The Argotist Online
Kent Johnson Interview
Kent Johnson is a poet, translator, critic and anthologist. His work, much of it meta-fictional and/or satirical in approach, has provoked a notable measure of controversy and debate within English-language poetry circles. Since the late 1990s, he has widely been thought to be the author of the Araki Yasusada writings, which a reviewer for Nation magazine, in 1998, called ‘the most controversial work of poetry since Allen Ginsberg’s Howl’. Johnson, however, has never officially claimed authorship of the material, presenting himself only as “executor” of an archive supposedly composed by a writer, or writers, whose choice has been to maintain a principled anonymity in relation to the work.
poetry publications include: Waves of Drifting Snow, Dear Lacan, The
Miseries of Poetry, Epigramititis, Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz,
I Once Met, Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, 5 Works from the
Rejection Group and Homage to Villon.
translation works include: A Nation of Poets, Have You Seen a Red
Curtain in My Weary Chamber, Beneath a Single Moon, Third Wave (editor,
with Stephen Ashby), Joyous Young Pines, Doubled Flowering: From the
Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, Immanent Visitor (translator, with
Forrest Gander), Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand
Swords (editor), The Night, Jamie Saenz (translator, with Forrest
Gander), Hotel Lautreamont (editor,
with Roberto Echavarren) and The Herald of Madrid (annotated
prose and criticism works include: Poetic Architecture, Doggerel for
the Masses and A Question Mark above the Sun.
has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg
Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A
Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s
Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket,
Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.
How did you first get
interested in poetry?
interviewing me for the Argotist, Jeffrey.
My memory is that it was when I was twelve or
thirteen, around 1967 or ‘68. This was in Uruguay. I grew up in Latin America:
Costa Rica for a year and then Uruguay for nine more. The Continental Offices of
the YMCA were located in Montevideo then, and my dad was in charge of
coordinating training for specialists in physical education from throughout
A number of our family acquaintances in
Montevideo were with the U.S. Embassy. Our first house was around the corner
from the U.S. Ambassador’s mansion residence, in fact, and I was over there
all the time, playing Ping-Pong and Wiffle ball with the sons of Ambassadors
Hoyt and, later, Sayre, can’t remember the first names of those diplomats now.
Duke Ellington and members of his orchestra came to play at the Ambassador’s
residence once, and one of my special memories is of his patting me on the head
and saying, “And what is your name, handsome young man?” He signed a program
for me, long lost, alas.
We were there during the Tupamaro urban
guerrilla insurgency, which was in the late 60s and early 70s. It later came to
light that some of those embassy personnel we knew, under cover of the AID, were
training the security forces in torture interrogation techniques. Daniel
Mitrione was in charge of that program. Yves Montand plays Mitrione, kidnapped
and executed by the Tupamaros in 1970, in the famous film State of Siege.
Popular support for the Tupamaros collapsed after the execution, and the state
unleashed its force on the left in general. My dad played golf with Mitrione all
the time, and one of his sons was a good friend of mine in high school.
One night, the four-lane bowling alley in the
neighborhood of Carrasco—the only bowling alley in Uruguay and a gringo
hangout—was blown up by the Tupamaros just a few hours after I’d been there
with the sons of the CIA counterinsurgency specialists Horton and Cantrell
(whose role in helping to pave the way for the military coup in 1973 is
documented). Well, I didn’t know what was going on at the time, of course. But
anyway, I remember writing a sort of ode to the obliterated bowling alley, how
terrible and senseless violence was, how dark the hearts of men, and so
forth—even though the Tupamaros always made a point of blowing things up in
the dead of night, when places were closed. I believe I wrote some others around
that time about a girl I had a crush on. Her father was a torture-training
specialist, too, it turned out.
A few months later, the restaurant, bar, and
pool of the trendy Punta Carretas Golf Club in Montevideo were blown up, about
three hundred yards from where we were living at the time. I was on the Club
swim team, so I wrote an indignant poem about that, as well, in the manner of
Frost, as I recall, whom we were reading in English class at the tiny
Uruguayan-American School. I suppose it will sound incredible, but in 1980, at
the end of the first of two extended stints I did in Nicaragua as a literacy
volunteer for the Sandinistas, I lived (I was recovering from typhoid) for a few
weeks in Managua with two Basque ETA members and a Tupamaro exile. The Tupamaro,
Miguel, was one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known, a brilliant guy and
expert on Althusser (whom I’d never heard of), and he’d been directly
involved in the commando operation that blew up the Golf Club facilities! Miguel
used to joke he was sorry he helped ruin my swimming career.
It was sometime in 1970, it would have been,
that my mother found my first poems under clothes in my dresser, along with a
couple of Playboy magazines. I remember being more mortified about the
poems. So that’s sort of the beginning of my poetry “career,” I guess.
Having discovered a
penchant for poetry in this way, what were your next steps in developing it and
going about getting your poetry seen and read?
KJ: Well, remember that
the above concerns my adolescence!
I think my first serious introduction to poetry
would have been my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee,
where I enrolled to play soccer (which I did for three years, and then for a few
more, semi-professionally in Milwaukee and also back in Uruguay, where I
returned, for a year, or so). But my first year at UWM—I would have just
turned nineteen—I met James Liddy, the recently late Irish poet, who (along
with his longtime companion, the poet James Chapson) was the charismatic center
of a kind of Spicer-like circle that would meet nightly at Axel’s Bar, a
legendary dive close to campus. The
group was quite large and always evolving, thanks to Liddy’s often difficult
nature. He was an amazing presence, with a truly amazing gift of rapid-fire gab
and wit, and he would bestow favor and excommunicate in unpredictable fashion. A
very dynamic, gossipy scene, half straight, half gay, profusions of alcohol and
tobacco… Somehow I remained in Liddy’s favor for a long while, which is
strange, thinking about it, since I was a good deal less socially adept (I
suffer from social anxiety still, in fact) than most in the coterie. Liddy
extravagantly praised my early attempts to imitate the various things he would
show me from the canons, and this built my confidence and enthusiasm, of course.
But looking back on it, I suspect he was more delighted to have a token jock
within his following.
Harrold, Robert Siegel, and Jim Hazard were
teaching at UWM, too, and they were very encouraging towards me. But these
meetings with Liddy were my intense introduction to poetry. It was he who
introduced me to Rimbaud, Rilke, Spicer, Creeley, Olson, Wieners, Duncan, and on
and on. Chapson, too, who is a superb and unknown poet, led me to many poets I
never would have encountered in the poetry workshops back then—and he was a
merciless critic of my poems, so when one night he read one and said “There
you go!” it was a signal event for me. I’ll never forget that feeling. But
one day, a couple or three years later, sitting there at Axel’s, having become
active in the Young Socialist Alliance, I made some kind of approving remark
about Bernadette Devlin, the Northern Irish communist, and Liddy went bananas.
He screamed at me, threw a drink in my face, and tried to punch me from across
the booth. That was the end of my term in his kreis.
Before anyone in the Midwest was talking about
them, Liddy already hated the then still up-and-coming Language poets. He’d
lived in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s and knew some of them—Ron
Silliman was his student at San Francisco State, I believe. Liddy was close
friends with Graham MacKintosh, Spicer’s publisher, and I think he saw them,
like Duncan did, as enemies of poetry’s magic and mystery. Anyway, he’d
bitch to us about them quite a bit, in his theatrical way. So that had made me
curious, of course, and I read whatever I could find on these horrible Marxist
poets, which wasn’t much yet at that time.
Liddy had also first introduced me to Marjorie
Perloff’s work. Her early book on Frank O’Hara, Poet among Painters,
had a pretty big impact on me and turned me into a lifelong worshipper of
O’Hara. I assume Liddy came to hate her, too, after she became the champion of
the Language poets. A person I never met in my Milwaukee days, and wish I had,
is the excellent poet John Koethe, who was teaching, maybe he still is, in the
Philosophy Department at UWM.
I last saw Liddy two or three years ago, when I
was invited back to read at UWM. He said to me at dinner before the event,
“You know, when you were a boy, you were always the apple of my eye!” About
eighty people came to that reading. And I blew it, my big homecoming; with
exception of the one where I passed out in Austin, it was the worst reading
I’ve ever given. Though come to think of it, maybe the one in Austin was my
best. Oh well.
Another relevant thing to mention is that I
lived in the Riverwest neighborhood most of my twelve years in Milwaukee, never
more than a couple blocks away from what is probably the greatest poetry
bookstore in the country, Woodland Pattern. I was there all the time, sitting
around, reading, talking to Karl Gartung and Anne Kingsbury, the proprietors. I
went to many readings there, including one by Duncan, which impacted me greatly.
Inexplicably, there were no more than a dozen people in the audience, and I felt
he was training his eyes on me as he read—or at least the one eye that looked
straight ahead—and this made me feel uncomfortable, so I got up midway
through, as if leaving for the bathroom, and listened to the rest of it outside
But most of my time in Milwaukee was devoted to
doing cadre work for the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers
Party. Under command of the party’s “Industrial Turn,” I left school for a
couple years in the late 70s to do trade union work on the Milwaukee Road, where
I worked as a freight car mechanic. In 1980 and then in 1983, I went to
Nicaragua, where I worked as a literacy teacher, as I mentioned above, and on
the second trip, when I worked on a state farm in Matagalpa for about nine
months, I translated most of my first book, A Nation of Poets: Writings from
the Poetry Workshops of Nicaragua, which was something of a poetry
best-seller back in the 80s. I did this book in close collaboration with Ernesto
Cardenal and functionaries in the Sandinista Ministry of Culture, so that was a
Anyway, I don’t know how interesting any of
this personal anecdotal history is. So to tie this answer up: I went on to get
my MA in Creative Writing from UWM and then moved with my young family to
Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1986, pretty much on a whim (Bowling Green was the only
place I’d applied to, and they accepted me quickly, so there I went), to do a
Ph.D. in poetry studies with Howard McCord, a poet who’d been a fairly
prominent name back in the 60s and 70s, and whose poems I’d remembered from
reading Kayak magazines and such that Liddy had shown me. A very radical
libertarian and NRA member, McCord is perhaps the most learned man in the poetry
world I’ve ever met. A true gentleman, whose personal kindness and grace
belies his cantankerous political views. I got my training in Pound and such
from him. Even though he hated the Language poets too, he lent me his entire
personal collection of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, and I went on to read The
New Sentence, Content’s Dream, Total Syntax, North of
Intention, stuff like that. That was all very exciting to me, at the time.
Howard encouraged me to send poems to Ironwood,
one of the venerable U.S. literary journals. Soon thereafter, I got a phone call
from Michael Cuddihy, the editor, accepting three of the poems. That would have
been my first substantial publication, and it was in, I believe, the last issue
of Ironwood ever published, though maybe I have that wrong. I was there
at Bowling Green with the poet Mark Nowak, and we were friends for a good while,
spent some good time drinking together and listening to weird music. Later, my
involvement in the Araki Yasusada controversy would sever that relationship. But
I suppose that’s neither here nor there.
Well, enough prattling on. I’m starting to
sound like I want to write my own little Grand Piano. But maybe that
gives some outline-sense of my pedagogical trajectory.
JS: You’ve been
critical of what you perceive as a tendency towards careerism in US avant-garde
poetic circles, can you tell me more about this?
I’ve spoken about
this in other places, and my comments haven’t always been too popular, I
suppose. Let me answer this one in a somewhat unusual way, maybe allegorically,
if that’s the word, answering your question by quoting myself from a somewhat
fanciful post I wrote for
blog—just yesterday, in
fact. I’ve been writing at DE (the cabinet of curiosities of the lit blogs, I
believe) the past few weeks, as you know. The post was rejected by the blog
editor, Bobby Baird, who felt the points raised were “old news.” Maybe…
Though “old news,” if so, of the kind that hasn’t been sufficiently
discussed, I’d propose. But the reader can judge. I had titled the post “The
Clinking Sound of the Avant-Garde: A Short Story”:
In the 1980s, Language
poetry was at its apogee. Its most prominent figure was Charles Bernstein. The
most coherent and ambitious left-wing avant-garde formation in the history of
American poetry was then under sustained attack from the literary establishment;
the Language poets, with analyses of “Official Verse Culture” and its
fraught complicities in the Ideological State Apparatuses of Literature and the
Academy, countered the attacks with trenchant, withering critique.
This was during the
reign of the Reagan Administration, which ended twenty years back. Soon after,
the Berlin Wall collapsed and the First Iraq War began. Coincidentally (though
perhaps not entirely), it was around this time that the first major studies of
Language poetry began to appear in the most prestigious scholarly journals, and
prominent figures associated with the group could be found interviewing for jobs
at the MLA.
When Bernstein was
editing (with Bruce Andrews) The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book and writing some of
the brilliant, anti-Institutional essays later collected in Content’s Dream
(1986), Donald T. Regan was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury and
Chief of Staff, a central figure in the Administration’s murderous policies in
Central America and the related sideshow scandal of the Iran-Contra affair.
Bernstein would of course still vehemently repudiate those policies, but a
little more than two decades thence, he is Donald T. Regan Professor of English
at a major Ivy League School. His books are now published by Harvard, and his
work is included in the Norton.
Language poetry, in
general, is well down the road as a welcomed and apparently pleased fellow
traveler of the Canon. Like Bernstein, numerous of the original members now
profess at elite universities, industriously partaking in (indeed, often openly
arguing for) the fuller legitimation of their work. A growing tenure industry of
secondary critics occupies itself around study of the group’s theory and
writing. Versions of abstract or “hybrid” lyric, genetically descended from
the textual experimentalism of Language poetry, rule the roost in MFA programs
across the land. The AWP and the MLA are now homes to “radically formal”
poetry, and the Young Turks who write it make annual pilgrimage to these
institutions’ gatherings, to network, read, present, and interview for
academic position. All the major journals are open to such work. Even Poetry
and the New Yorker now feature it.
All of this has
happened very quickly, with a speed to awe the most visionary Futurist. Earlier
this year, celebrating its 100th anniversary, Charles Bernstein
declaimed Felippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, angrily hitting, as he did,
a hammer against a metal lectern. This was at the MoMA. There among the Picassos
and the Matisses, the implement made a repeating clinking sound. A kind of death
knell for things, one might say, though the gathered crowd of poets that
applauded and cheered did not quite seem to see it that way.
It’s perhaps time,
I’d propose, to think extra hard about the irony and velocity of this
denouement, which is very much the “ontological” surround of the subculture
we in the “post-avant” inhabit. Though as we do, we must grant that none of
what’s transpired is a matter of ill-intent: In truth, the path that’s been
taken is, and has always been, the “way” of the “avant-garde.” It’s
nobody’s fault, and nobody, personally, need be blamed. And thank goodness, of
course, for professors and scholars.
But to ask, if
awkwardly, as this short story ends: Is this it, this seemingly natural “Where
We Now Are”? Is this where we’re more or less to remain? Or is there an
elsewhere, as it were, and how would we begin to imagine it, if so?
Well, in his rejection email to me, Baird, who is former editor of the Chicago Review and has an acute mind, to be sure, chastened me with the following good questions:
What do you, Kent,
take to be the significance of the Langpos capitulation to the powers they once
abhorred? Is it that Langpo (and its anti-OVC stance) was a sham from the start?
Is it that Langpo wasn't a sham but was sold out by morally soft people like CB?
Is it that the whole business of literary movements is just a game that we
shouldn't get in a tizzy about?
Do you think there's a
need for an avant-garde right now? Why? What should it do? What's it for? What's
it against? Why is an a-g poetics better equipped to do what you want it to do
than a non a-g poetics like [Michael] Robbins's or Josh Clover's?
I have some opinions, of course, on factors that
frame and enable the processes of cultural “recuperation” that Baird alludes
to. But I don’t think it has much to do with anyone being “morally soft.”
Younger poets can acknowledge a significant debt to the earlier thought and work
of the Language poets, for example, even honor their important contributions,
and still reflect honestly on their “sociological” transformation as a
literary formation. So Baird’s questions to me in his “rejection” email
are actually quite in sync with the ones I proffer, there, at the end. I ask
them sincerely, because I don’t claim to have any easy answers.
But speaking in broad terms, that the relocation
of “experimental,” “oppositional” poetry to an academic habitus has had
deep, denaturing effects on radical poetic impetus seems fairly clear to me. I'm
aware that back in the eighties the Academy seemed for some an important
site of contention and that this has been explicitly argued in defense of the
"institutional turn" taken back then. But the novelty's long
over, the pacts have been made, and a protocol of polite irascibility has well
There are admirable exceptions, of course, but
the U.S. “post-avant” is fundamentally a professional phenomenon now, and
the bulk of its verse, aesthetically impressive as it can sometimes be, is in no
way culturally oppositional in our moment. For the most part it doesn’t even
claim to be, despite humorously poignant declarations by someone like Ron
Silliman, every now and then. It is a near-fully integrated formalist
phenomenon, essentially vacated of any sense of resistant, agonistic drive or
mission. And it stands to reason that this would be so.
JS: Is what you see as
the careerism in US avant-garde poetic circles less or more the case in the UK?
Oh my. I’ve already gotten into some trouble for my post on “The New
British School” at Digital Emunction (a Yank making lists of who’s in and
who isn’t), and I did leave off some really obvious names, like cris cheek,
Alan Halsey, and Caroline Bergvall, so I think I will more or less pass on this
I mean, I think the situations are
different—for one, you folks don’t have the big institutional background of
the MFA phenomenon, at least not to the extent we do here. That whole thing got
going right around the height of the New American Poetry/New Critical division
in the early 60s, and by the 70s it had colonized much of the field—whereas
the division between the British Poetry Revival and its outgrowths on the one
hand, and your academic, official poetry on the other seems to have had a
longer, more distinct life. Or so it seems to me, in my limited knowledge of UK
poetry of the past forty-five years.
And then, too, the whole matter of Cambridge
School poetry is sort of complicated, as it includes a radical academic like
Prynne at the center and people less tied to academia, like Raworth. As well, a
centripetal figure like Prynne from the get-go is writing under the impact of
non-academic Americans like Olson, Dorn, O’Hara, and so on, whereas there were
few academically situated poets in the U.S., up until the early 80s, say, who
were in line with the New Americans. So the whole matter seems decidedly
complicated by these historical particularities. Also, you have a very
influential young poet now like Keston Sutherland, with a Ph.D. out of Cambridge
and a teaching position at Brighton, who is one of the most formally and
politically radical of the younger set and closely linked with decidedly
non-academic poetic projects. Or Peter Manson, with a very non-academic
background and whose poetry is thrillingly weird, who taught for a spell at
And there’s the odd Oxford case—Oxford,
Ohio, that is, where you’ve got a kind of U.S.-based academic cell organizing
resistance to Tory poetics from a distance. And one of its leaders, Keith Tuma,
is an American who hosts the most important UK poetry listserv and edits
revisionist anthologies of British poetry!
So it’s kind of contradictory, so far as I can
see: On the one hand, your contemporary “avant-garde” has important
immediate sources in the academy, with Prynne and some of the other Cambridge
poets, but is still by and large more independent of its institutions and
sociological influences; ours over here begins very much outside the academy, in
determined opposition to it, and is now, in something like the blink of an eye,
quite determinedly inside it. My sense would be that there is still more of a
“tension” with things in the UK.
I see I’ve a bit reneged on my intent to
“more or less pass” on your question. Does any of this make any sense?
I understand you now have The Journal of
British and Irish Innovative Poetry which openly declares, in its founding
editorial, the need for the academic study of the new poetries. I see Charles
Bernstein is even on the Board. So maybe things are beginning to drift more
towards where we are? Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with the
academic study of innovative poetry! Thank goodness for it, as I said. The
problem is when a certain overall hegemony of location and culture sets in…
There are certain consequences.
Does the presence of linguistic disruption and dense and fractured texts, in
much of avant-garde poetry, pose a challenge in communicating political ideas
Well, at the risk of banality: It depends on the audience. I took this general
issue up in the following
a slightly revised version of which was included in my book Lyric Poetry
after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War.
is a spectrum when it comes to poetry and its political engagements, and
different modes of address will connect with different reading formations (none
of which is ever a neat box, of course), whose proclivities and requirements are
always contingent on a whole host of factors and contexts. There’s room and
need for all kinds of engaged writing—just like in cosmology, say, there’s
room and need for all kinds of writing: from arcane texts designed for
specialists in black-hole theory, to more popular texts written for broader,
intelligent audiences. One kind is not “better” or more “meaningful”
than the other.
doesn’t mean critique of this or that version of “political poetry” is
inappropriate! But big problems arise when (as with the case, on the eve of the
Iraq invasion in 2003, of leading Language poets channeling their
“opposition” into attacks on the Poets Against the War project) the flag of
ethical imperative gets raised on the gunboat of poetic experiment, as if
“linguistic disruption,” as you put it, were the only seaworthy vehicle at
hand. Try telling that to the Vallejo of Spain, Take This Cup from Me, or
to Brecht, even, great champion of aesthetic experiment that he was. Or to poets
in Soweto, or Chile, in the 70s, and on and on… Only those quite cozy inside
the cultural institutions of imperium could hold such sectarian view, I’m
say hooray for Adorno; much excellent, dense work in spirit of the negative
dialectic has been written in his wake. But let’s not forget how his espousals
of the heroic, radical resistances of the Vienna School came accompanied by
embarrassing condemnations of the retrograde nature of jazz! In the matter of
cultural politics, the problem of the avant-garde’s elitism is not a new one.
One of the challenges for younger poets, as they read their de rigueur Zizek and
Badiou (all fine and good), is to theorize how to avoid it.
news today, October 26, 2009, is that Obama is weighing the request to send up
to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The fun, to paraphrase a famous analyst,
may be over…
Should avant-garde poetry be political?
That’s sort of the message of the historical avant-garde, isn’t it? Peter
Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde remains the classic study, the one
that can help us understand how we’ve gotten to where we are, even if there is
plenty to productively critique in the book. And where we are is very far, it
should be obvious, from the spirit of Heartfield, Mayakovsky, or Brecht.
said, and in relation to my previous response, what counts as “political” in
poetry is always up for debate. And there are always different ways for
literature to be political, regardless of this or that conjuncture. Not too long
ago over here, the dominant a-g proposal was that subverting habits of generic
discourse and form was the most “advanced” way. The idea’s still very much
hanging around, having been assimilated as gospel by many younger poets, even as
it’s coming to seem increasingly quaint and suspicious, given how in vogue
such “commitment” has become to our poetic institutions, within which
“innovative” careers are ambitiously pursued. Formal innovation can become a
kind of mannerism, too. Actually, the situation of so-called innovative poetry
in the U.S. is suggestively akin, one might say, to the situation in Washington:
The new poetic dispensation somewhat mirrors the Democratic party in its
ascendancy, a mostly polite and liberal play-by-the-rules state of affairs,
where the conservative wing of Congress is in retreat, looking ever more
poignantly anachronistic. But it’s all fundamentally a parliamentarian
A bit more satire directed at our prevailing
attitudes and mores might be one way of assuming a “political” stance right
would be a politics pointed inward, at the field proper, an activity in no way
separate necessarily from a politics of poetry pointed outward. As I say in
proposition # 22 of my “33 Rules for Poets 23 and Under,” a poem coming out
in an anthology of essays from Iowa (paradoxically enough!), on teaching poetry:
Write political poems.
But remember: The politics you are likely protesting are present, structurally,
inside poetry, its texts and institutions. Write political poems with a
So the answer to your
question is a general Yes, I suppose. Though, again, I certainly don’t pretend
to have any kind of special angle on what that Yes might mean… And that would
be to the point: No one should ever pretend that they do.
JS: Can political avant-garde poetry lead to political changes (assuming this as their raison d'etre) more than mainstream political poetry or protest songs can?
there’s nothing fixed or essential when it comes to those “polar
categories” in your question. To tweak a famous aphorism of David Antin’s,
“From the mainstream you desire, you get the avant-garde you deserve,” and
so on. But in terms of poetry that aims to intersect with spaces of political
agitation, no, usually not. There are certain moments when “a-g” work can
have a significant catalytic impact, as with the Situationists. Vallejo’s
strange, powerful poems in the work I earlier mentioned, which were distributed
to Loyalist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, a modest example, too. The
Constructivists and the LEF during the early Soviet years would be another,
though very singular case. Brecht, of course. Raúl Zurita and other Chilean
writers organized in the CADA group against Pinochet did some things that had
wide resonance. And the Conceptualist samizdat poets during the last decade of
the USSR, too, in their very special ways…
So there are
exceptional and inspiring cases, always deeply specific to their circumstances.
But in times of social tension and upheaval, assuming that’s the background
context you’re thinking of, formally experimental poetry is nearly always a
quite secondary aspect of oppositional politics, whatever the self-regard of
experimental poets may be. I mean, speaking as someone who was raised in Latin
America, the comparison to protest song is fairly humorous. Protest music has
had a huge and long impact, and in nearly all cases it’s because music and
fairly direct modes of lyrical address are merged. Victor Jara, a
“mainstream” musician-poet, didn’t have his hands chopped off for nothing.
That doesn’t mean
innovative kinds of work don’t have a role to play. Their impacts tend to be
longer term, slower, more subliminal in nature, more broadly cultural in their
repercussions, following their moment of scandal: Dada, Surrealism, the Beats,
for instance. But we should not fool ourselves that we’re indispensible when
the barricades start going up. The thing to do then, if you’re a poet, is to
start writing prose.
Eliot Weinberger, one of the most important writers of the U.S. left (conventional as his leftism might seem to some) and author of the most influential U.S. political “poem” of the past few decades, “What I Heard about Iraq,” caused a big ruckus a few years ago with this statement. It’s still perfectly current, and I largely agree with it, so I’ll offer it as the most important part of my response to your question:
What projects are you working on at the moment?
KJ: Finally, an easy question!
My latest book is Day, a work of Conceptual poetry that is over 800 pages in length. There’s a full-page ad for this, with very enthusiastic blurbs from people like Christian Bök and Kenneth Goldsmith, in the November issue of Poetry magazine, just out. All the ordering information is there, for those who might be interested. There are two critical essays I know of that are being written on it already, so that’s pleasing. There’s also a video, which documents the production of the book’s first edition of twenty or so, now sold out, I believe.
Over this past year I’ve been involved with a group of linguists and
writers, from the U.S. and Mexico, in the planning of a poetry workshop program
in the Nahuatl-speaking region around Puebla. I was down there last year, doing
some preparation and research for this project, which is currently stalled for
lack of funding sources. But we’re plugging away. If this works, it’s likely
to take up a good deal of my attentions in the future.
I’m also working, though slowly, on a back and forth with Keston
Sutherland, for a journal out of Prague, however that ends up, who knows. But
with my own poetry I seem a bit stuck, right now. I’ve got a few new things
coming out in a couple places here and over in your country. But sometimes I
feel like I’ll never write another poem again! Which is a quote from Frank
O’Hara, I do keep reminding myself… So we’ll see what happens.
copyright © Kent Johnson & Jeffrey Side