and not the spokesperson, but rather how that behavior undermines your own utopian claims and vice versa.
J: You are probably right. But again, this seems a minor point vis a vis the bigger questions.
H: Recently read Pessoa's Always Astonished and for him the creation of the heteronyms was a necessary act but it was not "liberating" in the way you describe. He actually says he was "enslaved to these multiplicties" or something like that. Did he deny that he made these poets up? I don't know, but it sounds like he didn't. It sounds like people knew and didn't really give a shit because he didn't try to hide it and because artists down thru the ages have invented characters and language to go with them.
J: On Pessoa you are right. In fact, in this regard, I have been, to some extent, a bit disingenuous in using him as exemplar in past comments: de Campos and Caeiro circulated as "actual" authors for a fairly short time before Pessoa adopted a ho-hum position in public. So you are right that Yasusada is a more "radical" and illegal expression of heteronymy.
H: I know you say you didn't pull a hoax, but you continue to act as if you did, as if there is something to hide, and I think this is HOLDING UP THE CARAVAN.
J: Where would the caravan be going? Who's driving? I'm not being snide... I'm intrigued by the incisiveness of your read, though I think you have some things wrong -- or at least could be looking at them in a more multi-dimensional way.
Hess writes again. Johnson responds.
H: Okay, Kent, what about hypernyms and pseudography? What is the difference between a hypernym and a heteronym? Pseudography I take to mean the creation of heteronyms.
J: Yes on pseudography, as I use the term. It would be the word for the study of all "paranormal" expressions of authorship, from the most simple pseudonymous forms, to the most complex hyperauthorial fractalings. "Hypernym" is the Russian critic Mikhail Epstein's term, which I've used as synonymous with heteronym. However, I've recently had correspondence with Christopher Daniel, translator of Pessoa (see the new issue of Crayon, which features translations and a long interview with him and co-translator -- very good and their translations are the best out there, to me. Exact Change was going to do a big book, I'm told, before they went bottom up), and he argues that there should be a distinction drawn between "heteronym" and Epstein's notion of "hyperauthor," the former the term for created authors who have a clear and "acknowledged" link to an empirical writer (i.e. Reis=Pessoa), and the latter reserved for purposely apocryphal "authors" like Yasusada. Interesting, how little considered the whole area is -- we don't even have an agreed critical lexicon.
Hess writes again. Johnson responds.
H: Okay, Kent, maybe my criticism is focused on this one thing: how you claim to be wanting to create, usher in a countersphere or culture in which truth claims will no longer matter, where there will no longer be a concern for whether something is invented or not, but rather the concern on the quality of the invention.
J: In my extended discussion with the Japanese critic Akitoshi Nagahata (at Jacket #2), this issue of truth claim comes up. If you read that, you'll see that Motokiyu considered the Yasusada as a certain kind of truth claim, and I do too. Truth is an extremely important notion for authors to grapple with. But that "truth" in literature should in any way be premised on legal, copyrighted identities is an invention of the 18th century. And the "avant-garde" is still "experimenting" inside that invention, as if it were the most natural thing, this fabricated and long-stale air.
Furthermore, it is inaccurate, I think, to say that there would be "no concern for whether something is invented or not" in a reading formation where hyperauthorship is more widely practiced (i.e. "alongside" and linked into the usual forms, not instead of or cut-off from them). Readers will approach works with new senses of sophistication and expectation and heteronymous poets will have to justify their "existences" as such.
H: But in this space a Yasusada would not be original, it would be rather ordinary and the microscope would be on the work (as it always should be) and not on the theoretical implications of a fictional hibakusha.
J: Yes, true enough. But the Yasusada exists "in the concrete," as a particular expression of its time and circumstances, so I'm not sure how useful your point is, honestly.
H: Ever think of faking a hoax? Has it been done? Because hoaxes are getting quite popular. Time someone faked it.
J: Maybe. I'm not all that interested in hoaxes, though -- a boring notion, "hoax."
Hess writes again. Johnson responds.
H: When you say, "The 'avant-garde' is still 'experimenting' inside the invention," you don't mean all of the avant-garde, right? You mention the Neoists and others, Luther Blissett...
J: Right. But note the key distinction I make in the Freind interview between these expressions and the Yasusada example.
H: I think your criticism of langpo theory is correct -- they want to move outside the self but don't move outside the name. Watten tries to escape "expressive" subjectivity for the "material text" and yet fails (as he must) because the self, the ego cannot actually be gotten rid of.
J: But there is a distinction to be made, I think, between "expressive subjectivities" on the one hand (which you are correct to say is ultimately inescapable -- even Mac Low or Cage, after all, are expressing an historically determinate subject position in their programmatic texts) and the reification of such into particular relations of production and distribution on the other -- a reification that I maintain has "delimiting" repercussions for creative praxis. So that's a central part of what I see as the self-created Langpo mollasses -- they critique a mode of ideological/literary production while treating as "natural" or inescapable, the "cultural/legal relations" that most fundamentally underwrite the mode.
H: So yes, I agree it's high time to move outside the name and start letting ourselves invent ourselves (though I don't see how this would prevented by still publishing under one name, it may just alter the reception of the work after all and not the process of production by the artist).
J: This would be a key disagreement between us. The whole reason for advocating heteronymity is that it "impels new forms and dynamics of imagination." There are certain ways of "imaginatively being" in the world, particular strategies for poetically negotiating constructs of space/time that hyperauthorship fuels and drives. And all sorts of unforseen ways, in this regard, I'm sure, will be discovered in the collective development (should it ever happen) of hyperauthorial practice...
H: The langpos reject personality and celebrate the name, when poets should be doing the reverse.
J: Ideally, yes. But the deeper Langpo goes into the academy the more the celebration of the name and its institutional functions will come to interpolate "avant-garde" poetic practice. Though not that things could get that much worse...
H: You also say current writers are also "page-bound" -- a criticism launched at avant-grenadiers like Artaud. Is this part of a different vision for poetry? Is post-page poetry different from creating heteronyms (not in an essential sense, I mean, but in a practical one, i.e. only publishing on the web, not publishing books or in magazines...?)
J: When I've mentioned off the page, I've had in mind something more than the web, which doesn't seem all that radical to me -- I actually agree with Bernstein's critique of the puffed up claims made for hypertext. Hypertext, sans the newfangled gadgets, is as old as Homer. The Divina Comedia, for example, is a flying saucer compared to the silly model T's of click and choose your story-line. No, I'm thinking more about the ways in which hyperauthorship enacts, potentially, a leaping-off or displacement from the two-dimensional page into a four-dimensional real-time theater, so that categories of authorship and reception and the dramas of axiology become part of an open plot that the hyperauthor then actively "acts" within -- in Brechtian self-reflexive fashion -- as, in a sense, I continue, albeit in my limited role as caretaker, to act inside Moto's Doubled Flowering.
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