John Bradley & Kent Johnson
Waiting for the Ultimate
I can still remember the first time I came across a Yasusada poem. It was about twelve years ago. There, in a high-ceilinged, shadowy hallway, inside a glass case, where the Bowling Green State University English Department showed-off the publications of its faculty and graduate students (Kent was a Ph.D. student and I an M.F.A. student at the time), I saw a poem entitled "High Altitude Photo of Hiroshima (Circa 1944)" that had been published in the venerable poetry journal Ironwood. I was immediately struck by the original voice and perspective, but who was this Japanese poet? Was he a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima? And what was his relationship to Kent Johnson? Over the years, these are questions that many readers have been prompted to ask.
To say that the work of Araki Yasusada has created a stir is something of an understatement. Papers discussing Yasusada have been presented not only across the U.S., but in Holland, Finland, Japan, and Israel. Russian scholars, including that nations leading literary theorist, Mikhail Epstein, have weighed in on the Yasusada debate with articles in Moscow and St. Petersberg. Journals and newspapers in the U.S., England, Spain, Italy, Albania, Mexico, Australia, and Japan have published articles on Yasusada, including a front page story in Japans biggest daily, the Asahi Shimbun. Australia National Radio broadcast a feature story on him; a number of essays in academic collections and journals are scheduled to appear, and a book chronicling the controversy is being edited. Called everything from a "criminal act" to "eerily beautiful," the writings of Yasusada have been compelling readers at the end of this century to wrestle with some of the most central, and difficult, questions regarding writingwhat role do authorship, personal experience, ethnicity, and the imagination play in granting validity to the written word?
Araki Yasusada, according to the biographical information in Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada (published in 1997 by Roof Books), was born in 1907 in Kyoto and lived there until 1921, when he moved to Hiroshima. There he "survived" (if anyone can be said to truly "survive" such an event) the atomic bombing of that city, though his wife and one of his daughters perished in the blast. In 1972, Yasusada died of cancer. Eight years after his death, Yasusadas son found some notebooks of his fathers containing poems, letters, essays for an English class, shopping lists, etc. These writings, in "translated" form, have been published over the last few years in such journals as Stand and Poetry Review in England, First Intensity, Conjunctions, Grand Street, and The American Poetry Review. In fact, it was after a special supplement of Yasusada material appeared in 1996 in APR, and a subsequent quarter-page editors note denounced the Yasusada writing as a "hoax," that questions regarding the authenticity of the documents erupted. Harpers Magazine, London Magazine in England, Wesleyan University Press, and the seminal anthology Poems for the Millennium (U. of California Press), all of which intended publication of Yasusadas writing, dropped their plans like hot potatoes.
Just who is the author of the Yasusada material? Heres what we know: In "Introducing Araki Yasusada," which opens Doubled Flowering, Tosa Motokiyu, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin claim to be responsible, as editors and translators, for presenting Yasusada to us. At this point Yasusada appears to be a "real" person. However, in an appendix to the book, Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez (one of Mexicos leading composers) tell us that the author is "Tosa Motokiyu," a name they assert is a pseudonym adopted by the "real" and now-deceased writer. "Moto," as Johnson and Alvarez call him, was their roommate at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee during the early 1980s. Before his death in London in 1996, he asked Johnson and Alvarez to publish the Yasusada material and to preserve his anonymity. No one, to my knowledge, has provided any further details on "Moto," including his ethnicity, though Johnson has insisted, as he continues to do here, on this shadowy figures authenticity. Thus, one of the most Byzantine and debated poetic mysteries of the century continues.
Since these complications regarding Yasusadas identity have come to light, some editors and readers have claimed that they feel betrayedthey thought they were reading the work of a hibakusha, that is, a Japanese survivor of an atomic bombing, whose writing allowed us to see a life lived in the shadow of Hiroshima. To find out that this was not the case, some argued, spoiled the work for them. In fact, some readers felt that the "real" author/authors used the atomic bombing to generate sympathy for the alleged victim and thus exploited this emotion to ensure publication, and perhaps to expose a bias toward experiential as opposed to imaginative writing. Still others welcomed the controversy and the discussions it has generated.
Captivated as Ive been by the issues raised through the Yasusada writing, I proposed interviewing Kent Johnson, with whom I have kept in close contact since our days at Bowling Green. He graciously agreed. We conducted the interview during May and June of 1999, over e-mail and at Sullivans Bar and Health Spa, in DeKalb, Illinois.
John Bradley: I understand that in the past few months youve given some readings from Doubled Flowering and also talked about Yasusada at a few public forums dealing with matters of authorship and authenticity. Could you talk about the conference you attended at Kent State, which sounds particularly interesting?
Kent Johnson: In April of this year I was on a panel devoted to the book at the "Postmodern Piracy Festival" at Kent State with Chiaki Sekiguchi, a graduate student from Japan, and Brian McHale, one of the countrys leading scholars in the field of Postmodern studies.
Sekiguchi had been studying Doubled Flowering in Charles Bernsteins class at SUNY/Buffalo, and her paper is quite brilliant: She proposes that the Yasusada represents a challenging addition to atomic-bomb literature, a term understood in the sense of all that writing--fictional and auto-biographical--dealing with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A subtly suggested idea in her paper is that essentialist projections in the West of hibakusha identity may be conceived as interlocked, historically, with hibakusha poetrys institutionalization in Japan as a specific genre formation. And this is obviously a proposal of some provocation, particularly in Japan, where the whole question of atomic-bomb writing has been the subject of sharp debate.
McHales paper, which he later presented in Finland, is an extremely sophisticated analysis, extending a number of ideas he recently raised in an essay published in New Literary History. In it, he counters the superficial ways in which the reductive tag of "hoax" has been applied to Yasusada and theorizes pseudographic literary expressions into three different categories, arguing convincingly, I think, that the simple-headed notion of "hoax" --used as it most often is in the punitive sense-- is thoroughly inadequate in the understanding of works like Yasusada.
JB: What are those categories?
KJ: "Genuine Hoaxes" are the first level: fabrications carried out with no intention of ever being exposed. In this category would be such works as James Macphersons 18th century Ossian, the Piltdown Man forgery, all manner of art forgeries, the Hitler Diaries, and so on. The second level is what McHale calls "Trap Hoaxes." The point of these "traps" is didactic and punitive-- to embarrass or expose the foolish credulity of a certain audience. In this category one would have the famous Ern Malley hoax, designed to demolish the credibility of the 1940s Australian avant-garde, or, more recently, the Sokal hoax, crafted to reveal the ignorance of "post-structuralist" academic critics of science. The third level is that of "Mock Hoaxes," which for McHale are fundamentally aesthetic in intent, and which to greater and lesser degrees are purposely adorned with signs of self-exposure. Rather than serving some ulterior agenda, as is the case with the first two categories, he argues that in mock-hoaxes "issues of authenticity and inauthenticity are elevated to the level of poetic raw materials...Mock-hoax poems make art out of inauthenticity." He places the work of Fernando Pessoa, Thomas Chatterton, and Yasusada in this category. But for McHale these categories are also made porous by contingencies of time and place, and works that through intention fit in one category can slide, through reception, into another. Its a wonderfully insightful paper, I think.
JB: In McHales sense, then, would the spectral author-figure of Tosa Motokiyu be a part of the aesthetics of Doubled Flowerings inauthenticity?
KJ: Yes and no, but yes in that the work arose, originally, through a condition of authorial "hiddenness," so that Yasusadas art and Motokiyus act of effacement cannot be separated. No in the sense that Motokiyu is not properly "inauthentic": The author of Yasusada is, indeed, Tosa Motokiyu, the pseudonym of an author whose express wish, stated in his will, was that his legal identity never be revealed. And this wish is of a piece with the spirit and meanings the work calls forth. What on one level seems "spectral," as you say, on another is perfectly straightforward.
JB: And so what was your contribution to the panel?
KJ: Nothing significant. Ive never been much at ease in those settings, so whatever it was I said ended up in a sort of heap, I think. I propose to be more eloquent in this interview.
JB: OK, lets change the focus a bit. In the interview conducted with you and Javier Alvarez in the back of the book, you say that, "There is...a very hierarchical market relationship in American poetry, involving publishers, jobs, grants, writing retreats, reading circuits, gossip mills, social events, and so on. All of this is not incidental to the writing and its circulation and evaluation, but its very matrix...it determines, in all sorts of subliminal ways, what counts as good. And the linchpin of it all is the function of the Author. Isnt it obvious that without secure, self-centered names to attach to works, the whole edifice would simply collapse?"
Do you think that some of the scandalized reactions Yasusada has gotten are related to a kind of "species-defense" meme that is programmed to sustain the authorial genetic stock?
KJ: Thats an unusual way of putting it! Yes, I dont have the slightest doubt theres a relation, though other matters, too, which Im sure well talk about, come into play. But the whole Author thing, its utter centrality to the making and marketing of our current poetry, "traditional" and "avant-garde" alike, is fascinating to me. Authorship to the contemporary Literature Institution is something like sex was to the Victorian upper class: It is the reason why everyones here in the first place, but its something of an embarrassment to talk about-- or at least for most can only be spoken of in certain ways and with euphemistic ritual, it being from the get-go what drives us in everything we do.
It is the big conceptual field still waiting to be cracked open by a truly radical poetics.
JB: What about the charges of Orientalism and racism directed against the work from various quarters, particularly from some Asian-American poets?
KJ: Well, its betrayed a certain blindness to some fairly obvious textual dynamics in the fiction. But because no one has been able, apparently, to answer my original riposte, Id repeat what I said in reply to John Solt, Professor of Asian Studies at Amherst College, and a justly respected scholar in the field. In Lingua Franca, he was quoted as saying that Yasusada "is all Japanized crap. It plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture-- Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic-- and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony." Citing the haiku "Obediently bowing--the white flowers," he goes on to say, "Bowing is not seen as subservient in Japan. Its a form of greeting." In my interview in the Denver Quarterly I pointed out that "The comment seems to imply that a person from Japan could never bow in obedience, reverence, sorrow, what have you. Certainly Mr. Solt cant believe that an individual from Japan can only bow in greeting. And actually, to the extent that bowing in greeting is a cultural convention in Japan, could the gesture not be seen, precisely, as an enactment of obedience? Mr. Solts remarks are revealing, inasmuch as in his eagerness to show how the Yasusada gets it all wrong, he seems intent on getting the Japanese right. A very Western trait, if there ever was one!"
Same with so many talented poets and academics who have become --though they can hardly admit it-- career-invested in the rapidly dwindling stock of the whole multi-cultural biz. The "Other" is their intellectual property, as they seem to see it, and no trespassers allowed. Something like the Yasusada makes them take their guns out and fire wildly. Im not trying to be snide here. Nor am I alone in my feeling.
Curiously, I just read a review on the Buffalo Poetics List of a new book out from Harvard by Mr. Solt on Kitasono Katue, the Japanese avant-garde poet. As chance would have it, Yasusada had contact with him, and a long translators note to a very early, poem-bearing letter--unpublished and excluded by Moto from Doubled Flowering along with most of Yasusadas juvenilia--indicates that there was a correspondence between the two writers. Actually, it might be a nice touch to print this with the interview. [Editor's note: This letter appears in The East Village Poetry Web, Number 8.]
JB: Hmm. I wonder if an iconoclastic experimenter like Kitasono would have been bothered by Doubled Flowering like some Western Asian Studies academics and "avant-garde" poets have?
KJ: Now theres a fascinating question!
JB: To shift a bit, but still in relation to this problem of authenticity and validity: In Beclouded Visions: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Art of Witness, Kyo Maclear describes a burden of witness writing. Readers of hibakusha writing, she notes, expect literality and documentary work. Do you think this was an expectation of many editors and readers of Yasusada? How does Doubled Flowering work with and against this expectation?
KJ: Actually, I know Maclears book, and its the most impressive work on Hiroshima and Nagasakis implications for artistic expression that Ive read. And yes, undoubtedly the expectation and yearning for documentary veracity plays a major role in the reception of atomic bomb writing. But, of course, some of the most powerful and influential works in atomic-bomb literature are fictional. Ibuse Masujis Black Rain, for instance, perhaps the best-known "account" of the bombing of Hiroshima, is written by an author who did not experience it. Or what of the "veracity," even, of Kurosawas Rhapsody in August, a cinematic turning of testimonial text, or Spielbergs Schindlers List, a "real story," and now the most powerful collective "memory" the world has of the Holocaust? Try as we do to demarcate a pure space for the testimonial, it is very hard, not least because testimonial accounts are never transparently "true," entangled as they necessarily become in imagination, the pressurings of genre, the subversions of metaphor and whatnot-- and on both sides, of course: the writers and the readers. Thats indisputable, I think, and true long before post-structuralism had any say about it.
But none of this, it should go without saying, diminishes the need for careful deliberation and respect in approaching Hiroshima and Nagasakis memory, and many readers have no doubt felt ambivalence toward Yasusadas work for the most honest of reasons. The Yasusada is most emphatically not motivated by an impulse to critique anything at all in hibakusha literature, nor does it presume to set itself as an equal partner inside or alongside that body of work. Aspects in the reception of atomic bomb literature and some of the essentialist critical discourse built up around it are, as Chiaki Sekiguchi implies in the paper I mentioned, certainly available to critique. But the documentary, auto-biographical testimony of survivors is unique and irreplaceable.
JB: So where would you place Doubled Flowering vis a vis hibakusha writing?
KJ: It exists in relation to hibakusha writing at a distance, as an after-image or echo of it, if you will. And I would hold that Yasusadas apocryphal status makes that echo no less real. It whispers something about the doubled-fusing and mutually-deformed flowering of our two cultures, about our unacknowledged confusion in each other, about some kind of deeper yearning to find our voices entwined with an otherness that we know has been inside of us always. All of which is pure speculation and fancy on my part, but I do feel strongly that the echo is authentic, and I think it has multiple frequencies.
JB: And in that sense, I take it, you see Yasusadas writing as part and parcel of the unfolding corpus of atomic bomb-literature, not different, at least in its fundamental inspiration, from a fictional work like Black Rain?
KJ: Yes, Yasusada has taken a humble place in the archives of atomic- bomb literature. Whose creation his notebooks originally are will never be known, even if some people are quite sure that this or that person is the "author"--Yasusada will have no ultimate veracity or literality, as you say. But so it goes. That Yasusadas "false" presentation proved to disturb and scandalize a small corner of our culture at centurys end is, it seems to me, perfectly appropriate and precisely to the point of the works force and meaning. After all, is the matter of nuclear omnicide and everything it implies in terms of our collective psyche a tamed and settled matter? I mean, who is the Author of Hiroshima? Doubled Flowering stands, when all is said and done, as a work of troubled imagining-- imagining what it might be to live and struggle through a fate that potentially awaits every human being. And it seems to me that Motokiyu understood intuitively that such an expression is its own kind of "documentary truth," but one that for him could not help but transcend the fiction of the name.
JB: The fiction of the name... So that for the Yasusada author the name is withdrawn in the name of truth?
KJ: That would be a way of seeing it... The name withdrawn in name of a truth that is felt beyond the authorized self.
JB: Our fellow Bowling Green alumnus Carolyn Forche is probably the most famous advocate of "Witness Poetry," and her commercially successful anthology, Against Forgetting, is composed of poets who have been personal witnesses to injustice and violence. Her benchmark for what constitutes witness literature is, according to her introduction in the book, a direct, physical experience of political oppression and war. Such a position, logically, should leave no room whatsoever for a Yasusada. And yet she has written the following: "Yasusada's writing is an entry into a spiritual space... It is a work of art in the largest sense." What about this apparent paradox?
KJ: Its one I think she would have to comment on, but I agree that to some, especially to her strong critics, it would seem a bizarre paradox. I had a correspondence with her sometime back and know that shes explored the whole question of witnessing and otherness through a serious reading of Levinas, so her answer would be very interesting. I believe that her position has become quite a bit more nuanced since the appearance of Against Forgetting.
JB: One of Forches strongest critics has been Eliot Weinberger, who I hear gave a major address a couple months back at the Nobel Academy on issues of authorship and translation. And hes also been one of Yasusadas strongest supporters. In fact, it was in a Village Voice skewering of "Witness Poetry" and Forches anthology that Weinberger first wrote about Yasusada, referring to his "strange and wonderful writing," citing Yasusada, actually, to sum up his case against Forche. So how do you feel about Weinbergers published attacks on Against Forgetting? It seems strange that two people with such divergent views on the matter of "witness" should both find themselves praising a controversial work like Doubled Flowering.
KJ: To my mind, Eliot Weinberger is the most eclectically provocative critic in the country. Thats an appreciation I had long before he said a word about Yasusada. And, yes, I agree with much of his analysis of her anthology, typically searing, in Weinberger style, as it is. But I also feel Forche is a very serious and committed thinker with much to offer in this whole question. Its all very open and involved, I think.
JB: Ive also heard that the Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe wrote to you about Yasusada?
KJ: Yes, a short and very gracious handwritten letter. He said that the issues posed by the work were "extremely difficult and delicate," and that he was unsure, at the time, how to respond. That was the extent of it.
JB: How do you take his response? The indecisiveness could be read in different ways it seems.
KJ: Actually, to receive such an acknowledgment of ambivalence from one so deeply connected to hibakusha literature was one of the greatest tributes and validations Yasusada could have received.
JB: The following question would seem to fit here. Michael Ondaatje, in his notes on Coming Through Slaughter, a novel that attempts to recreate the life of New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden, writes at the back of the book: "There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction." How is "the truth of fiction" different from "the truth of nonfiction"?
KJ: Thats a very complicated question, and if Kenzaburo Oe doesnt have the answer, I certainly dont either. And I would say, too, as Ive said many times before, that very interesting issues like these, to the extent that they have been provoked by a reading of Yasusada, are accidental to the originary, empathic impulses behind the work. But in venturing a response, Id pick up on what I was saying earlier in talking about Maclears book: I think practically everyone agrees by now that there is no unproblematic non-fictional space. Things are always altered, added, fictionalized to suit the truth of non-fiction. There is no transparent window-- writing, to the extent that the window conceit applies, is always cracked and warped, and sometimes we pretend the imperfections arent there and that the vision is unclouded. Sometimes, even, when there are signs in red-ink all over the window that say "what you see through this window is not real," the viewer ignores the signs, and looks on uncritically, enthralled. So the question arises as to what it is the viewer is seduced by, drugged by, before coming to the looking-glass. Its a serious question when it comes to the whole troubled issue of "witness," of course.
But to repeat, because its very important, this is not to say that fictionalized accounts of Hiroshima or the Holocaust are interchangeable with that literature bearing experiential testimony to those transcendentally genocidal events. To the contrary. But imaginative treatments of Hiroshima or the Holocaust extend the work that only actual witnesses can begin. And it must be extended. As Maclear argues in her book, the work of testimony is never done, and if we circumscribe formal or presentational boundaries for its practice and expression, we effectively say that testimony and remembrance have a limit, that there is a kind of legal horizon beyond which compassion may not venture. And can that be so? Were in trouble if that is true.
JB: Speaking of this "troubled issue of witness," Binjamin Wilkomirski's Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, a memoir on the Nazi holocaust, has recently aroused an international controversy. Some people are calling the work a "hoax." Do you know the book, and if so, what are your thoughts on this charge?
KJ: I havent read it, but know of it, and I recently read the fascinating article in Granta, entitled "The Man with Two Heads," by Elena Lappin. It appears quite clear that Wilkomirskis Fragments is invented, though it is not clear that Wilkomirski himself fully realizes this. A fascinating situation, but it bears nothing whatsoever of comparison to Yasusada. Wilkomirski insists his work of "memory" is grounded in personal experience, and he has worked very hard, with great anguish, apparently, to explain and justify the contradictions and anomalies critics have discovered. Because of Wilkomirskis defense of the work--very similar in spirit to Macphersons self-righteous defense of Highland poetry against Dr. Johnsons prosecution--I would place Fragments in McHales first category: that of "Genuine Hoaxes." And, obviously, Wilkomirskis insistence on being a death-camp survivor, if indeed he is not, becomes a very troubling matter. Fictionalized accounts of historical events where an apocrypha of authorship inheres--and particularly in accounts of suffering one has not experienced--must purposely bear, for the readers scrutiny and deduction, clues to the ambiguity of their making. Not in the sense of facilitating some banal solution to an authorial mystery, but in the sense of hailing the reader toward a different condition of problem-posing and understanding. Of course, for "authorlessness" to become a broadly acceptable option for writers will require a more expanded notion of the individual readers status and responsibility. I think the time for this is coming. And when it does, I predict we will see that "authorlessness" contains a vast and heretofore invisible spectra of poetic possibility.
JB: By "authorlessness," do you literally mean no authors name?
KJ: No, I mean it in the way of Mikhail Epsteins notion of "hyperauthorship." As Epstein, in his letter to Motokiyu, says, "(A)nonymity in its post-authorial, not pre-authorial, implementation will turn into something different from folklore anonymity... writing in the mode of otherness is not just a matter of pseudonym, but rather of hypernym. We dont produce our works under different names but we produce works different from our own under appropriate names." The promise of hyperauthorship, as I see it, and Epstein, I know, would agree, is not so much a promise for individual creativity as it is for unforeseen, collaborative forms of poetic and critical labor.
JB: To go back to Holocaust literature, when Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird was published, I've heard that it was going to receive a negative review by Eli Weisel, who was reading it as a novel. Then, so the story goes, Kosinski told Weisel that it was a work of nonfiction, which prompted Weisel to write a favorable review. What do you make of this story?
KJ: Well, to paraphrase David Antin, it would be a good example that from the testimony you want, you get the testimony you deserve.
JB: Earlier, you made a reference to Doubled Flowerings "textual dynamics," and I wonder if a certain aspect of those dynamics might contradict your claim of an originary empathy in Yasusada. His notebooks are full of sly innuendoes, jokes, blatant anachronisms, ironic references to postmodern ideas, tell-tale quotation, and so on. It is clearly a highly constructed work. How can such intellectual reflexiveness be the product, as youve claimed, here and elsewhere, of a sincere and emotional gesture of empathy?
KJ: I dealt with this question at some length in my exchange with the Japanese scholar Akitoshi Nagahata in Jacket Magazine. Its a good question, but the answer is fairly uncomplicated: To the extent that Yasusada seems "constructed," he is constructed in Motokiyus image. For Motokiyu, again, the strongest and most sincere "reality" he could attain was through the creation of the most real human character he was able to imagine-- one with rough edges, bad language habits, quirky sexual predilections, deep longings for his loved ones, unresolved feelings of anger, strange flights of ironic humor, instincts of compassion and generosity, embarrassing spells of confusion, stumblings into pettiness and egocentricity, unusual tastes for the foreign, etc. All of these things, revealed in shards and fragments as they are, stand as aspects of Motos complex personality, and they naturally entered the making of Yasusadas. His likeness to Moto is the way Yasusada became as real as he could be. And its in this sense that I find the charges of "Orientalism" rather laughable. Yasusada is about the least stereotypical fellow you could get.
JB: One of my favorite pieces in Doubled Flowering is the shopping list:
three rice cakes
one [blotted by crease, eds.] seaweed packet
4 crane eggs
empress oil chrysanthemum root best rice
Bear yourself with a serious air through the labyrinth of the
market. Feign to ignore the [blotted by crease, eds.] spirit medium of
*[Despite the curious interjection, this appears to be a shopping list. It was found in one of the notebooks, folded into an origami bird.]
I find this poem both hilarious and moving at the same time, and its a good example of the irony were talking about. Why do you think the Yasusada author included it?
KJ: This happens to be one of my favorites too, as it was of Motos, though I think you are the first to mention it. The "[blotted by crease]" interjections are the central "formal elements" of the poem, traces left by the origami bird that Yasusada, as the translators indicate, originally folded the poem into. And inside the paper bird is the strange image of the medium of plum-colored lips-- another orientalist image, I suppose. But I think the poem is special because it replicates the formal figuration of the Yasusada project as a whole: a kind of three-dimensional unfolding of fiction out into the world, a paper crane, figuratively popping-up out of the open book. Is it a real image or just the falseness of a fabricated folding, less real than the poem it purports to enfold? And the plum-colored lips of the imagined spirit medium Yasusada "feigns" to ignore: Are they the false lips of a conjured figure, or the real lips of the reader reading? And if the crane is false, as of course in one dimension it is, are the blotches on the writing its form has blotched even more false than the image of the paper that has been falsely folded? If so, then is the writing that so many readers desired so willingly to be real more false than the folded form of the imagined crane? Who folded the crane to blotch its false writing? And is it possible it has been unfolded out of a reality as real as the reality the fictional writing now folds, in truth, back into? Whos to say? But I suppose Im getting carried away here.
JB: No problem at all. But to continue with this issue, because it seems to me that the idea of authenticity is being constantly bracketed in Doubled Flowering... In the opening epigraph, for example:
"In this novel before me there is a painting in a book the protagonist is reading, in which a woman holds a mirror. Behind the reflection of her face is the reflection of a mountain, made tiny by the distance. I wonder what she could be thinking, thinks the protagonist, looking up from the book. I wonder what is happening on the hidden face of that mountain in the mirror..."
Or in the note "Is a rose is a rose is a rose the same as Ceci nest pas une pipe?" Or in the letter to Spicer, which reads in part: "What does it mean to write letters to a dead man, knowing that I am writing to myself? I want you to exist, I might shout into the wind." Could you comment on that phrase "I want you to exist" and how it functions in the book?
KJ: The letter to Spicer, with its quote from St. Augustine, is a key moment in the book. What the shout "means," Im not entirely certain, but how interesting that it is shouted at a dead man who did, biologically speaking, once exist, and who also wrote letters to a dead poet. And that it is shouted by a man who never lived, dressed in ceremonial drag, believed by many to have once been flesh and blood-- even initially, in fact, by Spicers own biographer, the extraordinary writer Kevin Killian, who, after reading many of the poems, sent a moving letter to Motokiyu shortly before Moto died, urgently asking for more details. I think the shout stands also as a shout back at Yasusada, shouted by those who are now angry at his ghostly being. "I want you to exist! How dare you take my hibakusha from me!" Maybe Yasusadas withdrawal into ghost-history, the illusoriness of his otherness, makes more palpable, more exposed, the flesh and blood of those a hairs breath away, every moment of their lives, from consuming fire. "Give me back the figure in the wax museum, you thief of otherness!" Perhaps in place of the figure, now absent from its place in the diorama, the visitor sees his face reflected back in the glass...
JB: Interesting. Similarly, perhaps, in her major essay on Yasusada, Marjorie Perloff states that the "authentic is itself a simulacrum." The "artificial" seems to be so much a part of our lives that we are often not conscious of it. Warhol's images from popular culture (Jackie O or Mao, for example) which he made a point of "individualizing" with color and yet trivializing with duplication, seem to comment on the "simulacrum." Yet though we live in an age of simulacrum, we still demand "authenticity." Perloff also states that "Yasusada's poetry...makes no demand on us" in terms, I believe she's stating, in dealing with issues of responsibility for the bombing of Hiroshima or dealing with collective guilt. I don't think I agree, and I would suppose, as you just seemed to imply yourself, that one of the reasons for the hostility to Doubled Flowering is that once it was revealed that the work was not by a hibakusha, then readers felt they had to deal with the Bombing, that the Yasusada author had tricked them into dealing with such issues. What do you make of Perloff's claim?
KJ: To me, and despite how some have "sympathetically" seen the work, Doubled Flowering is much more than an ironic commentary on cultural simulacra, much more than a clever experiment with historical identity, or what have you. Elements of theoretical things, as Ive said, can be found. But its much more helpful, to my mind, at least, to think of Yasusadas presence in a less rational light: as a form of haunting, a remnant, or, as Derrida has it, a reve-nant, broken-off from the excess of trauma and mourning that flows out of Hiroshima through time and through us. His shattered textual apparition stands, in success or failure, as an act of transmemoration. Its an aggressively transgressive act of remembrance, and thats fundamentally it. Do the notebooks make didactic "demands" on the reader? I certainly hope not. Yasusada makes demands, but they arent the demands of a morality play.
JB: Actually, in his book Spectres of Marx, Derrida describes mourning as "in fact and by right interminable, without possible normality, without reliable limit." Mourning responds, he says, "to the injunction of a justice which, beyond right or law, rises up in the very respect owed to whoever is not, no longer or not yet, living, presently living." It seems one way of answering those who have seen a certain "criminality" in Doubled Flowering...
KJ: Yes, absolutely, and that book you quote from has all kinds of spooky, thematic correlations with Yasusada. But Spectres of Marx was published in the mid-90s, so there is no influence from Derrida to Motokiyu in that respect.
JB: Let me conclude by asking you about the final poem in the book, "Because I Live." The poem is dated August 6th, 1972, the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and its last stanza reads:
The young, wild pears on this tree
flame in the dying sun. Tonight
the names will glow quietly on the floating lamps
and be carried out in clumps
to the sea. It is because I live
that I pluck a pear and bite
deeply into its hard
flesh. It is for them, like
the heroes of the Odyssey, rowing
rhythmically past the Island of the Sirens,
that I pucker my mouth.
Here, we hear the speaker compare himself to the sailors rowing past the island of the Sirens. This follows the image of the floating lamps in the same stanza. The voices of those killed by the Bomb, then, might be seen as Sirens. This is a rather startling comparison. In what ways are the voices of dead victims of the Atomic Bomb "Sirens"?
KJ: Im not quite sure. But if I had to hazard a guess, it would be that the word has a double connotation: the Sirens of mythology and the sirens one will hear in the last minutes, as the missiles are on their way. The more complex allusion-- though my hunch is that this was thoroughly unconscious on Motos part-- is with the Sirens, whose singing drives Odysseus, lashed to the mast, crazy with erotic longing. The attraction to those ghostly voices is the attraction in all of us dead-ones-to-be. Our collective, pornographic preparation for mass death cant be explained without the undertow of Thanatos, always pulling at our toes and teasing, teasing us toward the ultimate snuff-flick our common body would star in, so to speak. What beckons us is the ultimate and most transgressive orgasm, the one to bring us the release of endless and anonymous sleep.
But, of course, we must resist this, and to resist this gives us our humanity. And here, the heard voices of living hibakusha provide some of the rope to keep us from leaping overboard, to keep us on the course of life, despite our dark desire. We should listen carefully. As we did this interview, there was a somewhat explicit pass being made at the Sirens in Yugoslavia. And we were all quite aroused, werent we, leads and extras alike, sputtering the foulest obscenities and on the verge of coming. Thank goodness we managed to pull out in time, this time. Resistance is hard, and the mouth puckers with the effort of it. Especially Yasusada, a man whose effort to resist the pull is made quite a bit harder by the fact he doesnt exist! Of course his lips pucker... Something like that, but thats just one idiosyncratic reading. And it would be interesting to have Motos view, were he here.
John Bradley is the author of Love-In-Idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello (Word Works, 1989, winner of the Washington Prize), a book of persona poetry. He is the editor of Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age (Coffee House Press, 1995), an international poetry anthology, and Learning to Glow: On Living in a Radioactive World (University of Arizona Press, forthcoming), a collection of essays on nuclear issues. In 1995, Bradley read at a ceremony in Hiroshima marking the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city, an event made even more memorable by the participation of Kurihara Sadako, one of Hiroshimas most prominent hibakusha poets, Bradley teaches writing at Northern Illinois University.
Kent Johnson teaches Spanish and English at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois.
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