An Unusual Flowering: Complexities of the Araki Yasusada Hoax
Hoaxes have long been a part of the literary tradition. As far back as the publication of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, there was “The Tale of Gamelyn,” which was included in an early manuscript of the Tales by an unknown scribe. That tale, not written by Chaucer, ended up in twenty-five of the eighty-three manuscripts that are still around today. In the late eighteenth century, a poet named James MacPherson had printed a six volume epic supposedly translated from Ossian, which was more likely his own work, and more recently the Spectra and Ern Malley hoaxes have garnered a good deal of attention (Warner 58). Taking the stage in the last decade is a new hoax perpetrated by Kent Johnson that has been successful in more diverse ways than many hoaxes have been in the past.
Araki Yasusada, according to his biography, was born in 1907 in Kyoto, and was a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. His wife and youngest daughter Chieko were not so lucky. His older daughter Akiko did live, but would die within less than four years from radiation sickness. Yasusada’s son Yasunari fortunately was with relatives outside the city at the time; however, Yasusada himself died in 1972 after many years of fighting with cancer. We also know that Yasusada studied Western literature at Hiroshima University and that when times became tough he worked in the postal service to support his family (Perloff 148). His story becomes more interesting when we learn that he was involved in avant-garde poetry groups and an experimental renga cycle; he “discovered” Jack Spicer and Roland Barthes, as well as the Holocaust survivor and poet Paul Celan, and he was in turn influenced by them (Perloff 149). After his death, Yasusada’s son discovered his notebooks of poetry, previously unpublished, and with the help of several translators, the poetry started getting published in literary magazines in the mid-1990s (Nussbaum 83-84). Aside from that final detail about poetry attributed to Yasusada being published in literary magazines and journals, none of what has just been described is true.
There never was a Hiroshima survivor named Araki Yasusada, let alone one with the strange and intriguing history of the character that has just been described. The most likely author of the poetry is in fact Kent Johnson, a Spanish teacher at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois (Vogelsang). Of course Johnson initially responded to these accusations with a clever disclaimer: “It is still inadequately explained how a community college Spanish teacher with little poetic talent could have produced work that caused fairly unbridled admiration amongst such a range of well-placed arbiters in the world of poetry” (Warner 62). Johnson has since then attributed the poetry to one of the translators, Tosa Motokiyu, who supposedly was a roommate of Johnson’s that wanted to be able to create anonymously, which is why Johnson will supposedly still not reveal Motokiyu’s real name; although, Johnson has stated that the man who used the pseudonym has passed away (Nussbaum 83). Johnson has also used other forms of misinformation to develop this fog of war: “Several editors told Lingua Franca that Johnson had confided to them (under duress or as a slip) who the real author of the work was. Alas, each of Johnson’s answers was different” (Nussbaum 82). Still, stronger evidence has made Johnson’s attempts at denying authorship nigh impossible: “Johnson has published several poems of his own that were written in the voice of a Hiroshima survivor … under the title ‘From the Daybrook of Oshimora Okiyaki”; many of the same verses show up in the Yasusada manuscripts in altered form” (Nussbaum 82-83). Johnson’s response was that Motokiyu requested the selections be included in the Yasusada manuscript (Nussbaum 83). There is little doubt at this point in time that Kent Johnson is largely responsible for the Yasusada poetry and the hoax developed around it.
In spite of all this, Kent Johnson still refuses to admit to the hoax as his own work, which is problematic regarding the hoax’s success. Typically, a hoax like this one will focus on some aspect or theory in contemporary literary society that the author finds questionable. The Ern Malley hoax is a prime example of this. Rebecca Warner sums up the affair effectively: “James McCauley and Harold Stewart wrote, in one afternoon, 16 poems in which their primary rule was that no two consecutive lines make sense. Their target was what they considered the incoherence of modern poetry and the associative methods that produced it” (58-59). Once the poems they produced went into publication, they came out in a magazine supplement called Fact, and proclaimed that the poetry was without “literary merit … [and] they [the poems] were utterly meaningless” (Warner 60). This made a strong statement about the status of the literary world and raised questions about contemporary critical thought. The hoax had an objective, and it was met by putting the Ern Malley poetry into publication and then letting everyone know what had really been behind the creation of said poetry. The coming-out statement revealed a truth about a problem arising in the literary world, or at least it sparked debate about the possibility of such a problem. By not having a coming-out or revelatory statement, Kent Johnson seems to have missed his chance to clarify the purpose of his hoax and what it represented or achieved by finding its way into publication while simultaneously tricking so many noteworthy critics.
However, by not offering an epiphany to the Yasusada issue and not bringing focus to the debate surrounding it, discussion has opened up in numerous ways that address a variety of topics that could be seen as unexplored territories of contemporary poetry. For instance, many issues have been raised about the ethical issues involved when a person imitates a survivor of a traumatic event like the Hiroshima bombing. Many articles are content to simply say that Wesleyan Press, who originally planned to publish the first Yasusada book, realizing that the poetry was a hoax, dropped their plans to put the work into print, but the critic Emily Nussbaum has done a little more digging than that: “Wesleyan Press poetry editor Suzanna Tamminin … says she ‘absolutely loved’ the work when she received it, but when Johnson began to hint that Yasusada didn’t exist, she rejected the … manuscript, concerned about the ethical issues involved” (84). And this has been a major issue ever since Johnson’s invention was uncovered. Margaret Soltan in her article “Bicameral Mind” demonstrates just how severe she thinks the situation is:
But let me be clear: Kent Johnson has hurt, angered, and embarrassed many people; he has distorted a complex, sensitive, and important historical record by pretending to have experienced personally that which he did not experience; he has furthered the degradation of modern poetry into victim pathography; he has, through his success, and through the subsequent attention he has received, encouraged other pranksters to contrive their own pseudo-victims; he has permanently destroyed his credibility as a writer and the reputation of a number of editorial boards; and he has volitionally placed his work among a rapidly proliferating body of similarly destructive fraudulent work in the world at large. (222)
While this may be an extreme view, Soltan is not alone in trying to raise an answer questions about the ethics of what Kent Johnson has done. Critic Bill Freind takes a more investigative approach, begging to answer questions regarding “the essential difficulties of defining what constitutes both a witness poem and a witness poet” (147). In an age where survivor poetry is effectively its own entity, these are important questions to ask that are now being asked because of the Yasusada hoax.
Furthermore, the range of discussion regarding Yasusada does not end with ethics. Where some have concerned themselves with this issue of ethics, others have chosen to address the matter of how Japan itself is represented in the work. Another hoax artist, David Dwyer, “wrote … a series of poems in the persona of an older woman … [and] submitted the poems to the feminist journal Aphra … [which] ended up publishing two poems” (Nussbaum 84). In a similar way, the poetry community bought into Johnson’s representation of Japan and contemporary Japanese poetry. Several individuals have found this issue to be one of the more compelling points of the work: “The fact that this writing was able to fool a substantial number of readers, critics, and editors is now a compelling part of the work” (Friend 148). John Solt, a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College, has been quoted numerous times as saying, “This [the Yasusada poetry] is just Japanized crap” (Nussbaum 83). Again, an interesting topic comes into the circle of popular debate, thanks in part to Kent Johnson’s hoax. Perloff has put her own spin on it, focusing on the “neglect of contemporary Japanese poetry” and suggesting that “postmodern Japan is too close to our own advanced capitalist world” for us to appreciate the way Japan is today (157). The matter of outdated international perceptions is something often addressed socially—people in Germany, for example, do not secretly have Nazi agendas, nor are they any more violent than any other group of people—but it is an issue that has not been discussed significantly in current poetic culture.
And yet, the variety of debate surrounding Araki Yasusada and his notebooks has called into question further issues than just poetic ethics and cultural perceptions. Rebecca Warner has taken this opportunity to investigate what the hoax says about Michel Foucault’s “concept of the ‘authorless’ text,” as has Marjorie Perloff (Warner 62). As the earlier quotation from Soltan pointed out, the hoax has also called into question the reliability “and the reputation of a number of editorial boards” (222). All these issues have been called into question and addressed in some way by the Yasusada hoax. By not having a formal statement the Yasusada hoax allows debaters to congregate around it. While there are those like Vogelsang, editor of the American Poetry Review which had a special edition for Araki Yasusada, who dismiss the hoax as a whole, there are far more people brought in from a variety of specific backgrounds. On the surface, the Yasusada hoax appears problematic, but it is actually very carefully and effectively orchestrated in this regard. Due to its methods, the hoax is a kind of absolute around which speculation develops and branches off. Johnson has had a more diverse ripple effect than the perpetrators of the majority of other hoaxes.
The hoax also avoids a certain possibility of backfiring. Looking back on the Spectra hoax again, although the idea was well-constructed and seemed to be effectively executed, it in fact somewhat collapsed in on itself. People who bought into the hoax maintained that the poetry it produced was still of high quality, and that “the joke was on the hoaxers for writing ‘fake’ poetry that was better than their serious work” (Warner 58). Kent Johnson refers to the Yasusada poetry as good, but he does so while reminding critics that it was other respectable persons who originally said so. The poet Ron Silliman for example has been quotes as saying, “These works kept me up last night and probably will again for another night or three. I recommend them highly” (Perloff 149). By utilizing this initial praise of others, Johnson avoids having himself called out on the quality of the poetry. What might have otherwise been a sticking point, this is readily resolved thanks to the early success of the work in literary magazines and journals. Many agree that Marjorie Parloff said it best, “If [editors] thought it was good writing, they should still think it was good writing” (Warner 61). And since Johnson has not provided a singular means of discussing the hoax, the poetry does not need to be of poor quality for the questions that are raised to be valid for debate. Instead, the consideration that this hoax includes good poetry makes the hoax harder to dismiss as simply unethical or a cruel joke on poetic society. The work has merit besides its value as a hoax, which in this case only strengthens it as a whole. Again, by avoiding some of the norms of hoax creation, Kent Johnson has made a superior hybrid.
One way in which the Yasusada hoax excels is in how it appeals to an American audience. Hoaxes need to get noticed in order to spread so that when they are revealed to be some sort of falsehood, they already have people’s attention. The success of a hoax hinges on having an audience and holding that audience’s attention. The perpetrators of the Ern Malley hoax, mentioned earlier, knew this as well. They created the classic poet who suffered for his art and died young, but they also made their character, who the hoax is named for, Australian, so that the work would be published by Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins; as Warner puts it this was effective because Harris was looking for “native Australian genius”:
“Australian poetry was floundering beneath the shadow of English and American modernists, and nationalism was running high, which created a demand for ‘authentic,’ i.e. unimported, Australian poetry which would still be sophisticated enough to be recognized overseas” (59).
The hoax not only appealed to what kind of poetry would be popular, which the hoax was set on showing the problems with, but it also had found a useful audience to start with. By getting an issue of Angry Penguins focused on Ern Malley as the Australian genius the hoax got people talking, which is exactly what a hoax needs to spread. Araki Yasusada is similarly a character with whom people can sympathize with. He suffered a great tragedy and through no fault of his own. He was a postman in the military—not even a soldier—and he was conscripted, so it was not even his choice. Not only that, but Yasusada was a survivor. America loves the man who overcomes what seems insurmountable, in this case the bomb drop and the loss of one’s family. Survivors represent some innate quality of perseverance like Rocky Balboa and his fighter’s heart or General Patton and his indomitable will—while these two examples are not traditional survivors, they share qualities that contemporary American culture believes survivors to have that are so respectable. In addition, Yasusada had an ongoing life’s struggle with cancer—the classic battle between the poet and a troubled existence in which he tries to find beauty, even though he knows the conflict in himself will eventually claim his life. Araki Yasusada is an incredible work of poetry in this regard, and it was no mistake that Kent Johnson molded him this way. This highly admirable figure was a directly effective way for Johnson to get the work published as a sort of Japanese Ern Malley, and for readers the biography tapped into a strong cultural concept that made Yasusada a type of hero.
Kent Johnson’s attention to his audience extends beyond just the character of Araki Yasusada into the actual poetry as well. John Solt can call the poetry “Japanized crap,” but most people would never notice, as is apparent since most people did not (Nussbaum 83). While Perloff, Warner, and others have observed these devices in the first book, they are also abundant in the second book, Also, With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English. For example, we can clearly see the reflexive, all-encompassing Zen ideology being portrayed:
It is one thing to think of mind, to think of it thinking about its own thinking. Because the mind is inside the body, and the body, which shall die, is inside the mind and thus inside the body it thinks it is thinking. This is not to be cute, Dick. Think hard. There I am. (24)
And we also see the elements that utilize traditional Japanese nature imagery in traditional haiku and other models, rather than contemporary imagery of modern cities with skyscrapers and bustling people, etcetera: “writing this / the dandelions ache / in my fingers” or “1. It is natural, like sky, to be sad. / 2. Shinto priests have rhymy [sic] or pointy hats which prick the clouds” (36, 23). Even throughout the second book, Johnson utilizes the concept of the strange and foreign east to entrance his readers, in spite of contemporary Japanese poetry conventions and methods of writing. Johnson did not need to be accurate to be convincing, and what he needed more than accuracy were the words that would open themselves effectively to an American audience. The trick was not to write bad poetry as a commentary but to write good poetry that could spark just as much debate. This careful attention to the reading public and the sometimes not as public poetic culture has made the Yasusada poetry a lasting hoax that will surely be remembered as time goes on.
Earlier, it was mentioned that hoaxes typically have a dramatic reveal or a formal statement that clarifies that a hoax has been perpetrated and what that means. While Yasusada does not take such a conventional route as coming out and saying what it is supposed to mean, it does take care to get noticed. Intentional mistakes were made, especially in the Araki Yasusada biography, so that sooner or later the hoax would be found out. Although various works, along with the biography, all found their way into publication through such notable establishments as Grand Street, Conjunctions, First Intensity, Stand, The American Poetry Review, and the Abiko Quarterly in Japan, there were in fact clues that made certain that the hoax had to come to light (Roof Books). Some of the more notable instances include that in Yasusada’s biography he is said to have attended Hiroshima University as early has 1925 when the university was not founded until 1949, and somehow Yasusada read Roland Barthes’ The Empire of Signs in 1967—three years before its first publication, which was in French (Perloff 150). Other inconsistencies abound, but surely these two in particular would have been easy to catch with a little date-checking. The public statement of a hoax and its meaning, as mentioned earlier, does not occur with Yasusada; however, the hoax did not fail to realize that it would need to at least be discovered via some other means. Kent Johnson had prepared his text to be found out as false, avoiding his hoax falling by the wayside. Again, we see the evidence of a brilliantly constructed, and in many ways new, kind of hoax.
Whether it is the diversity of the issues that have been addressed in its name, or the attention to its audience, or the careful way in which it reveals itself so that it can maintain its open forum format, the Yasusada hoax has proven to be one of the most effective hoaxes in modern history if not literary history altogether. The needs of a hoax are taken into account by getting it circulated, gaining an audience, and then having it revealed for what it is, while new elements are introduced, such as a lack of a public statement regarding the “false” text’s meaning, that allow for a greater ripple effect. Marjorie Perloff wrote that she “believe[s] similar inventions will occur with increasing frequency as we move toward the millennium” (164). We have reached the millennium and gone beyond, and although discussion lacks its initial fervor, people are still talking about the Yasusada hoax. Unlike James MacPherson, Ern Malley, or Spectra, it appears as though Yasusada will be more than a footnote occasionally referenced in hoax theory and history. It will remain a point of debate regarding any of the diverse issues it has been seen to address, and undoubtedly serve as a model for literary hoaxes in the future.
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Motokiyu, Tosa. Also, With My Throat, I Shall Swallow Ten Thousand Swords: Araki Yasusada’s Letters in English. Ed. Johnson, Kent and Javier Alvarez. Canada: Combo Books, 2005.
Motokiyu, Tosa. Double Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada. Ed. Johnson, Kent and Javier Alvarez. Roof Books, 1997.
Nussbaum, Emily. “Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax.” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 6.7 (1996 Nov): 82-84. MLA International Bibliography. Ames Lib. 12 Apr 2008 .
Perloff, Marjorie. “In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada.” Marjorie Perloff Home Page. 1998. Electronic Poetry Center. 12 Apr 2008 .
Soltan, Margaret. “The Bicameral Mind: Response to Bill Freind’s ‘Just Hoaxing’.” Angelaki 6.3 (2001): 221-24. MLA International Bibliography. Ames Lib. 31 Mar 2008 .
Vogelsang, Arthur. “Dear Editor.” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum. 2005. Boston Review. 15 Apr 2008 .
Warner, Rebecca. “’Imp of Verbal Darkness’: Poetry Hoaxes and the Postmodern Politic.” The Writer’s Chronicle. Dec. 2003: 58-66.
The arguments made in this paper were presented at the 2008 MUSE Language Arts Conference held at Illinois Wesleyan University.