Cover image by visual poet Mike Basinski, longtime director (now retired) of the Buffalo Poetry Collection.
Let me start by saying that I have never met Kent Johnson, don’t know where he lives, or if, because of poetry, he has a “big house on the oceans (both), 3 fucking cars, piles of moola, and really too mucho, much sex.” I just don’t know. But I am curious. I kind of want his imagined life. Who is this guy?
I am not a poet, but have many poet friends. This autumn, Johnson’s book, Because of Poetry, I Have a Really Big House (Shearsman Books, 2020) began to appear on my social media radar thanks to writers whose work and thinking I admire. Joe Amato (Illinois State University) posted an essay by James Berger, “Those Who Come After… And Before,” that situates Johnson’s book in relation to the aesthetic shifts and changing economic realities of 20th century poetry movements. Michael Boughn, who partnered with Johnson on a longstanding publication, “Dispatches From the Poetry Wars,” recently shared Giorgia Pavlidou’s interview with Johnson. Norman Finklestein (poet and Emeritus Professor of English) published an insightful and moving analysis of Johnson’s use of satire on his website, Poetry in Review.
Whenever Kent Johnson comes up among people I know, the adjective used to describe him is “controversial.” He is billed as a kind of attack dog, savaging the “careerist” Grand Poobahs of American Poetry, lobbing lyric barbs at “Establishment” organizations like The Poetry Foundation. In my experience, it is rare for a poet to have so many enemies and still be considered important. Johnson is of a generation that does not “cancel” one another (probably because they don’t know how to use Twitter). Instead, these poets either ignore each other or engage in dialogue, however praiseful or combative.
In any case, I decided to start a dossier on Johnson. Kind of like an F.B.I file, but less organized. I invited Johnson’s friends and enemies to respond to Because of Poetry, I Have a Really Big House. I also invited knowledgeable people who are at an arm’s length from the poet and have something to say about his book. I encouraged respondents to engage as they saw fit: by writing a formal review, tackling a short section or specific poem, writing a poem in return, creating an image, video, or song, and so on. We get what we get, and we don’t get upset. The Typescript intends to publish at least one response a week until we run out.
Perhaps you are a person (you need not be a poet) who has something to say about Because of Poetry, I Have a Really Big House? If you feel something, say something. Please send submissions to email@example.com
We are always up for dialogue about what poetry should do, and what social and political roles it might play in our culture. As someone who has worked with and published several L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets who are apparently the targets of some of Johnson’s attacks, I seek to understand why he takes offense to them. I want a clearer sense of why Johnson’s poetry rankles and cackles and ruffles so many feathers. Boiled down, I chose to create a dossier on Johnson precisely because his poetry is political and contentious, a rare combination these days. It does things to people: it has performative force and affective “torque” (to borrow a word from Fred Wah).
Our exploration may prove boring. Or it might end up super-dramatic like The Real Housewives of Orange County. I’m hoping for the latter. “BELIEVE ME,” though, as our outgoing orange overlord would say, you will not be disappointed in the course of following this journey.