Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.
David Dwyer as a Little Old Lady
In the 1970s, poet David Dwyer created a character, an older woman named Ariana Olisvos. He wondered if his characterization was convincing, so he sent some of his poems to the feminist magazine, Aphra, which was calling for poems by older women. Aphra published two of his poems, thinking they were the work of Ariana Olisvos, an older woman. After the editors of Aphra found out that they had been deceived, they were furious and demanded Dwyer return the $100 payment. Dwyer had the last laugh, however, when in 1980, his collection titled Ariana Olisvos: Her Last Works and Days, won the prestigious Juniper Prize. About the incident of deceit, Dwyer explains:
On the one hand, I was genuinely trying to create this persona, to really create a living voice. On the other hand, I did take advantage of people's kindness. Then again, I was very young. And there's a kind of arrogance that grips artists, where you're willing to take advantage of others. It was quite a few years before I got rid of that character.
David Dwyer's learned lesson demonstrates that he realizes the bankruptcy of trying to publish under false pretenses. Another poet, Kent Johnson, has never learned that lesson.
The Hiroshima Survivor Hoax
In the July/August 1996 issue of The American Poetry Review, a special insert appeared, supposedly containing the poetry of Hiroshima survivor, Araki Yasusada. The title of the manuscript was "Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada." Various other poems by this same poet had been appearing in other recognized journals throughout the early 1990s such as Aerial, Conjunctions, First Intensity, and Grand Street; even the British poetry journal, Stand, published them.
The manuscript was elaborately footnoted, and it also contained biographical information about the poet. He had attended Hiroshima University between 1925 and 1928; he had been influenced by Roland Barthes, studying his works in 1967, and his writing group had studied deeply the works of Paul Celan during the World War II. However, all of this information is false: Hiroshima University was not founded until 1949, the works of Roland Barthes were not published until 1970, and Paul Celan's work was not published until 1952.
Editors began hearing noises that Araki Yasusada might not exist. Emily Nussbaum's article in Lingua Franca, "Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax," appeared in November 1996. Arthur Vogelsang of The American Poetry Review, the editor who was duped by the project, allegedly called it a "criminal act." Then Wesleyan University Press, which had intended to publish a collection of Yasusada's poems, backed out of the project.
Kent Johnson, the Hoaxer
The person at the center of this literary hoax is Kent Johnson, who to this day, still denies being the sole author of the Yasusada manuscripts. But as Marjorie Perloff put it: " . . . when The American Poetry Review and Stand . . . demanded the return of their author's payment, it was to Kent Johnson they addressed their letters."
According to Emily Nussbaum, Johnson published several poems titled, "From the Daybrook of Oshimora Okiyaki" in the journal Ironweed. The same poems appear in the Yasusada manuscript with only slight alterations. Also Yasusada, along with poets Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley, is mentioned in Johnson's dissertation at Bowling Green University, titled "Strategies of Saying." Even the dissertation's title is a hint that Johnson is a likely candidate to try to pull off a stunt like this.
John Solt, professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College, calls the poems presented by Johnson, "Japanized Crap." Solt explains that this kind of material "plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture—Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic—and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony." A line such as "obediently bowing" reveals a Western misunderstanding: "[b]owing is not seen as subservient in Japan. It's a form of greeting," explains Solt.
Perhaps the most damning evidence that Johnson is, in fact, the creator of Yasusada and his manuscripts was Johnson's continued attempts to get them published by Wesleyan by engaging in an ongoing correspondence. Emily Nussbaum explains:
Wesleyan Press poetry editor Suzanna Tamminen . . . says she 'absolutely loved' the work when she received it, but when Johnson began to hint that Yasusada didn't exist, she rejected the 'notebooks' manuscript, concerned about the ethical issues involved. A correspondence then commenced in which Kent Johnson offered to 'frame' the writing, stating that he had in fact written it. (emphasis added)
Johnson has also claimed, "Yasusada" was the pseudonym of one of his roommates, "Tosa Motokiyu," which was also a pseudonym, who actually wrote the works, but unfortunately, Moto like Yasusada had also died of cancer. So Johnson is the only voice left to speak for the supposed manuscripts of a Hiroshima survivor. And though Johnson has changed his story a number of times, he still has not confessed to his part in any hoax. Instead, he concocts obstructions meant to resemble literary theories about hyperauthorships and heteronymities.
Creating Plausible Deniability
Since being discovered as a literary fraud, Kent Johnson has become prolific in attempting to create plausible deniability; he has never admitted to the hoax he tried to pull off with the American Poetry Review back in 1996. It certainly seems plausible that his, A Question Mark Above the Sun, published in 2011 mimics his own earlier literary hoax that went awry. He has learned one lesson though: he makes it clear that his latests work is a fictional speculation, but at the same time tries to whitewash the abominable situation such speculation implies. According to Jenny Hendrix, writing in The New Republic:
In his latest book, A Question Mark Above the Sun, Kent Johnson suggests that Frank O’Hara did not write "A True Account" at all. Instead Johnson pretends that the poem was written by Kenneth Koch after O’Hara’s death, secreted among O’Hara’s papers, and then "discovered" as a kind-of self-effacing tribute to a dead friend. Johnson—who takes pains to declare his book a fiction—insists that far from denigrating the poets, his hypothesis is meant as an homage. Koch’s supposed dissembling, he writes, is "one of the most beautiful and moving gestures ever proffered."
Hendrix offers some background for Kent Johnson’s latest piece, explaining,
It is widely assumed—although he has never admitted as much—that he is also the author of the Araki Yasusada manuscripts, the poems of a supposed Hiroshima survivor who came to prominence in the 1990s—until it emerged that no such person existed. If Johnson was involved, which seems likely, the Yasusada affair was the first act in the long-running work of literary performance art that continues in A Question Mark Above the Sun. (emphasis added)
Hendrix then becomes a master whitewasher with the euphemistic "literary performance art." It becomes obvious that Kent Johnson committed a fraud, never admitted or apologized for it, but went on to continue to justify his fraud through a number other literary hoaxes involving theory as well works of prose fiction. His elaborate literary stunt is not without his admiring sycophants.
Burt Kimmelman’s long screed, "Kent Johnson’s Disguised Pronunciamento," pronounces Johnson a consummate artist, while describing him with the following accurate yet unflattering terms:
the provocateur, the plagiarist, the fake; the ruthless trickster, the shapeshifter, the calculated commissioner of misstatement and mischaracterization intended to deceive serious readers—leading them toward miscomprehension of the very nature of literature and identity within a work of art—but also to confuse the greater community of citizens as he, Johnson, cloaked in the costume of good will, deftly places his plastique commando charges meant to, when they detonate, undermine the foundation of our social and political, perhaps philosophical assumptions, ideas, and musings.
Kimmelman put to rest any possible defense of the fakery produced by Johnson as he avers, "We have to wonder what’s a spoof and what’s not in Johnson’s work."
Statute of Limitations
Despite Johnson’s literary scribblings’ finding their postmodern, gullible sycophants, the issue of his fraud remains a simple one: he has created those obfuscations in order to cover his heinous and possibly illegal activity in trying to pass off a Hiroshima survivor's works as authentic. A true Hiroshima survivor retains access to imagery that motivates thoughts and invokes feelings that a non-Hiroshima survivor can never have. And that statement applies to any experience endured by others. Although human beings can have sympathy and empathy for others, they cannot know the details of other people’s experience well enough to express in poetry that experience.
And if a non-Hiroshima survivor, even a Westerner, wants to try to imagine those thoughts and feelings, as Dwyer did in creating the elderly Ariana, he is perfectly within his rights to do so and to try to publish them, as long as he does not try to deceive the publisher and the public into thinking that those works were created by a true Hiroshima survivor—or in Dwyer’s case, a little old lady.
It could be that these facts are not obvious to Kent Johnson because that youthful character flaw, which David Dwyer outgrew, still troubles Johnson. Or maybe it's even simpler than this; Arthur Vogelsang might know if there is a statute of limitations on this kind of criminal act.
- Emily Nussbaum. "Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax." Linguafranca: The Review of Academic Life. November 1996.
- American Poetry Review. July/August 1996. Vol. 25 Nr. 4.
- Marjorie Perloff. "In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada." Marjorie Perloff: Modern and Postmodern Poetry and Poetics. April/May 1997.
- Bill Freind. "Interview with Kent Johnson." Vert Poetry Magazine. Issue #5.
- Jenny Hendrix. "The Mystery Behind Frank O’Hara’s Most Famous Poem." The New Republic. December 9, 2012.
- Burt Kimmelman. "Kent Johnson’s Disguised Pronunciamento." BODY: poetry, prose, word. January 29, 2021.
Kent Johnson Reads
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes
Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 09, 2016:
I'll be reporting on another hoax soon--the Ern Malley caper. While it appears that Kent Johnson originally was just trying to get published, the Ern Malley affair was perpetrated by a couple of guys who were just fed up with modernist non-sense.
Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 09, 2016:
It comes to light one case at a time.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 09, 2016:
This was all very interesting. I wonder ho many other poets/writers have pretended to be someone they aren't. Who would know?