Massive People (13): Johannes Göransson
If I had to make a list of modern forces for the grossvoice, for the kind of language and propagation of a series of imagery and discussion that is continually underfunded or otherwise ignored, Johannes Göransson would being among those crowning the list. An editor and founder of the vital Action Books, as well as its web component Action Yes (both one of my favorite presses and online journals, publishing big voices such as Lara Glenum, Aase Berg, and a high # of books in translation), Johannes is also the author, so far, of three books of new mind and language: Pilot (Fairy Tale Review Press), A New Quarantine Will Take My Place (Apostrophe Books), and Dear Ra (Starcherone Press). This year Black Ocean released his translation of major Swedish poet Aase Berg, With Deer, one of many works in translation Göransson has put together.
Recently I sent a couple of questions Johannes’s way, and he responded in force, as might be expected, about the history of Action, the grotesque, Genet, and !!!!
1. The aesthetic of Action Yes and Action Books are both quite singular and distinctive in its sprawl, and yet also seeming wide open to an array of capabilities. Was there a particular stigma in the birthing? A reaction for or against? How who why?
Why did Joyelle and I start Action Books?… Ever since I went to graduate school I’ve known that nobody would publish the kind of writing I liked. Even Artaud… if Artaud wrote today City Lights wouldn’t publish it. If Celine wrote today New Directions wouldn’t publish it… Etc… Not much chance for me or my Shangri-las. No much chance for someone whose idea of heroism involved putting out cigarettes on his arms… And more importantly, few presses would publish work that is flawed, but those are the best works (See for example Sean Kilpatrick’s awesome story in your No Colony journal)…When I was starting to write as a teenager I read Surrealism and Beats and that’s what I thought poetry was… poetry was the spectacular destruction of wealth… Later I read Beat/CA influenced journals like Caliban and Disturbed Guiliotine… Things edited by Iran Cohen and other unreconstructed 1960s renegades… but these were sort of coterie journals; not open to a rancid 20-year-old… I wanted to interact… When I tried to find journals to publish in, I found plenty of journals and they were mostly full of crap. So I sent them my poems thinking that I would improve their bad journals… Thinking, these journals will be psyched to get some good poems for once… But of course I got rejected… I couldn’t figure it out… Didn’t realize that they had a totally different idea of what was good writing… To them my writing was terrible… (It should be noted that I did have a poem published by Bitter Oleander…. a journal I still sometimes read today…The poem was about a horse and glass shards)… I was out of college… living in Queens with a woman who had just got her MFA but had decided that Poetry was crap and didn’t write anymore. Her MFA had taught her that poetry didn’t want her… That was useful to me… To see how MFA programs weed out people like that (I would see more of that when I went to MFA school)… I didn’t know anybody who wrote… It was a different world as they say… No blogs or anything like that. Or I didn’t know about them… (The Internet is causing huge changes in literature)… I was miles and miles from St Marks Poetry Project etc, though I often went to readings there. And at this language poetry place in Soho… Can’t remember what it was called… I once saw Charles Bernstein there and was pleased with myself because I thought I had had a celebrity sighting… Now that seems so sweet and ridiculous… I was sweet and ridiculous… No I was a jerk… A real asshole… I felt isolated…. I went to graduate school because I wanted to interact with other writers… At graduate school I realized why all those journals had rejected me. My poetry wasn’t good according to their criteria… I also realized that my way of reading had everything to do with translation – not just the artistic impulses came largely from non-US literatures, but my very way of reading was very translation-based… I didn’t have the same relationship to language as most people in school (“natives”)… I graduated… I had a lot of torturous relationships…as I was leaving Iowa City, I started to write Dear Ra… I continued to write it in NYC… I finished it on Puerto Rican Day… I was living in Spanish Harlem… Everybody honked and honked… Shut the fuck up!… It was hot… I sweated profusely in my room… The woman who lived in the apartment opposite my window would walk around naked in her place… as I was writing I stared at her body and we both sweated and everybody honked… When she got laid she would yell out loud in Spanish and keep my and my roommate Raymond up… “Good thing she doesn’t get laid as often as she did 10 or 15 years ago,” said Raymond… His favorite band was Pearl Jam… I hate Pearl Jam… He also liked Enya… I don’t think I understand Enya… His son was in jail for knifing a 16-year-old “hitman” who had previously killed Ray’s son’s cousins… Within a few months the son had lost all his hair, he was so scared… “Somebody gets stabbed in here every day, dad”… I knew nobody would publish Dear Ra… I thought about self-publishing it…. Acquaintances told me to self publish was “career suicide.”… I didn’t care… I didn’t have a “career.”… I read Joyelle McSweeney’s Red Bird and it blew me away… Back in grad school she had just been a decent poet, now she was amazing… I couldn’t let myself get static… I worked as a landscaper in NYC. All I did all day long was haul plants around and talk to my fellow workers about various sexual acts… In the humiliation of our drudge work we used fantasies of women’s bodies to rescue us…” I’d hit that shit.”… “I’d tear that shit up”… That’s what we said all day long… Constantly… Except the gay white guy. When asked about some woman like Mariah Carey or the woman in the short skirt coming out of the building looking at us with disdain, he would say “she’s not my type” or “her boobs look fake”… The others would roll their eyes, “white people”… But when it was just me and the gay guy he would come up with much more perverse scenarios, often involving the star of “Jack Ass,” tighty-whities, urine, wheel-barrows, bricks… He was a genius at violent sexual fantasies, a total genius… A real inspiration to me still… He had worked as the guy making window displays for Ralph Lauren but had burnt out… He was kind of a mess… He would show up bleary-eyed for work and say “Ugh I was so drunk I pissed in my bed last night” or “Smell me, Johannes…Do I smell like feces today?”… He wore these little fashionable booties to work… White people…The racism was obscene… My co-workers were Puerto Ricans and these rich folks on the Upper Eastside didn’t even see them… repeatedly they let their dogs piss on my co-workers as they were working in the flowerbed etc …. They couldn’t actually see them (a few years later I was reminded of this when my white students at U of Alabama seemed incapable of seeing the race or violence in Kara Walker’s artwork – “that’s just a little girl with a basket! That’s not a head! She’s not black! Etc”)… or if they saw them they saw them as criminals… Various customers would rather have us climb on ladders 16 floors up than let us walk through their pristine houses…Or they would accuse my crew of stealing… Random old ladies would go up to them on the street and ask them for their green cards (ironically they never asked me and I was the only one who had one!)… “I’m from Brooklyn!”… Those guys would always offer me advice about white people. They would say, when a white person says x, they really mean why…, Or: white people will do this and that to you for this or that reason… They had a whole hermeneutics about white people and they felt they needed to tell me to keep me from getting exploited by these white people… Of course we were working for pennies hauling bamboo plants around in the yards of million-dollar penthouses on Central Park East… For people who would ask me “What are you having the boys do today” as if the crew didn’t speak English, as if I was the manager… “If I ever see that faggot in Brooklyn I’m going to kill him,” said Andy, one of the guys (though they weren’t all that homophobic. “Everybody’s got an uncle who’s a little funny,” as Pucho would say)… Andy belonged to a “car club,” but he could never explain to me what this club was all about. He would always give these tangential explanations… What is a car club? “Last night I fucked a black girl from Staten Island”… or: “We don’t fuck with people unless they fuck with us, then we fuck them up”… Or he’d give some detail about his car stereo which apparently had won him several awards. It took up the entire trunk space… I liked those guys a lot, but everyday we were humiliated…. An entire class of people is humiliated daily in America…. I really miss those guys! … I can’t stop writing about them!… But everyday I was humiliated and exhausted and full of hate and violence… I had another girlfriend. We fought constantly… Threw stuff at the wall… Shouted “you’re a fucking bitch and I hope you get cancer in your big tits”… Stupid childish stuff like that… That’s how she liked it… We broke up at least twice a month… She hated poetry and she hated my ex because my ex wrote poetry and was bisexual… After work I was exhausted and couldn’t write so I would load up on coffee just to keep myself from going to sleep… In the evening I studied for my masters in education but I became disenchanted with the whole idea of public education… They kept telling us that our job as high school teachers would be to “get the kids out of the neighborhood,” but I thought, “I was devastated when I had to leave my neighborhood as a teenager, why should these kids be pressured to leave theirs?”… This is just a long way of saying, I didn’t “self-publish.” Why? I was lazy. I was exhausted. I was full of hate… And it’s so much easier to complain about things than actually do something about them… ( I think people should self-publish… Not sure why this is so upsetting to people… I thought it was great that Jessica Smith published her own book and I was surprised that people had trouble with that)… Anyway, later I tried to publish my translations of Swedish poet Aase Berg. I thought: here’s a prominent young Swedish poet who writes like nobody in the US, surely everyone will want to publish these poems!.. No! It was even harder to publish them than to publish my own poems! This made me think. I realized it made sense, I didn’t like the books these presses were publishing, why would they be interested in things I was interested in… I stewed in hatred. This felt good. To hate and hate in the dark. Hate is a good feeling. I was also going crazy and to get out of the mess. I couldn’t write… I was humiliated and exhausted… I applied to phd school because I felt I was going static, I wasn’t learning new things. I got in… Moved down to Athens, GA… There I met people who wrote things I liked (Lara Glenum, Danielle Pafunda, Johnny Woods, Chris McDermott, somebody who I – due to a brain-blank-out – want to call Kim Kardashian but whose name was something else – oh yeah Kristen Kashock – and a lot of interesting undergrads and artists, Orange Twin/Elephant 6 people, Cal Clements the Lacanian Quilt-Maker, etc) and who engaged in other artistic ventures I liked (performance work, pop songs, mutilations, robotic-erotics etc)… Took classes with Jed Rasula where we studied the historical avant-garde… Started to translate my old heroes, Finland-Swedish Dadaists Gunnar Björling and Henry Parland… I also started to publish in various places and over the Internets I met up with people who felt like me (you, Sean, the Octopus crew, the Double Room crew etc); and around the same time Joyelle came to read in Georgia with her blue hair and we ended up getting married and she was not incapacitated by hate like me but instead full of optimism and she came up with the strange idea that we should start a press to publish some of these folks whose work we liked and in the immortal words of Swedish punk band Ebba Grön: “We just wanted a place for people like us.”… But instead of the unproblematic “us” of that anthem (an unproblematic “us” so frequently the agenda of small presses who see as their main mission to publish their “community” – such an insular, and unintentionally xenophobic notion) we wanted “us” to be more open to foreign influences, challenges – most notably through an engagement with works in translation… And after we started publishing the books we realized we would better be able to engage in this lunacy by starting an internet site, and thus we began Action, Yes…. Glue punks… Torsion treatments… It has been very inspiring but exhausting work… It’s very satisfying to get to publish people, particularly unknowns, like this guy Nick Demske, a librarian in Wisconsin who we are publishing at an upcoming issue of AY, or Sara Tuss Efrik, a Swedish poet and performance artist who doesn’t even have a book out in Sweden, or Jeffrey Angles who has translated all kinds of great stuff from Japan, or Don Mee Choi who translated the amazing Kim Hyesoon and who has written her own book of great poetry… A lot of folks (usually younger) like Tyler Flynn Dorholt, Andrew Lundwall, Ross Brighton from New Zealand who are a lot less beholden to oldfashioned notions of publishing… It’s been fun but exhausting… Etc… We just wanted to create a problematic space called “us” where we could continue to be discombobulated and inspired…
I like the idea of an ‘aesthetics based on the morality of boredom.’ It seems an interesting thought especially in coupling with the often violent, sexual, oddly syllabled language and imagery that is found in a lot of the work you both write and publish. It is interesting, too, that two of the biggest icons perhaps of this kind of writing, Sade and Genet, if you will, were both often writing from places of imprisonment, literally prison, whereas the imprisonment more writers now are likely being ‘confined’ by are intellectual concerns, if not psychological imprisonments of the mind or body. How, then, are those modes of boredom, then and now, different? What do you feel is ‘at stake’?
Also: why do you think the more mainstream presses and venues tend to want to shy away from these kinds of decadent languages and iconographies while at the same time they are being embraced (if in a very different manner and of a very different spirit) in popular media of films and television and video games? IE: it seems okay and even popular for people to watch violent scenes of rape and compulsion when it is presented in the hyper-sleek manner of the popular CGI action film from Tarantino down, but in text forms, and in less specifically stylized version of more popular media, it is frowned upon or even set aside?
You can add Artaud to this mix… It’s a good observation, but I’m not sure why they happened to end up institutionalized and what the connection is between that life and their writing… I would need a sociological study… I would need to remember Foucault… Perhaps it’s interesting to look at the way institutionalization has generated art, rather than prohibited… As in the case of Adolf Wölfli, or Genet (who read Jules Verne in jail and wrote Our Lady of Flowers in jail)… The role it seems to play in their writing is as a space where the Cartesian model of mind and body breaks down… Perhaps it’s about the reignition of the kind of theatricality that is lost in our modern society of disciplinary incarceration… In Genet’s film, the guards are punished for peeping into the peepshows of the various cells… Sade screamed to the masses: They’re killing us in here!… I don’t know… Recently I saw a movie called “Hunger” about the IRA’s “dirty protest”… the Irish nationalists used their own feces and urine to protest their state of incarceration… It was amazing… The main character looked like Matthew Barney, which made me see it almost as a commentary on Barney’s work… or it applied Barney’s visual vocabulary (slime, nudity, acrobatics) to a study of a political history… (though it’s more than history, more like a commentary about Abu Ghraib than the Irish struggle)… Perhaps what’s interesting is the tension between martyrdom and physicality, abstraction and the body… As the leader starves himself to death, a priest keeps arguing that he is merely trying to be self-righteous martyr, but the movie insists on his physical body and showing how it degenerates… And then you come to the feeling that it is both, that … that martyrdom leads to physical excess…. Or that kitschy concept of martyrdom is reinvigorated by a new kind of hysterical body… Other people know more about this than I do, but the other day I saw two anorexic girls out running and they were striking in their abjectness… Skin and bones… We are told that girls want to be thin in order to look good to the male gaze or whatever and here these girls were taking it all the way, using this logic to make themselves utterly abject… It was amazing and horrifying… Perhaps capitalism does to language what it does to the body… Perhaps our response should be to become anorexics… Or to become dirty bodies… all shitty and pissy… Or physical martyrs… To loose all control of our bodies and our language… (Or as Aase Berg and Mattias Forshage wrote about Surrealism in 1996: “Find it with the lemurs or on the blood stained back streets or in the parks that still are ugly!)… Elsewhere Aase calls it “fatso” poetry… I used to be very disturbed by fat accumulating on my body… I’m still a bit disturbed by that… Onto your next question… As far as people not being open-minded, I would say that I’m not open-minded at all and it’s the open-minded I find most despicable… Presses that say: “We don’t’ have any preferences, we’re just looking for the best no matter what style”… I find that offensive… Presses that want to publish a little bit of young poets to seem “relevant” and maintain their bloated profile… I am very close-minded… This goes back to anorexia… And shitting…. Someone on the Internet accused me and some writers I like of being formless and expressed a yearning for that kind of “freedom,” but it strikes me that I am very formalist… I like how the Swedish writer Johan Jönson refers to his writing as “repetition idiocy.”… I like that model for art…
3. What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing a novel, Haute Surveillance… a detective novel of sorts… A man lives in the Shining Mansion on the Hill, having been brought there by Ronald Reagan…Or been imprisoned there for killing the Starlet… But then the ex-president gets him out of there, to go to LA, to find the ex-pres’s lover and clear his own name by finding the killer… The plague hits LA…. Michael Jackson dies… Motorcycle cops (part Cocteau, part Iran) drive around knocking people out… The man’s baby daughter keeps getting pregnant… There is a lot of discussions about sperm… Anti-Abortionists perform flagrantly… Two teenage lesbians make maps based on the infected body… The Last Man makes ouch-machines… etc… Also, I’ve got a book coming out next year, Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate… A boy named Miss World is molested… A man named The Passenger is brought into America… Mother Machine Gun has ants in her outfit… Also, I’m working on various little installations… My daughter dances strangely with a flash light and a hare-mask on her face… It’s about the Midwest… It’s very pretty….