Giorgia Pavlidou interviews Kent Johnson
1_If a woman called Araki Yasusada would knock on your door, and you’d be allowed to ask her only one question: what would you ask her?
Well, that would be a pretty disturbing scenario. I can’t help but picture her standing on my porch, rain-drenched, flash-lit by lightning, grasping an icepick.
Maybe I’d sternly ask her to explain, in no more than two minutes, why Audre Lorde and Helen Adam are way greater poets than Robert Pinsky or Louise Glück. That would surely disorient her (regardless of what MFA program she is attending or attended), allowing me to stun her with a jolt from my Taser. I would then quickly bind her wrists and ankles with duct tape, thus ensuring she does not harm herself or anyone else before the Counter-Terrorism unit arrives
2 There’s a certain flavor in your writing that makes me think of Roberto Bolaño. Am I imagining things? Or is there truly a Latin spirit (particularly from the South Cone) running through your writing?
I adore Bolaño, have read everything under his name, so I am flattered by your observation. In fact, have you heard about the novel El Misterio Nadal: A Lost and Rescued Book [Purportedly compiled, and with introduction in 2001, by Roberto Bolaño]? Chris Andrews, the principal English translator of Bolaño and César Aira, was kind enough to give it an enthused endorsement, as was Bolaño’s close friend, the famed writer Enrique Vila-Matas. I am an acquaintance of the translators of this book, and I am helping them to promote it. Here is the link to its page: http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/el-mysterio-nadal.html
It is supposedly a lost manuscript written by Bolaño, though its diverse lines of provenance entwine into a kind of Borgesian thicket. Which may be just what Bolaño intended, of course, Borges being his great hero
3_ You just mentioned the Argentine writer César Aira, who is widely considered as the inheritor of the mantle of Jorge Luis Borges. I have heard a barely believable rumor that his next novel in English translation, from New Directions, has you (and by name) as its central protagonist and narrator. Is this true?
Yes, I know it is hard to believe, but it is true. The novel is titled The Divorce. I have been invited to write about how this came to be by a prominent arts magazine. I will be doing that fairly soon, so I can’t say anything more about it at the moment
4_ Does satire come naturally to you? Personally, I find your poems very funny. But is there a thin red line you wouldn’t cross?
No, I don’t think writing comes naturally to me, at all. But I am cursed to do it, apparently. What does Rimbaud say, “It’s not the fault of the wood if it wakes up one day as a violin.” He says it differently, I know, but it would be dishonest to Google it just to get it right and pretend I can quote Rimbaud off the top of my head.
That said, I don’t know about what “lines” I’d never cross. The lines are always moving. And it’s the job of artists, I think, to help move them ever outward. That’s not to say that anything goes. The artist is a being in time and has her ethics. But the most lasting art almost always lasts precisely because it has dared to transgress some reified, but ultimately illusory, line of acceptability. The rest is law and instruction manual.
When I write in satirical mode (I don’t always), I of course try to sound as clever and witty as I possibly can. It has nothing to do with my day-to-day life, which could not be more unremarkable and bereft of adroit thoughts. I am very much a rather dull person to be around, I believe. It is difficult for me to speak with fluency. Sometimes, I grow so depressed with my inability to interact comfortably with others that I retire to my chambers for days on end, emerging only to walk my dog, Ben Jonson, along the winding, balconied streets of our mountain town. I read somewhere that Alexander Pope was somewhat like this, and it made me feel better. But then, that same day, I read that Lord Byron was just as witty and funny in society as he was in his writing, so that comfort didn’t last very long.
I once met Christopher Hitchens, right before he became a Neo-Con. This was after he and I had corresponded a bit, in the run-up to the 2000 election (I was a Nader supporter and had sent a rather strong letter to the Nation, and he saw it and responded, admiringly). In writing I could match him just fine. But when I met him in NYC, in summer of 2001, on a reading trip out East, I was so stunned by his spontaneous eloquence over drinks in the Village that I realized he was brilliantly real and I was a dull fake. Or that he was brilliantly fake and I was dully real, not sure. So it goes.
Now, I hope this admission doesn’t suggest I use satire as a “technique,” as you put it. Satire uses people more than people use it, surely. Otherwise, how to explain that some satirists are clever and witty in real life, while others—sometimes the greatest ones, like Pope and Kafka, say–are melancholic, often socially-anxious individuals?
For some reason, I suddenly sound in this answer like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Confessions…
5_We know that ‘woman’ doesn’t exist, but who’s the funniest woman writer you know?
Ernest Hemingway, maybe? I’m actually mostly serious. He indirectly, but fairly clearly, admitted as much about his deepest gender to his beloved trans daughter, Gloria (née Greg) in a private letter. Hemingway was, I’d argue, a bearded woman so afraid of her sexuality that she spent her life trying to be the manliest man that ever walked the earth with an elephant gun and a marlin rod. So much so that she slaughtered thousands of poor animals on the plains of Africa and in the waters of the Caribbean, just to prove how macho she was.
Anyway, as far as poets go, the 15th century Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain is wonderfully funny and naughty in her recently rediscovered “Poem of the Cunt,” a riposte to a swaggering poem of the time titled “Poem of the Cock.” The 17th century Lady Mary Wortley Montague (how is she not more famous?) is incredibly funny in her satires of contemporaries, especially when she gives back to Pope and Swift as good as they could ever give. Dorothy Parker, one of the most acerbic wits of the 20th century in English, is acutely funny, too. Wendy Cope and Rachel Loden, among living poets, are great, sharp fun, too. I used to correspond with Loden and even interviewed her, years back: http://jacketmagazine.com/21/loden-iv.html I wish we would hear from her again.
6_ In my own poetry I sometimes have used words like ‘aboriginal’ and ‘tribal.’ A senior poet reprimanded me. What do you think of the idea of cultural appropriation?
Words like “aboriginal” and “tribal” surely have no true relation to the phrase “cultural appropriation.” The word “tribal,” for example, seems perfectly neutral to me, a concept that is immediately useful to sociologists in the tradition of Bourdieu, for instance, who study poetry tribes, say. It is an objective term, describing a subgroup’s extended familial/clan relations and the dynamics of aggression, passivity, courting, position-taking, and stabilizing hierarchies that inform those tribal relations. Tribal relations, as any undergrad student in anthropology/ethnology learns, exist everywhere.
The “idea of cultural appropriation” is more like a reified ideologeme that has been, for the past thirty years or so, at the center of certain (mainly Caucasian, but certainly POC, as well) tribal formations that have set up camp inside a hot-house academic habitus. By now, that ideologeme has grown into a disciplining meme that self-replicates and mutates through the cultural body at large. Not just among those privileged academic subgroups, which originally took it up starting in the 80s, but among the dominant institutions in the neoliberal sphere more broadly, now, not least in the arts (almost all of these tied at the navel to State and Corporate “generosity”). They now bow to this master ideologeme (in all its variegated versions) without question. And those writers and artists who eagerly take the grant and fellowship capital from these compromised cultural institutions prostrate themselves even more deeply, not only out of assent, but in obsequious, self-serving, careerist craving.
I always like to ask, in regards “cultural appropriation” and its relation to literary imagination: WHERE would literature be, peeps, without it? From the orientalist forgery of Don Quixote, to the very origins of radical Modernism… Where would it be?
We are living right now through an actually-existing but already evaporating era of neo-Stalinist cultural dispensation. If you cross the thin red line (to use your earlier phrase), you are either sent to a Gulag of Collective Silence, or you’re symbolically executed via social-media character-assassination Show Trial.
The online magazine that Mike Boughn and I edited for four years, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, attempted to call attention to this ongoing problem, among others. That we did so consistently, made us wildly popular, among our friends as well as, it seems, among our enemies. https://www.dispatchespoetrywars.com
7_ We all know that being a poet isn’t a profession or even a vocation. We also know that writing usually doesn’t offer much of an income. When did you decide to become a billionaire?
It was around 1977, I think. I was at Axel’s Bar, in Milwaukee, just barely of legal age. I was sitting in a dimly lit booth with other young acolytes of James Liddy and Jim Chapson, recent billionaire expatriates of the post-Jack Spicer circle, in San Francisco. I decided then, suddenly, to devote my life to poetry, even as I forsook promising careers in both astronomy and architecture; medicine and naval engineering, too. Also sculpture and film, actually.
8_ Suppose you’d fall madly in love with a super-exciting woman, but you discover a year into the relationship that her father was a torture-specialist. What would you do?
This is a fascinating question, because for a while my girlfriend in ninth grade, in Montevideo, in 1970, at the Uruguayan-American School, was the daughter of Dan Mitrione, who (under cover of USAID, in the later 1960s/early 70s) was training the Uruguayan police and military in the latest torture techniques, not least in how to efficiently attach electrodes to the mouths and genital areas of Lefty-type people. The great director Costa Gavras made a film about this, starring Yves Montand, titled State of Siege. Have you seen it? It’s not as good as Z, but still a classic. But at that age I wasn’t really madly in love with the daughter of this torturer. Like any sex-starved early teen, I just wanted to French kiss with her and lick her early-teen breasts and such, to be perfectly candid. I did, though, have a huge crush for another girl, who was the daughter of another CIA operative, a close torture-whiz-colleague of Mitrione’s, and who later ended up being the girlfriend of my brother, go figure. She broke both of our hearts.
The question about what I would do regarding the father of the “super-exciting woman” is not as interesting as what it has meant to me in later years that my own father was the regular Sunday golfing partner of Dan Mitrione. He and his wife came to our house for drinks and appetizers a couple times, at least. He and my dad (who directed the YMCA Physical Education training program for young Y executives from throughout Latin America) would play the links together weekly at the Punta Carretas course across the street from our last house in Montevideo. Then again, my father would play with lots of other people, including hard leftists (the YMCA in Montevideo was a haven for revolutionists). Not long after the Tupamaros executed Mitrione, they also blew up, in the middle of the night, the beautiful club house and pool of the golf course, where I used to go swimming all the time, privileged gringo kid at the height of the Cold War that I was. The explosion shattered almost every window in our home. Those were the days.
9_ What advice would you give young poets whose hearts naturally beat toward the left but live in America and need to make a buck?
Well, as someone who grew up abroad, and sticking to the matter of the Americas: Move, young poets, to Paraguay, or to Belize, or to Bolivia, or even the Falklands, for example! Get out of your safe “America.” No guarantees, to be sure, but your poetry will possibly be much greater for it. And you will probably live better, too. In the sense of happiness, I mean.
10_If your exact clone or double, knowing you inside out, would interview you, what would be the most peculiar question you would ask you?
That’s a softball one, and I would ask three, which are really all part of just one:
WHERE DO YOU COME FROM? WHAT ARE YOU? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
11_. If Kent Johnson of 1982 and Kent Johnson of 2020 would meet at a bar in Nicaragua in 1990, what would be their first topic of discussion (assuming they would want to talk to each other).
I think we would both be too embarrassed by each other to be able to say anything. The guy from 1982 might say something like, “What the fuck, man.” The guy from 2020 might say something like, “I am so sorry, Kent.” And then both of them would go back to their respective hostel rooms and dream about each other, in cold sweats, for ten billion years.
12_ What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Well, along with a number of close winners, it was what I ate (and with great pleasure) after a week-long hiking trip, on the Appalachian Trail, from the border of New Hampshire to its terminus at the summit of Mt Katahdin, Maine: A Wendy’s double-patty-bacon cheeseburger, with the flesh portions in the form of a perfect square, cut by a precision machine.
I also once ate both howler monkey and anteater meat in a stew, in Nicaragua. I was a guest at a very humble home, deep in the central mountains, a meal hunted and prepared just for me, and I had to eat it. But the Wendy’s burger is the weirdest, when I think of it.
13_: Lacanian ideas have much influenced my thinking overall but particularly my experience of language. Still I haven’t yet read your Dear Lacan: An Analysis in Correspondence. Can you tell us a bit more about this book?
It is a book I am embarrassed of, really. It is my only pornographic publication. Luckily it is impossible to find. The letters that compose it–an “analysis in correspondence” between Jacques Debrot, a Ph.D. student at Harvard then, and Jacques Lacan, dead at the time, but still doing his job–were originally posted on the British-Irish Poetry List, a large, international gathering place in Listserv days in the early 2000s. The posting of the exchange led to the summary expulsion of Debrot and myself from the List and to a cannabalistic orgy of vitriol and the subsequent meltdown and closure of the List as a whole. The text was published as a chapbook by the Cambridge Conference on Contemporary Poetry (CCCP), in England, at Trinity College. I was invited there twice to read, once in 2003 and then in 2005, I believe it was. Kevin Nolan, the amazing organizer of the conference, which someone should do a history of (lots of Oxbridge political-poetic intrigue and crime mysteries, for sure!) while Nolan and the organizers are still around to be interviewed. Slavoj Zizek wrote the introduction for that chap. I like to think I am maybe the only poet of the world who was given two introductions, however brief, by Zizek.
14: UK presses publish a lot of your books. Why is that?
Well, it goes back to the CCCP conferences and the people I met there. The second time, there was a roundtable about political poetry. My book Lyric Poetry after Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War had recently appeared, and so I was on the panel. Tony Frazer, the longtime editor of the great Shearsman Books (which has published three of my titles) was on it, as was Jeremy Noel-Tod, now the Poetry Editor for the TLS in London and the Oxford Guide to Modern Poetry, who has written a few reviews and essays about my work. So this is how it happens in poetry, or sometimes can. You meet people and have a couple drinks with them, start corresponding, and voila, you are half Brit.
15: I know Because of Poetry came out this year, but have you already started a new book project? What are you working on at the moment?
I have taken on the crazy task of coordinating Museum Poetica, the four or five-part poetry showcase of the (mainly) arts and cultural-crit journal Caesura, which is already making good trouble in the visual arts world and beyond. I had just finished four years of editing Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, with my dear friend, the great Toronto poet and collage artist Mike Boughn. I am a glutton for punishment.
As for poetry, I feel right now like I will never write another word. Frank O’Hara said that, so I can too.
16: Surrealist poets recommended talking to you. What does surrealism mean to you?
Really? That makes me feel so good. I would rather let the incomparable Benjamin Péret speak, quoting from the lengthy police file reports of his interrogation in December 1931, by the Brazilian police, in Rio de Janeiro, shortly before his expulsion from the country for Trotskyist activities. The quote is somewhat long, but it answers the question better than I ever could:
We have asked you, out of sincere curiosity, for an explanation of Surrealism…
Might I give you a short introduction to Surrealism? Well…well…Let us see. What is it, or what could it be? This is a question, curiously, very similar to one I asked many poets in 1924 and 1925. So it seems I should be able to provide some help to you. I will try. May I have a cigarette? Thank you.
[Subject pauses, at length, smoking] For example: I prefer the Right Bank, really. From the flea market of Saint-Ouen to the Tour Saint Jacques, by way of Buttes-Chaumont and the Porte Saint-Denis. Let me see, I must explain. In fact, one may discern three quite discrete regions converging inside this group. Sometimes people are talking loudly, with no inhibition, and at other times, usually at night, by fountains and under trees, they speak in low confidences and comradely codes. Surprising objects and personal secrets are disgorged by the night; these are gathered by the peddler Guisançon, who sells them, for very reasonable prices on the rue Blomet: I glanced to my left and for just a moment her eyes met mine. Now half a horse I am, and I shall never return to my human ways. There was, of course, the rue Fonatine, but also the rue du Château, and, as I have said, the rue Blomet. Silence, do not interrupt. I am entering the state of half sleep, thanks to the rather uncomfortable accommodations of your City Penitentiary… Ah, yes, it was at the rue du Chateau where we first partook of the exquisite corpse. No, I will not explain the exquisite corpse to you; you must simply listen. Do not interrupt if you wish to know about Surrealism and its true secrets. The Left Bank has, still, some of its charms. But it is overrun, now, by bohemian tourists. Too many Americans and Germans and Russians with too much time in their heads and not much else. Hemingway, Stein, Pound, mere fluff and laisser-aller. I go to the Maldoror with my comrades; we ransack the stinking place. Many are injured. No, silence. I don’t care if you don’t think I am answering your question. It is not for cops to decide. Of course, a few cretins would spend their evenings there on the rounds of literary business and glad-handing: Desnos, especially. Good riddance. Though I should say, if one desires cocaine, it is in the The Jungle or The Jockey that one finds the best. Later, at the Cyrano, place Blanche, far from Montparnasse, you can imagine: Thirty or forty language-bundles wound up so tight our ten thousand springs were about to snap. Not even Breton could get in a word edgewise. I said Silence. Can you not see my eyes are rolled back into my head? And no, I will not stop shouting at the top of my lungs. Elephants are contagious! But now I am back at the orange-smoked Certa, in the passage de l’Opera, and all the gang is there. At the bluish-smoked Café du Globe, near the Porte Saint-Denis. Here come Ducahmp and Aragon, with their antique gait; they seem made of glass and soon will break. And here I am at the greenish-smoked Café d’Angletere, at the Carrefour Richelieu-Drouot, where Crevel is in a trance, shouting the purest and most terrible things, so terrible even Naville and Fourrier and Soupault, the prick, take their cowardly leave.
O, map of quartiers for idle wandering: O Carrefour Belleville-Oberkampf, with its giant mollusks and driftwood; O Porte Maillot, with its lozenge sky; O Opéra, with your fat ladies with clouds for derrieres; O Chaussée-d’Antin, with your thin men of gills and piglet tails; Silence! Must I shout above your remonstrance? O boulevard Sébastopol, with your Russians sunning themselves in their long seagrass hair; O Halles, with your fountain of shrouds and your hounds and crows baying at the sun; O Buttes-Chaumont, with its gardens of swan bones and moss; O du Bon Marché, with its slogan-yelling trees; O de la Trinite and Tuileries, with your chambers of aborted children extending for miles underground; O place de Vosges, seat of the enormous Cocoa Dutch Girl and a white bear behind; O des Arts et Métiers, with two wooden logs, just sitting there, for no reason at all, one tiny, one the size of the Louvre; No I shall not be silent! You asked me to explain Surrealism! O Bercy, with its little child’s tune, and the seahorses going round, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s giant stone head; O Georgette and Claude, with your rope and your doll and your open begging hands, so tiny; O, geography of gardens where the marvelous lay waiting, the Musée Grévin, and fairs and flea markets, the stalls of the Concours Lépine, of objects whose invention does not correspond to any immediate necessity , and where the poetic spirit is much more at home than in the production of a new bicycle or the machinery of a Bonapartist neo-colonial regime like this one, my tenentes. All places of no destination, paths of wonder and strangeness, to be open to one’s desire. Do you know of it? Do cops and brains of wood know of desire? Silence, I say. Péret has the floor.