Robert Duncan's Letters (Flood Editions) just arrived. It's a gorgeous edition with an afterword by Robert Bertholf. It's the book RD wrote just prior to the influential and important The Opening of the Field. Some of the author's concerns re: the typesetting and design of this book are reproduced here in his detailed letters to Jargon book designer Claude Fredericks. This important document relates RD's point-by-point proofs and his insistence on the importance of each typographic gesture, spacing and unconventional notation. Central also is an insistence on speech as the motivating element of poetry. For all its strong angles, enjambment of lore and fractured surfaces, Letters takes speech as the primary force of the poem. Speech registers the physical limitations of language in the body. The typographic score of the page is a musical notation that guides the reader's romp through his words. It gives sensuous shape and embodiment to RD's hermetic cluster of concerns. Drawings, however, of his ideal reader reveal a sweet determination of extension by breath and typographic attention. She wears many large hats, in her study or garden, and seems to adore cats. Her plump body is often in repose, skirts billowing out over large plush chairs. His muse is measure particular to his character and intelligence. RD perhaps is our greatest poet of a union between bodies of feeling and mind. Flood's republication of Letters is a document of this projective integration of speech into forms.
The following responses were sent to Writer's Market earlier this year re: questions they had about Skanky Possum.
1. Who reads the poetry submissions at your magazine, and what criteria are used in choosing the poems you publish?
I edit Skanky Possum with my wife, the poet Hoa Nguyen. One of us reads everything received in the mail. Mostly, since our time and budget are limited, (we only publish twice a year), we make decisions based on what fits thematically or formally with each issue. There aren't many firm requirements. We assume familiarity with our magazine and with the writers we have published. Affinity for the nocturnal rummaging of Didelphis marsupialis is a plus. It's also important for us to choose work that achieves the upper limit of poetic vitality and beauty designated by our adjective "skanky."
2. What are the most common reasons that you turn poems away?
We reject poems if they're over-long, typed in a small typeface, mailed without SASE or e-mailed to us. If they fail to achieve a certain possum logic or if they condescend to that marsupial intelligence, we toss them from the litter for the fire ants to eat.
3. What trends are you seeing in the slush pile? For example, did you notice any changes in submissions following the September 11 attacks, and, if so, did those changes last?
We've seen few responses in poems to Sept. 11. Which is probably good. It will take a while for that to settle, collectively and privately. We received from one writer a clipping from a Kansas news column about a possum fry early in the last century whereat hundreds of our totem friends were slaughtered in celebration of a Midwest holiday. Others in our slush pile simply can't grip the fur on mamma possum's back tight enough.
4. What's your level of commitment to publishing new and emerging poets? Do you take into consideration a poet's publication history (or lack thereof)?
Every issue presents established poets along with newer names. We look at how a particular poem contributes to the larger conversations our writers engage in. We're looking for some skank, of course, anywhere we can get it. Not your ordinary kind of skankiness, but down and dirty, waddling-across-your-yard-into-the-gutter skank. Anyone, green or grizzled with words, can hop in our pouch. But somewhere in their poem there'd better be a little whiff of you-know-what.
5. Work from your magazine has been selected for the annual Best American Poetry anthology. Do such honors typically surprise you? Or do you have a sense, as you're publishing a poem, that it will be one that draws attention? And what does it mean to you as an editor to have work selected for such anthologies?
Skanky Possum is about as low-fi as it gets in publishing (each issue is xeroxed, stapled and bound with hand-painted covers), so yes, we were surprised that so many poems were chosen for the prestigious BAP 2002. But our poets have given us consistently good work for many years. That they should be so publicly recognized now by the mainstream print world is wonderful and I'm happy to have participated in that process. We're honored too by Robert Creeley's commitment to our little marsupial movement. I feel that we've finally let our selves down out of a tree, or crawled up out of the gutter, so to say, onto the highway of the American culture industry.
Here are some books, chapbooks, journals and zines that have arrived in our house over the last few months—for which we are most grateful. They are listed in no particular order. Many thanks to you who have shared this work with us.
Out to Lunch, poems by Nicole Gervace, chapbook, Gypsyng6@netscape.net.
Ezine Verse, April 2003, $7.00. www.dpress.net
Anon: Writings &Manifestoes, Mark DuCharme, Anselm Hollo, Patrick Pritchett, Laura E. Wright and Jane Dalrymple-Hollo. Potato Clock Editions, 2965 13th Street, Boulder, CO 80304.
26, issue B, edited by Avery E.D. Burns, Rusty Morrison, Joseph Noble, Elizabeth Robinson and Brian Strang. www.26magazine.com. PO Box 4450, St. Mary's College, Moraga, CA 94575-4730. Contributors include Gillian Conoley, Brent Cunningham, Hoa Nguyen and others, with trans. by Jen Hofer. This is an exceptional journal. Get it at all costs. Theirs is $10.
Sadly, a new book from Flood Editions by William Fuller. Prose poems: "She whispers 'umbrella,' and the stars begin to die, the moon opens wide in her head. Suspended over the dawn, sparks of fear fade, in colors, where a new set of problems as emerged—for time has hooks and words have holes." (from "No Wakes Please). Available from the publisher (www.floodeditions.com) or SPDbooks.org.
Our Fortunes, by Julie Kalendek, Burning Deck, Distributed by SPD, 1341 Seventh St., Berkeley, CA 94710, 1-800-869-7553, www.spdbooks.org. From the book:
refrain the rain the ground is drowned
up river's mouth
Is cataract catastrophe
or placid as a wave within
troubled as the shrinking ice
at winter's end, at water's edge
drop of the sea, comfort me.
Undying Love, or Love Dies, by Jalal Toufic, The Post-Apollo Press, 35 Marie Street, Sausalito, CA 94965.
Million Poems Journal, by Jordan Davis, Faux Press, distributed by SPD. www.fauxpress.com. A big green book of great poems.
A Purchase in the White Botanica: the Collected Poetry of Piero Heliczer, edited by Gerard Malanga and Anselm Hollo. Granary Books, www.granarybooks.com. 307 Seventh Avenue, Suite 1401, New York, NY 10001. Exquisite work: "but all was white sugar like snow." Also, "hells laurels / in every stream glitters the foolsworld."
Sugar Pill, by Drew Gardner, Krupskaya, $11. PO Box 420249, San Francisco, CA 94142-0249.
Ugh Ugh Ocean, by Joanna Fuhrman. Hanging Loose Press, 231 Wyckoff Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217. www.hangingloosepress.com.
The Poker 2, edited by Daniel Bouchard. Editorial address: P.O. Box 390408, Cambridge, MA 02139. Another terrific issue from Dan, with poetry by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Merrill Gilfillan, Ange Mlinko and others. Reviews by William Corbett. Featuring nine Iraqi poets. Paintings by Tom Neely. And an essay by Jennifer Moxley.
Cuttings from the Garden of Little Fears, by Lisa Bourbeau. First Intensity Press, P.O. Box 665, Lawrence, KS 66044. From "Grace Fallen:" Upon us, pale orchid light— / lip and sepal, column, all / that is seminal / or husk. A portal…."
The Ones I Used To Laugh With: A Haibun Journal, Diane di Prima, 12pp., Habenicht Press in collaboration with Sardines Press. Handsome edition. See SPD for details.
Meta( / other) poems, by Paulo Leminski, translated by Chris Daniels and edited with Chris Chen. "In planetary terms, writing Portuguese is the same as being silent"—Leminski, 3 Languages. Published by Grand Quiskadee, Berkeley, CA 2003. email@example.com. This book is highly recommended. Here's a brief excerpt:
wash me out
thin me down
mix me up
but the charm
one of these days i wanna be
a great english poet
of the last century
o sky o sea of folk o destiny
fight in india, 1866
go down in a clandestine shipwreck….
No: a journal of the arts, issue 1, winter. Edited by Deb Klowden and Ben Lerner and printed twice yearly for Lost Roads Publishers. $12. Get it from SPD. www.nojournal.com. firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributors: Rae Armantrout, Erica Carpenter, Michael Davidson, Kenneth Irby, Forrest Gander, Eliot Weinberger and many others. Perfectbound.
In/somnia, by Etel Adnan. The Post-Apollo Press. 35 Marie Street, Sausalito, CA 94965.
At an Intersection, by Michael Ruby. Alef Books, 230 West 105th Street, New York, NY 10025.
True News, by Craig Watson. Instance Press, $10. 327 Cleveland Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, or through SPD.
Acts of Levitation, by Laynie Browne. Spuyten Duyvil, PO Box 1852, Cathedral Station, NYC 10025. Prose novel. 230pp.
What Appears to Be a Yacht in the Distance
An interview with Kent Johnson
Gabriel Gudding: You seem to be attracted to the epistolary medium. Most, if not all, of your work—as an editor, translator, literary executor, and as a poet—seems to be sustained in its orbit by a strong attraction to the epistolary. Why is this? What is it that epistles allow you to do that less monologic genres don't allow you?
Kent Johnson: I assume that you’re mainly thinking of Tosa Motokiyu’s Yasusada corpus, to which my relationship is that of executor and editor.
Well, I’d say that Motokiyu was drawn to epistolary modes—in Doubled Flowering, of course, but more fully, even, in his unpublished final work Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords, Yasusada’s youthful letters in English to an American "pal-pen"—because the epistle, in fact, offered him more pliable and non-monologic ways of poetically proceeding. Doubled Flowering, for a book of poetry (if that’s really what it is, I think of it as a novella), is deeply dialogic, filled with different voices attempting to communicate things that are difficult or impossible to communicate. And its epistolary moments are quite often literal propellants for the appearance of diverse personages, styles, genres, editorial subplots, and so forth.
Letters are always part of a real or imagined exchange with others, a gesture of dialogue by definition, occasioned and formed from without by a rich array of discursive pressures, and impressed from within by the presence of another, or others, to whom one is writing. In this sense, it’s natural that the epistolary medium plays a key role in Doubled Flowering, a book that is all about otherness. For Moto, Yasusada’s numerous letters therein become a means by which the "to whom" is opened up, complicated, and thus more complexly and intensely sensed—by him and the reader both.
Likewise, in Also, with My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords, disparate grammars and viewpoints are constantly interflowing, among them, prominently, those of Motokiyu and his invented fellow-editor/translators, Kyojin and Norinaga, whose footnoted explanations and puzzled meditations regarding what Yasusada is really up to make up around a third of the total text. Ironically, the puzzled footnotes made by me and my co-editor Javier Alvarez about what Moto is really up to make up another considerable portion of the book. So even we get pulled into the heteroglossic woods.
As for my own use of the epistle, there’s no question I’ve been impacted by Moto’s gesture, and I’ve even gathered together a manuscript of these letter-verses in a manuscript titled Language Poets in Leningrad: Post-poems and Elegies, 1998-2003. But, too, it’s not just an issue of poetics. Fundamentally, perhaps, the writing of imaginary letters to oneself is an ancient way of staving off loneliness and the fear of leaving the world and disappearing forever, without reason or redemption.
But now I think you should probably ask me something funny.
GG: As I am doing my best to play the role of interviewer, let me just, with respect, momentarily ignore your plea for humor so that I may with dignity establish some authority before I bring whatever credibility we both have as serious people crashing down around our earballs.
Now. You say that epistles are an "exchange with others, a gesture of dialogue by definition," and I am fascinated by that phrase "gesture of dialogue," fascinated most especially because much of your presence in the literary world seems to flicker between irony and sincerity, gesture and action, display and communication. I am thinking here especially of your presence on listserves, but I could just as easily say the same plays out in the texts with which you’ve been associated (as executor, editor, translator, and poet).
For instance, this flickering between artifice and authenticity seems to cast itself upon the screen of the Johnson page through paratextual features such as footnotes, prefaces, blurbs, such that the effect is to frame and undergird the center of these texts (translations of poems or letters, eg, in the AY corpus or the Alexandra Papaditsas poems), surrounding them with a cacophony of editorial asides, questions, and rebuttals. My question: assuming I am right, that you are a flickering person of letters, or that Johnson-associated texts are flickering texts, what do you hope to achieve by this? If I am not right, please rebut me.
KJ: What do I hope to achieve? Well, what I hope to achieve, of course, is a Ruth Lilly Poetry Grant for (Johnson affectedly places his pinky at corner of mouth) ONE MILLION DOLLARS…
Sorry, just kidding, mostly… But do you really see the work I’m engaged in as "flickering"? Jaime Saenz, the great Bolivian poet I’ve been translating with Forrest Gander, has this image at the beginning of the last poem he published, an astonishing book-length work entitled The Night, of a black rubber tube in semi-circle, its cut ends suctioned to each of his eyes. It acts, apparently, as a kind of particle accelerator for his vision. But it’s very dark in there, no flickering to be seen. And it causes him to act very unpredictably and to be treated as something of a pariah—he’s the guy no one wants to talk to at the poetry party.
So unless I’m misunderstanding you, I think I’d regard my "position" in the current field more in the sense of Saenz’s image than the one you propose in your question, which seems to imply that I have some controlling idea of what I am doing or where I am going. It’s much more complicated to be the executor of a deceased and resolutely anonymous poet than you might think.
GG: Do you think of yourself, then, as unpopular and rejected in the poetry world?
KJ: Oh, I don’t know. You give up some things to gain others, you know. And the work I’m involved with seems to have struck a chord with many, and I’ve made some pretty good relationships because of it, over the past number of years. But the logic of the kind of art I seem to get myself into—as poet, editor, translator, caretaker, what have you—is quite different from the "I Am the Author" poetry for which one goes to, say, Ploughshares or The Iowa Review, Chain or Fence: the Bizetian opera-tions of the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival kind, or, equally, now, the Glassian glissandi of late-Langpo and its post-Gulf War I elite graduate school-based offshoots. Textual ideologies aside, both tendencies are rooted in fundamentally similar and very conservative assumptions about the Poet’s contract with, and presence in, the culture… But in these times of global madness, as World War III perhaps gets underway, who really cares about Language Poetry being to the Academy of American Poets what Stravinsky is to Brahms, or what Cindy Sherman is to Edward Weston? There’s nothing wrong with it, ultimately. That’s just the nature of the culture market, and people do what they do, and there are very good and deeply talented people in all these groups. History will sort things out in the Art Museum. Those eccentrics who stubbornly refuse and remain outside will either be completely forgotten or they will change everything. Perhaps both, of course.
GG: This is interesting, Kent. Insofar as American poetry finds itself in a literary economy governed by the notion of the "outsider," the poetic outsider is the next greatest bet for canonization. Being cognizant of this history, as laid out very well by Alan Golding, do you not find the notion of "outsider" somewhat suspect?
KJ: Sure, but how the canon works is not my fault. And anyway, it’s Tosa Motokiyu who will probably be canonized, not me. I’m primarily a translator and editor, with little, if any, poetic talent. Come to think of it, this is probably the reason so much of my own attempts at writing poetry take on epistolary form!
GG: But surely Johnson-associated texts extend by now far beyond Motokiyu, don’t they? You have recently published a book with Forrest Gander; a book with Alexandra Papaditsas—a semi-mytho-fictional Greek poet with a horn on her head who has recently died; an epistolary psychoanalysis as Jacques Lacan, wherein Lacan deeply traumatizes the mad Basque poet Jacques Debrot; a forthcoming poetry book called Epigramititis in which you insult or make commentary upon 103 living American poets; and now, apparently, a book enigmatically titled Language Poets in Leningrad. So, the Johnson-associated corpus is widening its production line: diversifying (useful pun)—and all this is happening in a way counter to most of the normal mythos surrounding poetry: (1) the author is not you; and (2) the author, if he were you, would not have any talent anyway!
So, you are not talented and people dislike you, yet texts associated with you are interesting to readers. Your one concession to vanity is that you describe yourself as an outsider in the literary world— and we all know that in the universe of poetry, to describe yourself as an outsider is the height of vanity. Do you ever fear that the reason you are disliked (assuming, for a second, that you really are) is because people have a sense that maybe this Johnson guy is just using the guises of translator (in the case of Papaditsas) and executor (in the case of Yasusada) to hide a surpassing and stentorian vanity?
KJ: Well, Vanity is the universe, and Poetry is one of its dimensions!
But it’s complicated, admittedly. I think about these things and wonder about my motivations and directions, believe me. I’m guilty, I suppose, of desiring to have a relationship to poetry outside the most widely accepted protocols and categories. That’s my vanity, and I’m an odd duck in that way, but to me it’s what being a poet is mainly about. It ’s not so much about the two-dimensional issues of whether your unit of measure is feet or sentences, whether on the page you are thematically narrative or abstract, lyrical or non-syllogistic; it’s about the four-dimensional challenges of how your self and non-self relate to poetry’s total space, to how you are going to negotiate those ritualized modes of production and branding that are regarded—by Language, Post-avant, Pittsburgh UP, Cowboy, and Performance poets alike—as more or less natural and happily ancillary to the nature of the "poem proper." So for me—and I say for me because it’s not some kind of categorical imperative—the question is: What’s a poet to do? Do you just fit yourself into the Author slot, framed and hooked and fixed with your legal self, or do you make things more interesting than that? And it just occurs to me that maybe this is what you meant earlier by the term "flickering." In that sense, yes, to poeticize the function and position of my authorship, to make it an element inside my poetry is what I am interested in. Move around, I say. There’s lots of unexplored space beyond the canvas. Otherwise, poetry becomes a mostly repetitive exercise, conceptually speaking, ID’d and ready, be it "traditional" or "experimental," for the gallery.
Speaking of Alan Golding, that’s how the Canon works, right? The core principle of its law is Authentication. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to be an Authentic Poet. There are more than enough of those already.
GG: Brian McHale’s essay, "A Poet May Not Exist," in The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publication from the 16th to the 20th Century, is a detailed study of the Yasusada controversy. After characterizing Doubled Flowering’s "formal heterogeneity and complexity, its multiple framings and proliferation of ancillary texts, its mix of genres and styles, its intertextual play, its conspicuous visuality and materiality, and so on," he goes on to describe an angry paper Charles Bernstein delivered at the MLA, its thesis that Yasusada is an instance of "white male rage," his creation motivated at bottom by the desire to humiliate editors and poets perceived to be under the sway of multicultural political correctness. What do you say to Bernstein’s charge?
KJ: Well, I’ve addressed this matter in another interview. No, Charles’s vulgar reduction simply has nothing of substance to do with the origins or meaning of the work.
GG: Would you care to elaborate a bit?
KJ: Not at the moment. I’m sure we can find something more interesting to end this interview with.
GG: OK. How about this: You gave a brilliant reading to a packed house in the spring of 2003 in Providence at the Rhode Island School of Design (in a reading series curated by Irish poet Mairéad Byrne). You read from many different works (including, by the way, Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz, translated by yourself and Forrest Gander, a book that has just been nominated for the PEN Translation Award.) As you were reading, though, I had to wonder, and I’m sure that others have long wondered this as well, that, assuming you ARE, if I may speak in conditionals and hypotheticals about you, assuming you are, as many suspect, the author behind the Yasusada manuscripts, it must be very frustrating not to take the credit for that captivating work. And I had to wonder if the post-Doubled Flowering work The Miseries of Poetry, which hints and plays strongly on the idea of "fake" hyperauthorship, if that work in any way is Kent Johnson, auteur, tipping his hat to the audience. For at the reading you admitted freely that Alexandra Papaditsas is a fiction. So, I know that I and many other people might read Miseries in that light. Can you comment, and close, about what authorial gesture you are making with Miseries, and how, if at all, that book in any way constitutes a kind of "Hey, Everyone, I’m the ‘hyperauthor’ behind Alexandra Papaditsas, and, by extension, I’m also the ‘hyperauthor’ behind Yasusada." Is this reading just wildly OFF?
KJ: Well, I think you misunderstood what I said at the reading, though it’s possible that what I tried to say came out backwards. Probably that, actually… No, my point was not that Alexandra is a fiction, but that the "translations" (what we call "traductions") are fictional renderings of ancient Greek writers. Only four out of the twenty poems in the The Miseries, in fact, have any recognizable relationship to an original text. Most of the poems are pure inventions, ascribed in the book to both real and invented poets. In this sense, the book shares an ideational affinity with Spicer’ s After Lorca. Like that mysterious book, it is a feint made by poetry as it plants its foot in the turf of translation, then cuts hard to shake off the triple coverage. Translation, by the way, is the true and eternal ground of poetry in any and every case.
The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek is therefore very different from Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, though both books are certainly instances of poetic fiction. The latter is a body of real poems written by an author whose identity will remain forever unacknowledged; the former is a body of false poems written by two authors who acknowledge their identities right there on the title page. The books—conceptually, at least—are reversed images of the other. So, no, I’m sorry there was misunderstanding there as a result of the reading in Providence.
GG: So you’re telling us, Kent Johnson, Alexandra Papaditsas was real?
[At this point, KJ gets up, goes to another room, comes back with a black and white photograph. He hands it to me, saying this is private: There are three people in the picture. They are standing near what appears to be the edge of a cliff, behind which is an ocean. A sailboat and what appears to be a yacht are in the distance. On the left is a youngish, bearded man in a monk’s robe with an oversized wooden crucifix at his chest, his eyes closed; on the right is Johnson, smiling diffidently and squinting into the sun. In the middle is a young woman of short, dark hair, striking in her beauty, wearing a white tank top that appears wet, and her firm nipples are dark, seemingly fluorescent beneath it. She is unsmiling, almost defiant in her look, and her eyes are opened wide, staring dead-on at the viewer. A long, curling horn extends from the left side of her head. This is what I saw. Gabriel Gudding]
KJ: Yes, Life, as they say, is sometimes not separate from Poetry and its Traductions. But I guess you’d have to read the book.
Go to http://www.skankypossum.com/order.htm for information on ordering The Miseries of Poetry: Traductions from the Greek (Skanky Possum 2003) by Kent Johnson and Alexandra Papaditsas. Or send checks ($6 plus $1.50 s/h) to Skanky Possum, 2925 Higgins Street, Austin, Texas 78722.