The New Decay of Lying

In which Ted Pelton (publisher of Starcherone Books) and Davis Schneiderman (“an American innovative writer and academic”) discuss Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Under the Sun (Starcherone Books, $16).

TED: Davis, my good friend, here we are. Yet of course you will say, where is here? I can say there is a bottle of Pernod on the table and a sign for the Deux Magots above our heads on this warm Parisian day and you may counter, Non, monsieur, that is not Pernod but a piña colada in a hollowed out coconut, one for each of us, and we are so lucky to have both arrived at the same conference, with light schedules, in Waikiki, and to be able to sit here admiring the turbulent and magnificent Pacific. Fiction invents what is not here but in so doing imagines it is. And then again this not to say that what is not here could not ever be here or has not ever been here or on some level, while not here, is here, or even isn’t made here by the act of imagining. These are also what fiction brings to bear. The invention is not the truth, perhaps, but the invention is not other than the truth either, and may even in time become the truth. D’accord? Let’s talk about this book by Kent Johnson, A Question Mark Above the Sun, that some have called poetry or nonfiction but I would call fiction, comingling the real and the invented.

DAVIS: Funny, my good friend Ted, I thought we were meeting in another part of the world entirely. Although I agree we are both on archipelagos of sorts. That is not the question. And why not Fire Island, setting for the famous poem of Frank O’Hara’s, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island,” penned, perhaps some years before his death-by-dune-buggy at the same location? Yes, we are definitely on Fire Island. And why is the new book, which is about this poem and its perhaps suspect provenance, classified as fiction? First, for those not-yet-in-the-not-knowing, Johnson hypothesizes that this oh-so-very-famous poem of O’Hara’s was perhaps, maybe, quite possibly but even so maybe not, penned by his friend and all around poetic cut-up Kenneth Koch. Koch read the poem as a memorial for O’Hara some weeks after O’Hara’s death, and AQM suggests that there are questions, gaps—as-yet-unexplained lacunae—in the story of how Koch came to have this poem and how no one else had ever seen it before. AQM asks this question: Did Koch “gift” a poem to O’Hara, ceding authorship, as a testimonial to their friendship? The book is as clear as Kent ever is on the fact that it is a thought experiment or hypothesis. Further, Kent claims again and again that he would be happy to be proved wrong. What do you think? I’ll write your response for you . . .

TED: Well, Davis, first may I just say what a pleasure it is to be collaborating with you in this way. You bring so much vivacious energy to everything you do that I’m pleased to luxuriate in the glow of our discussion in this manner. What I think you are getting at in that delightful and inimitable way of yours is that Kent’s critiques of authorship are so much a part of his past work that it is hard for some readers to take anything he does or writes as face value. Many will remember Araki Yasusada and the questions of ethics and authorship raised by the fact that Yasusada has been revealed to be not a poet/Hiroshima survivor, but a heteronym of another as-yet-definitively revealed author. Therefore, when Kent’s book claims that it is less provocation than thought-experiment, people, and even the O’Hara estate, have a hard time cleaving the messages-as-stated from the long history of very clever meta-critiques at work in Johnson’s oeuvre. Further, since AQM is explicitly fiction—why it says so on the book, in fact!—the critical algorithm is even more unsteady. But how, exactly?

DAVIS: Ted . . . is it possible? Yes, it is! Look who just walked up. I am sure, Ted, you know our good friend here, Tosa Motokiyu.

TED: Of course! Tosa, what a pleasure.

TOSA: Gentlemen, the pleasure is all mine.

DAVIS: Please join us—pull up an Adirondack. This is a magical coincidence, because Ted and I were just discussing a text very dear to your heart, and in which you play a starring role. And indeed we are doing something of a reprise of your fabled and notorious fictional tape-essay, featured in Kent Johnson’s A Question Mark Above the Sun, which transcribed the meeting you, Ojiu Norinaga, and Okura Kyojin had with Joe LeSueur, Frank O’Hara’s former roommate. It was LeSueur’s speculations in his 2003 memoir, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, that first opened up the can of worms about the questions surrounding authorship of O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” But, Ted, back to your initial question—or was it mine? —about calling Kent’s book a work of fiction—and, please, Tosa, jump in at any point where you might offer additional insight . . . I believe your thought processes might have involved a sense of what fiction began as and what it has become in our own time, if I might be so bold as to reimagine your thinking. That is, there was a time when fiction maintained a status as a kind of dangerous discourse. We have all opened up old novels and seen expository beginnings to the effect of “On a late afternoon, at the end of the last century, in the town of M——— . . .” This of course is a very quaint construction, and yet I think it pointed to a status of fiction that has left us in more recent centuries, now that the genre is fully formalized—that is, that there was formerly something much more dangerous in this form-that-shares-so-much-with-lying and all the senses that fictive storytelling in its pre-conventionalized condition brings with it: deceit, treachery, scandal and scandal-mongering, hoax. The author cannot reveal in which town named M the things he is about to relate occurred, nor the year, nor perhaps anything more than the general time-period and region. These people may yet be walking around. Actual lived life stood just beyond the edges of the fictive, and there might be some crossing over, and we know what types of disasters might follow indiscrete revelations, the transmission of unconfirmed rumors into the place where they might do real damage to people’s lives and estates.

TED: Estates, exactly. Because stories in our world are not mere entertainment or pastimes, but the undergirding of property, intellectual and otherwise, shot through with legal constructions that purport solidity but are likewise narrative-driven and, at least potentially, no less fictive than any novel. It seemed to me that, in his blurring of the true and the fictive (the book, for instance, contains several reviews of recent poetry books formatted as a novella), Kent Johnson taps into something unstable and alive in the very nature of what fiction is and does, and yet something perhaps lost in our own moment of more settled genres, where books are all designated for shelving assignments, as Mystery or Poetry or Creative Nonfiction or what-have-you. The fact that real people had real problems with things Kent was writing, things he often, as in the case of Mr. Motokiyu’s tape-essay itself, deliberately announced as “fictional,” which nevertheless inspired a point-by-point refutation by poet Tony Towle—this fascinated me, and was something, as the publisher of a fiction press, I wanted to claim.

TOSA: This is a very interesting discussion, and I am humbled and honored to see the uses to which Kent Johnson and now the two of you are putting my work with the New York School. Tell me, for I have been dead some time, this work is now for general sale? Was not its publication blocked for a time? Wait, why am I asking you at all? Like Tiresias, I have crossed over and back again, and therefore possess the gift of sight beyond sight.

DAVIS: (turning on tape recorder) Speak into the microphone, please.

TOSA: I see that Starcherone, one of the most spirited of the independent presses, has developed largely due to the untiring efforts of one man, yes, I am getting the image of a man . . . a professor type . . . working, let’s see, here it is, at a college in upstate New York.

TED: (irritated, with Buffalo accent) Western New York.

TOSA: Yes, this is the man who has reprinted AQM in this new-and-expanded edition and who has now claimed it, or helped to do so, as a work of fiction. This man, further, is named . . . give me a moment . . .

TED: Um, “Ted”?

TOSA: Yes, yes. The spirits have communed with you as well, brother? You are clearly a great visionary as . . .

TED: Yes, and getting back to the new edition of AQM. The possibility that the O’Hara or Koch estates would not wish for a work of fiction—labeled as fiction—to present a hypothesis that even its author admits, again and again, is probably untrue, would only further prove that Kent is able to destabilize the genre by raising these interesting questions about authorship.

TOSA: Yes, I see many questions emerging from the void, and turning into . . .

DAVIS: Perhaps the power here, then, is to some extent generated by Kent Johnson’s figure as an “Author” with a capital “A.” So much of his work interrogates authorship (e.g., his version of Kenneth Goldsmith’s DAY, with his name stickered over Goldsmith’s, etc.), that he has perhaps located himself in a Duchampian space where the critique of the traditional author-mode gives power to his own signature. Put another way, would this book have caused its controversy if it were authored by Ted Pelton or Davis Schneiderman?

TOSA: This man you call Davis, he is the one who has published a largely-blank novel, BLANK, yes?

TED: Yes, Davis, I understand what you are driving at. The question then becomes whether Kent’s critiques are emboldened or somehow weakened by his “authorship”? I think that AQM carries with it its own controversy, and that Starcherone saw an opportunity to re-conceptualize this controversy by creating an edition that incorporates many of the responses to the controversy generated by its initial printing, as well as new commentary on the legal and issues involved when “fair use” quotation is denied not on any legitimate legal basis but as a sheer exercise in power. (The new edition features, among other commentary, a Foreword by philosopher and intellectual property rights theorist David Koepsell.) In the initial blow-up, a major corporation, two estates, and their attorneys threatened legal action against a one-man-run poetry publisher, Punch Press, if they reprinted excerpts of copyrighted words of verse. As a result, the book was released in a privately circulating subscription edition of 100. Starcherone had to think long and hard before daring to bring this book out as a general trade edition. We also are volunteer-run and live a moment-to-moment existence, and didn’t know how far deep pockets could tie us up if unfriendly judges granted injunctions against us, forcing into court, etc., the merits of the case being beside the point. Johnson did something brilliant, though, with the issue of the copyrighted text, creating ostentatious redactions and summaries of the no-longer-quoted material, symbolically drawing attention to what power was doing to poetry. For Starcherone’s purposes, since the text redacts quotations for O’Hara’s poem and instead uses descriptions of those lines, in its place, the edition changes direct discourse to indirect discourse—to discourse circumscribed in the fictional space—and therefore creates a frame for discussion that . . .

TOSA: I see, yes, a slip of paper, yes, what do you call it . . . ?

DAVIS: Precisely. Think of the ways that a bleeped-out word in a radio edit of a hip-hop song draws attention to the original with a vengeance. Each bleep is like the dead in a Poe story. The corpse comes back, again and again, in recuperated form . . .

TOSA: This paper has numbers on it . . . numbers attached to what we have ordered. My hold on this is slipping . . . gentlemen, the spirits are too strong. You must excuse me (runs from table, quickly).

(The bill arrives.)

TED: Wait, before we settle our debts, there are a few more things we should note . . . as scholars. Because, interestingly enough, given all of the levels of disguise and hoax, the authorial destabilizations you rightly draw attention to and the weight of distrust Johnson trails behind him like the chains of Jacob Marley, Johnson actually appears to be onto something regarding the odd provenance of this poem, and even if it’s ultimately just ingeniously clever plotting, there’s a fair amount of old fashioned textual scholarship to back him up. First, there’s the apparent fact that New York School poets were not above a bit of identity-switching as part of the playfulness of their enterprise generally. In 1966, the same year O’Hara died, a poem in the style of Mayakovsky appeared in Art and Literature, authored by “Koichi K. O’Hara,” identified as “a Japanese poet and critic in the field of literature and Russian problems” and identified as a likely collaboration between O’Hara and Koch by both John Latta (on his blog Isola di Rifiuti) and by Terence Diggory (in his Encyclopedia of the New York School Poets). This factoid alone makes it that much more plausible Koch might have imitated O’Hara imitating Mayakovsky in “A True Account . . .” a few months later.

DAVIS: Uh, Ted . . . ?

TED: I’ll get the bill, don’t worry, we just received our NYSCA grant. As I was saying… Johnson also contends the font of the typescript of “A True Account” does not match that of the typewriter (from O’Hara’s Museum of Modern Art office) that O’Hara may have used at the time of the poem’s current carbon-dating, but that it does match one that Koch used in letters to Fairfield Porter in years just following O’Hara’s death. This last discovery by Latta, a poet and Senior Information Resources Specialist at University of Michigan, and Johnson’s correspondent and informal research partner for much of this project, occurred just as the new edition was going to press, and Latta’s Isola di Rifiuti was where much of the debate over these issues played out in 2008 and 2010. Yet since that time, and with everything now laid out in the new edition, for the world to see, there’s been a great and colossal silence.

DAVIS: Ted!!

TED: Quite a lot to yell about, you’re right! “Bluster and bullying by Random House,” Latta has written recently, “with the consent (or at the urging of) the Estates, and poets Bill Berkson, Tony Towle, Ron Padgett, and Jordan Davis ganging up to lend their misplaced righteousness as cosignatories to an attempt to quash Johnson’s intrepid and loving look at the poem’s oddly catalectic history and its premonitory gist: is there a stranger story in recent literary history, or one less bruited about, particularly by those principals who might be expected to reply to Johnson’s singular offering with fervors untempered by the usual corporate-model clutch and own pettinesses? (And, still, one awaits a reply to Johnson’s overwhelming question . . .).” What—what is it, Davis? Hey, where are we? Where did all this water come from?

DAVIS: Perhaps Fire Island was a bad idea after all; in the middle of your critical reverie a flood came surging upon us. The entire South Shore of Long Island has been affected. We’re now adrift in the Atlantic Ocean.

TED: Fie and fie again!, I say. We are not adrift, we are on the steadiest of ground—the driest of land—for we are asking the question to which no one dares to make suitable response? Who is the Author of “A True Account . . .”? The intriguing proposition that Koch may have written the poem, or at least the absence of evidence to the contrary, becomes, in Johnson’s nimble fingers, as plausible as Ted Pelton and Davis Schneiderman perhaps writing portions of each other’s sections of a conversation about this startling as-yet-not-disproven proposition!

DAVIS: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Then again, who may compete for eloquence with the man brave enough to publish and champion this oddly compelling work? Yes, my friend, I speak of you: publishing provocateur. And, let’s hope, now, more than ever, as I will need to follow in your wake: strong swimmer.

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