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Jacket 5, October 1998   |   # 5  Contents   |   Homepage   |

Eliot Weinberger

Can I Get a Witness?

The first part of this article was published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement in July 1996, and was the first public declaration of the pseudonymity of Araki Yasusada. The postscript gives a brief history of what happened after.

You can read six different articles on the Yasusada phenomenon here in Jacket.

THOUGH THE STORY is scarcely believable, the example is apt: An early explorer reported that an African tribe had only one song that had only one line: “The King has all the power.” Whether this was all the community had to express or all that they were allowed to express, the message is the same: Political poetry is as old and as varied as poetry itself, and as intrinsic to poetry as fertility, love, and death.
      For most of this century, the image of political poetry was restricted to that which was plainly written to further a specific movement or goal (revolution, collective liberation, peace). Then, as the ideologies unraveled, academic theory began insisting on an amorphous “political” reading of everything: the silences implicit in the poem about a daffodil. Like much of what is called “theory,” it was both perfectly true and a self-evident generality that was all too easy to reiterate in complex ways.
      Lately, a new subgenre has been invented to stand for the whole in this ideological interregnum: the poetry of “witness.” Anti-New Critical with a vengeance, witness poetry is entirely dependent on biographical background, and is ultra-empirical in a way perhaps unprecedented in literary history. It is a poetry where you had to have been there.
      The Qur’an of the witness subgenre is Carolyn Forché’s popular anthology, Against Forgetting. Limited to the 20th century, poets in the book qualify as witnesses if they have been combatants or civilians in a war, prisoners or exiles, or citizens of a totalitarian regime (regardless of one’s life under that regime). More dubiously, also included are journalists or visitors in a war zone, even for a short period, and non-white residents of the United States. (White people, presumably, do not witness injustice in this country.) Others, including those whose poetry is normally considered “political” by any other standards — Allen Ginsberg, for one — might as well have spent their time composing pantoums at the club.

This taxonomy, like the Hindu caste system or editorial policy anywhere, has subtleties of distinction that are impossible for outsiders to grasp. Tadeusz Borowski is a witness of the Holocaust because he was interned in Auschwitz and Dachau. Nelly Sachs is a witness of the Holocaust because she wrote poems about the Holocaust from her exile in Sweden. Irena Klepfitz is a witness of the Holocaust because she was born in Warsaw in 1941 and was hidden in the countryside, emigrated to the U.S. as a child, and wrote poems about the Holocaust in New York City. Charles Reznikoff is not a witness of the Holocaust because he was born in the U.S. and wrote poems about the Holocaust in New York City.
      Such literalness and hair-splitting historicism is, incredibly for a poet, a surprisingly absolute denial of imagination. (One hardly demands similar evidence from other writers: snapshots of Laura or Beatrice, or of the poet holding his shoes on Dover Beach.) The “poetry of witness,” as a concept — not the poets themselves, but the box they have now been put into — has become a branch of the poetry as auto-therapy that is currently being promoted on public broadcasting television and in countless writing schools. A poetry where one’s autobiography is primary, incidents of victimization are the salient features of one’s life, and writing is seen as the way to heal those psychic wounds. (This last feature is the best evidence that this has nothing to do with poetry at all. Poetry does not close wounds or answer questions; it opens them.) Against Forgetting, with its organizing principle of biographical “extremity,” is not all that different from a book published a few years ago in Spain, a fat international and historical volume with an ominous black-on-black cover: The Anthology of Poets Who Committed Suicide. Once upon a time, it was enough for poets to think, dream, and write, and their first-person was usually a persona. Now they must submit a résumé to be validated for sincerity.
      The inherent value of “witnessing” as a measure of poetry is evident in two recent publications. The first is Outcry from the Volcano, edited and translated by Jiro Nakano, an anthology of tanka written by Hiroshima survivors, mainly amateur poets, in the years immediately following the devastation. It is both a moving document and of practically no interest as poetry. (And one reads it with amazement: did not one of these poets feel that the tanka’s five lines and counted syllables were somehow inadequate to their experience?) The second is the poems of Araki Yasusada, a postal clerk whose family was wiped out by the bomb, but who lived on to 1972. His strange and wonderful notebooks were discovered years after his death; lately they have been appearing in translation in Conjunctions, Grand Street, and other magazines, where they have provoked considerable interest.


The only problem is that Yasusada is the pseudonym of an anonymous, possibly American poet, who has brilliantly written all the work, complete with slightly awkward bits of translationese. A telling case: had rumors of Yasusada’s identity not begun to circulate, he would have become “our” primary poet-witness of nuclear disaster — much as the greatest witnessing of plague is Daniel Defoe’s entirely fictional first-person account.
      Witness poetry, a sign of the times, reduces, yet again, the political to the personal, and confines the act of writing to a factual narcissism. It should be remembered that legal witnesses are not automatically presumed to be reliable. Poets are no more or less credible, regardless of the greatness of the work. Speaking of Hiroshima, here is one of the masters, William Carlos Williams, in a letter to another poet, Byron Vazakas, dated August 7, 1945: “The day following the atomic blast! — the poor Jews who accomplished it. Now we’ll hate them worse than ever.”

Postscript: I Found a Witness

THE PRECEDING was published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement in July 1996, and was the first public declaration of the pseudonymity of Araki Yasusada. A few weeks later, the American Poetry Review published an issue with a special supplement featuring Yasusada. APR, whose trademark is photos of the poets often larger than the poems themselves, represented the witness poet with what appeared to be the blurred xerox of a xerox of a xerox of a mug shot of some low-level yakuza.
      The coincidence led to an article in Lingua Franca, a gossip magazine for academics, in which an APR editor called the poems a “criminal act,” a proof that they publish poets, not poems. This, in turn, led to one of those momentary media frenzies that now routinely accompany any novelty: articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Manchester Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Financial Times of London; a front-page story in the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper; a conference in Utrecht; symposia in the Boston Review, the Denver Quarterly, Stand in England, and in various places on the Internet — all before the poems were published in book form.
      The first order of speculation was, of course, whodunit. A poet I know called me out of the blue — he had never called before — to ask point-blank if I was Yasusada; he had a long list of entirely persuasive reasons. An editor at one of the magazines that had published the poems thought it was her old boyfriend. Various names were raised and debated, with the likeliest suspects being the primary purveyors of the Yasusada manuscripts: Javier Alvarez, a prominent Mexican composer living in London, and Kent Johnson, an instructor at a community college in Illinois and the editor of an anthology of American Buddhist poetry and one of contemporary Russian poetry.
      In response to the journalists, Alvarez and Johnson said the poems were the work of one Tosa Motokiyu, who had been their roommate in Milwaukee in the 1970’s. “Motokiyu” was, almost needless to say, also a pseudonym, and the person attached to that name had recently died; Alvarez wrote a moving account of his last hours.
      Meanwhile, in a further complication, the Russian critic Mikhail Epstein rather brilliantly demonstrated that Yasusada could be the work of either of two well-known Russian writers, Andrei Bitov and Dmitri Prigov, or a collaboration between them. Both have previously invented authors — one of them Chinese, another Polish-Italian-Japanese — and both have long-announced, mysteriously unpublished “Japanese” projects. Moreover, in true conspiratologist fashion, Epstein located both writers at a conference in St. Petersburg with none other than Kent Johnson.
      [I should also say that, in 1995, before I wrote my article, I had been unexpectedly contacted by someone claiming to be the Yasusada author. He or she had read an essay on forgeries I had published in a Mexican art magazine, and thought I was someone who would understand. Also enclosed was a correspondence with the novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who had diplomatically suggested that the question of an invented Hiroshima poet was too delicate and complex a matter to respond to without a great deal of thought.]
      In the proliferating discussions, the identity of the author had become so refracted that it approached the condition of We Are All Yasusada. Perhaps it is best to call him/her/them the Yasusada Author, much as we refer to a Renaissance painter as the Master of the X Altar.
      The Yasusada debate rather predictably fell into the categories of politics, literary politics, and theory. The political reading was based on the assumption that the author was a white American male, and thus the poems were a cruel, racist, imperialist joke. This in turn was based on the assumption that anyone who is not a white Euromale wants to speak only in an “authentic” voice. It was inconceivable that the Yasusada Author could be a young woman in Chiapas. (In the beginning of the century, there was a Japanese memoirist and novelist, Onoto Watanna, who was a best-selling writer in the West; she turned out to be a half-Chinese Eurasian who lived in Hong Kong.)
      In the political debate, Edward Said’s Orientalism was inevitably cited, much as mediæval discussions always deferred to the authority of Isidore of Seville. But, as Said himself says in passing, his dissection of the Orientalism of the “Near” and “Middle” East (those geographical dislocations) becomes less applicable as one goes further East. Western scholars, poets, and philosophers never idealized Arab civilization as the Source of Wisdom in the way that the Enlightenment imagined China or Romanticism India. When one reaches 20th century Japan, a First World imperialist nation, Said’s book hardly applies at all. The Yasusada Author, even if a white American male, is no more an agent of colonialism than a Japanese country & western singer.
      The literary-political response centered on two points, both true. One was the current cult of celebrity that has expanded to engulf literature: we now like to have authors attached to books, preferably attractive people or ones with sad lives (or best of all, both). The other was the general ignorance and lack of interest in nearly all foreign poetry. Thus, it was only Yasusada’s tragic life, not his poetry, that got him published in all the leading magazines. And if the poetry seemed radical, it was only because few were familiar with 20th century Japanese poetry. (In fact, for a far more complex reaction to the war, see Takamura Kotaro’s A Brief History of Imbecility.)
      Finally, the theory-minded raised the banners of those other Isidores of Seville, Foucault and Barthes, to connect Yasusada to “the death of the author,” an advertising campaign that was wildly successful in the academic market, but had limited appeal to readers and writers. It was true that the Yasusada Author refused to step from behind the curtain — at the opposite extreme from Joyce Carol Oates, who writes “pseudonymous” books that are labeled, on the cover, “Joyce Carol Oates writing under the name of....” — but pseudonymous authorship, even when fractured into heteronyms (Pessoa) still assigns production to a single named source. True invisibility — the “text itself” — could easily be achieved by publishing every book and every magazine contribution under a different name. Writers, as far as one knows, have never practiced it; if one were that egoless, one wouldn’t be a writer.
      Yasusada had appeared at a moment when the Eng. Dept. had split into two contradictory “post-modernisms”: multiculturalism and deconstruction (and its spin-offs). One side wanted to hear the stories that hadn’t been told, and the other doubted that stories could be told; one side promoted authenticity, and the other inauthenticity. The former embraced Yasusada and then violently rejected him when his identity became questionable — the precise moment when the latter embraced him.
      Finally, for all the talk of Orientalism and “Japonoiserie,” no one has discussed Yasusada as the latest chapter in the American invention of Japanese poetry. The Yasusada poems are very much written in the style, not of Japanese poetry, but of American translations of Japanese poetry, including some witty intentional infelicities and bits of translationese. Moreover, they could only have been written in recent years, for they owe a great deal to the work of Hiroaki Sato.
      Sato, the most prolific contemporary translator of classical and modern Japanese poetry has, since the 1970’s, vigorously promoted the idea of translating haiku and tanka (and by extension, renga) as single English sentences without line breaks — the way the poems are written out in Japanese. Sato’s work has been widely and unjustly reviled by the academics, but it is precisely Sato’s form of presentation — not necessarily the Japanese poems themselves — that were clearly determining for the Yasusada Author. (Some have mistakenly attributed the Yasusada line to Ron Silliman’s so-called “new sentence,” which is comparable but not the origin.)
      Yasusada, regardless of authorship, is very much an American Japanese poet: a product of the specifically American tradition of translating Japanese poetry. (It is stylistically highly unlikely that the Author is Russian or Spanish or French.) While it is true that the initial reception was due largely to the biography — and in that sense the work was exploitative of the publishing climate and the poems a “hoax” — the creation of the work is clearly an act of empathy and compassion. The Yasusada Author has merely taken the invention of a first-person narrator of a novel one step further: along with speaking, thinking, seeing, feeling, this fictional character now writes. In many ways, the work is far more interesting, full of brilliant details, after one knows that Yasusada is an invention. He is both the greatest poet of Hiroshima and its most unreliable witness.

— Eliot Weinberger, New York, 1997

You can read more on the Mystery of Araki Yasusada in Jacket magazine: in this issue, Kent Johnson interviewed by Norbert Francis, 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.
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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