Hold Everything Dear

Three letters to the publisher of Kent Johnson's
I Once Met
(176pp, Longhouse, $18.95).

                                                                           18th June, 2015

Dear Bob,

Kent Johnson's I Once Met
is a beautifully made book, every aspect: the size, the spacing of words on the page, the placement of the photographs. And those black and white photographs you chose to include - of Mandelstam and Shimpei Kusano, along with other strange and wonderful characters - deepen the reader's response to the text, each photograph suggesting further possible and impossible meetings. The last photograph of the old pensioner in the Surrey Hills, taken in 1949, could just as easily be Fernando Pessoa walking up a hill in Lisbon, or Robert Lax doing the same on Patmos. Exquisitely chosen each.

Which goes for the cover: A fine twentieth century Chinese painting of a man fishing in a river, encouraged, almost, by the presence of a tree, as if protecting his back. The immediate response has to be one of dialogue: a dialogue with all poets, from all times, back all the way to ancient Tu Fu and Li Po. It is a discreet nod to the tranquility and transcendence those great Chinese poets brought gloriously into the world, silently enfolding the contents of the book into the care of centuries of poetic conversation. Add that to what you say is Kent Johnson's interest in fishing, and yes, his infamous involvement with the so-called Yasusada Affair, and everything fits. Even the Yasusada Affair itself could be seen as yet another example of this continued dialogue, these encounters with poets, real or imagined. As could his stunning translations (along with Forrest Gander) of the great Bolivian poet, Jaime Saenz. (How did Cid Corman put it? 'Poetry becomes / that conversation we could / not otherwise have.')  This book confirms and continues the conversation of what it means to make poetry - to write and to be read, to respond to what is written and to the writers who create it. Some, naturally, seem to be fine people, good company, thoughtful and considerate; others, perhaps, leave something more to be desired. And more, the words in the book sing beautifully to the spirit of Chinese poetry - with its many instances of poets meeting other poets for a cup of wine and a deep night's conversation, gazing up at the moon, discussing absence and presence: the quarrel and the company, the agony and joys of parting and meeting. Often enough, as with this book, with wars and conflict as the interminable background.

As for the writing, I do not think I have read a more charming, intelligent and entertaining book. Or not since the one Johnson wrote a couple of years ago around and about Frank O'Hara that Richard Owens published, A Question Mark Above the Sun. Richard did a beautiful job of making that book. Equally, to my eyes, your production of
I Once Met is as faultless. Kent Johnson - at least in the incarnation which he presents as himself in these pages - comes across as such an honest and open character (even if he does tend to court and simultaneously shy away from controversy,) whether he's confessing, after a long train journey home with Vanessa Place from a conference on Conceptual Poetry at Princeton, to being surprised - since they hold such differing views on poetry - in finding he likes her as an individual 'quite a good bit', even though he remained ' no less skeptical at all' about Conceptual Poetry; or, insisting on 'reciting rhyming, satirical doggerel that poked fun at the leading lights of the post-avant' in the supposed bastion of conceptual and experimental fare which is Buffalo. Equally, when he is in Cambridge, England, saying, somewhat the worse for wear with drink, to the Austrian poet Franz Josef Czernin: 'I would in ecstasy wash your feet in my hair', only to be told by Tony Fraser that the High German Franz says in response means, 'he really likes you, but that he's glad you aren't doing the driving.' Perhaps one of the shortest poems reveals much of how the others work: 'I've never met the famed poet Ron Padgett, but I almost did. I raised my fist before his door and paused. There were cicadas screaming to death in the rich summer trees. Why ruin it, I said, and walked away.'

Only just having finished the book, I feel like jumping right back into it. I don't see how it won't become a classic, much in the way of Joe Brainard's I Remember. Yet it is absolutely itself. A book which should be in the hands of anyone interested in poetry. However, it is not to be mistaken as simply writing about poets and poetry, rather it is poetry. Powerful, moving and, at times, hilarious poetry. Often saying beautiful things: The two poems to his sons, for instance. Of his youngest son, Aaron, he writes: 'And the more worthy man than I that he is destined to become is as certain as the mountains he so loves are perilous and real.' When I returned home, I immediately read them to Jasna in the garden over Turkish coffee. Both poems took her breath away. Susan and you deserve the highest praise for bringing out such a wonderful and important book in such a fine fashion.

Please, do pass on my thoughts to Kent. I'd like him to know there's someone over in Cornwall who now has a smile on his face that he put there. It might well be a permanent smile.

  Love, John

                                                                               21st June, 2015

Dear Bob,

I checked online and found a very positive review on Jacket by Cralan Kelder of the original limited edition Longhouse publication of
I Once Met from 2007. Appended to the end of that review is a note by Clayton Eshleman, defending himself against the comments that Kent Johnson made about meeting him when he was a young poet, putting his own interpretation of their meeting. (Funnily enough, anyone reading the entry on Eshleman would not think it warranted any such response or self-defense. Proving, perhaps, one of the impressions the reader gains of poets: that they are a remarkably sensitive bunch!) What I don't quite understand is how anybody who is mentioned in the book could take what is written there as if it were actually written about them. Or why such narcissism? I see each encounter as poem: I have no interest whatsoever if it is true or not, nor even if Kent Johnson ever met these particular people. They are playing the characters of poets or  writers in a poem, whether they exist or not, whether what happens in the poem happened or not. Of course, they all do exist, from what I can tell: painted quite wonderfully and clearly, usually with a few precise brushstrokes. But I - as reader - never once considered that everything said was the actual truth (whatever that vast and unyielding animal is). What I was reading were poems! As poems, they can do and say what they like. Or where's the freedom? How does he put it in the Author's Comment at the start of the book? 'I have tried my best to be true to the experiences represented here. In a few instances, where my memory flagged, or where poetic license seemed to proffer - in spirit of Picasso's famous maxim about art, lies and truth - a deepening of the genuine, I have, in the venerable traditions of that non-existing genre called "non-fiction", not-so-secretly embellished.' I love that phrase 'a deepening of the genuine' -
 masterful; as is how he ends the paragraph, after saying that anyone can amend or deny anything written in the book as they see fit, with the declarative: I stand by every word.' What could be clearer?  So who could take the book as anything other than containing that truth which is the poetic imagination? The words sing because they are song and they are song because they tell simple facts about all meetings and all partings, not simply those that pass as having taken place with whoever's name is uttered within each section. Strangely, perhaps, I am reminded of Leonard Cohen's response when he was awarded the Governor General's Award, I believe for his Selected Poems:  'Much in me strives for this honour but the poems themselves forbid it absolutely.' The poems in this book refuse absolutely to be nailed down to any trivial day-to-day truth telling - they are speaking of far more permanent things: the grace and gravity and beauty of any meeting happening, of there even being meetings to happen and people to meet, of there being anything at all instead of nothing. Change the names, make up the poets: the poems would be as true. Create legends. Create myths. Poems tell the truth beyond what historians consider it to be. Otherwise these poems would be mere gossip. There is an act, however small, of myth making taking place within these pages. Of course, Kent Johnson has been in this territory before; indeed, he should be proud of the memory of the Yasusada Affair which is several times mentioned within its pages.  He should be proud of having a part - however small he claims it to be - in the creation of such a myth. How many do that?  In fifty years most of the poets in the book will be dead and their work, currently judged valuable or not, will be long forgotten. Will it make the book any less song or less true? No. Not at all. The book - the very stillness at its heart - is pure. There is no stain upon it. Let those who wish to see it in such a light walk away declaring themselves half-blind. It is a wonderful creation and - this might seem crazy, I know - I do not see it having much at all to do with anybody mentioned in it! They are not important enough - in the history of poetry - to become these poems. Not until they themselves have become myths - as has your own Emily Dickinson. Do you think she is upset over being mentioned in the book? No, she is happy as a jaybird, doing a little jig for celebration in her grave. Would she be upset if she happened to be alive and living in Amherst today? Unlikely. I imagine she wouldn't have the vanity to consider that she is the Emily Dickinson mentioned in these pages, even if Kent and her did hang out by a swimming pool (Dickinson wearing a bikini and sunglasses!), sipping mojitos, 'casually sharingÉthe fathomless mysteries of her impossible mind.'

The thought just came to me that maybe it wasn't Eshleman's response that Cralan Kelder noted at the bottom of his review, but something Cralan made up for the fun of it. Now, that would be grand.

Enough. What I have said is what I have said. It is my truth for this moment in time. It won't change, either, not as far as my response to Kent Johnson's book is concerned. But if someone wrote down a version of what I have said here in a poem (however unlikely and foolish an act that would be!), subsequently publishing it in their own book and on reading it sometime later I took offence because it was different to what I remembered happening or saying, then wouldn't I be the fool? Especially if the work they happened to make was both beautiful and true.

  Love, John


                                                                                    28th June, 2015

Dear Bob,

I have one ear on an old radio interview with John Berger, mostly about his book Hold Everything Dear
. The conversation is typical Berger: intense, emotional, each word weighed before it is spoken, almost as if an oracle is in the process of speaking. It is a voice I have always enjoyed, but a voice very different to Kent Johnson's, whose I Once Met I have just finished reading through for the second time. Actually, I enjoyed the book even more this time round. On first look Kent Johnson and John Berger might appear to have little in common, but I am not so sure: Both are passionately engaged with the world as they find it, both are declared socialists, both have lived abroad for portions of their lives, both translate from foreign languages, both seem to possess a wonderful sense of the company of writers (living and dead), and both are very much outsiders to any declared literary scene. Now, I'm not at all sure this is a path worth going too far down, but listening to John Berger, having just read Kent Johnson, seems, in a sense, a continuation; a continuation, at least, of sense making. Both writers actively relish the world and the activity of being in the world. Perhaps the major difference, obvious to any, would be Johnson's finely tuned sense of comedy and self-deprecation. After all, I Once Met is an intensely funny book, not that the humour refuses the tragic, or excludes mention of many of the concerns both writers share: the horrors of war, their belief in socialism, the disease of imperialism. Worth noting here the places Kent Johnson visits in I Once Met - among others:  Bosnia-Herzegovina, Leningrad, Nicaragua: all places that have held/hold John Berger's interest.  Much as I admire and respect John Berger's work, Kent Johnson comes across as a much different writer, one who relishes celebrating his own failures and frailties, one who comes over as exemplifying the Dharmic
 beliefs of the illusionary nature and the impermanence of the self, and who does so - ironically enough - in a book of his own meetings with a vast array of poets from across the world.  Is there another writer who could have composed such a comedy of manners?  A book that indeed holds everything - and therefore every meeting - to be dear, in the same moment as it recognizes nothing and no-one is there to be held dear, or not for long. 

  Love, John

                © John Phillips 2015