Friday, April 14, 2017

Michael Leong, Towards a Disorientalist Poetics

(for Juliana Chang, Walter K. Lew, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, and John Yau)

trans. To turn from the east; to cause to ‘lose one’s bearings’; to put out, disconcert, embarrass.”
Oxford English Dictionary


“Disorientations,” my long poem in progress, collages together and so “disorients” two postmodern Orientalist texts: Kent Johnson’s Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada and Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs (translated into English by Richard Howard).

Part travel writing and part semiotic treatise, Empire of Signs (1970/1982) is a collection of short essays on characteristically “Japanese” topics such as tempura, haiku, Zen, and bunraku puppets. Though Barthes had, in fact, traveled to Japan on numerous occasions in the late 1960s, he insists in the book’s introductory essay that he is imagining “a fictive nation,” a “system” called “Japan.” This opening gambit—ceci n’est pas Japan—is a clever methodological ploy giving Barthes free reign to dismantle Western systems of signification while simultaneously claiming he is “not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence.” Barthes’ Japan, then, is a resolutely post-structural one: it is a place of pure surface and radical difference. The hot pot dish sukiyaki is, for example, “food decentered.” The city of Tokyo is “an ideogram” with an empty center. In haiku, “what is designated is the very inanity of any classification of the object.” And in “The Eyelid,” perhaps the most objectionable piece of the book, Barthes advances a post-structural and racialized physiognomy. He contrasts the double-fold eyelids of the Western face—whose meaning is conditioned by a metaphysics of depth—with a “Japanese face…without moral hierarchy.” “‘[L]ife’ is not in the light of the eyes,” observes Barthes, “it is in the non-secret relation of a surface and its slits.”

There is some critical debate regarding the extent of Barthes’ Orientalism. For Lisa Lowe, Barthes—while attempting to reject a kind of fin-de-siècle japonisme—is “still caught with the binary logic he seeks to avoid”: “Japan is continually described with reference to the Occident, solely in terms of what the Occident is not.” According to Joanne P. Sharp, Empire of Signs is “hyper-Orientalist,” a “pushing [of] Orientalism to its limits.” Whether Orientalist, hyper-Orientalist, or meta-Orientalist, Barthes’ book is unquestionably animated by an exoticist desire. When he visited communist China with the Tel Quel group in 1974, he found the country, by contrast, to be “not at all exotic, not at all disorienting.”

In my long poem, I aim—through the appropriation and parody of his very language—to give Barthes the referential disorientation he sought. It was Barthes, after all, who, in “Digressions,” gave us an exhortation to “cheat, steal, refine, parody, [and] counterfeit.”

“Disorientations” is counterfeit semiotics.


The Yasusada poems constituted one of the most controversial literary scandals in the U.S. poetry world in recent decades. The story is, by now, familiar: In the mid-1990s, poems by “Araki Yasusada” started to appear in prominent Anglophone literary journals—from Grand Street to Stand to American Poetry Review. Apparently written by an avant-garde Japanese poet who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, the poems—supposedly discovered in 1980 and translated by a team of Japanese scholars—made an impact on U.S. readers, who were immediately taken by their intermixture of traumatic content and innovative approach. In ironic, surreal, and disjunctive modes, many of Yasusada’s poems mourned deceased family members, who either died in the blast (such as his wife) or succumbed to radiation sickness (such as his eldest daughter). Yasusada seemed to have offered a remarkable case study in cross-cultural syncretism, an intriguing fusion of Eastern and Western poetics. According to his translators’ introduction in APR, “the writing found in Yasusada’s manuscripts is fascinating for its biographical disclosure, formal diversity, and linguistic elan. Much of the experimental impetus, interestingly, comes from Yasusada’s encounter in the mid-1960’s with the poetry of the American Jack Spicer and the essays of the French critic Roland Barthes.” The combination proved to be irresistible. Ron Silliman, who read Yasusada’s poetry in the 1994 issue of Conjunctions (dedicated to “New World Writing”), wrote on the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, “These works kept me up last night and probably will again for another night or three. I recommend them highly.”

In 1996, news broke that “Yasusada,” from his biography to his body of work, was a complete fabrication—prompting a swift denunciation of the hoax. In Emily Nussbaum’s widely-read Lingua Franca article “Turning Japanese,” she quotes several journal editors, who had published the Yasusada materials but had since variously considered the project to be “essentially a criminal act” (Arthur Vogelsang of APR); “just plain ugly and selfish … [and] particularly conceited and cynical” (Lee Chapman of First Intensity); and “coy, self-satisfied, [and] glib” (Bradford Morrow of Conjunctions).

APR issued an apology to its readers:
We regret the publication of “Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada” in our July/August issue. Neither “Araki Yasusada,” nor the three names identified as translators, “Tosa Motokiyu,” “Okura Kyojin,” and “Ojiu Norinaga” are actual persons. The facts in the note “Introducing Araki Yasusada,” as well as the portrait of “Yasusada” are a hoax. All the materials came to us from Kent Johnson of Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois […].
Dropped by Wesleyan University Press (who had considered taking on the project), the collection of poems, letters, and drafts by “Yasusada” was published by Roof Books in 1997, a year that saw intense debate about the ethical, political, and aesthetic issues surrounding the hoax.

In “In Search of the Authentic Other,” an essay from the Spring 1997 Boston Review, Marjorie Perloff opined that “Kent Johnson has […] performed an invaluable service” in authoring Doubled Flowering despite admitting that its “mode is […] Orientalism, ‘that Western style,’ in Edward Said’s words, ‘for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’”

In the BR’s Summer 1997 issue, Juliana Chang, Walter K. Lew, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, and John Yau issued a statement entitled “Displacements” responding to Perloff’s essay, calling the figure of “Yasusada” “an archetype of readily assimilable difference.” For them, Johnson’s Doubled Flowering was “doubly disturbing: he wants the taint of scandal without having to take responsibility for the stereotypes he celebrates.” In responding to this response, Perloff writes:
when Juliana Chang and her fellow Asian-Americans deplore Johnson’s “act of yellowface,” his playing into “existing orientalist fantasy,” […] they are talking less of the poetic product than of the poet’s motivea 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.
In “Disorientations,” I suggest that “poetic product” and “motive” are inextricably intertwined and, thus, intend to critique the “excellence” of the Yasusada poems, in the first place, on aesthetic grounds, which are, of course, always already political and racialized in various ways.

Writing appreciatively about Johnson’s Doubled Flowering, Perloff uses the word “surreal” three times in “In Search of the Authentic Other.” She quotes, for example, the entirety of one of Yasusada’s most well-known poems “Mad Daughter and Big-Bang,” which begins:
Walking in the vegetable patch
late at night, I was startled to find
the severed head of my
mad daughter lying on the ground.
“One would be hard put,” Perloff goes on to say, “to find actual Hiroshima witness poems […] that are characterized by such irony and restraint, such self-consciously surreal, oblique images.”

The aesthetic wager of “Disorientations” is that Doubled Flowering wasn’t surreal enough, that it didn’t sufficiently register the obliquity, the surreality of the “actual.”


Late 1990s discussions of Doubled Flowering such as Perloff’s often, and not surprisingly, invoked Said. In “Can I Get a Witness?” Eliot Weinberger, for example, dismisses the relevance of Said in order to counter the critique that Doubled Flowering was a problematic act of yellowface: “In the political debate, Edward Said’s Orientalism was inevitably cited […] But […] [w]hen one reaches 20th century Japan, a First World imperialist nation, Said’s book hardly applies at all. The Yasusada Author, even if a white American male, is no more an agent of colonialism than a Japanese country and western singer.”

Weinberger’s insistence on the context of imperial Japan—surely an important topic—is a smokescreen. If he claims historical specificity on the one hand (“20th century Japan, a First World imperialist nation”), on the other, he conflates and de-historicizes discrete acts of appropriation and cultural borrowing that necessarily involve asymmetrical dynamics of power (“The Yasusada Author, even if a white American male, is no more an agent of colonialism than a Japanese country and western singer.”) Weinberger is suggesting that a “political” critique of Doubled Flowering is mutually exclusive with a rigorous accounting of Japanese imperialism in the early twentieth century. One could look to Lew, one of the Asian American signers of “Displacements,” to appreciate that one can take seriously both the disingenuous use of yellowface in the U.S. and the Japanese annexation of Korea without the ideological contradiction Weinberger seems to be tendentiously implying: Lew’s first book Excerpts from: ∆IKTH 딕테/딕티 DIKTE, for Dictee (1982) (1992), a self-described “critical collage,” takes up, in kaleidoscopic fashion, representations of anti-colonial martyrs An Chung-gŭn, who assassinated former Prime Minister and Japanese Resident-General of Korea Ito Hirobumi in 1909, and Yu Kwan-sun, who was imprisoned by Japanese officers in 1919 during the so-called March First Movement for independence. Yu, of course, prominently figures in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982)—the pioneering multimedia book to which Lew pays homage. Lew treats An and Yu in sophisticated ways that put pressure on complex issues of nationalism, religion, gender, and iconicity without resorting to the kind of caricatured thinking promoted by Weinberger.

The history of Japanese empire in Asian American diasporic poetry goes well beyond the scope of this essay; besides Cha and Lew, one can engage with other relevant writers such as Myung Mi Kim and Don Mee Choi. My point here is that Weinberger ignores the real and agonistic stakes of the culture and canon wars in the U.S., a context in which Doubled Flowering surely attempted to intervene. Weinberger’s fictitious “Japanese country and western singer” is joined by a Chiapian woman as yet another decoy to divert attention away from the crucial nexus of whiteness, privilege, and appropriation:
The political reading [of Doubled Flowering] was based on the assumption that the author was a white American male, and thus the poems were a cruel, racist, imperialist joke. This in turn was based on the assumption that anyone who is not a white Euromale wants to speak only in an “authentic” voice. It was inconceivable that the Yasusada Author could be a young woman in Chiapas.
There is a curious reasoning to Weinberger’s dismissal of what he calls a “political reading,” a casting of doubt on what is true yoked to an assertion of what is not. While the first assumption he posits is fact—Johnson, Doubled Flowering’s author, is “a white American male”—the second assumption relies on an erroneous straw man argument. The Asian American critique of Johnson isn’t at all dependent upon authenticity of voice as a desideratum. Lew’s Excerpts from: ∆IKTH, an assemblage of citations and found texts, is aggressively graphocentric. And Yau, another signer of “Displacements,” has inhabited a range of inauthentic voices as a potent poetic strategy. Yau’s Peter Lorre sequence in Forbidden Entries (1996), for example, are comprised of persona poems in the voice of the white actor who represented the Japanese character Mr. Moto throughout the 1930s.

Even worse, Weinberger’s manufacturing of (seemingly interchangeable) non-white subject positions is a repetition in miniature of Johnson’s dissembling projection of otherness. In a shorter version of “Can I Get a Witness?” the young woman—tellingly—is from Senegal, not Chiapas: “The identity of the Yasusada Author has become so refracted that we are approaching the condition where We Are All Yasusada--though I prefer to think of the author as a young woman in Senegal.” To blithely say “We Are All Yasusada,” that the author no longer matters, is to erase any sense of cultural specificity and to discount the uneven power dynamics that continue to inhere within literary establishments.

Charles Bernstein asserts that Doubled Flowering can be understood as “the apotheosis of the poetics of resentment in the 1990s—resentment against the apparent new entitlements to those often invisible or inaudible in previous representations of contemporary literature; resentment, that is, against feminism, gay rights, and multiculturalism as arbiters of literary taste.” In this sense, one can argue that Johnson was positioning Doubled Flowering as if he were in a subordinate position, as if multiculturalism, as the new literary criterion, were hegemonic.

It would be a useful thought experiment to read Doubled Flowering not through Said’s groundbreaking concept of Orientalism but through what Homi K. Bhabha calls “mimicry.” Though the context of Bhabha’s “Of Mimicry and Man”—the chapter from his 1994 book The Location of Culture—is British colonialism, his theorization of mimicry can also be useful in thinking about identity and difference, minority and hegemony in the contested space of U.S. literary culture at the end of the long twentieth century. Mimicry is, as Bhabha describes it, a colonial strategy of control and discipline, a colonial wish for the colonized to mimic the colonizers. Johnson’s desire to produce Doubled Flowering—his aping of a minority writer—resembles the desire Bhabha attributes to mimicry: “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” Johnson’s production of Yasusada as “reformed, recognizable Other” is precisely why Chang, Lew, Lin, Tabios, and Yau found the figure of “Yasusada” to be, in an objectionable fashion, “an archetype of readily assimilable difference.” Yasusada is like us—he’s read Spicer and Barthes, after all—yet he’s different enough in desirable ways. The same, but not quite.

For Bhabha, “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace”: “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.” The impartial representations of mimicry can give way to a subversive mocking, an undermining or destabilizing of the colonial discourses in power. The mimicry of Johnson’s book, then, risks mocking the invisible and inaudible writers without the benefits of white privilege even if it also mocks—in a salutary way—the literary establishment’s fetishistic desire for exotic writing. This is nothing other than a shirking of the “responsibility” of which Chang, Lew, Lin, Tabios, and Yau speak.

Bernstein’s word “resentment” is, to be sure, a strong term, but the resentment he identifies in Doubled Flowering unmistakably tinges the book’s afterword, a text entitled “A Few Words on Araki Yasusada and Tosa Motokiyu” (supposedly co-authored by Johnson and a “Javier Alvarez”): “it has been the common assumption for some time in the poetry world that Johnson is the ‘culprit’ of the Yasusada imbroglio, though 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.” Johnson’s rhetorical auto-meiosis or self-diminishment—“a community college Spanish teacher with little poetic talent”—betrays a sense of victimization, a felt antagonism between a white, or deracialized, understanding of “poetic excellence”—the awkward phrase “fairly unbridled” shows the meiosis was sarcastic, after all—and the rise of ethnic writers and U.S. multiculturalism.


References to the Yasusada affair cropped up again in 2015, after Michael Derrick Hudson, a white writer included in The Best American Poetry 2015 anthology, admitted to appropriating the pen name “Yi-Fen Chou” “[a]s a strategy for ‘placing’ poems.” The Hudson affair proved to be an even more cynical example of racial mimicry in the context of an increasingly institutionalized and corporatized field of creative writing. In the New Yorker article “When White Poets Pretend to be Asian,” Hua Hsu, who mentions Yasusada, observes that Derrick Hudson “makes a mockery of whatever ‘life story of a Chinese American poet’ the name Chou might have stood in for. It ridicules the ambient self-doubt that trails most people from the margins who enter into spaces where they were never encouraged to belong.” Indeed, Dorothy J. Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry characterizes Asian American poetry as “the nexus of constitutively and immutably ‘alien’ racialized subjects and the vaunted English-language poetic tradition.” Asian American poetry, in other words, is something of a surrealist juxtaposition: a field of writers working in a “high-cultural” form who are resolutely treated as linguistic and cultural outsiders.

In a footnote in Thinking Its Presence, Wang recounts, “I was once asked by an Ivy League professor of philosophy whether English was my native language, though he had heard my completely American accent and knew I was an English professor; before I could even respond, he answered his own (rhetorical) question: ‘I think not.’” We all have such stories: not too long ago I made a trip to the DMV to renew my driver’s license—I had just moved to take a new position to teach poetry—and the woman behind the counter immediately asked to see my green card. When I somewhat confusedly produced my U.S. passport, she apologized and said she assumed I was a “visitor.”


I have known Empire of Signs and Doubled Flowering for years, and they have simultaneously intrigued and bothered me, eliciting a strange mix of fascination and distaste. How could I reconcile my abiding interests in post-structural thought and a tradition of metafictional poetics—from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets—with a need to resist hegemonic and racialized discourses? My hope is that collaging Barthes’ and Johnson’s texts together, using their language as a basis for re-articulation, will act as an immanent critique, a reckoning of these two works quite literally on, and with, their own terms. “Disorientations” is, in other words, an experiment—in the sense of a “test or procedure carried out under controlled conditions to determine the validity of a hypothesis or make a discovery”—so that I can better refine my thoughts on these slippery and troublesome books.

My decision to limit my lexicon to that of these two Orientalist texts is, as I see it, an act of mimicry, perhaps not unlike Bhabha’s sense of the term. Perhaps it is a mimicry of mimicry, a meta-mimicry—but with an extreme disorienting difference. The sutured fragments of “Disorientations” can be understood as partial, surreal representations in an ambivalent textual world of what Bhabha calls “the ‘not quite/not white.’”

Collage, which was by most standard accounts the premier aesthetic innovation of the twentieth century, is in a “post-crisis” state. “[E]ven as collage has entered the critical-theoretical domain,” wrote Perloff in 1998, “it is beginning to withdraw from the aesthetic realm.” My attempt to give collage, or montage, a “facelift”—a “yellowfacelift,” so to speak—is to cut and further fragment it, to atomize it into even more minute particulates. Elsewhere, I have described my technique as “micro-mashup” or “micro-montage,” a practice that engages and intervenes within found text at a very fine level of granularity: in essence, I extract individual words and phrases from the two source texts and slowly accrete them into an assemblage of verbal tesserae. To quote Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, I want to “reach a place where montage itself is cut into so many pieces that it no longer makes sense to call it montage.” Indeed, it turns out that collage—taken to the extreme—is just another term for “writing.” As Jacques Derrida succinctly states, “To write means to graft. It’s the same word.”

But to insist on the always already collaged nature of writing is also to insist that writing/collage has a cutting edge. I want a disorientalist poetics of copy-catting/copy-cutting, a reverse/perverse engineering of Western source texts. I have recently come to understand the collagic impulse behind “Disorientations” as an aspiration to cut into and cut apart unpalatable mimicries—to slice into what Rey Chow identifies as “coercive mimeticism,” the expectation that ethnic North Americans conform to stereotypical characteristics; Chow’s term well describes the compulsory force to produce “‘Asianness,’ ‘Africanness,’ ‘Arabness,’ and other similar kinds of nativenesses.” Such coercive mimeticism in the literary realm transforms into the desire for—among other things—poetry about chopsticks and rice.

In writing “Disorientations,” my passport—better yet—my green card into “the vaunted English-language poetic tradition” is a forged credential, manufactured with the blade of an X-ACTO Knife.

Read from “Disorientations” in ARMED CELL 12.

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