“To the memory of Joe Brainard” reads the dedication to Kent Johnson‘s new book, I Once Met: A Partial Memoir of the Poetry Field. A revised and expanded version of a limited-edition chapbook of the same title that Johnson published in 2007, the book is an unusual homage to the form and tone of Brainard’s great book I Remember. Instead of Brainard’s device of gathering a long litany of memories each prompted by the phrase “I remember,” Johnson offers a series of anecdotes detailing his encounters with other poets that each begin “I once met.” (Johnson has paid homage to the New York School poets in a number of earlier works as well). In addition to Brainard, Johnson’s project also recalls the “I Met” series created by the conceptual artist On Kawara, which obsessively documented the names of every person he encountered each day.
I Once Met, published by Longhouse, a small press in Vermont, is a beautiful-looking book that mixes surprising and unusual photographs with prose passages in a handsome and elegant format. Each passage relates a tale involving a different poet that Johnson (supposedly) encountered at some point — a long roster that includes Allen Ginsberg, David Shapiro, Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Diane Wakoski, Robert Duncan, Joan Retallack, Amiri Baraka, Ben Lerner, and Vanessa Place — along with meditations on several poets he has never met, including John Ashbery, Philip Whalen, and David Antin.
By turns gossipy, cutting, ironic, and self-deprecating, the book eventually becomes a kind of mosaic autobiography of a literary gadfly, one who has hovered, bemused, enraged, and inspired, on the margins of the poetry world for many years. It circles around a number of central themes, including the nature of literary community and friendship, rivalry, envy, disappointment, and the strangeness and absurdity of our lives and relationships.
Given his other work, it is not surprising that Johnson is especially interested in poetry as a cultural field that is filled with competition, posturing, back-stabbing, hypocrisy, and venality, along with occasional flashes of generosity and creative spark. It is also charming and funny, much like Brainard’s I Remember, unsettling and discomforting, and altogether sui generis.
I should add that I Once Met is playful and slippery, like all of Johnson’s work, and there is no way of knowing for certain whether the anecdotes in the book — some of which are sure to annoy those who are “implicated” in them — are “true” or “really happened.” But examining the fictive and constructed nature of both our memories and the social dynamics of the poetic field seem to be part of the book’s point to begin with. In an “Author’s Comment” at the start of the book, Johnson does add a disclaimer:
I have tried my best to be true to the experiences represented here. In a few instances, where my memory has flagged, or where the poetic license seemed to proffer — in spirit of Picasso’s famous maxim about art, lies, and truth — a deepening of the genuine, I have, in the venerable traditions of that non-existent genre called “non-fiction,” not-so-secretly embellished. Anyone I have here implicated is free, of course, to amend or deny the renderings of my reminiscences. I stand by every word.
In any event, here are a few sample passages from the book:
I once met the amazing poet C.D. Wright. This was in Disney World. We’d gone there on vacation with her and Forrest Gander and their son, we being me, my wife Deb, and our two boys. The three kids were eleven, nine, and thirteen, and they were each a loaded automatic pistol looking for trouble. It was horribly hot and this was the third day. We sat down for coolness in the shade of a plastic tree near the Giant Spinning Cups of Tea, or whatever they are called. Oh, please someone just goddamn shoot me, said C.D., in her Appalachian drawl … I have a photo of her right after she said this, and she doesn’t appear to be kidding. Minnie Mouse and Goofy are standing behind her, waving.
I’ve never met the great poet John Ashbery, but I feel like I have. Automobiles go by in the night. And somewhere, huge wooden machines stand at attention in a gentle, foggy field, on the hidden side of a mountain, in a cheap velvet painting, it all akimbo and askew, yet somehow still hanging there, on half a wall, in some bombed out slum, on the outskirts of Beirut.
I’ve nevet met the famed poet Ron Padgett, but I almost did. I raised my fist before his door and paused. There were cicadas screaming to death in the rich summer trees. Why ruin it, I said, and walked away.
I once met the genius poet John Beer. This was in Chicago, at Danny’s Bar. He had a t-shirt with the John Deere design that said ‘John Beer.’ I laughed and he laughed, too. What a delightful fellow. Ha, ha, I said. Excuse me, John, while visit the john. Ha, ha, said John. You go, boy. Mark Yakich was funny that night, but I think I got the most response. Then again, shortly after I’d finished reading, I noticed that my fly was undone.
I once met Eliot Weinberger. We walked around Iowa City, talking. I liked him, he was well structured and constructed. I think we talked about China and Pound and also about James Laughlin and Samuel Beckett and things like that. A woman approached… Quick, get the fuck behind the car, said Eliot. We did and hid there, crouching. It was Jorie Graham, followed by a train of forty students.
I’ve never met the sublime poet Philip Whalen. I never will, of course, not in the body, in any case. After he died, I’ve heard, his robed corpse was laid out in the meditation hall for three days, as is the tradition when a roshi dies. And because it was summer and it was very hot, they put bags of frozen raspberries under his back and buttocks and legs. I always thought that was a beautiful touch, and so had my mother, for I told her about it, once, when we were walking by a river … Anyway, to get to my story, for life is strange, I did once call him on the phone to ask that he write an essay for a book I was editing. This was many years ago. No, No, No, he growled, The last thing I’m going to do is write an essay on the relationship between Zen and poetry. I mean, what makes you think either one even exists? I mean, give me a break. Goodbye. Click.