Commentaries - January 2013

Twelve pieces, in Jacket 1 and Jacket 11

Martin Johnston and his wife Roseanne Bonney. Photo by John Tranter.
Martin Johnston and his wife Roseanne Bonney. Photo by John Tranter.

A note from John Tranter: The Australian poet Martin Johnston was one of a generation of poets who invigorated Australian poetry in the late 1960s and 1970s. His contribution was unusual: he had a European upbringing, having spent fourteen years of his childhood abroad, in England and Greece. Martin died in June 1990 at the age of forty-two. Over the next two years I compiled a selection of most of his published poetry, essays and book reviews together with some interviews and photographs, and Martin Johnston — Selected Poems and Prose was published by the University of Queensland Press in 1993. A large number of Martin’s poems and prose writings are available in Jacket 1, together with some photographs, and another large tranche in Jacket 11, all linked to from the items below.

In Jacket 01:
The main part of my Introduction to the Selected Poems and Prose
A group of sonnets, In Transit — a Sonnet Square
An essay on Jorge Luis Borges

Five late poems
Translations of Greek folk songs
Some photographs of Martin when young

in Jacket 11:
Martin Johnston — poem sequence — “Microclimatology”
Martin Johnston on Greek Folk Poetry
Martin Johnston on the paintings of Theofilos
Petro Alexiou — A Talk on Martin Johnston
John Lucas — Martin Johnston and the matter of elegy:
“The essay is... full of remarkable insights and, for all its fragmentary nature, remains one of the best pieces of writing about Berryman I know.”
Brian Kim Stefans — A Quick Graph: On Martin Johnston — Paragraphs from an Unwritten Letter to John Tranter

Adapted from my Introduction:
Martin … might have loved John Berryman’s work and learned much from contemporary American poetry, but he had also read Cavafy and Seferis in their native Greek years before, and had immersed himself in Homer as a child. He also worked as a cadet reporter, a freelancer book reviewer and a subeditor and subtitler of television programs. He travelled to Europe many times, returning to Greece to live for some years, and exploring France, Italy and Germany as well as the British Isles. He had a strong sense of political engagement as well as an appetite for esoteric philosophies and complex cultural detail, and all this material helped to form his thinking and his practice as a writer, though he was not a remote intellectual in any sense. He enjoyed literary conversation, but he was just as happy talking with old fishermen in a Greek village taverna.

When I sent him interview questions on Josef Kaplan's Intros, he sent me back a little piece of his own

by Robert Fitterman

In David Joselit’s new critical book, After Art, he adopts the term “image fundamentalism” to describe a relationship to art that aims to be rooted to a “specific place.” He writes: “Religious fundamentalism is defined by adherence to doctrine, as laid down in sacred texts. Image fundamentalism asserts that a visual artifact belong exclusively to a specific site (its place of origin).” What, then, would literary fundamentalism look like? My point here is that Kaplan’s introductions are unchained to their origins, and, as such, they are the polar opposites of literary fundamentalism. Following Joselit’s premise, Kaplan lets the work of the writer he is about to introduce dictate a slippery procession, where the reader gets to traverse the unknown (and in this case the reader is the presenter).  In exchange for a tired list of accomplishments, publications, and insights, Kaplan aims for another possibility: one reader’s world intersecting one writer’s world. Of course it is the seriousness, hilarity, courage, and thoughtfulness that makes us, the audience, interested in the performance of this intersection... an intersection, by the way, that overlaps the actual author’s work by as little as, say, 10%. But it doesn’t matter: this isn’t about being respectful or authentic or informative (can we say Google at home?), this is about actually caring enough to take the work—and a reader’s response to the work — somewhere else, not rooted to the original meaning or author’s intention or biography, but elsewhere. As such, I would say that Kaplan is not performing a poetry version of institutional critique per se (he’s not using the elements of our institutions ironically to reveal their agenda) but rather, I would posit that this performance is an institutional increase: a ridiculous term that I’m inventing to describe when an artist uses one of the conventions of her institution and explodes it.  If you’ve ever heard someone do an introduction for a poet that is literally read off of a Google-searched biography, then you catch my drift.  It is insulting to be praised in such a way; it is an honor to be hammered beautifully. 


For Kristen's piece, click here:

Jonathan Stalling's homophonic translations

The cover of Jonathan Stalling's Yíngēlìshī, as published by Counterpath Press in 2011

Like Place’s iterations of Gone with the Wind, Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 also takes as its impetus the copying of another text and also addresses racial stereotyping and the negative attitude toward accents and dialects of English that differ from enforced norms. In Yíngēlìshī , Stalling appropriates an English phrasebook for Chinese speakers. The phrasebook uses standard characters for representing English speech. These characters are not meaningless but their use is conventionalized and in this context they are meant simply to stand for the English sounds––their meaning in Chinese is considered irrelevant. Stalling reproduces the Chinese and English from the phrasebook. But he takes the characters used to represent the English sounds, and replaces them with other homophones in Chinese and then translates these new Chinese words into English. For example, “English” becomes the title Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗, which translates as “chanted/sung songs, beautiful poetry.” The work pirates banal everyday language from a phrase book and transforms these phrases in Chinese and English into Chinese homophones that are wildly strange and poetic. Here’s a brief example:


In this example, 请原谅我 qǐng yuánliàng wǒ is a Chinese translation of “please forgive me”––it translates the meaning of the English phrase. On the other hand, 普利私 / 佛给浮谜 (pǔ lì sī / fó gěi fú mí) is a homophonic translation: an equivalent, using Chinese characters, of the phonemes comprising “please forgive me.” Stalling then translates this homophonic Chinese translation back into English as “Vast private profits, Buddha offers impermanent mysteries.”

In Yingelishi, Stalling engages the questions about repetition and understanding raised by technologies of reproduction. He also addresses the tradition of associating bad repetition with those who do not share one’s culture, language, class, accent, or religion. This tradition, as Christopher Bush has brilliantly shown in Ideographic Modernism, is key to understanding Western modernists’ revaluing of Chinese and the intertwinement of the Western imaginings of the Chinese language with responses to new media. In Yíngēlìshī, Stalling repeats a text designed to help one speak another language without really knowing it in order to allude to the prejudice, held by major Western thinkers such as Hegel, that to write or speak in Chinese is merely to repeat not to understand.

Yet Stalling presents his work as turning this idea on its head. In his introduction to Yíngēlìshī , he attacks the racist term “Chinglish” and the way the term, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, equates the failure to conform to an approved accent with a lack of understanding. Stalling revalues Chinese-accented English as “beautiful”––as in the “lìshī” 丽诗 (“beautiful poetry”) of title Yíngēlìshī. Stalling also inverts the relation of linguistic mastery so that the English-speaking reader is confronted with not understanding the true meaning of apparently English words. Indeed the “mysteries” (mí 谜) of the Chinese text are not even fully unraveled by translation. In the line in the video above, the translation of “fú” 浮 as “impermanent” misses the economic meaning of “inflated,” “surplus,” or “excessive,” which connects to the business lexicon of the previous line.

Are we just mouthing without understanding and what does understanding mean? Stalling’s answer in his introduction to Yíngēlìshī is instead to deny the importance of meaning and to insist on the primacy of sound. But in fact, Stalling’s poems work precisely because of the interplay of multiple meanings, not the absence of meaning. The video above is a small extract from a digital version of Yíngēlìshī, which also exists as a printed book and as a performance piece. The digital version connects the question of whether we read these texts as Chinese or English to the question of whether we listen to them or see them, and to the question of whether we attend to the print or digital or live performance versions. Among versions and languages, between the written, spoken, and sung, between the print and the digital, Stalling’s work asks: where in all these copies does the meaning lie? It also highlights the ethical and political stakes in answering this question.

If you haven't attended the December-January Segue events these past two years, you have missed something. Josef Kaplan's introductions. Most weeks, as they unfold, you can observe something come over the room. Some weeks it's like a wave of something between shock and glee. Other weeks it's just lots of audience reaction, hysterical laughter, conversations erupting, the occasional person turning away in discomfort. These introductions have been described as uproarious, sweet, insulting, naive, hilarious, and courageous. Many seem to agree he's exploding the form.

Rumor has it Ugly Duckling is planning to make a chapbook of a select few. 

When asked if anything seemed special about what's happening here, James Sherry, who has been steering Segue for over thirty years, says, "Josef breaks the tradition of laudatory introductions with confrontational framing such as saying that he doesn’t understand the poet’s work." Sherry points to Kaplan's Michael Gottlieb intro, describing it as, "psychological rhetoric layered on satiric imitation creating an uproarious surface" that "exposed Michael’s social critique as a personal complaint." But what's equally extraordinary is how funny and loving it all seemed when it was happening. Michael laughed harder than anyone. Steve Zultanski, Segue co-curator with Kaplan for two years, described it as, "confusing and borderline insulting, but in the sweetest way."

When I sent Rob Fitterman interview questions for this piece, he turned around and wrote a piece of his own on the topic, which I will post tomorrow. I wonder if he was thinking of the Gottlieb intro when he wrote there, "it is an honor to be hammered beautifully." Fitterman describes Kaplan's introductions as performing a reading process, placing the introducer-performer at "the polar opposite of literary fundamentalism," where the introducer lets "the work of the writer he is about to introduce dictate a slippery procession." And if Kaplan's work is any indication, approaching the poetry introduction as an act of naive reading does allow a lot of space for generative questioning and humorously revealing reading errors, but also often arrives at what seem like basic truths about the work that have gone unnoticed, or maybe just unspoken, in a way everyone seems to feel comfortable laughing about, maybe even relieved to hear.

The stakes are high for a Segue introduction. That audience has been hearing performative, theoretically informed introductions for thirty years. Sherry says of this, "Segue introductions verge on independent literary works. I have supported that approach in the years that I have been responsible for the series." In a scene that takes the introduction seriously as a form, getting a complex and original audience reaction, as Kaplan's introductions have, suggests not only an intervention in the form but an interventon in the scene.

from FIona Templeton production of Flow – Winged Crocodile

Goya's L.A., New Langton Arts, San Francisco, CA, February 26, 1995

  • Leslie Scalapino, Text
  • Carla Harryman, Director
  • Amy Tratchenberg , Artistic Director
  • Larry Ochs, Musician/Composer
  • Mikio Hirata, Michelle Rollman, Rebecca Levi, Pamela Norris, Actors

  • Reading at Bard College, 1998