J A C K E T # 5 |
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On Robert M. Larsen, Araki Yasusada, and|
THE WILL TO POWER
An interview with Kent Johnson,
conducted by Norbert Francis
You can read six different articles on the Yasusada phenomenon here in Jacket.|
Norbert Francis: One or two days before issue #6 of The Transcendental Friend [www.morningred.com/friend] was released on the web, you put up a post to the Buffalo Poetics List, effusively praising the publication for its idiosyncratic originality. And then, in issue #6, there appears the "Selected Notes of Robert M. Larsen," which strikes this reader as a brilliantly conceived faux critique of the work of Araki Yasusada, where Larsen (with a preface by Garret Kalleberg and E. Tage Larsen that might be taken as a send-up of Tosa Motokiyu's introduction to Araki Yasusada) reveals, through a series of "Note-poems," that authorial "Frauds" are enactments of the Nietzschean "Will to Power," impelled by a "Predatory Awareness" that seeks to "control the Other." As the person widely suspected to be Yasusada -- despite your consistent refusal to publicly acknowledge the charge -- I was wondering what you thought of the Larsen "Notes."
Kent Johnson: Well, they are brilliant, and I think Robert Larsen is a fascinating discovery, as they say. I would emphasize, though, before commenting further on Larsen's conclusions, that his "Notes" may not at all have Yasusada specifically in mind. In fact, it is possible to imagine that R. Larsen's Nordic and ethereal finger points in the direction of Armand Schwerner's The Tablets, a work that is the subject of a special forum in the recent issue of Talisman -- the same issue, curiously, in which Garrett Kalleberg appears as editor of a large section of work by young poets. Still, even if this hypothesis is correct, one could posit that Larsen's "Notes" are just as relevant to the presentational apparatus surrounding Yasusada as they are to that of The Tablets. Actually, one of the essays in the Talisman issue ("Topology of a Phantom City: The Tablets as Hoax," by Brian McHale) proposes that the work closest in spirit and concept to Schwerner's masterpiece is the Yasusada. So as I comment on Larsen's musings I will assume, for the sake of argument, that Yasusada's Doubled Flowering was very much in his mind as he composed his "Notes"
NF: By the way, not to interrupt, but I was wondering if you actually agreed with that assessment -- that there is a close affinity between The Tablets and Yasusada?
KJ: Well, yes and no. "Yes" in that Motokiyu knew The Tablets and admired the work tremendously -- and one can see, no doubt, traces of The Tablets' ideational and formal apparatus in Yasusada's notebooks: the problematics of translation as sub-plot, the numerous and often theatrical commentaries by Yasusada's "scholar-translators," the fragmented status of much of Yasusada's notebook-text, and so on. But "No" in the very crucial sense of attribution. For The Tablets, we are told by Armand Schwerner, is a work of poetic fiction created by Armand Schwerner. Finally, thus, Schwerner's work glimmers and hums beneath the sign of an empirical name -- which is to say that it glimmers and hums in a decidedly circumscribed space. The Yasusada working exists in a different attributional state altogether and therefore in a considerably different conceptual field, and I think that's self-evident enough that I don't need to elaborate. But the distinction is crucial.
None of which is to suggest anything whatsoever in the axiological sense: The works are similar and different. And I think that when they are discussed in the future as two very original and authentic "moments" in late 20th century American poetics, that these similarities and differences will be clearly noted.
NF: But in saying all this -- in assuming that Larsen's "Notes" are an appropriate and legitimate occasion for you to make further commentary on the Yasusada -- don't you set yourself up for being seen as subject to a kind of paranoia? Aren't you possibly falling into the very "Predatory" web the work you would defend has spun?
KJ: Well, anyone who would here lay the claim of paranoia against me as a means of discrediting the Yasusada would obviously be acting out, with clear Predatory intent, the Will to Power Larsen feels he uncovers as the dark heart of wilfully apocryphal texts. So give it up, I say to all those who won't stop chasing me: I was a track star for Pewaukee High!
Really though, it's precisely in this sense that Larsen most obviously offers himself up to be deconstructed. For as the hyperauthor of an anonymous writer who has created him and whose Will he speaks in exposing the volitional sins and base instincts of Fraudulent Authors, Larsen's fate is to deconstruct himself: He becomes, willy-nilly, a parody of his "own" making, a parody that, in an intricately enfolded irony, is constructed through a Will of Predatory Awareness which quite evidently and deeply informs the psyche of Larsen's maker.
NF: Yes, that is interesting, if I am following you correctly, and I'm not entirely certain, to be honest, that I am. But let's say, for hypothetical example, that Larsen is the creation of Garrett Kalleberg, who, to repeat, appears with an E. Tage Larsen as "editor" of the Robert Larsen "Notes." Now perhaps G. Kalleberg is blind to this paradox at the core of Larsen's textual body. But, on the other hand, perhaps he is not blind, and the "intricately enfolded irony" you mention is actually an embedded component of a highly subtle meta-textual "Awareness." If this is the case, then Larsen must be seen as an amazingly brilliant work of reflexive self-critique. Are you willing to consider this second scenario as a possibility?
KJ: Yes, it is certainly a possibility. And I would say that if that second possibility is not the case, then the writer behind the Larsen arras owes me a thank you and an invitation with generous honorarium to read poetry in his city -- for in delineating the intricate irony, I have suggested to him (if indeed it is a single "him") a phantom escape hatch to flee his doubled-bind.
NF: A phantom escape hatch?
KJ: Well, "phantom" because even via a work of "self-reflexive meta-textual Awareness," the Larsen author cannot, in truth, free himself/herself/themselves from the suck of Power at all. One can save face, so to speak, but always at the cost of burying oneself deeper down. The subtle and well-wrought self-deprecations of auto-critique are themselves always and already instances of individuated staging within a general economy of libidinal posture and positioning.
NF: You put that quite impressively. But I believe the Canadian poet Steve McCaffery said something about a "libidinal general economy" once?
KJ: Yes, I steal the term from his well-known essay on Bataille -- one of the most amazing instances of enacting one's argument through written theatrics that I have ever read, though I am not sure how "self-reflexive" McCaffery was actually being there. He and his mostly male friends of the time were head over heels in love with a certain kind of critical excess, and the incandescences of post-structuralist rhetoric quite often blinded them, in my humble opinion, to the hilarious ironies of their id-ruttings and ego-struttings.
NF: Some more Scotch?
KJ: Sure, why not.
KJ: Yes, thank you.
NF: Very well. Now what else about the Larsen?
KJ: Again, and to emphasize: A very impressive work, one that should be placed on an equal footing with the Ern Malley* corpus in any ranking of those heteronymous gestures that are, in first instance, directed by the force and desire of critique -- a sub-genre, as I've argued on other occasions, to which Yasusada does not primarily belong. Or perhaps I should rephrase and say: Yasusada has come to belong to this sub-genre of critical heteronymity through the conjunctural happenstance of a reading formation that doesn't know how else to deal with creative acts that jump the moat of genetic classification. What I'm talking about in making these necessarily tenuous distinctions of hyperauthorial type is the originary source of creative intent -- a pathetically old-fashioned and inadequate notion, to be sure, that shows how badly we need (to borrow a happy phrase from the young critic and poet Joshua Schuster) a "theory of pseudography."
* You can read more about the Australian
NF: Well, but a transgressive, even blasphemous "creation" to say the least . . .
KJ: Yes, a fiction existing within a fictional vehicle that is obviously idiosyncratic and daring in its construction, but a fiction nevertheless. What seems to make Yasusada a bad Force-Field or Voo Doo entity, etc. for many is that the work has an author who has chosen to not attach to it his legal name -- an act of abstinence that seems to have plucked some kind of fragile, collective nerve in the libidinous economy!
NF: Like the editor of America's leading poetry magazine, who called Yasusada "a criminal act" after devoting a Special Supplement to his work . . .
KJ: Or the ghostly Larsen, for example: who grimly speculates that the unconscious intents of such a Predatory text are that its readers may go mad or wish to commit suicide.
NF: Yes, and contra this apocryphal darkness, Larsen holds up the inner light of "Zen Power," a "Purpose of Artistic Creation" that sloughs-off any desire for "the absorption (enslavement) of The Other," a state of creation that avoids kidnapping The Other into its hyperauthorial "Voo Doo."
KJ: And fair enough, I'd say, because I'm all for Zen, even if after years of sitting I have not a clue what Zen is. But anyway, what really is this Voo Doo, we might ask, and where does it come from? Is its primary source the private Will to Power of the anonymous Yasusada author (who, incidentally, never would have denied having, as a human being, a "Will to Power")? Or is the Voo Doo a more encompassing and anonymous Power deeply suffused through the Terraced and Ascending Fields of Poetry, which are plowed and watered and fertilized by the legal and genetical Name -- especially, it has come to appear, in the Fields of the American "avant-garde." If one is a comfortable and respectable farmer in this exotic but thoroughly satellized economy, and the new neighbor begins to grow lush crops without plow or water or fertilizer, why, then, it must be that this neighbor is a Warlock, out to enslave the Other farmers! Or worse, he wants to toss their Voo Doo figurines into a boiling pot of apocrypha! Quick! He is farming without a contract sanctioned by the Law! Light the torches and kick him out of the Fields!
NF: I hope you won't mind my saying this, but your answer is a bit hard to follow, what with all the fanciful analogies to agriculture . . .
KJ: Yes, I suppose I got carried away there. No more whiskey for me, I guess . . . But what I mean, if I can shift a bit the conceit, is that Larsen's creator tries to use Nietzsche as torch to expose Voo Doo Power in the fleshly body "inside" Yasusada's textual form, oblivious that through this very act of "smoking out" he lights up -- as if from behind in a kind of shadow play -- a more hidden and diffuse Force Field: the Power of the Author, which suddenly, in the silhouetted figure of a thousand-armed god, is seen to circle and speak through the Nord's phantasmal body with a forked and vengeful tongue.
NF: I see. Though I wonder if your shadow conceit might not be more simply applicable to what the Yasusada work has done or is beginning to do in those "Terraced Fields" as you put it. I'm thinking, actually, of comments made by Joe Napora in the November/December '98 issue of the American Book Review that we were just looking at. For example, he argues that Yasusada's trickster-like effect is to "break the mirror" that distorts and obscures our relationship to the power that makes "cultural constructs seem natural." In part here, I would take him to be speaking about the pole of Authorship that effectively tethers everything in literary discourse in tight orbit around it?
KJ: Well, it's interesting here that Napora introduces that idea with a quote from the great though fairly unknown poet John Clarke, who states: "Failing to locate our human power in a 'Human Universe' we become pawns, whether victims or victors, to what [Charles] Olson called 'the long reach of the second will' (to power)." That "second will" is very interesting to me, and I would see Yasusada as doing a kind of battle with it, however quixotic that battle might be.
NF: Though there you would seem to be contradicting what you said earlier, about Yasusada not truly being a "critical gesture"?
KJ: No, I don't think so. Doubled Flowering is quite purposively "critical" insofar as the issue of Hiroshima goes: For Motokiyu, Yasusada was very much a way of fighting -- from inside the compromised and corrupted space we inhabit -- for the reality of Hiroshima, a conjuring of its deep truth inside us, though most commentators have missed this, fixated as they are on more superficial matters. But "theoretical" issues like authorship, cultural identity, and the impact those have in evaluation and canonization were not foremost in Moto's mind.
That the Yasusada has gathered this interesting debris around itself is really a kind of after-effect: one produced, you might say, by an eccentric poetic genius accidentally crashing his vehicle into a sacred pillar deep in the unconscious of the Poetry Institution. Now, one could certainly call this collision a certain kind of intuitive apprehension on Moto's part -- a kind of Spicerean dictation from the "Outside," perhaps, that the car be steered in a certain way, for example. But "theoretical critique" of the ideological blindnesses and hypocrisies of the Poetry Institution was not a motor-force of the writing, even if the work has come to assume that "trouble-maker" role.
NF: Another splash of Oban?
KJ: Yes, thanks. It's very good. There is a smoky taste to it, very different from the 10 year old. It's got hints of nutmeg too, and something else I can't quite make out . . .
KJ: No, not really that. Almost an aftertaste of freshly baked bread, but not really . . .
KJ: Why yes, thank you. Oh!! A Montecristo from Havana! Holy shit! Where did you get this?
NF: Well, in Mexico, a land where one can find anything.
KJ: My, my. Mmmm . . . .
NF: OK, but still, though, I think you can see why some people would react with indignation, can't you? After all, why shouldn't there be a means of keeping track of who is who and rewarding those who "deserve it"?
KJ: Ah, but with the exception of sporadic and utopian gestures like Yasusada there always will be a means. Motokiyu was even less optimistic than old M. Foucault and happened to believe the Author is here to stay until the big asteroid hits and erases all Literature into eternal blankness. But in response to your question and in that spirit of sounding like I'm writing, I'll just go ahead and read a passage from a letter I wrote to the Japanese poet and critic Akitoshi Nagahata, part of an exchange between us that was published a few months back in Jacket. (See Kent Johnson's correspondence with Akitoshi Nagahata in Jacket # 2.) The quote is longish, and even contains another quote from me within it, so perhaps it will be as if I were receding into some far distance, unable to stop talking, my voice growing fainter and fainter still . . . But what I'm about to read is quite impressive and unassailable, really, and I challenge anyone to refute it. So here it is, and then perhaps we can have some lunch. I wrote to Nagahata:
I can't . . . agree with your suggestion that fictional authorships (i.e., where the fictionality of the ascription is unacknowledged) necessarily amount to a kind of unhealthy deceit of the unwary reader. One might well frown upon works which present themselves under assumed pretenses and which are intended to completely hide their sleight-of-hand, particularly if the author's or artist's intent is simple forgery for egotistical motives. But what of works carefully designed to temporarily alter their reception because such altering is a crucial component of their aesthetic and critical impulse? What about works that are written by other names because to the author this is how they demand to be written? What about works that present themselves as written by another, yet are intentionally and liberally mined with the clues to their own eventual undoing? As Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, the Yasusada writings always/already (if you'll pardon that term) included a sub-text of self-exposure. And I should point out that this sub-text created by Motokiyu is much more extensive than commentators have yet noted. This fact, I believe, complicates the perceived problem with the writing being presented "in the guise of truthful documents," as you put it. My question here is the same one I asked in a previous letter: What are the sources of this problem of authorial "truth-claim"? Is the problem really with the Yasusada author (who has emphatically stated he could only produce the poems he did because he remained hidden), or does the problem reside in overly narrow and entrenched notions of reading and writing - notions that cannot admit imaginative forms that extend beyond the comforts of the given name? What do we say to those great writers of the past for whom a "falsification" of "true" identity was, under certain conditions, an artistic imperative? In this regard, allow me to quote from a letter I wrote to Mr. Jon Silkin, the editor of the venerable British magazine Stand, where poems by Yasusada were published before his fictionality had been publicly brought forward in articles by Eliot Weinberger and Marjorie Perloff:|
Allow me to say that if Motokiyu's works are merely "fakes" then so are the pseudonymous works of Pessoa, Pushkin, and Kierkegaard, to name just three authors who felt compelled at times to enter into other identities in order to create. These writers, as I'm sure you know, wrote and published important portions of their works as others. For them, anonymity was not a "trick" but a need, something intrinsic to their creative drive at given times. Likewise, for Moto, anonymity -- and its efflorescence into multiple names -- was a gateway into a radically sincere (I use that word with care) expression of empathy. Rather than being "fakes," I would offer that the Yasusada writings represent an original and courageous form of authenticity -- one that is perhaps difficult to appreciate because of the extent to which individual authorial status and self-promotion dominate our thinking about, and practice of, poetry. |
It occurs to me as I write that to this list could be added (among quite a few, of course) the name of Ki no Tsurayuki, the male governor of Tosa province who penned the classic Tosa Diary under the guise of a woman. I'd like to ask: What is the meaning of this "misrepresentation"? Is the work not what it is precisely because the author radically absented himself from view? I know the comparison has its limits, but Ki no Tsurayuki's "guise" is written into the very taste and texture of his wonderful work, and so it is with Tosa Motokiyu in Yasusada . . . || |
NF: Yes, but here is a question: What if Robert Larsen is actually not a "guise" as you say, but someone who in fact did exist and died, alone and abandoned, with only his 3x5 note cards in a hotel room in Laramie, Wyoming? This could be possible, no?
KJ: Anything is possible, especially in the netherworld of authorship. It is always a possibility that an author who is assumed to be false will turn out to be real, or turn out to be much more interesting than the easy assumption of "falseness" would have it. Believe me, I know this from my own experience. So absolutely, and I hope, honestly, that Robert Larsen does prove to have been real, in the sense that this glass, I mean, is presently real. At the very least, it would make this interview even more curious than it already is and show that misreadings can be like those beautiful, old maps of the world that had it all wrong, so people went off and wandered in large circles and saw all sorts of odd things they wouldn't otherwise see. Yes, let's hope that such a mysterious man once was . . .
NF: Well, I guess we can end there. I've enjoyed this tremendously, and I thank you very much.
KJ: You are very welcome. And thank you for the special treats!
Kent Johnson teaches English and Spanish at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois.
Norbert Francis received his Ph.D. from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is currently Assistant Professor of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at Northern Arizona University. In 1997, Ediciones Abya-Yala of Ecuador published his two-volume Malintzin: Bilingüismo y Alfabetización en la Sierra de Tlaxcala, a study of language and literacy development in the Náhuatl speaking communities in central Mexico.
You can read more on the Mystery of Araki Yasusada in Jacket magazine: in this issue, Eliot Weinberger's original "exposé" of the affair, and Kent Johnson's letter to American Book Review.|
In Jacket # 2, the Kent Johnson / Akitoshi Nagahata letters, and in Jacket # 4, Forrest Gander's review of DOUBLED FLOWERING: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada.
Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.
Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.
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