10/22: Kent Johnson’s Big Night
by Geoff Kelly - posted 11:36 am, October 21, 2011
Big Night continues its run of throwing literary parties with booze, food, and poets who don’t suck with this Saturday, October 22, with poet Kent Johnson and musical guests Clandestina y la Raza Cósmica!
Kent Johnson entered the literary scene in the 1990s when he emerged as the possible author of a bounty of poems supposedly written by a previously unknown Japanese poet and Hiroshima survivor, Araki Yasusada. Yasusada’s poems were published widely in journals including American Poetry Review, and collected into a book from Wesleyan University Press, Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada¸edited by Kent Johnson. The issue of authorship has never been resolved, but the storm the ensued placed Johnson at the center of one of the wildest literary controversies in memory. Wesleyan immediately reneged, the poems were regarded by many as a hoax, and their submission was declared a “criminal act” by the editor of the American Poetry Review.
While the truth remains elusive in regards to the Yasusada texts, there’s no mistake that Kent Johnson has been one of the more active, if not provocative, poets in America today. Not only that, but his work is held by many in high critical regard. I know several people who consider Johnson the finest poet in all the land.
I caught up with Kent this week over email:
AV: Why is poetry important?
KJ: Depends what you mean by important. It isn’t important to most people, obviously. I mean it’s important to poets, but it’s possible to live without it. Not that life can’t be richer and more mysterious for those who are lucky enough to enter it in a serious way.
AV: A lot of your writing seems to question, and even criticize the politics of poetry and art in America. Briefly, where is the American poet these days?
KJ: In the university, mainly it seems. More specifically, or maybe that should be less specifically, one might look in terms of that “where” to the utterly shameful fact that the Poetry Foundation is now calling the cops on poets and trying to get them arrested and sent to prison for doing terrible, criminal things like coming to PF readings and hanging banners and passing out leaflets, or for embarrassing the bourgeoisie by kissing and caressing at the PF’s fancy Wine and Cheese receptions at their 20+ million corporate headquarters. What I mean is that one can get some sense of “where the American poet is these days” by noticing how many (nearly all) “experimental” and “radical” U.S. poets have kept a cowered, cautious silence in face of such outrageous display of institutional power and arrogance. You can read more about this at Montevidayo blog, under two posts by the young members of the Croatoan Poetic Cell, who carried out the protest actions at the Poetry Foundation.
AV: One of the things I enjoy most about your work is how you create a role of Author-as-Trickster. Is this intentional as in (and as I’m looking all over for my copy of Epigramititis, where to paraphrase you say:), Screw it, soon the wind will be blowing over all our graves? [I later tracked it down: “As I said, [these] are only poems. And no one listens to poetry anymore anyway. And, as I also said, very soon, indeed, we are all going to be dead.]
KJ: Well, I can’t recall that line or anything similar to it from Epigramititis, Aaron, but that doesn’t mean anything, because there are more and more things these days I can’t recall at all. In some cases this is a blessing. But yes, and thank you for what you say, much of my work tests the categories and assumptions of conventional authorship, it’s fair to say. But I wouldn’t say there is some kind of “program” involved in that, some kind of single “point” I’m trying to make–there are many dimensions to authorship and many ways of creatively working with the notion. So as best I’m able, I try to make things interesting in that regard. The possibilities are nearly infinite, I think, so I wish more U.S. poets would try experimenting in that realm, too. I think readers would be grateful if we did more of it, instead of just attaching, as if it were a law, our driver’s license identities to every poem and book we write. Which isn’t to say we should get rid of that official mode. I just mean we could use some more poets driving down the wrong side of the road. It would mix things up a bit in healthy ways. Our cars are made of air, anyway, so no one can get hurt…
Big Night throws down at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (at Mohawk). $5 admission. $4 for members of JBLC, CEPA, & WNYBAC. Free food (prepared by poet/editor/chef Geoff Gatza). Cash bar.
Kent Johnson will also be giving “A Talk on Poetics in Forty Sestets of Perfect Iambic Tetrameter” on Friday, October, 8pm, @ Karpeles Manuscript Library, 453 Porter Ave., in Buffalo.