I AM GRATIFIED that, by and large, these eight responses concur with my dismay about current editorial and reading-for-authenticity practices. There seems to be consensus on the notion that, as Stephen Owen puts it, to achieve a “multiculuralism that is something more than a consumerism that seeks easy variations on the familiar . . . we must posit a work of art or text that has value in a truly unfamiliar system.”
But Owen is the first to admit just how difficult this is: “Values are . . . based on exclusions; and how does the newly ‘opened’ reader decide on which works offer such lessons on new ways of understanding poetic value?” There is no easy answer. Charles Simic, rightly to my mind, deplores the “unspoken literary scandal” of our time which, in his words, is “the near-total ignorance by our writers, editors and academics of literature being written elsewhere in the world,” and Greg Glazner and Jon Davis argue that poetry should be judged only on the ground of “excellence,” not cultural construction. But when Juliana Chang and her fellow Asian-Americans deplore Johnson’s “act of yellowface,” his playing into “existing orientalist fantasy,” and his “critique against the experimental writing community into which the author seeks to ingratiate himself,” they are talking less of the poetic product than of the poet’s motive—a move that shows that, whether or not we agree with their harsh dismissal of “Yasusada,” one can never simply separate poetic “excellence” from the contexts in which claims for that “excellence” are made.
Indeed, the biggest area of disagreement among the respondents has to do with the question of value. John Bradley, himself the editor of poetry collection titled Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age, takes “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang” to be “simply one of the most moving and revealing poems ever written on the effects of the Bomb.” Simic, on the other hand, finds Johnson’s poetry entirely unremarkable. Hosea Hirata argues that “Hiroshima is not merely an improbable but impossible site for poetry,” so that obviously these Hiroshima poems must be specious, whereas the only respondent who was one of Yasusada’s editors, Arthur Vogelsang, evidently sticks by his original positive judgment, since he wittily insists that there was no way for anyone to smell a rat, and ergo, that the only reason I was able to smell it is that I myself was the perpetrator of the hoax!
The only way to deal with the issue of quality is to discuss specific cases-which is what I tried to do. It was and is my contention that Johnson’s “imitations” are generally highly skillful and impressive. What remains problematic-and none of the respondents really address this issue-is who is “allowed” to speak about Hiroshima? A number of colleagues and friends have suggested to me in conversation that they take certain tragic events—Hiroshima, the Holocaust—to be ipso facto beyond the limits of fictional impersonation. But where do we draw the line? Can a young male college student write the “memoir” of an old woman dying from cancer, or would this too be inadmissible? My own sense is that to establish “don’ts” for “hoaxes” takes us into very muddy water. For consider the following simple questions. Would we have accepted Schindler’s List (to me, a vulgar travesty of Holocaust materials), if Steven Spielberg were not known to be Jewish? And analogously, wouldn’t “Yasusada” be less reprehensible to Juliana Chang and her colleagues if his inventor had turned out to be a Japanese-American?
If the answer to both questions is yes, Eliot Weinberger may be right to declare that “we are approaching the condition where We Are All Yasusada.”