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Context/Decontext: A Conversation with Johannes Göransson

By Mia You

From Action Books' trailer for Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream

Utrecht, The Netherlands
& Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

Here is a chance to reflect on book reviewing, and here is something to tell you up front: I am an impossibly slow reader and writer, and no one is pounding on my door for my thoughts on poetry books. For each review, I have to do the whole top hat/tap dance routine with editors; they Google my impossible name and find a bunch of sites with “POW/MIA You will be missed;” but then someone says yes to it, and for a day I walk around Utrecht and drink my coffee like I’m so badass, I’m Michiko Kakutani.

Usually, however, I walk around the quaint Dutch city of Utrecht wondering, How did I get here? I write just a few reviews of American poetry books each year, and each is a labor of love and a letter sent back to home. At this stage of my life, I’m not going to waste the time and energy writing about books I don’t care about. I’m not going to waste a chance to use Bookforum space, for example, on a book (not just the poet’s work, but the translator, the press, everyone who made the book) I don’t fully admire and want everyone—wherever they are and whatever their context—to read.

Last year I wrote a review of Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream, published by Action Books and translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi, for Bookforum. Then Action Books responded, and How did I get here? is what I said when I realized they saw my review of Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream as negative—as a kind of finger-wagging rejoinder against the idea that Kim Hyesoon could be translated into English and that she could have real significance to non-Korean readers. Johannes Göransson, one of the press’ publishers, wrote on Montevidayo: “You [last name, not pronoun] basically made the argument that we (the American readers of Kim Hyesoon) were ‘gross sensationalists’ because we lacked the proper context for understanding her work.

In this post titled “Against ‘Context,’” he also argues, “I think the idea of context as a stable, determining force has become pervasive in our culture—both in discussions of poetry and translation, but also wider culture—and that this is an incredibly simplistic idea of the way art works.” He expands upon this point in a longer essay he wrote, prompted by my review, for The Volta: “Toward a Sensationalist Theory of Translation.” I clicked with trepidation. It’s actually nice to be un-Google-able. But even reluctantly, after putting my quivering ego aside, I found his essay sharp and persuasive, a compelling manifesto for the social force of poetic translations.

But! Here is the emphatic But! I certainly never intended to suggest that American readers, as a whole, lack the proper context for understanding Kim’s work. After all I’m an American reader. And I know what makes me an “American” reader is different from what makes Johannes Göransson, Marjorie Perloff or David Biespiel “American” readers. But all of us might read Kim’s poems and have valid, valuable responses. And as a reader who was gradually made American, has made herself American, since moving from South Korea; who is an editor of a translation-sponsoring/promoting organization called Poetry International; who was now writing from the Netherlands on Korean poetry in English translation for an American periodical; the idea that I’ve somehow become a proponent for “context as a stable, determining force” and that I have a “incredibly simplistic” sense of how context affects art, or any kind of writing or reading identity, doesn’t sit well at all. It’s pretty maddening! How context defines, how context is defined, has never seemed simple to me.

How did I get here? I’ve asked Johannes to join me in an interview/conversation about his essay here on Harriet. Of course I want a chance to respond to him, but more importantly I want a chance for both of us to share a (virtual) space, to find some middle ground between the overtly contextualized and decontextualized states of our arguments so that we can hold a conversation on a topic we both care about deeply—not just as editors or reviewers, but as “fully felt bodies” (beings, identities?) in constant negotiation, engagement and conflict with our surroundings.

MIA: Thank you for doing this conversation, Johannes. In the longer essay you published on The Volta, “Toward a Sensationalist Theory of Translation,” you describe in greater detail how my dismissal of the “gross-out sensationalism” in Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream misses the potentially disruptive and affective work such poetry can enact on readers of any context.

Reading your essay is unsettling, not just in that you disagree strongly with me, but that I, too, disagree with the “me” (“You”) there. Ultimately I think you and I are trying to make the same point, but we’re going about it in opposite directions: we’re both wary of conventionalized “contexts” forced upon translated poetry, and we both want to show how Kim’s writing, in its violent and violating exceptionality, alters how we perceive our own place within our surroundings. The difference, I think, is our sense of what that conventionalized context for Kim’s work is, what exactly we’re worried that readers might impose upon Kim’s poetry instead of allowing themselves to experience that exceptionality (either in Korean or in translation).

JOHANNES: Let me begin to say that I thought your reading of the text was excellent. I was impressed by the great attention to details and nuance. But what caused me to respond was the framing: the idea that American lovers of Kim Hyesoon were corrupting her text by taking it into a sensationalistic, Western idea of transgressive art meant to shock the bourgeoisie, which you also connect to Korean horror movies. You also connect this view with a political context of U.S. imperialism. Against these two contexts, you posit two alternative contexts: the idea that Kim’s poetry is a feminist critique of the masculine canon, and that your mother’s love of non-violent melodramas. I agree that my—or Action Books—aesthetics are “sensationalistic.” No doubt about that! (I also prefer Korean horror movies to a lot of contemporary poetry!) However, I took issue with your quick dismissal of this aesthetic mode. Why not explore the differences between sensationalism—a crossing of various boundaries, a model of art as attacking the senses—and the contextualizing or the critique? I am not interested in the critique as a mode of poetry, though ironically it is notable that the idea of Kim’s work as a feminist critique of patriarchal canons—not the sensationalistic horror view—is far and away dominant in U.S. reviews of her work. I do think both of these “contexts” for her work are important, and her own critical writing certainly supports both. To me the critique—like the “original context” model of criticism—tends to stabilize and quarantine texts, especially foreign texts. I am really interested in the anxieties that surround translation: on one hand that the anxiety that the foreign influence will corrupt the domestic poetry, and on the other hand the anxiety that the translation is corrupting the foreign text. Behind such discussions, we can glimpse the boundary-crossing volatility of art. And this is why I like your review, and why I wrote about it. It seemed to me that you were torn—between context and not-context, between bloody politics and a vision of your mother—and to me that tension in your review was really provocative. I started to think more about this word “sensationalistic” and what it had to do with translation, with context. So though I disagree with your treatment of “sensationalism,” I appreciate the review for bringing these rhetorical strands together.

MIA: What I love about your response is that the anxiety you describe is, in itself, something to be explored and perhaps one of the most productive affects of translation—the imperative to not dismiss or cover up our readerly anxiety, but look at it straight-on, consider why we feel it, and figure out how to employ it as a political and social force in our own poetics. I really admire that dialectical ideal, that poetry must destabilize us, force us to confront the foreign and unfamiliar, and be left marked, changed after that confrontation. And that it’s essential to maintain this quality in translation, even as the translator’s overt task is to “domesticate,” to render into the domestic language, the foreign language of the poem.

The issue, for me, is that I don’t think just sensationalizing content—for lack of better word—is what most effectively does this. Or, rather, that it doesn’t do the poetic work on its own. Yes, sure, Kim Hyesoon employs a lot of gory imagery, and it’s effective, and it’s part of how she is sensational, sensationalistic. But she also does amazing things with grammar and word play, and her poetry can be seen as a response to a long literary tradition. In my review, I wanted to point these out as well, not necessarily to disparage the use and valuing of a grotesque aesthetic, but to make sure this aesthetic doesn’t overwhelm her reception and all the different ways her work can produce a deep anxiety in her readers. In other words, when I wrote that review, I wasn’t really imagining Action Books or Don Mee Choi, her translator, or anyone who has deeply engaged with Kim’s writing already, as the review’s audience. I was imagining a reader that might start to feel anxious from a very immediate and shallow skimming of Kim’s work and decide just to dismiss her because of it—refusing to experience and investigate that anxiety. And of course you know that most poetry readers are like that! We tend to read for the pleasurable, the identifiable. That’s why your writing and publishing have been important, as a rejoinder against that complacency.

I fell into the position in this review that I was trying to be a bit ironic, and I was trying to identify with “the American Poetry Reader” omnipresent in my critical superego (Helen Vendler, Charles Altieri, Stephen Burt...) and be like, “Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but what about this aspect of Kim’s poetry, too? Isn’t this really interesting for you?” That’s not fair to them, either—very generalizing—and I know Kim doesn’t need me going around defending her, but I think that was really my main thought process while I was disparaging sensationalist aesthetics. The strategy was: first, to infiltrate, and then, to incite!

In writing about my mother and her Korean dramas at the end, I wanted to point out, simply, that we shouldn’t dismiss the violence in Kim’s writing as a Korean or foreign subject. This is another way to dismiss or to neutralize our anxiety, isn’t it? To say it’s not about us; it’s about them. But I wanted to say, yeah, my Korean mother prefers bad soap operas to violent movies, and most of us in America keep a rather sanitized view of poetry as being about whatever Billy Collins and Charles Bernstein write. But we’re violent like crazy here!

JOHANNES: I totally agree with you about not wanting to turn Kim Hyesoon’s violence into “Korean violence” (Korean violence is of course inextricably bound up with American violence and politics). The U.S. has a history of dealing with foreign works in this manner. I think for example of Carolyn Forché’s complicated and—for me—flawed attempt to frame the violent strangeness of surrealist and surrealist-influenced poetry as being a result of violence in foreign places (thus quarantining the poetry, to keep it from influencing or infecting American poets). I definitely think we should read the poetry of Billy Collins, Charles Bernstein, and any other poets writing in America with blood-stained fingers (and purple stained mouths). People are always asking me: Why are you so sensationalistic, why so violent, why so grotesque? Our culture is way more violent and grotesque than my writing. I couldn’t invent half of the shit that’s going down in South Bend, IN this very night. But, importantly, behind such questions is the assumption that it’s art's role to find a refined space, away from that violence. And I don’t believe that’s correct.

I’m constantly arguing against the kind of “context”-based attempt to keep literatures national. At the most recent AWP, there was a panel on Paul Celan’s work. In the Q&A, the first question was: “How can we make sure that young American poets are not improperly influenced by Celan’s work?” The point here is of course to make sure “the young poets” are aware of his context as separate from their own, to make sure they have a knowledge of his tradition and our tradition, and, most importantly, to keep foreign poetry from influencing our young poets, who are supposedly vulnerable to the transgressive influence of translation.

I also want to stress that Kim Hyesoon herself is an incredibly international poet. She is certainly very well-read in her Korean traditions and culture, and she makes amazing use this in her critical essays. This is also someone who has read very widely and internationally (Kristeva, Rimbaud, Lautremont, Plath, etc). Poetry is constantly mucking up boundaries, generating new contexts. I’m of course not arguing that we should forget that Kim is a Korean poet; but that anxiety to me is misplaced. On the whole, translations seem to lead people to want to find out more.

I understand your concern that the sensational should cause people to not fully appreciate the full-range of Kim’s poetry. But why do they work in opposition? Why does the literariness run in contradiction to the grotesque imagery? I think of a book like Jean Genet’s Our Lady of Flowers, which is grotesque and sensational but over-the-top literary, or Kim Hyesoon’s great Korean predecessor, Yi Sang (the greatest of all the modernists anywhere, in my opinion). He was interned because he made obscene, interlingual puns. And of course you can see it in Sylvia Plath’s sensationalistic barrages. These examples may suggest that the literary doesn’t work against the grotesque or abject, but in fact together with it. So much of the “super-ego” aesthetics of U.S. literature focuses not just on moderating the content but of moderating the style as well.

Though it is true that the super-ego of U.S. criticism have not taken note of Kim’s work, her work has received a huge number of reviews on blogs and webzines, and they have overwhelmingly been very astute and thoughtful, taking into consideration a wide range of formal and topical concerns. She has also received a lot of attention abroad (from Australia to France to Sweden and on). And the responses tend to be very intensive and engaged. The striking quote about Marilyn Monroe that you mention in your review is indeed sensationalistic, but it’s also beautifully written. I just can’t split the grotesque against the literary. Both contribute to the intensity of Kim’s work.

I thoroughly appreciate your attempt to help Kim infiltrate the super-ego crew, and I’m grateful for it! I am not good at things like that. I foolishly just think people should be open-minded (though experience has taught me a different lesson), particularly to poetry from the rest of the world. If these critics cannot make sense of Kim Hyesoon, one of the most important modern Korean poets, then their framework must be considered nationalistic. At the very least it’s provincial. And for a U.S. critic to be provincial is a very politically-charged position. The U.S. is in a position of power internationally, and by being provincial these critics are asserting a kind of U.S. exceptionalism. This political situation makes me appreciate your kind of activism, and I hope you can appreciate where I’m coming from.

MIA: I definitely do! And I think the point you’re making—and that Don Mee Choi has made in the past with regard to how/why she translates—on how violence “over there” is inextricably tied to violence, or imposed force, originating right here, is incredibly important. (For example, Syria.) But here is a question: you just wrote, “On the whole, translations seem to lead people to want to find out more,” but I am not entirely sure that’s true. Yes, there are great reviews of Kim Hyesoon online, written by an incredibly wide and diverse range of American, British, Australian, etc., critics—but think about how many times (not in the great reviews) the Korean War comes up, and how many times these same critics think “Hyesoon” is her last name! (Side note: It makes me cringe every time I see “Hyesoon,” because, yes, my parents are Korean, and even with my American upbringing and more radical leanings, I WOULD NEVER CALL ANY KOREAN ADULT NEAR MY PARENTS’ AGE BY THEIR FIRST NAME. No way!) So I am, a little bit, like, “Come on, read beyond Wikipedia. Or at least read Wikipedia closely enough to figure out what people’s names are!”

I appreciate the imperative that I think is implicit in translations: “Now, go! Learn more!” But I am not sure people follow that, or if they are just satisfied with the “cosmopolitan effect” they get from having sampled something foreign or “different.” You know:  “What am I reading lately? Well, there’s this amazing Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector…” but I don’t know anything about Brazil. And she was Jewish and born in the Ukraine?! So I worry that a hardline emphasis on decontextualization also gives people an excuse to employ translation opportunistically, as a kind of cheat sheet. And this gives a lot of authority to the translator, the publisher and those managing the publicity. Action Books is exceptional, as is Don Mee: your philosophy and politics prevent this and actively work against this. But I do know other publishers and translators who think of their work as “cornering the market.” Of course it’s always good when someone reads something in translation. But as translators/ editors/ publishers/ reviewers/ scholars : isn’t there something to be said for emphasizing that imperative to not be provincial? Doesn’t decontextualization also allow for people to be very self-satisfied in their province?

I am not saying any of this as an explanation for anything I wrote in Bookforum, or anything I seemed disparaging about—it’s really just a riff on how decontextualization, in general, might affect the reading of translations. For what it’s worth: you mentioned Yi Sang, and as an undergraduate I wrote my honors thesis on Yi Sang’s The Wings and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and the imagery of impotence and the weird gendering of metaphors. Both Eavan Boland and Sianne Ngai were my advisers! Both texts disturbed and got under my skin in a way I felt was similar, and any claim I could made about how “they are a decade apart, etc., and thus in the same historical moment” just sounded like bullshit. Only through a decontextualized comparative reading could I begin to figure out why. 

JOHANNES: I think your two examples of “decontextualization” are good. In one it’s simply a matter of dismissing any context (the poem as timeless/placeless urn); in the other (your paper), it’s a way of finding contexts for grappling with the text. The first example is obviously a lazy model of reading, allowing for a kind of new and improved (cosmopolitan) provincialism. But the second seems really useful. I don’t believe in no context so much as multiple, mutating contexts. I hate the New Historicist model of “original context” because it always reduces the power of the texts, and because it’s almost always based on a reductive notion of context. I love The Wings and its curious gender dynamics—it’s why I put Kim Hyesoon’s daughter Fi-Jae Lee’s installation of Yi-Sang’s wedding on the cover of my book Haute Surveillance so I can see that putting it next to Eliot would be a good context (Walter Lew has an interesting essay about Yi Sang and Jean Cocteau that discusses the Japanese craze for Cocteau and how this might have affected Yi Sang). I guess I’m just repeating myself, but when I look at the kind of responses people have written to Kim’s work, I see people who have really been affected by the text, and who have thought a lot about the work, not a lazy flipping through the foreign channel. I realize that some people who have written about her don’t know the name order, but to me the most important thing is the poem. It’s a political act, it’s an act of beauty.

MIA: Okay, let’s talk a bit about ourselves as critics within or without our contexts, since we approach our criticism with strikingly different tactics. Here is another question or, rather, hypothesis: I read about how you immigrated to America as a teenager, and how you were bullied at school for dressing and acting differently—and how this was an important lesson for you about our discomfort with unfamiliarity, and the violent reactions it could produce. I’m really getting myself into a lot of shit with this response, I’m sorry, but here goes... do you think there’s anything to be said for this: how you, being European, being Caucasian, might have passed for “American” and yet you chose not to—you chose to maintain your difference, make that explicit through how you dressed and acted that you had a separate identity; versus how I always was very obviously Asian (I was the only Asian kid in my Florida preschool and kindergarten; then when another Korean girl joined our class, I was sent to ESL classes with her just to keep her company! Later, even in in Northern California, I’ve been criticized for my so-called “Korean accent”). So for me, the challenge was how to make that part of me, that part that was strikingly different, as downplayed or as coherent with my surroundings as possible.

Even today I still run into this: recently, a U.K.-educated (and bred, apparently!) translator for a Poetry International festival poet suggested I had no right to edit her translations, since I was not a “native” speaker of English (Exact quote: "I am sure your English is excellent but as I'm sure you know when it comes to translation there is a big difference between being fluent and being a native speaker.") She knew nothing about me; we had never met in person. This had to be her assumption based on my name! It’s true, however: I’m not a “native” speaker or reader. But I trained myself to become an expert one. I wonder if I didn’t have poetry as this “refined space,” a space with set standards and abstract engagements that I could learn to accommodate—and “expertly” know how to push against—then maybe I’ll have no other way to prove myself. I’ll be stuck being sent back to ESL class.

JOHANNES: Yes, this is a complicated question. To begin with, I didn’t choose not to “pass.” I never had that choice. And it wasn’t just in school when I came here; it’s in the streets of smalltown America and the streets of NYC; it’s in classrooms, in hiring committees. And most importantly, I still don’t pass in American poetry. But I always note that I was/am not simply a victim in this relationship. I realize now that I enacted a kind of violence against those other students with my very presence, and this is why it makes sense to me that a lot of people in U.S. poetry act as if I am threatening or enacting violence against them.

(One prominent professor-critic once told me I was “throwing bombs” at U.S. poetry; one prominent experimental writer has told me to never write about her work again because I come from somewhere different from her, the assumption being that I  thus lack an understanding for her “context.” My foreignness thus violates her authorship.)

The experience of immigrating—the actual act itself—was deeply, deeply traumatic for me. I obviously didn’t have the framework of “trauma” to think about my experience back then, but I realize now that that was what was going on. Basically I was morbidly melancholic for two/three years, couldn’t really function at all. Had trouble sleeping. Felt like I was dead, or a ghost. I hallucinated. This isn’t true for everyone who emigrates, but I never really could overcome that experience of being taken out of my home—ironically we might call that my “original context” —and away from the people I knew and who knew me. I still haven’t gotten over it to be honest. As I write this, I am aware that I’m still trying to overcome this trauma, and I’m aware that I never will (which is why this answer is turning out so damned long!). 

There’s a book called Homesickness by Susan Matt that gives an historical account of homesickness, showing how homesickness was a huge problem in American in the 17th and 18th Centuries. People were said to actually die from homesickness. Matt argues that it was in response to the problem this posed for the colonizing of America that the myth of the “brave immigrant”—the one who forges ahead, never looking back—was invented. I’m not a “cosmopolitan” or a “nomad”—figures of such enormous popularity in cultural studies—but rather I’m more like the despicable person, the homesick foreigner (melancholy, sentimental, with no future).

And as I said, my foreigner-ness has deeply influenced the way I approach poetry and my interaction with U.S. (and Swedish) poetry. It would probably be constructive for me to be a bit more assimilationist, but I am just not that kind of person. That might be a character flaw. But there’s also the fact that I am an immigrant. I do come from a different culture. Many of the poets that shaped my own thinking about poetry have never even been translated into English: Bruno K. Öijer, Ann Jäderlund, Lars Norén, the Danish poet Michael Strunge. My aesthetics were formed in Sweden in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as  in the throes of melancholic homesickness, in the violent immersion in a foreign language and culture (I started to write poetry soon after coming to the U.S.—I am not a Swedish poet, I’m an ESL poet!). In part due to this background, I never thought Elizabeth Bishop was a great poet, I never got into the “quietist” poets, I never had that “conversion experience” to experimental writing that so many of my peers seemed to have had (when they wake up one day and decide to be Language poets). That is to say, I have been writing poetry in America, but I have been writing in a quarantined space (perhaps it’s that ESL classroom!). And I think this is the threat/violence of the foreigner and translation: they may show that a lot of assumptions are based on “context” (the U.S. cultural establishment is highly elitist, based on elitist university education system, etc.).

So it doesn’t surprise me when critics or poets try to send me back to the ESL classroom (which happens often!). For example, Publishers Weekly wrote that my book was a “celebratory and orgiastic barrage of smut” and that “[W]hat Görannson [misspelled name!] has created is a vacuous form of post-modernism that feels more like an exercise in masochism than boundary-pushing experimentation.” Often these gatekeeper types use a rhetoric of “sensationalism.” There’s the sense that if I had a better understanding of U.S. literature and the English language, I wouldn’t have a differing aesthetic: “Back to ESL school, Johannes! You’re just writing smut! Stop throwing bombs! Don’t taint American literature with your ESL understanding of poetry!” 

Mia, I’m grateful for your questions because they’ve really made me think about these issues. I feel like we both are contorting ourselves to make sense of contradictory feelings about this issue of context. We both want cultural difference to be recognized, but we don’t want this difference to turn into a simplistic U.S. fantasy of difference, and neither of us want the foreign to be quarantined. Perhaps it’s important to recognize that no matter how much we contort ourselves, this is an issue we won’t solve. Perhaps it shouldn’t be solved. Perhaps our contortions are a kind of answer. Perhaps the foreign is a wound in our culture. Perhaps we must allow it to continue to fester. I am in favor of art that festers. Let’s leave the wounds open.

Your experience with the translator who wanted to dismiss you for not being “native” rings very true to me. There’s a great deal of suspicion of the act of translation—from readers, writers, translators, even at times oneself—and I think that’s important to take note of. To me, it is proof that translation is a kind of “vulnerable” point, the kind of place of weakness that Julia Kristeva talks about in her discussions of abjection. Again, this might be a result of the festering wounds of translation.

Your question about language and ESL class is an interesting take on Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of monoglossia and heteroglossia: that the monoglossic ideals of poetry gives foreigners a way of mastering the U.S. culture. I would be interested in hearing more about your experience as an immigrant. It seems that it might have some similarities with mine, but very different in other ways.

MIA: That is a really interesting connection to Bakhtin. I think of almost everything I write or say as being heteroglossic: not just in terms of code-switching (the Korean and English in my head), but perspective-wise. I always think of language as an entire system I’ve taken on, but one I can manipulate. These manipulations, in a sense, are me. My expression is always and only a tactical manipulation.

In a way, this is what I found so appealing about Language writing, and why I did have that “conversion experience.” In reading poetry like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or prose like Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment (I’m not defending any Facebook posts or IRL encounters, okay?), I felt that for once, I was being offered the possibility of a blank canvas, where I could take the language systems that have been imposed upon me and play them. No one would tell me who I was, who I should be. No one would have any expectation of or demand for authenticity from me. I could be taken at “face-value;” as how I wanted to present myself and my relation to language at any given moment. This is something that’s not possible in life, but perhaps it could be possible in poetry. Marianne Moore in “Poetry” describes it as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” To me, this is the “place for the genuine,” why I like the term “genuine” better than “authentic”—the genuine is not just those “real toads,” but it’s the “imaginary gardens” that can arise from them. I really enjoy and embrace the liberation from conventionalized and codified identity that poetry can give us.

This is why I both dislike it when foreign poetry is placed into a codified framework for imported cultural products, and when a poem is not seen as a chance for the poet to produce their own (perhaps momentary) identity. My problem with being sent to the ESL class is that I don’t want someone else to determine what my capabilities are, and what the appropriate place for me is, simply based on their assumptions about my identity. There’s nothing wrong with being in an ESL class or having an “ESL understanding of poetry.” But at some point, that’s a choice I should be entitled to: whether I want that as part of my identity and poetics, or not. I’ve been busy trying to prove that I’m entitled to that choice. Maybe that’s wrong—why should I prove myself? But I don’t know what the alternative is, while also being able to do what I want to do.

JOHANNES: I don’t want to say that I’m ignorant of all U.S. poetry. I’ve certainly read quite a bit of quietist poetry, I’ve read a lot of Bishop, and I’ve read a lot of Language poetry. (I even had a conversation—on Facebook!—with Barrett Watten the other day; I studied with Lyn Hejinian; I owe heaps of gratitude, for example, to my PhD advisor Jed Rasula, even though his aesthetics—at least in contemporary US poetry—is very different from my own.) My point was that these figures are not the major figures, the major influences, the “tradition” I am writing in. I was never “brought into” those aesthetics. I believe in influence—that it’s essential to both the creation and reception of art that we are “under the influence”—and my main influences were never these established U.S. camps.

LangPo and perhaps a contemporary idea of “avant-garde” seem to appeal to you because they empower you, give you a sense of freedom and agency. I get what you’re saying, though my view of poetry and writing is somewhat different. I don’t think I write for freedom; I feel like when I write and read, what I go for is saturation, for intensity, that I am indeed operating “under the influence” of art. That’s a sensation that feels like a kind of freedom, but also the removal of agency, perhaps even of enslaving. Art connects me, ties me up, more than liberates me; and what it connects me to is often unpleasant because, as you note in your review of Kim Hyesoon, we live a blood-bucket world. I don’t feel like I’m “innovative” or progressive. I feel like poetry is dead, but I would rather wander in the Hades of poetry than in some new and improved world without poetry and its necro-glamorous excesses.

Laura Carter wrote a wonderful review of my book The Sugar Book the other day, and it ends by her saying: “We have to get out of this place!” I loved this reaction, though my reaction is the opposite. I want to be killed by roses. I’m also horrified in that world of poppies, because it’s a world that has been shaped by all kinds of atrocities. The Sugar Book is a book about the intensity of art—and the pervasive anxieties about it, the attempts to restrict it, the rhetoric we use to discuss this discomforting, exhilarating, horrifying, possibly enslaving experience. So it goes from Ezra Pound's translation-corpses and “corpse language” of Victorian poetry,  to Blanchot’s image-as-corpse (and/or broken tool), to Conceptualism’s simultaneous prudishness (“poetry is dead,” to write poetry is “necrophilic,” “poetry is gross!”) and violence toward poetry (which is why I rewrite the kill list in “the heart of glamour”). The epigraph is an insane quote from Lars Norén’s diaries—about cutting down his own aesthetic to something closer to surveillance footage—that I then try to destroy even as I feel seduced by it.

In our culture, poetry is constantly denounced as flowery and useless—as an excess—and it’s interesting to me that so much of U.S. poetry discussions agree with this! Seems like there isn’t an issue of Publishers Weekly, Writer’s Chronicle or Poetry magazine where there isn’t some powerful critic or poet denouncing the floweriness of poetry, demanding that we rein it in. But I don’t want to rein it in. I don’t want a restricted economy. I want to dress up in my grandfather’s dusty old suit and drink wine from Keats’s femur-cup. I’m not “against expression,” I’m absolutely an expressionist.

MIA: Johannes, here is a question, maybe it should be the final question, but it’s a rather crude and simplistic one. I think, however, it’s also an obvious one. In the essay “Awash in Mimicry,” you write, “The threat of translation is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, is lost in a noisy, violent excess.” One would say, reading this, that you aestheticize excess; that what doesn’t fit, what disrupts, what is inappropriate, is or should be the value of poetry. “Excess,” however, is relative to what is accepted as “enough.” So I wonder, if this is your aesthetic, doesn’t it depend on a conception of American poetry as stable, as contained, as truly hygienic, as valuing the “enough” and refusing to make room for the “excess?”

But is this really true? I mean, I think I know what you mean, but then again I would never categorize Bishop as “quietist.” She’s kind of batshit to me. How would you respond to the charge that, perhaps, your emphasis on sensationalistic translation and writing practices stems from a personal boredom with American poetry, as emerging from one specific tradition and situated within a particular history? But is American poetry really so institutionalized, or is this also a perspective from one playing the institution? Is your political framework a way to rationalize your participation in a genre and profession (as you are, in fact, part of American academia and an academic strand of poetry) that’s not very interesting to you? And, in that sense, don’t you need—and have an investment in maintaining—the idea of a boring or bland poetic tradition, to be the counterpart to what you do?

JOHANNES: Yes, I agree, I aestheticize excess. For me both words (excess, aestheticize) suggests the intensity, urgency, immersiveness that I find in  art.

But I don’t feel at all dependent on this establishment (though I’ve been working myself to death to change it). I would make the opposite conclusion: it seems to me that the critical establishment needs to protect us against some kind of excess. It is, after all, these elite, establishment critics who are constantly promoting a conservative framework for poetry by rejecting and abjecting the “too much,” the grotesque and sensationalistic, the overly poetic. I respect Steve Burt and his tireless engagement with U.S. poetry, but his reviews almost always include a strawman: the poetry that is talentless because it is “merely shocking,” sensationalistic. I would have no problem with this if he actually named and quoted these un-named poets, but they cannot even be brought into the discussion, they have to be abjected from the conversation yet be used to define the bad.

I don’t think Bishop is “quietist” either, and I like her work well enough (I mention her as possibly another constellation, like LangPo and quietism), but she’s not important to me. I think Ann Jäderlund is a hands-down much better poet. I think Kim Hyesoon is a way better poet. Alejandra Pizarnik was a better poet. I think Sylvia Plath was a better poet. Aase Berg is a better poet than Jorie Graham. Hiromi Ito is better than John Ashbery. Antonin Artaud is better than Robert Lowell. Though the word “better” is so distanced, so clean. What these poets do to me is far more violent and thorough, and that’s why I align myself with them—because they’re not merely better, they are entrancing.

My point is not that I hate quietism or Language poetry or Bishop, it’s that my aesthetics are different, and I am writing under different influences than they are, with different aesthetics, different “traditions.” I have no special interest in being the “counterpart” to these poets. I would love to be reviewed in The New York Times and be read by more people. But that won’t happen, and I’m not going to start compromising my vision in order to make it happen. I can’t start writing poetry in the constellation of Elizabeth Bishop; that would kill poetry for me. And then why would I stay alive? I was raised on Edgar Allan Poe and Joy Division. The only reason to stay alive is to be Marosa Di Giorgio in her garden of murderous lilies.

From Action Books' trailer for Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream

Originally Published: October 20th, 2015

Mia You was born in Seoul, South Korea, grew up in Northern California, and now lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Her first full-length collection is I, Too, Dislike It (1913 Press, 2016), which Rachel Levitsky calls, “a companion, an aria to bodily discomfort and impossibility.” Lisa Robertson writes in The Brooklyn Rail,...