“Our notions of experiment are pretty much stuck on the surface of the page”: An Interview with Kent Johnson

Posted by @ 3:24 pm on August 1st, 2011

As an attempt to broaden the conversation I’ve been conducting on the topic of experimental literature, Kent Johnson graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the role of authorship and its connection to experimental literature. (If you’re unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, his complete bio follows after the interview, below.)

Higgs: Perhaps a fruitful place to begin is with a comment you made in a thread about Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” at Exoskeleton last year. You said, “authorial experiment is the final frontier, and the space is pretty vast and unexplored.” Could you say more about how/why you consider authorial experiment to be the final frontier of avant-garde poetics?

Johnson: Thanks for doing this interview, Chris. I never thought an older guy like me would make it onto HTML Giant.

That quote does sound sort of Star-Treky, doesn’t it? I seem to phrase my thoughts quirkily in the comment boxes of Exoskeleton (though haven’t looked there in many months) or of Montevidayo, that oddest (and most humorless, I’m afraid) blog in poetry land.

But yes, I do think this particular aspect of experiment has been almost totally neglected in our recent poetry. In certain quarters of experimental literature, in fact, the notion of doing anything subversive with the Author Function is rejected outright. Charles Bernstein, I’m not kidding, has recently written that direct, standard attribution is something akin to moral law, an essential element of “poetic justice.” Then again, he’s overcome his rebellious phase, is now very centrally positioned, so I guess one shouldn’t be too surprised. Certain rules are essential to maintaining basic order, protocol, and rank in the realm of Official Verse Culture.

I’ve been proposing for a good number of years that the staid rituals of ascription could bear some healthy challenge here and there. I mean just in the sense of some collective activity that would make things more intriguing: that there might be a kind of apocryphal autonomous zone of production, some kind of parallel poetic economy outside the usual norms of classification and supervision. And I’ve tried, in my own limited ways, to put that into practice. It seems obvious to me avant U.S. poetry would only benefit from some investigation into the long (actually ancient) tradition of pseudographic poetics, inasmuch as the possibilities are endless, and gestures in that direction might open into new negotiations of Space-Time coordinates, infusing poetic practice with fictional potentialities so far unsuspected. What I mean is that our notions of experiment are pretty much stuck on the surface of the page, like in some sort of Flatland of genre and technique. Certain Relations of Exchange ensue.

Speaking of Clement Greenberg, our “post-avant” ideas of method, composition, aesthetics, whatever, are no less delimited by boundaries of canvass and frame than his were, as if there were nowhere else to go, no risks to take beyond the institutionally approved laws of paratextual ascription and claim. Too bad, I say. People might want to read the great contemporary Russian theorist Mikhail Epstein, whose quasi-mystical propositions of hyperauthorship from the mid-90s are now very suggestively backed-up by recent proposals in String and Multiverse theory. Seriously. His visionary proposals point to how much is waiting to happen beyond the usual.

Now, I probably singled Charles Bernstein out a bit too much above (even if he’s singled me out in rather hostile ways in his latest book!). It’s not like he’s to individually blame; the matter is much more generalized: The Language poets as a group, despite all their high-theory talk about subverting the “Self” and the “I,” were unable to move outside the ideological shock fence of Authorial function. Now they are proto-canonized, fairly ensconced in the Academy, and happily so, it would seem. And the latest Academic hip “thing,” Conceptual poetry, remains mired, too, in boring conceptions of Authorial real estate. Or, say, even the most “psychically daring” poetries of our moment–Flarf (though in marked freefall), for instance, or the new Artaud-Bataille inspired stuff that lots of people seem increasingly drawn to (shall we call it the Notre Dame School?)–are tied ball and chain, in the end, to approved, established notions of origin, property, and assignation. It’s the paradigm. And the recipe for the same old institutional capture Peter Bürger analyzed in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde… Driver’s License Authorship is the hook on which the Institution hangs and entomologizes the cultural specimen.

This seems both comedic and tragic to me. Though I should say, I was heartened to see, albeit lost in a footnote, an at long-last acknowledgement of the fact that Conceptualism has so far lacked resolve in the matter. Craig Dworkin, in his Introduction to the new Conceptual Lit anthology Against Expression (Northwestern UP), writes the following:

Signing a text that one hasn’t written will surely become less remarkable, and the next frontier of propriety will materialize when conceptual writing antagonizes the institutions of poetry by signing for others under texts that they have not written.

OK, good! So far as it goes… Though I should point out to Dworkin that, for example, my late friend, the great Russian Conceptual poet Dmitri Prigov and his compatriots were enthusiastically and ubiquitously doing such–and much more–back in the seventies and early eighties, all while on the run from the authorities (the American ConPos totally ingnore the Russians, no doubt because they were anticipated by them, and in grandly more ambitious ways, decades ago). Slavoj Zizek (who was kind enough to write short Prefaces for two of my books–The Miseries of Poetry [with Alexandra Papaditsas] and Dear Lacan: An Analysis in Correspondence [with Jacques Debrot]) actually got his promo-boost, back in the old Yugoslavia, doing similar things with the names of famous critics, before he went bonkers around 2004 and became a neo-Stalinist. Still, better belated than never, as they say…

So anyway, I don’t want to go on for too long. But yes, to boldly go where few American poets have gone before, as it were, into new fictional spaces and dimensions, by jumping the ideological gravity of standard Authorship, would make for good show. And new kinds of poetry. Right now, the vision of “experiment” in U.S. poetry is still caught in the times of Flash Gordon; the Star Trek era is yet waiting.

Higgs: You mention “the long (actually ancient) tradition of pseudographic poetics.” Could you sketch a brief outline of this tradition, to give us a sense of the range and trajectory?

Johnson: Before I try, there’s one thing I wanted to say. I am not at all bemused that the so-called post-avant has so wholeheartedly endorsed conservative, ritualistic, reified norms of authorial title and ownership. After all, we’re living a time (O, it’s so unpopular to say it!) when “experimental literature” has a long, snaking chord leading from its mid-section to the office of the English Department. Experimental Literature is a career, the bulk of its practitioners now profoundly professionalized—their habitus, as Bourdieu would put it, a thoroughly natural, deeply assumed “fact.” So: It’s eminently logical that anything departing from Driver’s License Authorship (I seem to be using a lot of hieratic capped terms here, like Heidegger or Michael Palmer) would seem totally outlandish. How could one, many no doubt ask, ever get top jobs, tenure, publications in Poetry, Fence, or Jacket2, and so forth, doing that?

Alright, to your question: Hard to sketch a “brief outline” because it’s so messy, so rhizomatic, really. There’s on the one broad hand—the soft version, so to speak—those very old works that come down to us with blank or contested authorship, which we readily accept for what they mysteriously are: old masterpieces like Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, or The Tale of Genji. But among these “ancient” works are some known to be  purposely apocryphal, like the Tosa Diary, a masterpiece of the classical Japanese canon, supposedly written by a woman, but authored by the poet-courtier Ki no Tsurayuki, male Governor of Tosa Province. Regarding old apocryphal works, “Shakespeare” remains a mystery in this regard, and the once-smug Stratfordians are clearly more and more anxious about growing feeling there may be an Elizabethan Tsurayuki behind the courtly curtain.

Well, then—moving into the hard version, as it were–you have the 18th century, when pseudonimity/heteronymity had something of a resounding explosion, no doubt in partial response to new versions of English copyright law, where major scandals centered around Macpherson, Chatterton, and George Psalmanazar (his a stunning ethnographic fiction barely known today, but which rocked all of England) took place, among others, with Dr. Johnson–I suppose there’s some minor irony– often leading the angry charge against such “counterfeit monsters.” Things didn’t stop there, though (and let me paraphrase myself a bit below, from an invited lecture I gave at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis a few years back):

As John Mullan shows in his recent book from Princeton, Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature, roughly 70% of novels and published poetry in England and America during the last three decades of the 18th century were anonymous or pseudonymous, and in the first three decades of the 19th a good 50% were, as well. And many, many more after that. Readers didn’t mind; in fact, as Mullan shows, they went wild for this: The pleasures these apocryphal books and journal publications provided were not just textual, but sociological, too, aspects of a reading culture with a considerably more relaxed attitude towards attributional indeterminacy than we have today: People would actively and happily speculate on who these hidden authors were–what traces or clues to their identities might be found in their works.

That’s to say that these authorial mysteries were, in fact, considered a natural part of the interpretive mix, a challenging but in no way onerous aspect of (to allude to an old tenet of Language poetry) the reader’s responsibilities as co-producer of the text’s total sense. We’ve largely forgotten it was so, but authorial “context,” not too long ago, wasn’t necessarily handed to the readership in neatly wrapped parcels; it was something formed by a circumspect, participatory public. Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, the Waverly novels, Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, The Rape of the Lock, Lyrical Ballads, Don Juan, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and countless poems in literary magazines and anthologies, for partial list, did not initially bear “authentic” signature.

(Roof Books, 1998)

Since Foucault’s “What Is an Author?” there have been growing numbers of studies that show how surprisingly vast the tradition of anonymous and pseudonymous literature really is, across centuries and cultures (Faking Literature, by K.K. Ruthven, from Cambridge UP, is an even more encyclopedic account than Mullan’s). And this history reveals that our current assumptions about literary authorship–in particular, that the biographical/legal mark of provenance is a natural, even ethical imperative–is a relatively recent development.

In generally modern times, as the above books lay out, there have been many examples of works transgressing Authorial Law, though of different intent, to be sure. Some of these have proven to have major impact, not least the meditations of Kierkegaard, founding a whole tradition of philosophy; the works of Ern Malley, changing the landscape of modern Australian poetry; or the writing of Fernando Pessoa, the leading early avant-garde poet of Portugal and master of heteronymity, now revered as a national hero of his nation. For me, Pessoa is a poet we must return to and study carefully, even if his face came to grace the 20 Escudo bill. His gesture, though contradictory in ways, holds out a wild branching of possible poetic tributaries.

Higgs: Aside from writing a text and signing it with a fictitious name or else the name of another living (or dead) writer, could you describe some of the avenues of possibility you envision arising from a serious consideration of “jumping the ideological gravity of standard Authorship”?

Johnson: I want to make clear I am not really any big fan of signing with “the name of another living (or dead) writer,” a more or less banal and easily exhausted move, though Craig Dworkin (see above) seems to regard it as very radical. I’m talking about something more, something more complicated and multi-dimensioned. More on this below…

But you know, I was talking to someone last week and she remarked it was simply utopian to think any reasonable number of poets would ever coalesce into some kind of apocryphal poetic sub-economy that orbits and shadows the General Economy of Poetry. Because, she said, poets want to be known and admired, they crave attention, that’s part of the reason people become poets, to be recognized, because when they were adolescents or in high school, most of them were near the bottom of the popularity barrel. She said something like that.

And, well, I can see her point. But it’s not like a zero-sum game, I told her. To the contrary. One can have it both ways. One can publish under one’s legal name, and one can publish under other imagined, fully realized identities. And one can move back and forth across the wavy border and in very creative ways, so that this moving, or shifting, or displacement of positions becomes itself poetical/dramatic. Poets should try it more.

Chris, to offer a more specific approach to your question, could I do something maybe a bit unusual? I did an interview with the terrific poet and critic Bill Freind some years back, titled “Hoaxes and Heteronymity,” and in it I try to suggest some of these “avenues of possibility” you are asking about. Freind is the editor of a big volume of essays that is due out this October from Shearsman Books in the UK, titled Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada. With the prominent avant-garde Mexican composer Javier Alvarez, I’ve been curator of the Yasusada writings for the past nearly twenty years now, and Yasusada relates, in obvious ways, to what we are discussing. The piece was published in the now defunct VeRT, a really rather extraordinary online journal edited by Andrew Felsinger; it’s furtively archived at the EPC (I’d encourage folks to browse around the nine issues—a number of poets it published back then were not well known and have since become prominent). Someone once told me that I sound in this interview a bit like I’ve ingested a bunch of peyote, and maybe so—it is very manifesto-like, candidly performative, even hyperbolic, in parts. But particularly the first answers seem closely related to what you ask about, so here is the link.

Higgs: Your interview with Bill Freind is full of interesting additional material relevant to our conversation here, including an assertion you make regarding the future role of poetry and its intersection with pseudonimity/heteronymity. You suggest that it will require “a guerrilla war of the heart against the ideology of the Author.” This sentiment seems to imbricate certain values espoused by the proponents of conceptual poetics. Earlier in this conversation you mentioned the recent anthology, Against Expression, so I get the sense that this movement is certainly on your radar. One way to conclude would be to ask you to say a few words about how you see the project of pseudonimity/heteronymity extending, challenging, complicating, complementing or otherwise interacting with conceptual poetics, especially given its relevance to the contemporary literary scene.

Johnson: “A guerilla war of the heart against the Author” is in line with the manifesto-like tenor of my remarks there. I seem to have had more energy some years back.

But in that forthcoming book of essays on Yasusada I mentioned, there is a piece by a very sharp critic from New Zealand, named Jacob Edmond. In it, he argues that Conceptual poetry in the U.S. had already been anticipated in certain ways by Yasusada back in the 1990s. He points out, to go back to the Russians, that Mikhail Epstein quite convincingly shows the Yasusada works were written by either the conceptualist Dmitri Prigov or the experimental fiction writer Andrei Bitov, or by both, during the Perestroika period and immediately after. It’s an excellent essay, very smart. His point is that U.S. Conceptual poets like Goldsmith, Place, Bök, Mohammad, and their growing numbers of grad groupies really are behind the curve of what’s come before, and not in the sense of “poetry is behind the art world by fifty years,” as they like to self-righteously say.

In any case, the fact is that, as executor of Tosa Motokiyu’s writings, I’m not really talking about the Yasusada works in any kind of detail anymore. I’ll just say again: The U.S. Conceptual poets, in their slavish kowtowing to Authorial Martial Law, are no less conventional and boring, from sociological standpoint, than John Crowe Ransom or Mary Oliver. If your thing is fifteen minutes of retro-Pop fame, that’s OK, I guess, but good luck down the road. The hyperauthors to come will make your ho-hum folderol part of their shimmering wax-museum canons, I suspect. (Though here I should say that Bök is an exception, really, and I give a tip of the hat to his evident genius. How wonderful it might be, conceptually speaking, if he could shed his Rhinestone Cowboy straightjacket of megalomania.)

The Rejection Group - 5 Works

So while there is some historical connection, I don’t see any real imbrication, as you put it, of philosophical outlook there. But you know, it’s interesting: I tried to connect with these folks a couple years back, and they surprisingly agreed to do a collective experiment. It was me and the four leading Conceptual poets I mention above. I’m sure they talked amongst themselves and agreed to do it as a kind of joke, to start off, a way of showing me up. Then things got more serious, more complicated. We established what we called the “Rejection Group,” writing things in five-pedaling tandem, and as we pedaled on, things got more and more fraught in the peloton—which is to say they were riding a four-person bike, and I was on my own. We managed to finish, more or less, about two-dozen things, including a number of weird “translations” from Rimbaud’s Illuminations. But eventually the group grew impatient with me, and they refused to go on. Some of the texts we produced are now present in the newsletter Sous Les Pavés, the very cool Prynne-School UK journal Hot Gun!, and the chapbook 5 Works by the Rejection Group, published a couple months ago by Habenicht Press, in a fine-press edition. There are, I feel, some very fun and strange pieces there. The Rimbaud traductions are, in my esteem, excellent complements to Ashbery’s recent straight-up interpretations (I suspect Rimbaud might have preferred ours, frankly), and some of the poems of our collective are honestly rather impressive, like “Welcome Back,” which carries an epigraph by the superb poet Bhanu Kapil, whom you also interviewed. Of course, my former colleagues are completely mum about it now, which is par for the course, as anyone with some knowledge of this quasi-Taliban aesthetic faction would understand. But the works are there, and only about a fourth of them have so far been published; I will continue to release these without their permission, and with a good conscience, considering the way I was treated. Anyway, I’m really not all that concerned with them now. May their very special and intimate relationship with the Imperial White House, PENNSound, and the latter’s new horizontally integrated corporation, the $500 million Poetry Foundation, never slack. People do what they do, in the end.

I’m more interested now in the Sous Les Pavés collective, whose freely distributed newsletter, curated by the young poet Micah Robbins, goes out to several hundreds. You can see past issues here.   This collective is composed of around twenty poets, critics, and fiction writers from both the UK (some of the top younger poets there) and the U.S., all of them far-Left in orientation, from anarchists to social-democratic types, who are trying to figure things out on the group’s listserv, trying to see what the poetry of politics and vice-versa might become. It’s the closest thing to an extant international “school” in English-language radical poetry, I’m pretty sure. Call it the SLP Poetic Tendency. Will it get sucked up, too? I don’t know, we’ll see.




Kent Johnson, La Paz, Bolivia, photo by Forrest Gander

Kent Johnson was raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, where the Tupamaros, now the leading current of the country’s democratic government, once blew up the nation’s only bowling alley, where he used to hang out as a teenager. He is editor, translator, or writer of nearly thirty collections related to poetry, among them Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala, 1991) and Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1992). In 1980 and 1983, during the Sandinista revolution, he worked in the Nicaraguan countryside for many months, teaching basic literacy and adult education. From this experience he translated A Nation of Poets (West End Press, 1985), the most representative translation in English from the controversial working-class Talleres de Poesia of Nicaragua, carrying an extensive interview he conducted with then-Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal. He has also edited Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (Roof Books, 1998), as well as Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English (Combo Books, 2005). With Forrest Gander, he has translated Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz (California, 2002), which was a PEN Award for Poetry in Translation selection. Their second book of Saenz’s work, The Night, was published by Princeton in 2008, and also received a Translation Award from PEN. Among other titles, he is author of The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek (Skanky Possum, 2003; rept. CCCP, UK, 2005), Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets (BlazeVox Books, 2004), Dear Lacan (with Preface by Slavoj Zizek, CCCP, 2005), Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz (Effing Press, 2005), I Once Met (Longhouse Books, 2007), Day (The Figures/Blaze Vox, 2009), and A Question Mark above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara (Punch Press, 2010), a book that has been the subject of some disturbing intrigue. Translations of his poetry have appeared in over a dozen countries, and three book collections of his work have been translated and published abroad, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chile, and (forthcoming) Argentina. Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, a large gathering of new and selected poems, appeared from Shearsman Books, in England, in 2008, and a bilingual anthology, Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay, is forthcoming from Shearsman, as well, in 2011. This year, 5 Works by the Rejection Group (co-authored with Kenny Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Vanessa Place, and Kasey Silem Mohammad) appeared from Habenicht Press. In addition to awards from PEN, Johnson is recipient of a Pushcart Book of the Month Award, an Illinois Arts Council Poetry Award, an NEA Literature Fellowship, and a Lalicorne Residency in Montevideo. He has taught English and Spanish at Highland Community College for the past two decades and was named the “State Teacher of the Year” for 2004 by the Illinois Community College Trustees Association. As the reader will see, this Author Bio almost completely contradicts everything he says above.