If you are a poet, you must meet Kent Johnson. There is no way around it. Once you meet him, you will not regret it.
Johnson’s new book, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field, is a series of meditations on poets he has encountered and could encounter and has never encountered, although he assures us in his “Author’s Comment” not to expect any more entries in the future and that “this [book of memories] is probably as far as it goes.” These encounters are as enchanting as their digressions.
The conceit, if conceit it is, appears somewhat New York Schoolish: instead of the “I remember” poems of Joe Brainard, to whom the book is dedicated, we have the “I once met this poet” premise. The encounters we then eavesdrop on are walks we take arm in arm with Johnson and his poets, often accompanied by photographs of 19th century couples or groups, of poets and others, strolling, posing, smiling, reflecting across time and space. As such, in terms of tone and temper, we have the offhanded casualness of Frank O’Hara’s poetry, which, at moments, is put to chilling effect. “Life is strange” is Johnson’s refrain.
For example, a “tremendous” poet is met at a San Francisco poetry reading. Her name is Erin Mouré. She reads second, Johnson first. He likes her and the fact that she comes from Canada, to which he is partial. Why? It is “a land with low murder rate.” Note the Ashberian artifice seeming as if it is the natural way of things, the logical/absurd pseudo-syllogism: I like her. She is from Canada. I like her because Canada has few murders. The scene shifts.
Years later, they read together in Chile. Mouré’s work is “labyrinthine,” Johnson tells us. They read at a cultural center, which used to house a torture center (somehow I can’t help but think how, just a minute ago, the poet’s Canada had a low murder rate—now Johnson witnesses her reading poetry among the ghosts of the tortured). What is the political relation between the insularity of a no-exit poetry and a maze-like former torture center now propped up as a cultural tourist mecca? How is our breath taken away when those two “facts” are exposed—the avant-garde line breaks of the literary world and the breaking of bodies occupying the same historical space. “And everyone,” Johnson writes enigmatically about her poetic recitation, “if you’ll forgive the allusion, stopped breathing.” Who here is being alluded to? The tortured who stopped breathing? Or is the allusion to O’Hara’s most famous poem about Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died,” which has a similar nonchalant urgency to its last line and to the measures of the music before it? The question is playful yet deadly serious: what exactly is the relation between a field of bodies and the field of poetry, between someone snuffed out and how a person and then a poem reacts?
The “field” in the subtitle of this book—A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field—takes on numerous meanings. First, on meeting Johnson, poets, like facts on the ground, on the playing field, are plying their trade as sport: meeting, competing, cooperating, giving readings, talking shop, gossiping. Second, the poem itself is a compositional field, echoing Robert Duncan’s first book, The Opening of the Field, with its opening poem, “Often I am permitted to return to a meadow,”
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
So here, in “an eternal pasture folded in all thought” and lifted off the ground, Johnson imagines himself with poets and together they make their “made place[s].” When and where he meets or doesn’t meet them, they can become fictions: in part, his creations:
I’ve never met the great poet John Ashbery, but I feel like I have. Automobiles go by in the night. And somewhere, huge wooden machines stand at attention in a gentle, foggy field, on the hidden side of a mountain, in a cheap velvet painting, it all akimbo and askew, yet somehow still hanging there, on half a wall, in some bombed out slum, on the outskirts of Beirut.
The writing in this memoir is a re-tuning and turning of moments lived in the open field of poets, their verse, and their communities, academic, Buddhist and otherwise. The pieces in it cast a whimsical yet sincere articulation of the impermanence of all things, particularly as Johnson reflects on chance and not-so-chance once or twice in a life encounters. Poets depend and turn on each other in the best and worst, most optimistic and cynical of ways: a give and take dialogue among poets, once here, now gone, their poems and conversations part of the gift economy, always able to return and be recycled in the future, with endlessly more material generated from what is already there. This occurs in the same way Johnson claims he always returns the honoraria he is offered for a poetry reading (though the money is not enough for another poet) or wonders about his identity when he is being introduced for the first time to others–Bob Perleman and Allen Ginsberg are two figures who respond in this manner–who often seem dead sure of who he is from what they’ve heard from the rumor mill—“oh, so you’re that guy”—as he wonders, “what guy?” Well, the lord of satire guy.
This guy they’ve heard of, of course—is it a blessing or a curse to be this guy?—is that guy we know of as Kent Johnson, who makes trouble, who provokes others, who is always embroiled in some poetic controversy. The trouble starts with his own history with heteronymic projects: with, for instance, the publication of Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada, a book, which in the late ’90s, created scandal in the literary world when readers discovered that Araki Yasusada, a poet who was supposed to have survived Hiroshima and written the text, turned out not to be “real” and, instead, the creation of a white, mild-mannered community college professor from the middle west named Kent Johnson, who was “found out” and excoriated for writing under such a guise. But Johnson has never claimed the work for his own authorial gain, which distinguishes it from the comparatively pedestrian and cynical case of the Yi-Fen Chou ruse of recent weeks. Who knows who wrote what? Johnson’s work wonders. Who knew what was true, what was false? Why did it really matter? What about the creation and complex nature of the Yasusada book was overlooked in the focus on the author’s identity?
Johnson’s provocations then extended to A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “by” Frank O’Hara, in which he called into question the authorship of Frank O’ Hara’s most famous “last” poem, found after he died (prophesying his death), ascribing it to O’Hara’s friend and fellow poet, Kenneth Koch. True to form, the alleged (according to Johnson) Japanese author of those Yasusada poems, “Tosa Motokiyu,” showed up in conversation with others in the O’Hara book. The book pissed people off: including O’Hara estate executors, publishers, and a number of the poets who came after the first generation of The New York School of Poets. In actuality, however, it was a work that was in its essence a thriller of poetic fiction. And, ironically, it stood the Yasusada provocation on its head—now, who wrote what, when, and why (was everyone lying about it) mattered intensely—at the same time as it was a hilarious and deeply affectionate homage to the imaginative possibilities for poetry and to O’Hara’s life and work.
On the surface, I Once Met follows the same imaginary questioning. Who, exactly, is meeting whom and why? On the one hand, Johnson could not be more sincere. He says straight out “I once met” at the start of each of these pieces—so what’s not to believe? He is generous: he calls the poets he meets “superlative” “genius,” “first rate,” “great.” At the same time, however, he admits to never receiving a “return” on his “self-serving generosities,” so why not, as readers, be suspect of why—whether it be jealousy, poetic quarreling, or antagonistic histories—he compliments poets the way he does.
At times, the representations are fantastic, but even when the fabulous nature of these so-called factual meetings are hilarious or tragic, they are no less real and available emotionally and intellectually. You must walk with this book, open it and read it in all your different moods: it will reflect all of them. It is both heartwarming and heart breaking. There is a simultaneous joy and melancholy to Johnson’s writing, which, of course, even as it is prose, we expect from the most urgent poems of our times.