photo by Forrest Gander
by Michael Boughn
For anyone paying even the remotest attention to the U.S. poetry scene over the last twenty years, Kent Johnson needs no introduction. Described variously by certain parties as “thuggish,” “an unchained pit bull tossed in a schoolyard,” “a troublemaker,” and “criminal,” and by others as the “gadfly we deserve,” “refreshingly disturbing,” “preeminent,” and “vital,” his take-no-prisoners assault has continuously gone after the complacencies, stupidities, and hypocrisies of American life. Reinventing satire for the 21st century, his fiercely moral gaze and his imaginative invention of new forms of post-Fluxus agitation have drawn attention to the mass, blind obedience of Americans to the military/security state, as well as to the complicit, moral compromises of artists and writers in their drive for “success” in the contemporary cultural industry.
Johnson’s most recent book, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field(Longhouse Books, $20), is something of a departure. On one level, it collects reminiscences about his meetings with various poets around the world over the course of his poetic life. On another it invokes a generous, sometimes tender, sometimes tough, always honest portrait of the intricate, irreparable relations that constitute community. As much a prose poem as a memoir, it lovingly (and humorously) paints a rich tableau of the irreducible complexity of what might be called, following Giorgio Agamben, the coming community—including an unforgettable encounter with Emily Dickinson poolside in a bikini.
Michael Boughn: Kent, in some ways you are unique in the current “post-avant” poetry world: An intelligent, cosmopolitan, multilingual scholar who writes poetry and non-fiction, who is an accomplished translator and anthologist, but who is a loner with no group affiliations, just an ordinary guy who works in a small college and lives in a small mid-western American town. The pieces that make up I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field reflect that relation to the ordinary, at least in their mode of address—2 am kitchen conversation over bourbon and a little smoke—an intimate familiarity of relation (even in its tender ruthlessness) that is so much part of our condition. What is your sense of the significance of the "ordinary" in our situation, both in terms of art and writing, and the larger realities they are part of?
Kent Johnson: Thank you for the words “cosmopolitan” and “accomplished,” Michael, even if—knowing myself better than you do—I can quickly think of a dozen much less flattering adjectives to go along with them. Not that I’m the only one who could. Some of the others would be fellow poets, I’m afraid . . . Don’t traffic these days in satire, / poet, unless you desire / to be a small-town loner, / like William Stoner.
Now, I like your notion of “ordinary” in relation to I Once Met. I think, yes, that its various entries all seek, in their different moods, to engage the quotidian and everyday of the poetic field, which is, like all things sociological, poignantly ordinary and human beneath the posturing at its surfaces. And in so doing, the entries try to find some measure of common hilarity or surprise therein, whatever it might be, using perfectly common parlance as the instrument of view. Of course that view is necessarily skewed by my own eccentricities and neuroses, though thankfully I don’t have as many of those as most other poets. No, just kidding.
But seriously, the decided drift of “experimental” poetry in the U.S. has been, for the past forty or so years, toward the smug, esoteric, and quasi-teleological range of affect, I’d say, its adepts sporting their crème de la crème presumptions with an importance of being earnest little seen since the fin de siècle. Albeit without a guiding temper of satire and wit to comparably recommend it. In any event, the tendency at issue is fairly contrary, safely said, to basic senses of the ordinary. A fair number of these writers are terrifically gifted, to be sure, but that’s neither here nor there.
It used to be that heterodox poetry, at least in the U.S., had some serious interface with the ordinary, and was more all-embracing for it. Think of Whitman and Dickinson and Williams and the Objectivists, for example. Or of the New American Poetry period, not so long ago—so informed, across its schools and strains, by everyday life, demotic language, and a decidedly non-professionalized sociality. But that down-to-earth ambience of the field more or less went poof with the ascent of Language poetry and its obsessive conflation of poetic vocation with theory à la mode (much of the latter of pseudo sort, we now know). Not that we don’t want theory. It’s that now, much due to that overdo, “avant-garde” verse has moved on to get conflated, rapidly and willingly, with the Academy, to the point where we haven’t had an institutionalized habitus like it since the New Criticism. Penn is our new Kenyon, and the prominent Presses, Literary Prizes, and State or Corporate Fellowships leash the values of attention.
So the “experimental” has moved, by and large, more and more away from the ordinary, I’d propose, to become increasingly mandarin, highbrow, and recuperated in its forms and dispositions. Recently dead-by-its-own-hand Conceptual Poetry showed us, and with insufferable Warholian hauteur, the clearest, most cynical acquiescence to those ideological conditions, even as the group’s proponents proclaimed their devotions to the banal and prosaic.
I like this word ordinary, now that you’ve raised it, Mike. Yes, it seems to me the next avant-garde, should we get one, will need to be ordinary with a vengeance.